The Environment: China’s Achilles Heel?

My Japanese friends have often said that China has a 5,000 year history of not living up to its potential. When I’ve passed that view along to Westerners, they’ve scoffed, viewing the Chinese juggernaut to be unstoppable.

The Japanese may yet be proven correct. This post at Gristmill points to an article by Christina Larson in Washington Monthly, “The Green Leap Forward,” which reveals an important development: that China’s central government is tolerating grass roots environmental activism as a way of pressuring the provinces to take corrective measures. As the post notes:

Environmental problems are getting so severe that they’re causing serious social unrest. But the central government in Beijing no longer has the ability to tightly enforce environmental rules in the provinces, which have — ironically due to the loosening of economic control — become all but autonomous.

So to bring pressure on regional polluters, the central government is loosening again: this time loosening restrictions on civic activism. That means a robust grassroots environmental movement is now growing in China.

Can the communist government thread this needle? Can they keep the economic expansion going, scale back on pollution, and keep the new civic activism from spilling over into more demands for social freedom? Sound pretty damn tricky.

The historical precedents for China’s program aren’t good. In the latter half of the 18th Century, France was a hotbed of liberal thinking, not just among the lower classes but the elites as well. Even though national prosperity was rising (albeit slowly), the monarchy was bankrupt, and so had to call a session of the Etats General, which represented Frances three estates: nobles, the clergy, and the bourgeoisie and peasantry, to vote new taxes, for the first time in over 150 years.

The session quickly devolved into an argument over the relative voting rights of the three estates (the lower orders had double representation in provincial groups and were particularly aggrieved, since they carried the greatest tax burden). The representatives of the third estate seceded from the Etats General and former a National Assembly, inviting the other two orders to join. When king Louis XVI tried to shut this group down, they decamped to a tennis court and swore an oath of loyalty that they would not disband until they had drafted a constitution. Enough of the clergy and nobles joined to give the group legitimacy.

How is this relevant to China? When an authoritarian regime starts to cede power, as the French monarchy did due to its fiscal predicament, and the Chinese are now due to their need for a countervailing force to rein in rogue provincial governments, it is hard to set new limits.

And the provincial governments are particularly hated. Even in the West, a casual reader of the paper will see gut wrenching stories of abuse of authority, ranging from merely callous to abusive. For every person in the West that has died or been crippled from the use of cheap toxic chemical substitutes, at least a hundred have suffered in China. Readers of Simon Schama’s Citizens may recall that the French Revolution quickly became an orgy of killing, with nobles’ heads on pickets a routine sight, as the peasants exacted their revenge for the abuses, serious and petty, they had suffered at the hands of the aristocrats.

I am running the risk of being corrected by a film buff, but what stuck with me from Bertolucci’s 1900 (having seen it over 25 years ago) is the opening scene: a middle aged couple being chased like animals, panting and terrified, across fields by angry farm hands, then brutally pitchforked and beaten to death. It’s a horrifying sequence. Yet by the end of the movie, after witnessing the senseless and casual brutality of the pair, who are aspiring fascists and farm managers, when the opening scene is repeated, the audience is rooting for the farmers.

If the Chinese central authorities provide an outlet for the considerable anger of the people towards their local rulers, there is no telling what sort of demons will be unleashed.

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  1. Hodgekiss

    Interesting. But you must consider, the Chinese have been thinking long and hard about how they are going to accomplish the gradual liberalization of their institutions. Not so the French before the revolution, or the Russians before theirs….

  2. Anonymous

    there was a businessweek article on this recently:

    Broken China – “Beijing can’t clean up the environment, rein in stock speculation, or police its companies. Why the mainland’s problems could keep it from becoming the next superpower.”

    and from the wsj:

    China Scraps ‘Green GDP’ Report – “China’s government won’t release estimates of the economic cost of pollution, setting back efforts to quantify the toll of economic growth… this year, the study has proved too sensitive to continue, and it has been suspended, officials said… Air quality in the nation’s capital, which is set to host the 2008 Summer Olympics, posted its worst June in seven years because of crop burning and automobile exhaust. Meanwhile, billions of rodents have overrun villages in central China” also see

    China Faces Pork Shortage – “China’s pork supply is likely to tighten if the deadly blue-ear disease continues to spread among the country’s hog population at a time when Beijing has also imposed an import ban on select frozen-meat products from the U.S.” also see

    btw, myself, i prefer olmi’s _tree of wooden clogs_ :P


  3. Yves Smith

    While the comparisons may be unduly dramatic (and it would be better on all accounts if things worked out well), I am not under the impression that ruling regime in China ever planned much in the way of democratic reforms. Remember, this is a country where not only is the death sentence common, but those condemned are subject to having their organs harvested while alive. This implies such a basic disregard for human dignity, let alone human rights, that I don’t think they place much stock in democratic notions.

    Barrington Moore, in his 1966 book, The Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy argued that successful democracies had undergone “bourgeois revolutions” that swept aside the obstacles posed by the landed aristocracy to capitalist democracy; countries that had aborted bourgeois revolutions turned to fascism; and those that had peasant revolutions became communist. Now Italy and Germany have in their post fascist phases become successful democracies (although Berlusconi was a bit of a reversion); Japan is an odd case, since it is a quasi socialist and authoritarian country masquerading as a democracy (any country with a 99% conviction rate, a one party system, and active police spying is not what most of us would consider a democracy). Russia under Putin appears to be reverting to authoritarianism. And as I said above, the Chinese do not appear to have embraced democratic notions. If they can have industrialized wealth without them, so much the better.

    And this move to grant limited rights to protest to rein in the provinces certainly wasn’t planned. If they can keep it to that, not much will change. But even before this measure, I read of some riots in the hinterlands to protest the misdeeds of local authorities. If the national government tolerates collective action on the environmental front and that proves successful in checking hated provincial leaders, it’s all too easy to see those groups moving on to other grievances.

  4. Anonymous

    it’s almost an ad hoc social contract that’s evolved from the ‘mandate of heavan’ in that there’s no ‘democratic ideal’ from which to work — top-down confucian patriarchy/bureaucracy probably isn’t the most flexible system to administer one of the greatest migrations and social upheavals in history. but it isn’t obvious, from a path dependent standpoint — — what else it could have been. so mao had a go and then deng; that ‘model’ seems to have been more successful (including tianamen) and so they’re sticking with it.

    in any case, there’s always been a delicate balance between rulers and ruled and whether there are institutions that can more or less accommodate differing constituencies; hence comparative gov’t… think of the differing in-process development experience/’experiment’ of (brazil) russia, india and china, all of which in their own way are unprecedented. is either way the ‘best’ or are they all unique and indeterminable?

    there are a host of ‘templates’: from marshall plans to free markets to various flavours of industrial policy, spanish/british colonial legacies and endowments, south korea followed japan, but china seems to be taking after singapore (but is that scalable and perhaps taiwan more apropos?). all of which have things to recommend and detract from them.

    i get the feeling that ’emerging markets’ are making it up as they go along; mostly doing more of ‘what works’ and trying to do so with the least disruption, only (and of course) ‘unintended’ consequences keep on popping up, even when they are predictable, as with environmental devastation. that’s a tradeoff they (and the rest of us) are going to have to live with…

  5. Yves Smith

    Apologies to Anonymous of 9:37 a.m. The comment, which pointed out an error in the initial version of the post (16th versus the correct 18th century) was deleted by mistake (I had about a dozen browser windows open, and was deleting old drafts while on the phone).

    As to the goof, thanks for catching it. I deliberately have my vision undercorrected, which means I am typo prone.

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