Written by David Tyfield.
The situation creates twinned dissonances: between China’s actual and “rightful” standing in the world and between its actual and desired relation to its own traditional culture. Crucially, though, protecting the environment is seen by the government as a key opportunity in both cases. Hence Beijing’s leading slogan of “ecological civilization” – significantly a civilizational project that also, inseparably, has environmental sustainability at its heart.
The idea here is to draw on and renew distinctively Chinese ideas of Confucian harmony between humans and nature. This, it is hoped, could present a China to the world whose culture uniquely qualifies it to be the global environmental saviour. And it could reconnect the Chinese themselves to their traditional cultures, updated for a contemporary world of environmental responsibility.
Progress is unlikely to be smooth. China’s one-party state does allow for the massive mobilisation of resources crucial to the major projects of sustainable transitions. But that same political structure – best described as “fragmented authoritarianism” – also makes it harder to foster cutting-edge innovation and harder to implement environmental regulations – and to involve different stakeholders in decision-making.
As such, China still lags behind the US in the global game of cultural hegemony. Yet its grand project of “ecological civilization” is so important in contemporary domestic politics that the environment will likely be seen as China’s trump card for some time yet. If America chooses to play its hand badly in the meantime, this will simply be welcomed in Beijing as a further stroke of good luck.