China Policy Institute: Analysis


China & Climate Change

Confucianism and Contemporary Environmental Politics

Written by Joel J. Kassiola.

In the past ten years I have been studying China’s environmental crisis and how it might inform societal transformation to achieve an environmentally sustainable and just society. My overall point in these reflections is that China’s rich intellectual tradition of Confucian thought can provide a vital resource in an all-important transformational project: Confucian Green Theory. Its goal is to “Confucianize modernity and modernize Confucianism,” (to borrow the title from one of my works). The underlying premise for both China and the world is that the current environmental crisis, recognizing planetary limitations upon the hegemonic ideology of ceaseless economic growth and maintaining the neoliberal, consumer capitalist society, demands an alternative worldview if humanity is to avert some environmental catastrophe. Continue reading “Confucianism and Contemporary Environmental Politics”

Is China’s environmental reporting changing?

Written by Ran Duan and Bruno Takahashi.

Air pollution is a typical example of the environmental problems facing China, with most of the pollutants being a byproduct of industrial processes, burning coal, and automobile exhausts. In China, the health costs associated with air pollution are severe. Researchers have found that the so-called ‘ambient particulate matter pollution’ was the fourth-leading risk factor of deaths in China in 2010, behind dietary risks, high blood pressure, and smoking. The World Bank and the Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection concluded that 350,000 to 400,000 people die prematurely in China each year because of outdoor air pollution. Air pollution affects many mega-cities in China, among which the situation in Beijing attracts more attention from both the public and the media at an international level.

Media coverage significantly increased during the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Images of athletes wearing masks during games permeated the news media around the world. Those images globalized a local environmental issue – Beijing’s air pollution. The problems of air pollution in China now still remain, but the representation of the problem by the news media, both in China and abroad might be changing.

Media coverage of Beijing’s air pollution

Media in China have traditionally been criticized as a propaganda machine, mostly representing the Chinese government in a positive light. On the other hand, U.S. media’s reporting of China has historically used a narrative embedded in a criticism of communism. Coverage of environmental issues has not been different, but the liberalization of the economy has allowed more flexibility and freedom within the Chinese media system, and such transformation of media landscapes allows faster, wider information distribution affecting the content of such coverage as well.

Media coverage of Beijing’s air pollution around the world intensified in 2008 as the city prepared to host the Summer Olympic Games. The U.S. media specially criticized Beijing’s air quality as “not healthy enough for a world-class race”. Air quality and associated health concerns became one of the most important reporting angles in American media. However, in 2011, media coverage both in the U.S. and China began to change. This change can be traced back to two particular events: first, the rise of social media in China, and second, the role of the U.S. Embassy in Beijing as an information source. In 2011, Pan Shiyi, a Chinese celebrity and business magnate, noticed the data from the city’s Air Quality Index (AQI) were consistently better than the data from the U.S. Embassy’s monitoring apparatus. Pan pointed out on ‘Weibo,’ China’s most popular Twitter-like social media platform, the omission of PM 2.5 in the index by the Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau. This sparked a political debate in social media over the publication of data of PM 10 or PM 2.5. Under such circumstances, in 2012, the Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection started releasing additional air pollution data to the public, including PM 2.5. This led the state media to begin covering the issue more openly and critically. Beginning on January 12th, 2013, the U.S. Embassy’s Twitter account started reporting information on Beijing’s ‘crazy bad’ AQI at levels above 500 ppm, which is considered the top of the scale, according to standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Shortly after this event, Beijing’s air pollution reemerged as a hotly-debated international topic taking place in Chinese and U.S. mainstream media.

In order to better understand how these changes and events affected media reporting of a local environmental issue, we conducted an analysis of news articles published by the leading newspapers in China and the U.S. We found that media coverage between the newspapers show both similarities and differences. Chinese press, as represented by China Daily, favored the topic of strategies and solutions to deal with pollution the most. For example, there have been many discussions on China Daily about strategies or policies that could possibly be useful to reduce the city’s air pollution, such as the new environmental regulatory act, the emissions-control standard, environmental industries’ response, and environmental-friendly policies. While the American press, as represented by the New York Times (NYT), emphasized the link between pollution and larger Chinese political and economic issues. The topic of social impacts of pollution was more prominent in the NYT as well. Although both newspapers spent similar amounts of space covering the causes of pollution, the details of the exact causes (or the potential causes) were interpreted in different ways. China Daily blamed Western countries of transferring pollutants, as well as weather patterns, while NYT mentioned a wider range of potential causes, such as industrial waste and processes, and automobile emissions.Stories in China Daily used mostly a neutral tone, or reflected self-legitimizing confidence about pollution control. On the other hand, the NYT tended to generally frame the issue more critically, framing news stories as negative complaints toward the pollution.

We also analyzed source use patterns in the two newspapers. On one hand, there were similar percentages of usage of some sources, including Chinese NGOs, Chinese citizens, business sources, and international organization sources such as World Health Organization. On the other hand, China Daily relied significantly more on Chinese officials and Chinese social elite sources, while NYT relied significantly more on U.S. official, U.S. social elite, U.S. NGO and U.S. public sources. Although the differences are not surprising considering the different audiences each newspaper serves, the results suggest the presence of a more open two-way flow of international news (i.e., exchange of news sources) between the two countries, and show the changing media landscapes in the two countries. In 2008, during the Olympics, China Daily covered the issue sparsely, but it increased its coverage considerably in the following years. This presumably represents a more open media environment, as media control is less restricted in certain aspects, such as environmental reporting. U.S. media traditionally have presented China within a communist frame. But we found NYT included a mild degree of praise towards the Chinese government’s efforts in pollution control. That indicates a milder critical-tone that was relatively rare in previous U.S. media coverage of China.

This two-way direction of news flow between the two nations could indicate the increasing salience of environmental issues in China. Pollution reporting has changed from “event-driven journalism” to be a more long-term news agenda in China partly due to increased global attention to the issue. It is also undeniable that Chinese media coverage of the issue was relatively imbalanced, as the majority of the news frames were either neutral or self-legitimizing (i.e., praising government’s pollution-control efforts), and the topics on pollution cause were more concentrated on the short-term incidents (i.e., blaming weather or firework use as the pollution cause) rather than long-term underlying reason (i.e., coal burning reported by the NYT). China Daily has still long ways to go before the reporting of environmental issues fulfills the needs of an ever-increasing public attention to environmental issues. But the higher accessibility of sources (especially Chinese NGO sources), the increasing amount of coverage, and the mild self-criticism in Chinese state media, could possibly suggest changes in the reporting of environmental issues, which hopefully would lead to an increase in environmental awareness in Chinese society.

Ran Duan is a Ph.D. student in the School of Journalism at Michigan State University (MSU). Her research interests are media coverage of environmental, science and risk issues. 

Bruno Takahashi, Ph.D is an assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Department of Communication at Michigan State University (MSU). His research interests include media coverage of environmental issues, environmental behavior change, and environmental decision-making. Image Credit: CC by Dai Luo/Flickr.

Clearing the Air: China’s Air Pollution Policy

Written by David G. Streets.

At the beginning of 2015, China formally introduced an updated Environmental Protection Law, designed to strengthen the protection of the environment and to raise its standing relative to other economic and social priorities. This action came none too soon, for in 2013 and 2014 many parts of China were enveloped in severe air pollution on a number of occasions. Chinese cities regularly experienced levels of fine particles (‘smog’) ten to twenty times higher than the WHO guidelines for safe exposure. Beijing and Shanghai were not immune to the pollution: schools and factories were closed, flights were cancelled, and the sick and elderly were advised to stay indoors. Pollution has persisted even though China has had air quality standards and emission control policies for almost thirty years. So why didn’t past measures work? And can we expect more from the new measures? Continue reading “Clearing the Air: China’s Air Pollution Policy”

Chinese agriculture in the wake of the global food crisis

Written by Francesca Bray.

In 2007-8 a food crisis rocked the world. A concatenation of climatic, economic and financial factors sent global food prices rocketing. Drought in Australia, then the world’s second largest wheat exporter after the USA, had cut the 2006 wheat harvest from 25 to 10 million tons. Bad weather reduced the 2007 rice harvest throughout the rice-exporting nations of Southeast Asia. Rice prices shot up 30% in Bangkok, and still higher in importing nations like Senegal. Rust blighted cereal production in Africa. In the US and South America, increasing amounts of maize, soy and sugar-cane were being diverted from human or animal consumption to biofuels, just as demand for meat and dairy was soaring in countries with emerging middle-classes. Food surpluses sank, futures markets went crazy, prices rocketed and riots broke out in cities from Cairo to Jakarta.

As the emergency unfolded, key grain-exporting nations shut up shop. Russia and Argentina banned the export of wheat. Indonesia, Vietnam and China banned rice exports. Food-importing nations like the Philippines, the world’s largest importer of rice, became desperate, cajoling the World Bank to reinforce free-trade rules. Facing angry crowds in the cities, desperate farmers in the countryside, and resentful and suspicious trading partners, governments around the world sought new ways to guarantee the security of their national food supplies.

The Chinese government’s response was necessarily complex. Because of the nation’s sheer size and its growing involvement in world markets and world affairs, China’s policy decisions have been anxiously watched, if not always accurately represented.

One knock-on effect of the crisis was the proliferation of ‘land-grabs’ through Africa, Southeast and Central Asia and South America. This refers to the purchase or leasing, by governments or corporations from rich nations, of large tracts of farmland outside their national frontiers to produce food and other natural resources for their own use. Singapore and Saudi Arabia are two financially rich but land-poor nations that have seized the opportunity to secure food supplies through such arrangements. Agribusiness companies from the US and Europe are also prominent players in the land-grab game, which their numerous critics view as a form of neo-colonial exploitation. Affluent, and with a notoriously low ratio of arable land to population, China would seem a natural candidate for land-grabbing, and is frequently accused of having grabbed huge tracts in Africa and elsewhere. But research shows that the large-scale Chinese engagements in Africa are actually either inter-governmental development schemes or joint-venture businesses, and are geared at supplying local markets. While it may not be an evil neo-colonial land-grabber, however, the Chinese government is actively developing both imports and exports of agricultural raw materials and processed goods, building up Chinese agribusiness corporations to compete with TNCs in this arena (Schneider 2013).

In fact, although its farmlands are restricted, according to official figures, China has effectively maintained self-sufficiency or even a surplus of its main staples, wheat and rice, for several decades. However, maintaining sustainable and adequate levels of productivity of cereal-farming and other basic foods in the Chinese countryside is now an urgent concern.

In the 1980s, the collectivist farming of the People’s Communes was disbanded in favour of small family farms. The new semi-private system initially unleashed a surge in output and marketable food surpluses. For over two decades, peasant-scale farming kept pace with evolving consumer demand. But at a price. Small production units are not efficient users of water, machinery or other capital resources. To maintain yields, farmers use excessive amounts of pesticides and fertilisers. Soils are degraded, water-tables drained and water-courses polluted: in many areas of China, farming is near collapse.

Meanwhile Chinese consumers are increasingly wary of chemically-tainted foods. Often food scandals are prompted when producers resort to desperate means to keep afloat, and global instability of commodity prices is often a trigger. As public demand for meat and dairy soared, China became the world’s largest importer of soybean. When soy prices rocketed in 2008, some dairy farmers fed their cows melamine as a cheap way to increase the protein content of the milk. The government has become increasingly responsive to food safety as a legitimate public concern. Effective regulation is difficult when production is dispersed through a network of small enterprises, and both the government and many consumers would like to see more centralised organisation of food production, processing and distribution.

The values of an era are not easily abandoned. Increasing the scale of farming would help to control waste and raise returns to inputs, yet the Party cannot countenance either a return to the socialist farms of the People’s Communes, or a capitulation to capitalist agribusiness and industrial farming. It remains committed to supporting the rural population, rather than bringing in huge factory farms.

Today the government is investing lavishly in research into improved varieties and farm practices to support an environmentally and socially sustainable ‘second Green Revolution’ for small-scale farmers. Developing new crop varieties that are hybrids between GMOs and traditional crosses, whose DNA will not be the intellectual property of private corporations like Monsanto, is part of this small-farmer oriented package. In parallel with technological improvements, the government is also exploring institutional formats that ostensibly preserve a rural society of small farmers while incorporating their land, labour and output into large-scale production units and vertically integrated commodity chains. Specialist cooperatives and Dragon Head Enterprises are just two of the variants of state-corporate agribusiness that by 2011 were working with 110 million rural households, controlling 60 percent of the crop area, 70 percent of livestock production, and 80 percent of aquaculture.

The global food crisis revitalised the Chinese government’s long-standing concern to ensure national food security, while developing a modern consumer economy. Unashamedly interventionist, the Chinese state seeks to resolve the tensions and incompatibilities between environmental and social sustainability, between consumer demands and producer limitations, between the wastefulness of small-scale farming and a socialist commitment to rural livelihoods, by developing carefully tailored technical improvements applied within ingenious institutional hybrids of state and private enterprise – the hallmark of what Deng Xiaoping mischievously referred to as socialism with Chinese characteristics.

Francesca Bray is Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh, School of Political and Social Science. Image Credit: CC by fuzheado/Flickr


What next for China after historic climate deal?

Written by Sam Geall.

The joint US-China announcement on tackling climate change has been described as “historic”, a “turning point” and a “positive signal”. It has also been written off as insubstantive or even “hype”. The reality, perhaps unsurprisingly, lies somewhere in between. What it might represent, however, is a future that pairs economic growth with environmental concerns.

The announcement doesn’t yet represent a diplomatic success – there is no formal agreement in place – let alone a climate success. But it was an important step towards a global deal at UN-led climate talks in Paris in 2015, and it comes sooner than expected. As such, it can form a basis for further ambition: what Greenpeace China’s Li Shuo has called “a floor” – as opposed to a ceiling – for further climate action.

Li Junfeng, from Chinese government think-tank the National Centre for Climate Change Strategy, has described the pledges’ significance as “more symbolic than practical”, though Zou Ji, from the same body, noted these were politically realistic targets that could reinvigorate US-China relations and deepen cooperation on climate.

Fears of a slow down?

But China, which will need to clarify not only when a peak will arrive but also how high it will be, also faces fears about the economic impact of slowing growth and the potential for consequent social unrest. China’s position on the environment is conflicted. While embracing sustainable development as a core state policy, for example in targets and investments under the latest Five Year Plan – it has long resisted internationally binding targets, emphasising the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities”, which places the burden of climate-change mitigation on developed countries.

Though much of the government’s legitimacy rests on ensuring continued economic growth, the days of 10% growth are long over for China. The government is increasingly coming to terms with a future of slower growth. It appears to be embracing the so-called “new normal”, a model of growth characterised by economic upgrading and innovation, which state news agency Xinhua said President Xi Jinping is making his hallmark – “to be engraved in history”, no less.

Implementing reform

Central government targets will still face implementation problems. There are embedded vested interests in China’s state-owned enterprises, the vast industries responsible for much of the country’s emissions, as well as in the energy sector and local and provincial governments. Indeed, environmental governance in China is weak. It is often hampered by an official culture of secrecy and poorly aligned administrative structures that evaluate officials according to unsustainable growth metrics.

China’s rapid growth over the past 30 years was achieved in large part through devolution to powerful regional chiefs. The distance between central government and how the regions are governed is such that the difference between what is planned centrally and what takes place across provinces can have significant variance. This means that prominent green projects launched from the centre often turn out to be less impressive than the rhetoric accompanying them.

And – despite widespread public concern about environmental issues – there is a lack of institutionally supported citizen oversight to keep such tendencies in check. For example, China has open information regulations that, on paper, are in line with international norms. But the country is regrettably ill-prepared to answer inevitable questions about its record of transparency on emissions. It is a disappointing portent that during the APEC Summit in Beijing – the very meeting at which this announcement was made – the US Embassy’s air quality readings in the capital were censored.

Clean growth future

Still, the announcement may also indicate an understanding not only of the risks of inaction, but also of the opportunities of moving towards low-carbon development. These include greater efficiency and lower costs, and the opportunity to benefit strategically and economically from innovation in low-carbon technologies.

There is also growing recognition that cleaner growth is needed for sustainable development. Air pollution is an inescapable fact of daily urban life in China. And studies are beginning to indicate the health toll of pollution on the Chinese populace. One recent report found that the health and mortality burden of air pollution in China accounts for more than 10% of GDP. Yet another, by Chinese scientists, found that smog caused by coal consumption killed an estimated 670,000 people in China in 2012.

China may also see persuasive economic arguments for cleaner growth. Today China not only leads the world in renewable energy investment, but also sees innovation that’s driven by demand. For example, “disruptive” technology is being developed in the form of electric bicycles (more efficient and environmentally friendly than cars) and the world’s largest installation of solar water heaters.

Perhaps then, we are seeing a turning point that, in the words of the World Resources Institute’s Jennifer Morgan, can spur a new “race to the top” as the world approaches UN climate talks in Paris and both China and the US get serious about tackling their emissions.

Sam Geall is a Research Fellow at the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU) at the University of Sussex, and a CPI Blog Regular Contributor. This post was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article. Image credit: CC by Dennis Jarvis/Flickr

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