China Policy Institute: Analysis



Chinese responses to the Trump administration.

Written by Baogang He.

In this short article, I will discuss China’s response to the Trump administration. There exists a diverse range of Chinese opinions, however, I will only discuss the official, not popular, responses. I will focus on three issues – war and peace, China’s new world leadership role, and China’s efforts to deepen Asian regionalism. Continue reading “Chinese responses to the Trump administration.”

Thinking outside the Urn: China and the reincarnation of Mongolia’s highest lama

Written by Jichang Lulu.

The Chinese government’s prerogative to manage the rebirths of incarnate lamas is being tested in Mongolia. One of the highest lineages covered by the Qing’s ‘Golden Urn’ system at the basis of PRC reincarnation law is passing to its next holder, with the Dalai Lama’s involvement. Despite clear signs that China cares, no public position has emerged so far. To determine what China’s approach to the reincarnation issue might be, we have to go through some Mongolian history and a bit of leaf-reading. The very relevance of state management of rebirths to China’s foreign relations indicates to what extent Qing imperial thought permeates PRC policy. Reincarnation diplomacy is real and has an impact on Chinese policies towards its closest neighbours. Continue reading “Thinking outside the Urn: China and the reincarnation of Mongolia’s highest lama”

Funding Urban Infrastructure: China-style Value Capture

Written by Jerry Zhao.

In a number of developing countries, local governments enjoy more flexibility in managing their land assets than they do in adjusting tax rates, introducing new taxes, increasing user fees, or issuing long-term debt. For these localities, land sales or land leases have become feasible options for financing urban infrastructure. One of the most noteworthy examples is China’s land finance, which, since the 1990s has raised massive amounts of revenue for China’s local governments, and has become the critical force behind rapid urban infrastructure development. Continue reading “Funding Urban Infrastructure: China-style Value Capture”

Public Environmental Concern in China

Written by Xinsheng Liu and Ren Mu.

With a remarkable annual growth rate in GDP averaging at 8 to 9 percent for the past three decades, China has transformed from a poverty-afflicted country into a global economic powerhouse. However, this economic growth comes at a very heavy price: the environmental conditions in the world’s most populous country have been quickly deteriorating and environmental degradation is progressively taking a more devastating toll on the Chinese people. A World Bank report published in 2007 estimates that the total cost of air and water pollution in China in 2003 was 362-781 billion yuan (or 2.68-5.78% of China’s GDP). Across China, only 1% of urban dwellers breathe air that would be considered safe by the European. While 115 million rural inhabitants still rely on surface water as their main source of drinking water, the pollution levels in China’s water bodies are believed to be the highest in the world, with roughly 70% of China’s surface water unfit for human use. According to a 2012 study appeared in Review of Economics and Statistics, the dumping of untreated wastewater in densely populated areas has significantly contributed to China’s increasing cancer rate.

Balancing economic growth and environmental protection is a major challenge for many countries around the world, and nowhere is this challenge more significant and pressing than in today’s China. For many measures of environmental quality, evidence shows that economic growth brings an initial phase of deterioration followed by a subsequent phase of improvement. But there is no reason to expect that the improvement will happen automatically with further economic growth. Across the world, public concern for pollution and environmental degradation has always played a vital role in the formulation and implementation of environmentally proactive policy measures in various countries across the world. In China, there is also evidence showing the increasing role of public environmental concern in addressing environmental issues. For instance, a recent study shows that as the state and the public opinion continue to nudge local governments to pursue greenness, establishing and meeting energy and environmental targets have begun to be considered as promotion criteria for city mayors. In addition, the rising public demand for “green cities” is reflected by the housing market, where more polluted cities feature lower real estate prices.

How much are Chinese citizens concerned about the environment in comparison with other major social and economic issues? What are the key factors, both at the individual level and regional level, that shape the public environmental concern? In our research paper published in Global Environmental Change, Public Environmental Concern in China: Determinants and Variations, we used data from a 2008 national public survey and China’s provincial statistics to investigate these questions.

First, the data clearly showed that on average environmental concern, relative to other issue concerns, was not among the top-ranked in China. Compared to concerns of other 20 social and economic issues (including education, national security, social stability, democracy, reduction of cultivated land, freedom of speech, corruption, freedom of press, crime, alcohol abuse, health care, economic development, unemployment, poverty, inequality, housing, stock, wage, and pension), the concern over environmental protection ranked 11th in the total sample.  However, the differences across the three geo-economic regions are striking — environmental concern is ranked in 16th place for citizens in the west, the 8th in the central and north-eastern region, and the 3rd in the eastern region, seemingly suggesting a positive correlation with economic development. In addition, environmental concern is among the top 5 concerns for about 4–5% of the residents in the western and central-north-eastern regions, it is for 13.7% of the citizens in the most economically developed eastern region.

Further analysis revealed that Chinese environmental concern was significantly affected by both micro-level sociodemographic variables and macro-level regional economic conditions and environmental risks. In the urban areas and in the eastern-coastal region the environmental protection issue featured as a rather important public issue. If strong public concern is a prerequisite or catalyst to forming environmentally friendly policies, we expect such policy change to first occur in the more economically advanced eastern-coastal region. In this region, such individuals as urbanites with high income were most environmentally concerned and could be a potential social force for demanding environmental improvement. However, there was a lack of concern over environmental issues among the public in the west region. The lack of concern over environmental issues among the public in this region may seriously constrain further effective measures for environmental protection. In the central-north-eastern region, an education effect was evident in the rural area, suggesting that one may be cautiously optimistic that with increased education the public environmental concern in this region may catch up.

Our analysis also showed that contextual regional macro-settings, including environmental conditions at the province level and county level time-invariant characteristics, played a significant role in driving Chinese public environmental concern. For all three regions, county fixed characteristics were most important in determining individual environmental concern, but county comparison showed different patterns in the three regions. In the west, where the average environmental concern was the lowest, individual characteristics accounted for only minor variation in citizens’ environmental concern. In contrast, in the east-coastal region where the environmental problem featured as an important social issue, individual attributes such as income, rural/urban residence status, and ethnicity had significant explaining power for the variations in environmental concern – a finding that is consistent with the literature on public environmental concern in the United States and other countries.

Our study is based on the public opinion survey data collected in 2008.  There are indications that Chinese public environmental concern has been on the rise since.  To assess the evolvement of public concern for environmental protection over time and understand the variations in the trend, we have conducted a new survey in 2016.  We believe an analysis based on the data from the 2016 survey combined with the 2008 survey will provide updated information and insight on this important topic.


Xinsheng Liu is a Research Scientist and Assistant Director of the Institute for Science, Technology and Public Policy, Bush School of Government and Public Service, Texas A&M University.

Ren Mu is an Associate Professor at The Bush School of Government and Public Service, Texas A&M University.

Image Credit: CC by Jonathan Kos-Read/Flickr.

Threats are Unseen: Shifting Strategies and Tactics of Chinese ENGOs in Uncertain Times

Written by Judith Shapiro.

Environmental NGOs must deal with uncertainty and change under authoritarian regimes. Such ENGOs must try to keep within boundaries of what is permissible when such limits are often shifting and unclear. In China, in an age of contracting public space under President Xi Jinping and new regulations governing the conduct of social organizations, ENGOs must play a delicate game. How are they negotiating this political landscape? What are the risks and rewards? This paper is intended as a snapshot of how Chinese ENGOs navigate their status at the current moment.

Chinese citizens have responded to their intensifying environmental crisis with increasing sophistication and maturation of activist strategies. Although much attention focuses on intensified controls over the Internet and civic association, over recent decades there has been a remarkable expansion of political space, albeit punctuated by contractions in level of trust between NGOs and government and marked by regional variations. The politics of information surrounding the poaching of the Tibetan Antelope in the mid-1990s, pioneered by Friends of Nature, has blossomed into the social media-driven accountability and transparency politics of today, with thousands of officially registered environmental “social organizations” (as the Chinese government prefers to call them) and new powers for environmental groups to bring public lawsuits and to expose corporate illegal behavior and corruption. Much of this activism is supported by a central government that must enforce environmental laws and regulations if it is to retain legitimacy.

The new foreign NGO registration laws which took effect January 1, 2017 shift ultimate oversight over foreign environmental groups from the Ministry of Civil Affairs to the Public Security Bureau, via a governmental entity called a Professional Supervisory Unit. The official justification is to provide foreign NGOs with more clarity about legal frameworks and give China information about their funding sources, but the message conveyed is that such groups can more easily be expelled from the country if they transgress. Similar concern is being paid a new campaign to strengthen the Great Firewall on Internet freedom, to crack down on VPNs which allow groups and citizens to evade the firewall, and to rapidly remove controversial blog posts.

There is another trend under way, however, that observers tend to miss when they predict the coming Chinese “environmental authoritarianism.” Life has become somewhat easier for domestic ENGOs since the implementation of the new Charity Law in September 2016.  The “mother-in-law” requirement to find a government sponsor has been removed such that NGOs can now register directly with the Ministry of Civil Affairs. Even as foreign NGOs are becoming more restricted in their abilities to fund Chinese domestic groups, domestic NGOs are developing new funding sources, including foundation support, government grants, and small donations.

Recent visits to China and conversations with activists reveal a remarkable determination to continue to push the envelope on such issues as information transparency, environmental public interest litigation, and even public protest, albeit of a kind intended to avoid labels of creating public disturbances.  Hard-hitting environmental reportage continues, in the powerful alliance between journalists and environmental civil society that has characterized such efforts since the mid-1990s.

Chinese ENGO activists are focused on getting on with their core missions. Several long-surviving ENGO leaders expressed the notion that in China there will inevitably be some limits. As the head of one international group told me, apparently in some impatience with the foreign ENGOs’ anxiety over the new registration laws that govern them, “You need to embrace the uncertainty and make things happen.”

ENGO confidence lies primarily in their strong alliance with central government forces that are also urgently attempting to curb China’s intense pollution and crack down on provincial and local governments and enterprises that flout and ignore laws and regulations. The “war on pollution” involves the ENGOs as allies, if often uneasy ones, in trying to bridge the “implementation gap” between China’s excellent environmental laws and what happens on the ground. The Chinese government understands clearly that it must deal with the country’s environmental crisis if it is to retain a semblance of legitimacy. The December-January air pollution “red alert” event, for example, resulted in 720 arrests of polluters and the announcement that in 2017 the Chinese government will cancel construction of 103 planned coal plants. Beijing announced a 2017 expenditure of 18.2 billion RMB on pollution controls and the creation of a new “environmental police.”

Many scholars have chronicled the Gramscian-style penetration of Chinese civil society by the state. Jessica Teets, for example, calls the relationship “consultative authoritarianism.” Given this context, there is a special need to appreciate the fluid nature of the relationship between environmental activists and the Chinese government so as to avoid oversimplification. There are unusual freedoms available for ENGOs despite the particular political landscape. On the one hand, such groups could not exist without the tacit or in some cases active approval of government agencies. ENGOs are sometimes seen as strengthening the hand of the weak Ministry of Environmental Protection, as occurred when journalist Chai Jing’s documentary “Under the Dome” was widely available in March 2015 before it was excised from the Chinese Internet.  On the other hand, as has been the case for civil society groups beginning with the first new freedoms after Mao, the boundaries are not clear. There are reports of arrests of local activists who pushed too hard. In northern Hunan, an environmentalist investigating heavy metals in Lake Dongting was recently seized for “revealing state secrets.” In Yunnan, activists who successfully fought dams on the Nu and other rivers with the help of foreign activists have found their relationships with local government officials quite tense.

Nevertheless, the strategies and activities available to these groups have expanded from tree-planting and recycling in the mid-1990s with the formation of the initially very cautious and courageous Friends of Nature to the current trends toward aggressive pressure toward information transparency and supply chain investigations, public interest litigation not only targeting factories but even sometimes government agencies, nimble on-the-ground investigations and exposes of environmental crimes, and sophisticated use of social media to “name and shame” polluters, to use crowd-funding techniques to support themselves, and to promote web apps that will empower people not only with information about pollution sources and levels but also with mechanisms to upload their own pollution readings as citizen scientist-monitors. Direct action against illegal poachers by dismantling bird snares, for example, and waging “symbolic politics” through street theater, are risky activities but common even under the current regime.  A major factor in the expansion of strategies and tools has been the proliferation of social media tools, even in their paler Chinese expressions behind the Great Firewall in the form of Sina Weibo, WeChat, Tencent and other platforms. International ENGOs such as Greenpeace East Asia have used both Chinese and Firewall-free “naming and shaming” campaigns against international and Chinese apparel brands to force them to stop dumping chemicals into Chinese waterways. The “Detox” campaign has met with outstanding results, as the threat of consumer boycott has led one brand after another to commit to change its practices.

These examples indicate a more positive future for domestic Chinese environmental NGOs than the concern about an invigorated authoritarianism might initially indicate. Chinese ENGOs do not operate outside the government; they are in many ways allies of the government and supporters of the government, even as they occasionally name the government as a defendant in a lawsuit.  The trend toward information transparency and rule of law, coupled with the government’s urgency about dealing with China’s environmental calamities, has placed Chinese ENGOs in a somewhat favorable position. That said, the successful ENGO knows where the red lines are. It shares information with government when asked and actively volunteers information about its activities and intentions. It cultivates friends in high places, and it avoids embarrassing the government or transgressing into what might be perceived as public disturbance.  It wields social media carefully for its ability to pressure violating companies and to raise funds, but avoids using it for advocacy that might seem to be creating a social movement. Having internalized potential barriers and roadblocks such that caution comes to feel like common sense, the successful ENGO focuses on mobilizing the public to do good work that supports the government’s own goals to create a cleaner, more harmonious society that is part of the “China dream.”


Judith Shapiro, American University, is the author of China’s Environmental Challenges (2nd Edition), Polity Books, 2016 and Mao’s War against Nature, Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Image Credit: CC by JFXle/Flickr.

China’s Wild Public Screens: Weibo, WeChat, and Creative Activism

Written by Kevin Michael DeLuca and Elizabeth Brunner.

Two men are walking. And talking. One is wearing a hard hat. The man in the hard hat appears to be taking pictures with a smartphone. Belying the mundaneness of this scene are an overturned car next to them, littered papers, other people milling about, and a building’s balconies brimming with human bodies. The upended car is marked with the Chinese characters 公安 (gong an), meaning “public peace” or “public safety.” They identify the vehicle as a police car and the scene as China. Continue reading “China’s Wild Public Screens: Weibo, WeChat, and Creative Activism”

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