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How China's Commitment to Coercive Policies Guide Environment and Public Health

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As China has risen to superpower status in recent years, the authoritarian government has been working overtime to extend its control and influence over both citizens and international partners through environmental and public policies and international investments. SIS professor Judith Shapiro and her coauthor, Yifei Li, released their book, China Goes Green: Coercive Environmentalism for a Troubled Planet, in 2020. Their thesis stated that China’s “ecological civilization” framework served not only to meet environmental goals but also to extend the state’s control over individuals and export the authoritarian government model to other countries.

Two years later, Shapiro and Li have revisited and expanded upon their original thesis in a new essay published in the International Quarterly for Asian Studies. In it, they highlight how recent developments, such as China’s carbon policies, COVID-19 pandemic responses, and Belt and Road initiative investments, all align with China’s historical pattern of utilizing policies to exert authoritarian control over individuals and communities. While Western nations have struggled to gain control over recent public health and environmental crises, China has not shied away from showing its strength and organization in handling the same issues, all as part of the plan to place itself in a more prominent and assertive position on the world stage.

We caught up with Judith Shapiro to discuss these recent developments, the status of China’s international standing, and the future of China’s relationship with climate politics.

You can access Shapiro and Li’s full original essay here, and access their book here.

This essay is a follow-up to your 2020 book, China Goes Green: Coercive Environmentalism for a Troubled Planet, in which you discussed the role of environmental policies in strengthening Chinese authoritarian control. What is “coercive environmentalism,” and how has its role in domestic Chinese policy changed or evolved in the past two years?
Coercive environmentalism is the term my coauthor, Yifei Li, and I developed to describe how the Chinese Communist Party/State often uses draconian measures to implement “green” policies. In recent years, the “ecological civilization” agenda has involved setting rigid, quantitative targets that lead local officials to overfulfill mandates, with negative results; implementing cleanup “campaigns” that often punish society’s vulnerable; and using biodiversity conservation as a justification to force the nomadic people who populate China’s borderlands into settlements. These are just a few of the many examples we explored in the book.
In recent years, China’s use of coal and carbon emissions has only increased despite international pressures to become a global leader in low-carbon policies. Why hasn’t China become a global leader in the fight against climate change? Do Chinese leaders truly want to lead the world on environmental issues?
China has struggled with how to position itself as a climate leader. On one hand, its per-capita emissions remain low, and much of the country—especially in the Western regions—can still be justifiably described as “developing.” On the other hand, the country’s aggregate emissions have surpassed those of the US, and China is undeniably a global economic superpower. With reference to the internationally recognized principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities,” China claims it should not have to pay into funds for loss and damages. Rather, China believes industrialized Western nations bear responsibility for the suffering of poor nations. This conflicted stance makes it difficult for China to claim a leadership mantle. Moreover, since its coal reserves are vast, its energy needs are great, and it’s reeling from the economic challenges of COVID-19, China has enormous difficulty reducing carbon-intensive energy sources. Economic and environmental goals are very much at odds at the moment.
The COVID-19 pandemic has derailed millions of lives in China, and the country’s “Zero COVID” policy is one of the strictest in the world. How has China’s COVID-19 response increased its involvement in its citizens’ private lives? How does this mirror other strict policies in China?
China’s Zero COVID policy demonstrates how achieving goals that appear to support public welfare have strengthened the state’s surveillance of individuals and curtailed the freedom of information and mobility. In this sense, the state’s approach to environmental goals and public health are interrelated. Implementation of the environmental goals previously mentioned often allows the state to gain unprecedented access to information about individuals and enterprises, as well as increase control over their behavior.
One of China’s largest investment projects—the Belt and Road initiative—launched in 2013 with the goal of contributing to over 150 countries and organizations’ infrastructure projects. How have recent developments in this initiative affected Chinese environmental policy? What difficulties does China face, both globally and domestically, in advancing this initiative?
There was quite a honeymoon period for many developing countries when, in the late 1990s, China announced a “going out” policy to encourage state and private enterprises to invest overseas. Hungry for capital in an era when Western countries turned inward for money, many global leaders welcomed China’s overtures to extend loans for high-speed railroads, powerplants, deep-water ports, highways, dams, and bridges. But some of these “Belt and Road” investments had negative environmental consequences, and others ensnared recipients in financial obligations that they were unable to meet. So, although China remains the key player in much of the developing world, partners are treading more cautiously, sometimes seeking to renegotiate or even cancel projects. Global criticism of investment in coal-fired power plants has led China to declare that it will no longer support these investments, although not all have been canceled, and there has been increased attention to the environmental impacts of Chinese-financed dams and mines in Southeast Asia, Latin America, and Africa. Deforestation, biodiversity loss, and pollution linked to Chinese activities overseas have harmed China’s international image even as it seeks to portray itself as a purveyor of win-win green development. At the same time, China’s domestic financial needs are great, and some of the promises of Belt and Road investments have had to be reduced during the COVID era.
You described China as doing “too much in the wrong direction” regarding climate change. What does this mean, and how can China improve its climate policies without further alienating its people?
Fortunately, China’s leaders are not climate deniers. Rising sea levels threaten the great coastal cities of Tianjin and Shanghai, while Himalayan glacier melt will ultimately deplete the aquifers on which much of North China depends. But rather than allowing the Chinese people to participate in finding solutions and working with them to transition away from fossil fuels, leadership gravitates toward top-down, technocratic solutions. There is certainly a place for building seawalls and mandating “sponge city” infrastructure to absorb stormwater, and there is much to admire in China’s support for electric vehicles, solar and wind energy, and sustainable transportation like high-speed rail. But mandates are all too often seen as rules meant to be broken, and some of the tools I mentioned previously, like quantitative target-setting and campaign-style “blue skies” movements, end up hurting the little person and fail to achieve their goals in the long run. Unfortunately, the “space” for civil society formation and participation has shrunk dramatically under Xi Jinping, depriving him and his leadership of their best allies in building “ecological civilization” at the national, regional, and community levels.