China faces potential trade wars with the U.S., grappling with its North Korean neighbor’s nuclear program, and expansion of its artificial intelligence to become the world leader of the trade. And yet, in a self-sustaining effort to maintain political stability, to pursue economic growth and to keep citizens happy, Chinese President Xi Jinping is trying to see – and show local officials – that there is green to be found in going green, experts say.
“China and the U.S. are basically taking different paths with respect to environmental protection,” says Scott Moore, a senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Kleinman Center for Energy Policy. “China has decided that it’s actually really important both for its economic growth as well as for its political stability to do much more in terms of environmental protection and to ensure that its citizens have clean water, clean air.”
The Chinese government has implemented and continues to pursue rigorous air-pollution control measures, and has become a world leader in key pollution control technologies. Since his election in 2013, Xi has repeatedly said that the environment must be prioritized in China’s pursuit of economic growth, and he’s made constitutional changes that are pro-environment and water.
And, with its growing population size – making up 20 percent of the world’s population, China has 1.38 billion people within its borders, which is more than four times the population of the U.S. – China is an oversized model of government leaders needing to use environmental policy to quell public dissent over pollution while catering to its desires to grow its economy and maintain political power.
Pushed by need, China may fashion itself an integral role in global environmental governance, says Fengshi Wu, a senior lecturer at the University of Melbourne’s Asia Institute who specializes in environmental politics, Chinese politics and global governance.
“Engaging more in a global environmental standard setting will add pressure to the Chinese government to do a better job domestically,” Wu says.
But the seemingly gung-ho push to protect the environment isn’t necessarily pursued in a sustainable manner, Moore says.
“Their goals are to provide a reasonably good quality of life for Chinese citizens and stay in power,” Moore says. “Everything that they do is geared toward those things, and it co-benefits the environment – but it’s not like the Chinese government consists primarily of Sierra Club members who are sitting around trying to preserve wilderness, for wilderness’ sake.”
Echoing Moore is Richard Louis Edmonds, a retired geographical studies visiting professor at the University of Chicago, who warns that Chinese environmental initiatives are outweighed by special interests and the need for continued growth.
“I think the intent to improve the situation is there,” Edmonds says. “My guess is that the state will try to control this problem to the degree that it keeps the common people from getting angry but will not harm economic growth, which also would make people angry.”
“The overall situation is not going to improve as rapidly as environmentalists and many others hope,” Edmonds continues.
On the political stage, the most significant action Xi has so far taken was when, during the 19th Congress in October 2017, he coined the catchphrase, “Building a Beautiful China” – a signal to his party members, countrymen and people around the world of China’s commitment to both environmental protection and greening the economy, according to Moore.
“From a political perspective, those types of slogans in China are more important in a lot of ways than what the government proceeds to issue in terms of policies and directives,” Moore says.
Meanwhile, the United States – though not to the same degree as China – has had to deal with water distribution and pollution issues of its own increasingly so in the past decade, from the West’s recurring issues with water shortages and droughts to the Flint water crisis. Yet the Trump administration has moved to change previous Obama-era actions that will strip environmental protections in an effort to be less burdensome on local industries and promote gross domestic product growth. Further, it has in the past year dropped climate changefrom its list of national security threats, pulled the U.S. from the global Paris climate agreement and modified federal websites that discuss or mention climate change.
Edmonds says the U.S. government’s seemingly blind eye to environmental issues may be a reflection of different priorities.
“China is prioritizing water problems more than the U.S. and that is because the American voters in many states do not consider the environment to be such a serious matter and in fact water pollution is a less serious matter in the [United States],” Edmonds says. “In America, the view of environmental matters is politicized whereas in China the situation is largely outside of the political grasp of the average person, for better or for worse.”
But, Edmonds continues, as China continues to pursue its global trade efforts through its Belt and Road initiative, its water problems will be felt worldwide.
“For countries such as the United Kingdom, U.S.A., Canada or any of the European Union member states, loss of water resources is a serious matter, although most of the negative implications fall on poorer and more arid countries of the world,” Edmonds says. But, “we are all on this planet together, and if one country is using more than its fair share of our limited resources, that is a problem for others.”