Why China won’t lead the Paris Agreement: History of Chinese environmental policies.

Steel Factories in Hebei, China (Source: Tancent News)

On June 1st, 2017, President Trump made the decision to pull the United States out of Paris Agreement. The United States of American, the most powerful state ever existed in the human history and the leader of the free world, betrayed the global alliance in the heroic battle against global warming. After Trump withdrew, media around the world called China to step up and become the new helmsman of Paris. However, China is reluctant to take this leadership; China doesn’t want to put its environmental disasters, especially the smog problem, under spotlights. During the past several years, the smog problem becomes a worldwide renowned disaster. The air pollution has been impairing the Chinese people for several decades. During the 1990s, the Chinese media confidently declared that the government would “left the air pollution in the 20th century.” However, this claim becomes one of the many government’s unfulfilled promises. During the 2000s, to welcome the Olympic, the Chinese government made progress to combat sandstorm. After the 2008 Olympic, the air pollution problem reemerged in Chinese public in 2011, when Gary Locke, the former Ambassador to China, began recording the air quality of Beijing. In the past several decades, the Chinese government relucted to acknowledge this problem and made few efforts to address it. The lack of incentive for the Chinese government to tackle the pollution problem was problematic and alarming. The deep reason behind this lack of motivation was the top-down government and bureaucracy system in China.

The Communist Party imposes the top-down system as an efficient way to maintain control and enforce orders. China has a long history of strong central government, dating back to Qin Dynasty in 221BC. In this top-down system, the local officials are appointed by the top leadership based on their merit instead of democratically elected by the people. Although the top-down system is efficient in executing decisions from the top leadership, it tends to ignore the people’s voice. In China, because of the top-down system, the government are less likely to respond to the grass-root environmental movements. The Characters of the top-down systems kept the Chinese government away from acting on the environmental problem.

In the top-down system, the officials are appointed by the top leadership. Their appointment and promotion are based on their merit performance. Their performances are evaluated by their leaders rather by the satisfaction of the people. Therefore, the officials respond to the orders from the top, not rallies from the bottom. These officials will do everything to improve their merit and acquire chances for promotion. Since addressing the environmental problem requires significant inputs and the long-term improvements often exceed their term, addressing the environment problem usually will not affect their merit. Therefore, the officials are not interested in solving the environmental issue. Recently, to combat the problems, the leadership mashed actions to address environmental issues into the merit system. However, since solving the environmental challenges requires constant efforts for a long time and often beyond the control of officials, these officials often only act for the short-term outcome, or even merely the image they are actively addressing the problem. By putting in actions, even they don’t help to combat the environmental challenges, the officials improved their merit and increased their chance for promotion.

China values GDP growth as the most important indicator of development. The government places GDP growth as the primary value for an official. Higher GDP growth rate means a greater chance for promotion. Local officials would sacrifice everything for GDP growth, including the environment. Environmental policies, such as shutting down high-emission factories, often hurt the economic development and the GDP growth. Therefore, the officials relucted to execute environmental policies. The best example was the PX projects in China. PX projects are chemical factories that produce p-Xylene for polyester production. PX plants are major sources of air and water pollutions; these factories also explode periodically due to mismanagement. However, the PX facilities create jobs, tax revenue and GDP growth and significantly improves the merit for officials. Therefore, officials approved and supported the PX projects. There were grassroots movements and protests against the PX project, but the officials seldom consider the grassroots environmental concerns and often employed police force and military police to crack them down.

For the Chinese government, economic growth is also a social stabilizer. China fascinated the world through its long-term and rapid economic development, measures by the incredible annual GDP growth rate. However, the economic growth is reaching a ceiling. The GDP growth is slowing down. In 2016, the GDP growth is only about 6.5 percent, and the emerging housing bubble contributes to 3 percent of the growth. Besides, weak financial market, growing CPI and the enlarging housing bubble also trouble China. In the past 30 years, the fast development hindered lots of unsolved social problems as everyone enjoyed the benefits of economic growth and better standard of living. As economic growth is slowing down, the deep-rooted social problems start to emerge. The Chinese society and Chinese people face tremendous anxiety and uncertainty because the real economic growth is about to end, a feeling shared by many Americans in the 1890s, when the “frontier disappeared.” The government rejected environmental policies because they might further slowdown the economic growth and spark protests

The steel factories in Hebei province can serve an excellent case study. Not only Hebei province is the biggest steel producing province in China, but also Hebei’s steel production outnumbers Japan, the United States, and the entire EU. The steel industry is the pillar of Hebei’s economy and the significant contributor to Hebei’s GDP growth. Executing environmental regulations often involves shutting down high-emission factories and creates social disturbances. The environmental policies will further reduce the GDP growth rate in Hebei. In 2011, Hebei led China in GDP growth rate with 11%, a number even higher than Guangdong, Zhejiang and several other more developed provinces. However, as the price for steel declined and the government decided to cut excessive industrial capacities, the steel industry, along with Hebei’s economy, crumbles. Hebei ranks the lowest GDP growth rate in China, and new environmental policies will further deteriorate the economy; the bad economy will reduce local officials’ chance for promotion. Closing factories and cutting production are some foreseeable outcomes of new environmental policies. It will boost the unemployment rate and cause social turmoil. When China renovated State-owned Enterprises during the 1990s, it left enormous and everlasting economic, social and political problems in Manchuria. The government certainly doesn’t want to introduce the Manchuria turmoil into Hebei, where it is only 50 miles from the great capital of Beijing.

The environment paradox fits perfectly to the loss aversion theory proposed by the Nobel Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman. As this essay shows, for the Chinese government and officers, the sacrifices to adopt rigorous environmental regulations requires significant and immediate sacrifices while the gain is distant in time and relation to self. Besides, the so-called “benefit” from enforcing environmental policies is not an advance but a draw. However, the history of Chinese government failing to act on the environmental problems is about to end. As Chinese government made the commitment to reduce carbon emission and as Beijing will hold the 2022 Winter Olympic, the Chinese government has an urgent incentive to address the environmental issue. Although implementing harsh environmental regulations will cause significant and immediate economic losses, the gain of it will not be distant; it will overrule the losses. The gain will be a significant advancement of Chinese prestige and reputation. The recent moves done by the Chinese government echoes this analysis. The government adds emission reduction into its agenda, and the former Minister of Environmental Protection, Chen Jining, became the new Mayor of Beijing to address the air pollution problem. In 2008, the Chinese media and the people bashed American athletics who wore face mask in China; they called this behavior “a slap on America’s face.” The Chinese government certainly don’t want the athletics arriving Beijing in 2022 with face masks; it will slap Chinese government’s face. Therefore, in the foreseeable future, the Chinese government will make a massive effort to address the environmental disaster.




Foreign Affair + East Asia Studies at UVA International Relations and Foreign Policy Researcher; Interests: Foreign Policy, East Asia Politics, Environment

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Zhuoran Li

Zhuoran Li

Foreign Affair + East Asia Studies at UVA International Relations and Foreign Policy Researcher; Interests: Foreign Policy, East Asia Politics, Environment

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