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China’s Green Politics: From Ideology to Implementation

Jul 06, 2020
  • Jianyin Roachell

    Transatlantic Digital Debate Fellow and Co-founder of

Climate change is one of the most pressing issues of contemporary times, providing both challenges and opportunities globally. Developed nations like the U.S., Germany, and the U.K. took more than a century to move away from their energy mixes based in coal since the Industrial Revolution. China, meanwhile, has created 4 million ‘Green Jobs’ in its economy in the last decade – over a third of the global total – and has leap-frogged from a virtually non-existent renewable energy profile to become one of the leading nations in renewable projects in just a decade. China’s ecological rise is particularly important in that they contribute to ongoing literature regarding the role of ideology in authoritarian states’ ability to enforce policy in society.

The perennial question remains: can China really shift the sphere of influence in the current U.S.-led global order by leading the global fight against climate change?

Barbara Finamore, Asia Senior Strategic Director at the Natural Resources Defense Council and author of “Will China Save the Planet?” puts this down to the country’s political system, economy of scale, and its large domestic-driven market demand.  On a recent Sinica Podcast episode, she explained that, “the cost of EV power batteries developed in China’s Gigafactories has dropped by 87%, the cost of solar power has dropped by 90%, and wind power has dropped by 50% [of their original costs in the last decade]”, suggesting that China has played a major role in cutting the global cost of clean energy production. Nis Grünberg, a leading China environmental policy expert at the Berlin-based MERICS Institute, explains that, “If China can lead on the global fight against climate change, Beijing will gain significant credibility in global governance.”

Ideology has played an important part in achieving efficient cleanup pilot zones across China’s expansive and diverse geographical regions. President Xi Jinping believes ideologies are central to any governance, especially when it comes to influencing environmental policymaking in order to make drastic sustainable development policy. With ideological concepts such as ‘Ecological Civilization’ and ‘Beautiful China,’ his administration has promised the Chinese people high-tech green cities and cleaner air.  

The concept of ‘Ecological Civilization’ first appeared in a speech by Hu Jintao in July 2007. It has since been a leading green rhetoric of the Chinese government, having been referenced in more than 1000 documents in both the Ministry of Ecology and Environment, and the National Development Reform Commission combined. In 2017, President Xi Jinping presented the “fight against pollution” in the 19th CPC National Congress speech, – an attempt to establish a legal and policy framework that implements low-carbon urbanization initiatives and spearheads development of a circular economy to minimize waste. Ever since, this abstract and somewhat nebulous ideology has been associated with a civilization that prioritizes clean energy, clean air, and a clean environment for the benefit of the public. Chinese delegates at the UN Environmental Program Governing Council meeting in 2013 defined the term as a “more comprehensive expression of sustainable development” that encompasses a “symbiosis between economic development and environmental protection.” Environmental policy Scholars at the University of Oslo have attempted to unpack the political and theoretical meaning of the concept as a “sociotechnical imaginary that integrates certain cultural and moral values with technological and political goals,” while from a law perspective, debates regarding the concept centers around the application in law and public policy in the greater context of sustainable development. It is even argued that ‘Ecological Civilization’ indirectly substantiates China’s “socialism with Chinese characteristics” in environmental green development law studies.

In a 2013 paper entitled “Regarding The Thoughts of Beautiful China and Green Development '', scholars defined the concept ‘Beautiful China’ as building an ideological “expression of philosophical refinement.” ‘Beautiful China,’ they comment, is the “philosophy of survival,” with the mission to dictate what is beautiful – “clean water, clear skies, mountain views” while “achieving economic prosperity” and protecting ecology. The association of ‘Beautiful China’ with economic prosperity is worth noting in that it acts as a bridge to the domain of economic policies.  

To gain insights from the green policy documents, my colleagues at MERICS and I  analyzed ‘Ecological Civilization’ and ‘Beautiful China’ related policy documents from the Ministry of Ecology and Environment and the National Development Reform Commission, and subsequently used natural language processes and computational word associations analysis to report the findings. I used, a policy analytics tool, to extract major policy themes from publicly available records to detect change in policy priorities over time.

The Semantics of ‘Ecological Civilization’ and ‘Beautiful China’

‘Ecological Civilization’ is associated with implementation and administration mainly aimed at policymakers, while ‘Beautiful China’ invokes aesthetically pleasing imagery aimed at the greater public.

After retrieving 1300 documents from public government sources, we find that the concept of ‘Ecological Civilization’ is associated with administrative vocabulary of policy implementation (such as central party, trial zones, guidance, or leadership) rather than promoting socialism as previous Ecological Marxists have suggested. That is, policymakers tend to invoke the concept of ‘Ecological Civilization’ predominantly as a watch-word for legitimizing policy execution related to sustainability development rather than in an ideological context as introduced by Ecological Marxists. This is significant in light of the fact that previous political scientists have argued that the concept started out as a mere ideological and philosophical term, but now its semantics appear to be associated with the process of party-state legitimization. Chinese policymakers’ emphasis on the usage of the term to denote policy implementation and execution could be indicative of a new finding: political ideologies such as this can actually undergo a change of lexical semantics through time and application, suggesting the existence of, what I called, a ‘Party-ideology to policymaking pipeline’. At the very least, the results of this work suggest that Chinese environmental policymakers, as judged from the way they use language in their policy documents, signal various policy priorities to achieve the ‘Ecological Civilization’ as referred to in the original political rhetorical meaning.

While ‘Ecological Civilization’ is used in a way that reflects an administrative-tone, our research shows that the ‘Beautiful China’ concept still holds true to the original definition given in the paper, which invokes descriptive imagery of the ideological vision, substantiating the idea of a ‘philosophical refinement.’ More interestingly, our analysis also showed that propaganda-like rhetoric such as ‘mobilize,’ ‘contribution’ and ‘fight’ also appeared as top word associations, implying that ‘Beautiful China’ is undergoing a transition from a philosophical ideology to a more public propaganda. This transition provides further insight into the continuous evolution of party-political rhetoric to shape and guide policy implementation processes. 

The signaling of a one-to-many relationship from ideology to policymaking pipeline

There are two debatable generalizations one could gain from these two cases. First, ideological political rhetoric is used and aimed at different audiences, depending on the motive and the goal. Secondly, our analysis suggests that CCP philosophical ideologies can act as drivers moving policy from incubation to publication. The ‘Ecological Civilization' ideology has given birth to many green policy initiatives such as pollution reduction, efficient use of natural resources, food security, climate change mitigation and adaptation.

Going forward, this finding has the potential to provide insight into other party ideological concepts, suggesting that concepts such as Xi’s ‘China Dream’ and ‘Community of Common Destiny’ from Xi’s Thoughts could materialize into policy regulations ultimately impacting societal norms and public behaviors.

Back to the perennial question – can China challenge the U.S.-led sphere of influence through its ecological rise and green technological know-how? The biggest challenge that the U.S. faces in the climate policy is choosing whether to cooperate with China. The lack of strategic design in climate policies in current Trump administration slowly wanes EU’s trust in the U.S.’s ability to assume global leadership, let alone global climate leadership. With the upcoming November 2020 presidential election and the United Nations Environmental conference, the U.S. will have the opportunity to rejuvenate its international climate policy, relook at the vocabulary around its implementation, and choose the responsible but the least favorable thing to do – cooperating with Beijing on a global climate policy plan that is rule-based, carbon-market driven, and green-tech centric.

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