Books: pointing the way forward

In showing a willingness to address problems of governance, writes Jens Hein, Green China: Chinese Insights on Environment and Development provides a valuable understanding of important issues – and how the country discusses them.

Green China: Chinese Insights on Environment and Development
James Keeley and Zheng Yisheng (editors)
IIED and Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, 2012

Green China: Chinese Insights on Environment and Development
– published by IIED with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and edited by James Keeley and Zheng Yisheng – is a collection of translated articles from the China Environment and Development Review. As such, it presents an interesting picture not only of the environmental issues facing China, but also (so goes the premise of the book) of how these are discussed within the country itself.

The articles are divided into five categories, making up the five sections of the book: the first introduces the volume and outlines China’s main environmental challenges; the second describes case studies demonstrating approaches to conservation; the third deals with institutions and policies; the fourth considers a number of theoretical issues, and the fifth consists of a single chapter on the development of Chinese environmental NGOs.

A number of important topics are covered, including the fundamental role of institutions and administrative processes in the response to environmental crises, and the question of how to measure the impact of environmental damage on economic development. Another frequent theme is the effect of previous environmental policies, and how poorly planned or executed initiatives have shown themselves counterproductive, at times catastrophically so.

The more descriptive and detailed case studies of conservation from different regions in China are also interesting, and help to illustrate the sheer range of environments under threat. For the most part, the discussion takes place squarely in the context of China’s social and political demand for continued economic development, and it does tend to focus almost exclusively on China itself despite the global nature of the issues covered.

Broadly speaking the book is very accessible, and the English text is clear and consistent. Each chapter is self-contained, and can easily be read on its own without reference to the others. The collected articles do not perhaps provide a balanced or comprehensive overview of the current environmental debate in China, and some topics, such as green GDP accounting, are arguably overrepresented. The chapters also differ in the amount of data and analysis they present, and many of them limit themselves to general description and the statement of arguments, though most remain convincing.

In describing the challenges faced by China, several crucially important points are made, one of which is the importance of institutional and legal structures as well as administrative processes in tackling environmental problems. In their chapter on environmental law, Wang Jin and Wang Mingyuan illustrate how China’s legal system has failed due to a consistent preoccupation with economic development in the framing of laws, and a lack of clarity and accountability in implementation and enforcement.

Similarly, Shen Keting’s chapter on relations between central and local government shows how incentives at every level, from taxation structure to performance assessment for civil servants, constantly pushes local government to pursue economic growth over environmental concerns, even to the point of defying central government regulations.

These and other chapters reveal the systemic nature of China’s environmental governance problems, and demonstrate the need for coordinating environmental regulation and integrating it with other legal and administrative priorities. This analysis of the inherent flaws in the system that lead to environmentally detrimental decision-making helps to provide a nuanced view of the problems – one that avoids the pitfall of simplistically and unconstructively shifting the blame onto individual or corporate self-interest.

The ability of the public to hold both state and private actors to account on environmental issues is another theme that spans several chapters in the book, which goes beyond the question of defending personal or communal rights from encroachment to show that effective implementation and enforcement in itself requires the involvement of the general public. Although Fu Tao’s article on environmental NGOs is couched in fairly general terms, it nevertheless points the way in focusing on the role of the developing public sphere in Chinese environmental action, particularly regarding monitoring and awareness-raising.

Some chapters of the book are rather less illuminating, and do less to advance the debate. Xu Songling’s chapter on international environmental cooperation, for example, is disappointingly one-sided, simplistically reiterating the principles of climate justice and historical responsibility, and exaggerating the extent of the consensus among developing countries in climate-change negotiations. Much of the book is also characterised by a general lack of engagement with the controversial political aspects of the issues discussed.

Overall, however, the volume provides a valuable and interesting insight into important elements of the Chinese debate on environment and development. Crucially, it shows a willingness to engage with the complicated problems of governance at an appropriate level, calling for systemic changes regarding consistency and accountability, and some of the themes discussed may well point the way forward if China is to achieve the difficult feat of securing both its environment and its economic development.

Jens Hein is programme coordinator in the energy, environment and development programme of Chatham House, the London-based international affairs think tank.