Books: China’s strategic decision-making on the environment

Want to understand Chinese eco-thinking? Jiang Chunyun’s second volume of writing by experts and key officials, Paying Back Environmental Debts, is an invaluable tool, write Dongting Lu and Siqi Li.

Paying Back Environmental Debts
Jiang Chunyun (editor)
Xinhua Publishing House, 2007

Even before Al Gore got the world’s attention with his inconvenient truth, China’s former vice premier Jiang Chunyun edited a volume entitled China’s Ecology: Evolution and Management (China Agricultural Press, 2005). Early this year, a follow-up, Paying Back Environmental Debts – Explorations in Man-Nature Harmony, was distributed by Xinhua Publishing House.

 For many years China has been castigated for failing to do enough to protect the environment and to reduce carbon emissions. But if these two books make anything clear, it is that China’s leaders are — and have been for some time — aware of the gravity and urgency of the situation.

The books have not been publicised widely, and it was only by chance that we became aware of them. Although the volumes were edited by Jiang, the individual chapters were contributed by experts, officials and academics from China’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry Bureau, State Environmental Protection Agency (now the Ministry of Environmental Protection) and the National People’s Congress Environmental Resources Committee.

The language of the books make it clear that Jiang and the academic groups he leads are genuinely concerned about China’s environmental crisis. Both volumes give an unusually comprehensive view of the state of China’s environment and the country’s policies in response at different times. The chapters cover all aspects of environmental protection: the state of the environment; population strategy; evaluating government officials; ethics; environmental law, and looking to the future.

Every chapter takes a look at both sides of the coin. For example, the new book’s section on the current state of the environment speaks both of incredible achievements that have drawn global attention and of grave and worrying trends; after covering a range of intractable issues, the final chapter — on looking to the future — tells us that China has the foundation necessary to solve ecological and environmental ills. Broadly, Paying Back Environmental Debts shows readers both problems and hope; it both diagnoses the disease and writes a prescription.

The publication dates of the two books reflect the period in which environmental awareness in China – by the government and the people alike — has moved from an awakening to vigorous growth. A comparison of both volumes shows how environmental protection has overcome numerous obstacles to its progress in a country that still is not rich. Also, the prominence of the specialist writers means that these books provide a loftier view than many other volumes are able to offer. They delve into many policy matters in depth and vividly depict the changes in China’s decision-making process regarding environmental policy.

Also, the books are of huge value for the data they contain. China’s environmental monitoring system may be imperfect and suffer from laggard technology and old equipment, but the country has an extensive and rigorous monitoring network producing accurate information. But prior to this year’s issuance of “provisions on the disclosure of government information” and the “method for disclosure of environmental information”, it was difficult for the public to obtain the data and reports that were produced.

Jiang’s two books, written as they are by current or former national leaders, do not only present environmental trends and satisfy those who wish to know about the importance and methodology of environmental protection. They also present full and accurate data and penetrative policy analysis – information of huge worth to those who want to understand the current state of environmental protection in China. 

But the new book’s failings also are clear. The issues are discussed in general, but ultimately you do not know what the true problem is. Solutions are presented, but we are not told what needs to be done most urgently, and what can be resolved. The book often relies on the news media and local government reports, lacking on-site investigation and research, and the offered proposals are all easily accepted and generally acknowledged. The exposition is conventional and didactic, and it remains to be seen how influential it is.

But this does not obscure the value of the book. China’s non-governmental environmental movement has only just got going, and although government environmental policy is starting to see results, economic pressures mean that pollution is a constant threat. In these circumstances, it is still necessary to disseminate information on the true state of the environment.

The two books also are of value to anyone who wishes to understand China’s environment and what can be done about it, and the status of the editor give the books more weight. Further, we can perhaps surmise that Jiang’s determination — illustrated in these books — to protect and improve the environment represent a call to China’s leaders for more concern and determination. And so we have reason for some optimism for the future of China’s environment.


Dongting Lu is a Beijing-based reporter.

Siqi Li is chinadialogue’s editorial assistant in Beijing.