Foreign Policy Blogs

Is Fear of People Power Turning the Chinese Communist Party from Red to Green?

The Great Wall of China. Source: Severin, stalder via Wikipedia.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has led one revolution away from capitalism and back again in its sixty-six year rule. Now it might be about to lead another. With the planned Paris conference on climate change due to start on November 30 Beijing has been releasing some significant-sounding statements on moving China’s huge economy towards a greener phase. Xi Jinping has shown himself to be China’s most powerful and energetic leader since Deng Xiaoping, who first brought market reforms to the giant and impoverished communist nation. The move to a green-based economy would require massive restructuring and the tackling of vested interests that profit from the current set up. But it is no more radical than the break-neck development China pursued over the last two decades.

Critics of the CCP have noted that it continues to play statistical games with inconvenient facts, most recently admitting that it has under-reported its coal consumption for many years. The new figures suggest that Chinese emissions have been a significantly larger driver of global warming than previously admitted. This feeds into perceptions of China’s government as an entity that talks the talk but struggles to walk the walk when it comes to facing up to the issues of climate change and public health disasters caused by its environmental policies.

Nonetheless regular public scandals over pollution and the mass protests they spawn show that there is public demand at home for China’s one-party system to take some responsibility in setting and enforcing standards to tackle the issue. The protests unite China’s growing middle classes with its poor migrant laborers, and its more privileged city dwellers with the hard-scrabble rural peasants out in the countryside. Despite China’s extensive censorship and pervasive security forces, protests about social conditions break out across the country with monotonous regularity. The government’s response is often to clamp down on the organizers but also to offer local concessions to appease the demonstrators.

China’s huge internal security budget reveals that the Party is uneasy about the ferment of social changes it has unleashed with its modernization of the country. Protests in China are no longer illegal so long as they do not call for the downfall of the CCP but attending them can be risky. Despite this tens of thousands of single issue protests break out across the country every year according to human rights groups, the vast majority concerned with corruption, development concerns or environmental problems. For all China is a one-party state, the regime of Xi Jinping is keen to stay ahead of the issues that matter to the Chinese public, as shown by his draconian anti-corruption campaign since coming to power. The idea of a nation-wide green movement taking off in the country that could not be assuaged by closing an unpopular chemical plant or sacking a hated local government official is anathema to Beijing.

President Xi Jinping has therefore shown himself to be more inclined to take green issues into account than his predecessors, who focused more closely on economic development. He has committed to capping carbon emissions by 2030 and turning to renewable sources for 20 percent of the country’s energy. By 2013 China had even become the world’s largest producer of wind and solar power. Increasingly the CCP must balancing its mission to lift the many more millions of Chinese who remain in grinding poverty against the costs of climate change and pollution that creating this wealth often entails. With a growing middle class increasingly outspoken about living in smog-ridden cities reminiscent of the early industrial revolution, Beijing is looking at radical changes in how its economy operates.

Some observers think that China has realized it must go green for its own survival, but just as likely is that the CCP has calculated that, as with corruption, the limits of public tolerance for pollution, public health scandals and massive industrial accidents has been tested to dangerous limits. Since 1989 Chinese politics has worked on the operating principle that popular discontent must never be allowed to build up unchecked. The Arab Spring protests of 2010-11 which swept away a clutch of fossilized and underperforming authoritarian regimes in the Middle East with a wave of street protests were seen as a warning in Beijing. As a result it stepped up repression of civil society activists including environmental activists, anticorruption campaigners or defense lawyers, but scrutinized many of their concerns more intently.

Beijing’s monopoly on political power still rests on showing that it can deliver economic growth and rising living standards. But the costs of a rapid industrial development, and the attendant explosion of consumerism among 1.5 billion people have taken their toll. Under Xi Jinping it has become a mature middle-sized economy that is now pondering what kind of society it would like to be by 2050. Affluence is creating more interest in social issues. People power movements are already a well-established phenomenon in local politics in China going back many years, but there has been no national movement since the suppression of pro-democracy protestors in 1989. The CCP fears that allowing any widespread organization on social issues will quickly turn political and lead to the overthrow of the communist system. It cites examples such as the Polish Solidarity trade union movement which led to the eventual democratization of Poland over of the course of the 1980s or the more recent Color Revolutions.

Unlike various secular Arab regimes however, the CCP has long proved adept at anticipating and diffusing popular concerns before they become a mortal threat to the Party’s political survival. The suppression of pro-democracy protests stalled but did not stop a pre-existing economic program to develop the Chinese economy. Once rising living standards had been achieved and official corruption was becoming a pressing issue the Party moved to clean up these Augean stables itself, without subjecting CCP cadres to an independent judiciary. It had already begun to soften its rhetoric on global warming under the previous leadership team around Hu Jintao. There is no reason to suppose that as green issues becomes more important globally and locally that the leadership of the CCP will not move to co-opt and ingratiate itself with the movements that emerge to tackle it. Whether this will help or harm the cause of green politics in China itself will be determined by the CCP’s ability to deliver on its promises. If Beijing cannot, it may find itself facing the very public protests it is currently trying to head off.