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The Myth of Beijing’s “Ecological Civilization”

The Myth of Beijing’s “Ecological Civilization”
Will Beijing’s Mandarin-centered conception of ‘Ecological Civilization’ truly respect and appreciate neighboring countries’ cultures? (Photo Credit:

Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is a massive transcontinental infrastructural investment project focused across Eurasia, stretching from Asia to Europe to Africa. According to a 2019 World Bank report on the BRI, the project has created economic opportunities for 71 “corridor economies” that account for 35% of global foreign direct investments and 40% of global merchandise exports (including China) at the investment cost of US $575 billion (excluding China). When completed, the project’s contributions to the affected regions are expected to include a reduce in travel time by 12%, a boost in trade from 2.7% to 9.7%, and a raise in income by 3.4%, helping 7.6 million people to escape from extreme poverty. Despite its boons, the project also poses commensurable challenges to the recipient economies’ debt management, global/regional governance, and most importantly, their regional-level enhancement of environmental standards. A 2017 WWF report asserts that the project’s potentially devastating impacts on the affected regions’ biodiversity cannot be overemphasized; the regions overlap with 1739 important bird areas, 46 Global 200 Ecoregions, and the natural habitats of 265 endangered species, of which 39 are critically endangered. Nevertheless, the political features of the BRI’s approach to regional ecological and environmental cooperation are dominantly guided by the ideological principle of an “ecological civilization,” which prioritizes Mandarin-centric values over the globally shared value of “sustainable development.” Such a hyper-nationalist conception of environmental sustainability is also substantively manifested in a BRI document published in May 2017, The Belt and Road Ecological and Environmental Cooperation Plan. The document reads, “To 2025, we will integrate the concepts of ecological civilization and green development into Belt and Road Initiative and create a favorable pattern of well-grounded cooperation on eco-environmental protection.” Here, the meta-analytic “integration” of a “favorable pattern” leaves room for reasonable suspicion that the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) aims to promote a process-disregarding, politically coercive environmental policy convergence in the corridor economies affected by the BRI.

The genealogy of the term “ecological civilization” dates back to the early ‘80s when its root term, “ecological culture,” was first coined in a Soviet Marxist ecological work. An “ecological culture” was suggested as a possible way to cope against the “nuclear winter” (global cooling in the aftermath of the then possible nuclear war). After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Soviet optimism towards the role of communist technocratic rationality has been gradually succeeded by Chinese Marxist ecologists. During the 2000s, when the world’s most centralized technocratic country started to suffer both socially and environmentally from its one-dimensional hyper-economic-growth, the Chinese ecologists caught sight the political opportunity to put forward a similar idea. The term “ecological civilization” gained its political eminency in 2007 when it was endorsed in Hu Jintao’s work report to the 17th Communist Party Congress. It was later applied to legitimatize Xi Jinping’s “green” power concentration in 2013; a CCP organizational vehicle, the Task Force for the Promotion of Economic Development and Ecological Civilization was established to oversee business activities under the partisan manifesto for the “construction of ecological civilization.” Since the CCP’s adoption of the Central Opinion Document on Ecological Civilization Construction in 2015, a national campaign titled “Central Environmental Inspections” has earned the party US $216 million in fine revenues from the exceedingly high number of 29,000 companies and at the cost of imprisoning 1,527 citizens. The term, which was in its onset intended to complement the post-materialist themes of Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms (such as “spiritual civilization”) in the ‘80s, has erroneously evolved into strategic redistributive rhetoric for the concentration of the CCP’s authority over domestic environmental regulation.

Recently, some Chinese scholars have shown the tendency to conflate Marxist ecologism with constructive postmodernism as a way of accentuating state responsibility (CCP’s executive mandates) over legalism in domestic environmental regulation. Although criticizing legal standards for their lack of concern for social, political and anthropocentric aspects of environmental policy regulation, these scholars abuse the postmodern emphasis on “complexity” to advocate increasing state oversight of domestic businesses. They believe such a “manipulative frame” “can help Chinese ecological Marxists avoid the fallacy of ‘turning ecological Marxism into a weapon’ that only points at ‘foreign capitalist countries.’” In addition, they misapply the postmodern emphasis on “cultural diversity” to the Confucian notion of a “harmonious society” in their partisan aim of fostering Mandarin-centric domination over the country’s numerous indigenous cultures. Such strategies, albeit their current limitation to Beijing’s domestic governance, have dangerous implications for the BRI’s future role in Eurasia’s regional development, as well as in South–South cooperation. The postmodernist condonation of Mandarin-centrism during the process of interregional and international policy diffusion could ultimately lead to socioeconomically and socioculturally iniquitous policy convergence.  

Socioeconomically speaking, the BRI has already been long criticized for its now notorious “debt trap” diplomacy. In Central Asian countries in particular, Chinese economic power has filled the power vacuum left by Russia’s waning regional influence by way of lending loans and making investments in the region. What Beijing has consistently propagated as exemplary positive economic soft-power influence has nonetheless created chronic debt management and political corruption problems in the region, mainly due to the Chinese governments’ lack of transactional transparency. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, for example, whose national debts are 41% and 53%, respectively, are now controlled by Beijing, and the countries are identified as two of the eight “debt-distress” corridor economies. Frequent corruption scandals in the two countries also testify to the fact that a significant portion of loans and investments from Beijing continuously flow into the pockets of local elites, fostering rigid economic cartels between Beijing and Central Asian elites. Such seamy aspects of Beijing’s “debt trap” diplomacy, along with other concomitant socioeconomic problems, have caused the spread of anti-Beijing sentiments across the region. This January’s outbreak of Kyrgyzstan’s largest anti-Beijing protests in history clearly demonstrates the public’s rising indignation against the cartel-fabricated reality. Overall, the BRI’s latest developments in Central Asia portend an emotionally unappealing, sociocultural inappropriate future for BRI-led interregional policy diffusion.

International society and regional stakeholders, including Russia, must together keep keen eyes on the possible moral damage caused by the BRI’s environmental policy diffusion (Russia, although a proponent of multiversalized contestation of science, endorses a secular scientific approach towards sustainable development ). Besides holding the BRI projects accountable to global standards in a rule-based manner, the stakeholder countries’ policy practitioners should also scrupulously evaluate and monitor whether the BRI projects’ agenda-setting democratically reflects regional constituents’ policy preferences rather than those of the interregional cartels between Beijing and Central Asian elites. Meanwhile, the stakeholder countries’ policy scholars should innovate new theoretical frameworks that preclude Chinese scholars’ possible abuse of postmodernism in justifying the coercive imposition of Mandarin-centric values on corridor economies.



Mark (Won Min) Seo

Mark (Won Min) Seo is a freelance writer who served as an editor for NYU’s Journal of Political Inquiry. He was also a former intern with the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. He has an MA in Politics from New York University.