On a smoggy day this past February, Chinese President Xi Jinping did a remarkable thing: he went for a stroll outside without the face mask that Beijingers often don to protect themselves against the capital’s air pollution. With Xi’s grin on full display, the political message was unmistakable. “In the Midst of Smog, Xi Jinping Tours Beijing," a headline in state-run media declared the next day. "He Breathes the Same Air and Shares the Same Fate.”

To many observers, Xi’s stroll through the smog hinted at Beijing’s concern that environmental issues could drive widespread opposition to the regime. In recent decades, the idea that environmental crises can help drive democratic reforms has gained popular credence. Perhaps most notably, some historians have argued that the Soviet Union’s bungled response to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster helped to hasten its demise. Others have documented how environmental issues helped to galvanize new opposition movements in eastern Europe, South Korea, and Taiwan.

Xi is well aware of this history, and he has a plan to prevent it from playing out in the Middle Kingdom. By shifting blame for environmental failures to players outside the central government, he intends to use them to strengthen his own control. 

That won’t be easy, of course; China is facing an enormous environmental crisis. According to official reports (which likely underrepresent the problem), pesticides and heavy metals contaminate a fifth of China’s farmland, and a quarter of the country’s water is so polluted that it can’t even be used for industrial purposes. Other challenges will likely prove even more overwhelming in coming years. Parts of central and southern China are experiencing unprecedented droughts, which are thought to be brought on by climate change. Add to these problems declining groundwater tables in the country’s north-central breadbasket region, rapid warming on the Tibetan plateau, and a severe loss of biodiversity nationwide, and it’s clear that environmental issues constitute one of the greatest threats to China’s future development.

This threat is reflected in the growing focus on the environment in domestic politics. The number of nongovernmental organizations focused on the environment is growing, and, according to a 2013 survey, 80 percent of Chinese citizens believe that environmental protection should be a higher priority than economic development. Of particular concern to China’s leadership, the number of pollution-related protests appears to be increasing, and they are occasionally turning violent. During one recent rally in Hangzhou, a major city near Shanghai, dozens of residents and police were reportedly hurt in a scuffle over the planned construction of a waste incinerator. 

To be sure, for Beijing, discontent is dangerous, and the growing degree of ambition and sophistication in China’s environmental policy partly reflects that. But outside observers, including the policy and business community in the United States, would be mistaken to believe that popular discontent over the environment will lead to major political or policy changes in China. Beijing is pursuing a deliberate and largely successful strategy of protecting the central government from environmental fallout by skillfully deflecting blame toward protectionist local officials and state-owned enterprises. In the process, the central government is enhancing its own power.


China’s environmental protection system resembles a pyramid, in which top leaders and officials in central government ministries develop policies for implementation at provincial and local levels. This division of power is meant to ensure that centrally formulated policies are appropriately applied according to local circumstances. The fact that local officials operate at arm’s length from the central government also helps insulate Beijing from being blamed for local environmental disasters. 

Local governments do deserve much of the criticism, but there are so many problems precisely because Beijing encourages such lapses. The party generally evaluates and promotes lower-level officials based on their ability to meet short-term economic growth and development targets, which are often at odds with long-term goals such as decreasing pollution and addressing other environmental concerns. Moreover, the latitude that local officials have to promote economic development in their jurisdictions has incentivized them to maintain incestuous ties to local business interests -- ties that encourage them to shield favored companies from compliance with environmental regulations. In 2009, for example, a chemical company released several tons of industrial acids into a major waterway, disrupting water supplies to some 200,000 people in southern China for days. A government investigation later revealed that the company had been reprimanded several times for illegally discharging waste. But thanks to patrons in the local government, the company had gotten off each time with little more than a warning. 

As China’s environmental crisis worsens, Beijing appears to rely on the blame game more and more. One favored tactic has been the use of “name-and-shame” lists, which feature highly polluting cities and municipalities that fail to meet Beijing’s environmental protection benchmarks. More recently, the central government has begun to target state-owned enterprises for environmental policy failures. A 2013 editorial in the government-run China Daily, for example, lauded a fine that a provincial government levied on the state-owned Sinopec oil company for polluting a city in the eastern province of Anhui. At fault, the editorial argued, was a “combination of power and money.” China’s local governments, the article concluded, must therefore “perform their duties better and consider long-term development instead of short-term interests.” There’s no question that addressing environmental concerns in China requires curbing the excesses of powerful state-owned enterprises. But doing so also serves another purpose for Beijing: it increases the regime’s leverage over increasingly powerful segments of the economy and of society. 


Since the liberalization of the Chinese economy in the late 1970s, Beijing’s development model has emphasized economic decentralization. In this context, local governments and enterprises have been given greater leeway to pursue growth. From Beijing’s point of view, an unwelcome side effect of this approach has been the rise of players that are independent of the central government. Local officials routinely approve large real-estate deals that accumulate massive debt and raise the ire of displaced residents. In some mining regions, so-called coal bosses effectively run their own government. And due to their sheer size, state-owned companies have become increasingly difficult for the central government to control. (In 2012, Sinopec, a state-owned oil firm, employed over 370,000 people across China.) Many of Beijing’s proposed environmental reforms, such as the strengthening of local environmental performance targets and the phasing out of ageing, inefficient power stations, could rein in such players -- and thereby help contain any threat they might pose to the central government.

The most recent reforms seem to do just that, prioritizing central control over other environmental goals. In 2011, for example, China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection, historically weak and ineffectual, advocated revising the country’s environmental protection law that would allow citizens’ groups to help monitor polluting enterprises and raise fines on noncompliant local governments. When the measure finally passed this year, however, the participation provisions had been stripped out but the fines had been left alone, centralizing power but depriving the ministry of the power to leverage growing public concern to increase its monitoring and enforcement capabilities. Subsequent reforms have taken a similar tack, providing for closer monitoring of local officials’ environmental performance and giving environmental groups in some areas standing to sue state-run enterprises.

Beijing’s South-North Water Transfer Project, which aims to correct a regional imbalance in water availability, provides another striking example of this dynamic. The project consists of three canals, including one that crosses the Tibetan Plateau, and will eventually pump some 45 billion cubic meters of water from southern to northern China each year. Construction has already displaced over 300,000 people, and Chinese scientists have raised grave concerns about the project’s effect on the region’s fragile ecosystems. Moreover, water pollution has been so acute during the project’s first phase that Beijing has had to construct over 400 sewage treatment plants along the route to meet and maintain minimum water quality standards. Despite the scale of the damage, the central government has pushed ahead, claiming that the canals will ultimately serve the environment by providing much-needed water to the parched Yellow River. In reality, one of the project’s primary goals is to strengthen support for the central government in areas that have fallen behind in China’s headlong economic expansion. According to one Chinese expert on the project, it’s “a good incentive tool for the central government to encourage local governments” to closely follow Beijing’s marching orders.


China’s leaders increasingly portray themselves as guardians of the country’s environment, promising a greener future courtesy of a strong central government committed to environmental protection. At the 2010 Shanghai Exposition, a propaganda-laced tour of Chinese history ended in an exhibition promising a low-carbon future. Recent statements have served to further reinforce the idea that Chinese leaders are devoted to environmental protection. Last year, in his final major address as premier, Wen Jiabao vowed to “construct an ecological civilization.” More recently, current Premier Li Keqiang pledged to wage a “war on pollution” as part of the next phase of the country’s economic development strategy, which emphasizes a cleaner, higher-value-added growth model.

Although it’s difficult to gauge public opinion on the matter, China’s green activists and other concerned citizens appear to support the central government’s increasing power over environmental regulations and enforcement. In 2012, Reuters quoted the resident of a heavily polluted city as saying, “If [former Premier] Wen Jiabao or Xi Jinping were to come here now I would certainly tell them what’s going on. But I wouldn’t trust anyone else.” China’s environmental NGOs take a similar tack, issuing unsparing criticism of local governments for permitting pollution, while merely calling for a stronger central role in protecting the environment. These calls are not disingenuous; most environmental activists, along with scholars and analysts, believe that pollution stems largely from weaknesses in local-level enforcement. But the fact is that this approach suits Beijing just fine.

It’s too early to say how far Beijing’s environmental protection efforts will go toward effectively addressing China’s environmental ills. Given the country’s rapidly growing resource demands, the strain on its environment is unlikely to ebb anytime soon. And given the scale of contamination, water scarcity and soil pollution will likely remain vexing challenges in the years to come. What’s more, Western countries’ historical experiences suggest that real environmental reforms come through genuine political opposition, something that Beijing will seek to thwart at all costs. But out of this hazy picture emerges a new set of challenges and opportunities for those both within China and abroad who are affected by Beijing’s environmental policy.

At the broadest level, the central government’s tight embrace of the environmental agenda is likely to complicate the ways in which U.S. companies and nonprofits engage with China. For the business community, access to China’s environmental protection industry is and will continue to be a rich prize -- government investment in clean technology has continually risen, and the green sector is expected to be worth several hundred billion U.S. dollars by 2015. Yet, for now, foreign enterprises have been largely shut out of this market, and expanding access should be a focus of Washington’s economic diplomacy in Beijing. It may also become more difficult for international environmental NGOs to work in China. U.S.-based organizations have had considerable influence in important areas of environmental policy, such as air pollution control, but Beijing’s expanding role could crowd out these players going forward. International environmental NGOs should therefore be careful about maintaining their relationships with the Chinese policy community. 

Given Beijing’s new emphasis on the environment, an even bigger challenge will be addressing the global dimensions of its pollution, the effects of which don’t stop at the water’s edge. China is by far the largest source of air pollution among all Asian countries, including India, and Chinese emissions negatively affect air quality in a host of neighboring countries, particularly Japan. Chinese air pollution is even degrading air quality in the United States. According to a study recently published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Chinese air pollution accounts for somewhere between 12 and 24 percent of sulfate pollution in the western United States.

The international community’s challenge going forward will be to use Beijing’s strong domestic political interest in alleviating pollution to prod it to take substantive steps to reduce the burdens of such pollution on other countries. Looking ahead, one of the more promising areas of cooperation is regional initiatives to combat air pollution, which remains China’s largest environmental liability. 

This past May, environment ministers from China, Japan, and South Korea met to discuss air pollution. Given poor relations among the three countries involved, it was notable that the ministers pledged to “continue cooperating in the fight against cross-border air pollution, despite strained relations.” There is already a wide range of existing intergovernmental agreements among northeast Asian countries concerning air pollution, but most are severely limited in scope. The long-term aim should therefore be to win Asian participation in the UN’s Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution, which commits parties to reducing air pollutants but, for now, includes only European and North American countries. Such a goal is ambitious; it would require an unprecedented political commitment on Beijing’s part to reduce pollutants -- not just for its own sake but for the sake of regional cooperation, as well.

In the meantime, China’s environmental crisis, severe as it is, won’t bring down the Chinese regime -- its leaders are too clever to let that happen. Instead, they have carefully co-opted China’s growing environmental movement as their own. But there’s another side to this dark picture: if Beijing plays its strong hand deftly, it can also achieve some real progress in clearing the haze that hangs over its cities -- and the region as a whole.

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  • SCOTT MOORE is Giorgio Ruffolo Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and a 2014–2015 International Affairs Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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