Two Good Reasons Not To Play The ‘China Card’

Some weeks ago I had the privilege of spending some time with Harri Lammi, one of Greenpeace’s campaigners who works in China. A few days after I saw Harri, the Chinese Government revealed its new air pollution action plan designed  to cut fine particle PM2.5 pollution which is damaging to health,  and clear the skies above the country.  Harri has posted a detailed commentary on that, and the campaigning which Greenpeace did on the subject,  here. Although the blog below is mine, many of the insights are his.

China, Coal and ‘The West’

For decades, the easy resort of those in the ‘West’ who looked for an excuse not to take action to reduce global pollution (eg to protect the ozone layer or climate) was to cite “China”.  Such a large population, such economic growth: surely, until “they do something” there’s “no point in us acting ?”.  Perhaps those of us in “the West” don’t hear it so much now, as the environmental case is more widely accepted and many aspects of modern China confound preconceptions.  For example, although Chinese air pollution is disastrous, it leads the world in production of solar panels and has a huge wind turbine industry.  Growth in solar and wind is so rapid that it may be able to stop growth in China’s coal emissions in the next three to five years or so. The timeline depends on growth of electricity demand, and of course, how fast solar would be growing in the next years.

I’m no expert on China and have never even visited but I recently heard someone who has worked there for several years who made several interesting points.

* Power politics in China goes on inside the Communist Party, and the huge Chinese social media is a way for those expressing various opinions as to how to move forwards, to build or undermine public support for options and to gauge public acceptability of ideas and policies but without any formal public plebiscites.  Of course there is hardly any conventional ‘civil society’ (NGOs etc) as would be recognizable throughout most of the developing and developed world.  Social media is an ever more important factor in maintaining a connection between the Party and public opinion, especially the burgeoning Middle Class.

* Censorship is measured and not always absolute, and in the case of channels such as the microblogging platform Sina Weibo, can be adjusted over minutes or hours, sometimes allowing comments to spread for a while before being taken down.  In this way the Chinese Government, or parts of it, sense public opinion.

Sometimes critical issues are allowed an airing while not causing too much disturbance. On the other hand,  once a ‘Weibo storm’ starts they can become effectively un-stoppable. In the environmental field this is sometimes catalysed by the fact that China still has an appetite for ‘facts’ which has been progressively eroded in the Western media in favour of ‘communication ghettoes’ dominated by shared values outlooks, so that (especially in the US) many people live their communication lives in exclusive, closed communities, each with its own independent reality, in which ‘facts’ are selected to reinforce existing views.

* Senior leadership and international corporations operating in China, and even global market analysts, look to the few groups like Greenpeace, and some independently minded Chinese academic researchers who are sometimes able to provide independent information on matters such as harmful pm2.5 air pollution, or toxic content of food or water, to obtain facts that are not reliably available through official sources.

Harri says: “During a 2013 ‘Weibo storm’ on air pollution, a Greenpeace Weibo post got retweeted so much so that Greenpeace’s top 10 posts received a total 36 million readers, on average 3.6 million per tweet. Greenpeace blogs have much smaller readership but its campaign publications, such as a water and coal publication done together with a China Academy of Sciences research team, are reportedly read regularly by the very highest leadership in China.  They are also read by bank analysts, and companies which the organisation targets in campaigns”.

He adds: “Greenpeace was approached by a top energy company asking for more copies of our water report. Rarely in the West would we see a major energy company approaching an NGO, asking for more copies of  their research report, saying it contains important facts about environmental challenges they will be facing, and asking for cooperation on the issue.  This shows the interest in facts in China”

How Much Do People Link Coal to Air Pollution in China ?

When we conducted survey of 2,000 people in China’s major cities, we found overwhelming belief in climate change and support for a switch towards renewable energy systems. Asked if they agreed with the statement:

“I support China reducing coal burning and increasing clean renewable energy such as wind power or solar power as the main source of electricity”, some 56.8% of the national sample “strongly” agreed and over 30% slightly agreed”.  Harri points out that many Chinese people you meet on the street blame traffic emissions rather than coal from power stations, for air pollution which directly affects them.  However the poll certainly shows support for renewables, and of course the Chinese Government is well aware that huge amounts of particulates in fact come from power stations burning coal.

One reason for the demand for change has undoubtedly been that an enormous number of Chinese middle class people now visit western countries where they experience much cleaner air and bluer skies.  There is a high demand for a similar quality of environment in China, not just comparable goods and esteemed foreign brands.

“Yet”, says Harri “while seeing that westerners are wealthy and live in relatively nice environment, your average Chinese would not recognize a high commitment in the West to solve the fundamental environmental problems of our times. As many of previously western environmental problems are now exported to China, together with the global manufacturing industry, the Chinese are increasingly seeing the downsides our material culture, coming together with the demand for ever more stuff. What they fail to see is readiness to start solving our common problems by those who already got rich in the West”

In China in the internal arguments about how much to spend on reducing air pollution, the ‘China Card’ gets played in reverse: “if they (US, Europeans) are not really serious about climate change – why should we be ?”

So for anyone in the ‘West’ where you can pretty much say what you like (although often with no local effect) , to take the easy option and paint China as ‘the problem’, even if you believe that, is a doubly bad idea.  Not only does it play into the hands of western laggards but it helps those in China, who are tempted to tolerate more pollution because they think it is a cheaper route to more stuff.

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