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CFLs in Tian'anmen Square: Why China Needs to Become Transparently Green
Alex Steffen, 10 Nov 06
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For people of my generation, Tian'anmen Square as a place rings with an indictment of the People's Republic of China. The scene of a horrific massacre that ground out the nascent Chinese democracy movement in 1989, the mere mention of the name is enough to remind us that China remains a corrupt and oppressive one-party state. Though the bloodstains are gone, the ghost of the Goddess of Democracy still haunts Tian'anmen.

Today, however, if you were to look for those bloodstains, your search would be illuminated by energy efficient light bulbs. As reported by ChinaWatch, Tian'anmen's lamps now feature green lights ("The project is expected to save around 1.3 million kilowatt-hours of electricity and 1 million yuan [roughly US $131,000] in electricity bills and maintenance costs annually."). The move is part of the build-up to the 2008 Olympics, but it raises an interesting larger point about China, one we all too frequently gloss over: can an unfree China be green?

That the world needs a Green China is beyond question. By hurtling itself into fantastically rapid economic growth even while using outdated technologies -- creating the Chinese Miracle -- China has not only raised hundreds of millions of its citizens out of severe poverty, it has also already become the second largest polluter in the world. There is simply no way that the planet can take the beating it'll get if all 1.1 billion Chinese decide to try to live as, say, Americans do today. There is no sustainable future that doesn't see China transformed into a bright green superpower. Indeed, China itself may have no future unless it changes.

That's a conclusion many Chinese themselves are reaching. Consider Pan Yue, the deputy director of China's EPA, whose pronouncement "This miracle will end soon..." made waves a couple years back. Yue has released a new essay On Socialist Ecological Civilisation in which he argues that all the progress China has made is being rapidly eroded by the ecological burden being the world's factory (Walmart's primary supplier of cheap goods, for instance) places on the average people. As he says in an interview:

In 20 years, China has achieved economic results that took a century to attain in the west. But we have also concentrated a century’s worth of environmental issues into those 20 years. While becoming the world leader in GDP growth and foreign investment, we have also become the world’s number one consumer of coal, oil and steel – and the largest producer of CO2... The rich consume and the poor suffer the pollution.

There's no doubt that by some measurements China is moving rapidly to embrace a new model of sustainability. It has developed a "green" GDP index. Green building practices and energy efficient technologies are spreading quickly, while its auto emission standards are already higher than America's. The richest man in China, Shi Zhengrong, is a solar energy tycoon, and overall, green investment in China is growing at a pace of 16 per cent a year. Finally, China is building some of the greenest new cities in the world.

But China remains a place where pollution is killing perhaps millions of people a year, where almost all the major rivers are poisoned, where vast acreage is lost every year to desertification, where the toxic e-waste of the world accumulates in mountains of technological trash, where the sky is sometimes not seen for days because the air is too foul.

In theory, almost all of this is illegal already. China already has fairly strict environmental and health laws. They just aren't enforced.

Which brings us back to Tian'anmen. We now know full well that green technologies can't be widely enough adopted anywhere without a leveling of the playing field: you need a better light bulb and you need a carbon trading scheme; you need non-toxic alternatives and you need to ban dangerous chemicals; you need sustainable timber certification and you need watershed protection standards. You need to make the currently destructive practice more difficult, or even illegal, even as you substitute the bright green innovation.

That switch is almost impossible where corruption, unchecked power, deceit and repression are the rule of the day. Transparency, accountability, clear market standards and the rule of law are all needed if those who benefit from environmentally catastrophic practices are going to be forced to stop employing them. Put another way, solar economies need sunlight to prevail.

Some people find hope in the idea that because the PRC is an authoritarian state, the state can force the country to go green more rapidly than would perhaps be politically acceptable in, say, the U.S. Others, though, point out that the Party and the government of the PRC is less a monolithic structure than a network of leaders with competing power bases, each most interested (whatever they say in public) in serving and enriching themselves. These critics say that about the only thing that network is wholly agreed upon is that any threat to the political status quo should be squashed like a bug.

So far, environmental activists have been tolerated in China, so long as they stay out of politics. Again, some see this as a hugely optimistic sign, the sort of development that presaged the democratic transition in Eastern Europe, while others contend that changing anything of value in China demands involvement in politics, so the Chinese environmental movement might best be seen as a gesture towards the hopes of the ruling elite that China might one day be green: at worst, it is permitted to exist in order to greenwash the regimes' real behaviors.

It may be that no nation can make the kind of necessary technological and economic transitions building a bright green future requires unless it can not only tolerate but protect its critics.

If, indeed, China were to engage in a period of green Glasnost -- demanding complete openness about environmental issues, and encouraging its people to not only look at their own behaviors but at those of their employers, their government officials and their magistrates -- it might indeed be able to change rapidly. Indeed, if it were to explicitly allow for networked activism, tearing down the Great Firewall, welcoming human rights protectors like Witness and Transparency International, and encouraging citizen media and investigative journalism, China might well find the will to exceed all our expectations, for China is a great nation, with a deep sense of its own moral purpose.

Encouraging those forces within China is a complex, non-trivial task, with no simple answers. But it may be the most important job the green movement has.

Because it's unlikely that a regime which imprisons its bloggers and is incapable of enforcing its own laws has the actual ability to make the jump to sustainability. And unless sustainability is China's goal, we're all in trouble.

It may be the only thing the energy efficient lamps of Tian'anmen square will illuminate is a continuing absence, and the brown haze of pollution that has settled, perhaps permanently, over Beijing.

(Photo: Edward Burtynsky, China Recycling #22, Portrait of a Woman, Zeguo, Zhejiang Province, China 2004)

(Pan Yue via JC)

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I spent two weeks in Beijing (and another two in Shanghai) in the summer of 2005. The first day I was there, I could see the mountains around Beijing from my hotel because the heat wave had baked all the moisture out of the air and the haze had lifted. The next day it rained and I never did see those mountains again...

Such a mix of progress and lack of progress. New housing complexes with a solar hot-water heater on every roof on one hand, and a gazillion businesses with the A.C. cranked way down and the door wide open to blow cold air out onto the street.

I heard about some government conservation edicts like "Two Up, Three Down" to encourage government workers to take the stairs instead of the elevator to save electricity (ah, they do love a good slogan!). And on the other hand, I also heard that (in July 2005) that electric use was already a million kWh higher than it had been the previous year.

Thanks for a great and informative post about the environment in China. I always try to follow what's going on over there, in the hopes that someday I'll get to go back and see what changes have come.

Posted by: greg ehrendreich on 10 Nov 06

nice post, but a little pessimistic on the future of china. I think the biggest problem in china currently is the execution of local government. local government officials often colludes with illegal enterprises to destruct central government's laws.

Posted by: keanu on 10 Nov 06

Wouldn't it be great if we had a transparent government in the USA? Even about one area, say energy (read oil), instead of all those closed-door meetings called by Dick Cheney? How about all the secrecy surrounding: the now-known-to-be false intelligence that got us into Iraq; "free market competition" ENRON-engineered rolling blackouts in California; Medicare Part D; GMO foods tested on the people without their knowledge; etc, etc. I think we're holding China to an awfully high standard. If we were Sweden, okay. But we're the USA. Land of the Bay of Pigs and the School of the Americas and Guantanamo and Love Canal and Annie Mae Aquash and...

Posted by: torab on 11 Nov 06

I agree that the biggest practical problem China would have in implementing any environmental reforms is the local government and the current business practice of "grab everything, bribe everybody and do what you can get away with."

China is truly the new wild west.

China is so hugely corrupt (look at Transparency International list) that any hope of reform must start with complete reform of the local official level (which in itself would require other reforms).


The private business sector must take the initiative and start performing in ecologically sustainable manner, even if the corrupt or under-manned officials are not able to require that from them.

Either possibility looks very low at this point, with the growing strong local economy and all the additional Western money still pouring into the country and crying for a minimum 20% return on investments (and rapidly so).

Really it boils down to:

Who will be the first to adapt greener practices and show willingness to take a profit cut, even with no environmental laws, no sanctions, no emission trading system or no other economical incentives?

Now, what is the problem for the western industrialized countries?

Yep. Right answer :)

Posted by: Masa Salonen on 12 Nov 06

It's important to realise that considerable effort is already underway on this front. Check out, the world's only fully bi-lingual site, which is dedicated to China and the environment. I fully encourage you to take advantage of our unique translation service to make your comments known to our Chinese readers.

Posted by: Tan Copsey on 16 Nov 06

You might be interested in the recent article "Energy Conservation as Security" in China Security online magazine ( Article is at: .

"Energy conservation is the most realistic and economical approach for China to achieve a viable energy security. Research shows that the net costs of wind energy, hydropower and nuclear power as programs for reducing fossil fuel use and corresponding CO2 emissions are 6.1, 6.2 and 7.0 times more than energy conservation."

Posted by: Adam on 17 Nov 06



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