As the National People’s Congress meets this week in Beijing, environmentalists are holding their breaths. The NPC meeting could mean a reshuffling of power within the Communist Party, which could in turn affect policy on energy, carbon emissions caps, and a host of other issues of international importance.
But while the national government gets most of the attention outside China, inside the country policy enforcement is mostly the responsibility of local governments. And that doesn’t mean just provincial or city authorities; municipal district governments and even neighborhood committees can exercise significant influence. When the central government unveils a forward-thinking policy (and it sometimes does), it has to battle these local authorities, who are typically more concerned with growth than with environmental protection. But it also means that some of China’s more interesting and effective environmental initiatives are unfolding at the local level.
For international organizations and companies looking for a way to make a difference here, real change rests on engaging local forces:
Since 2000, Shuangla…has been part of a major Global Environmental Facility Trust Fund project to develop a sustainable forestry in southern China. The Nature Conservancy started a long-term project in the area “to protect this healthy and incredibly valuable ecosystem before it is too late,” focusing particularly on developing reserve management with local authorities….What until recently had been a process of growth driven locally by local needs, is now treated as an international issue, in which various levels of government, NGOs, and the tourism industry all claim a stake.
In a series of radical proclamations that sent shudders though the business community, Wuxi declared itself a newly reformed green city. By September, the city had closed or given notice to close more than 1,340 polluting factories. Wuxi ordered the rest to clean up by June or be permanently shut down.
What lessons can we take away from these cases? Sending a few hundred dollars to Qinghai has more impact on environmental and rural development than installing a representative in Beijing. And in fighting pollution, publicity is crucial. As local governments court outside investment, they don’t want to be branded as polluted. Wu Lihong made his case by tipping off the government-owned Central China Television (CCTV) and other national outlets, but international exposure is, in most cases, worse. (It will be interesting to see whether The New York Times piece has any further effect on Wuxi. Hopefully it will help Wu.)
More broadly, such examples show that China is not monolithic -- that small-scale efforts can make a difference. Relationships with the authorities are still important. But the old social change mantra might be revised for China: think nationally, act locally.
Image: Fishermen on Lake Tai, Wuxi, China. Credit: flickr/Herbert Hsu