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Rethinking Change in China
Mara Hvistendahl, 15 Oct 07
Article Photo

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:

  • In Yunnan province in southwestern China, villages at risk of being lost to regional growth are being developed sustainably with help from the Nature Conservancy and other organizations:
    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 Wuxi, a few hours from Shanghai, former factory salesman Wu Lihong pushed the government to clean up pollution in Lake Tai, which had turned green from industrial runoff. As reported in The New York Times by Joseph Kahn this past Sunday, it's hardly an uplifting story -- Wu ends up in prison -- but it shows how one persistent individual can have an influence in China. Interestingly, the Washington Post reported the clean-up without the back story. The change Wu effected was so far-reaching that from the outside, it looks like Wuxi government decided it wanted to be known for green policies rather than green sludge:

    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.
  • As an extension of a project I wrote about in Qinghai province, international agencies and individuals are making small grants to Tibetan communities for securing solar cookers and potable water. This, too, was set in motion by one man, and it has transformed the development landscape in Western China.

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

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