This article was written by Mara Hvistendahl in November 2007. We're republishing it here as part of our month-long editorial retrospective.
Pan Yue represents a new breed of Chinese politician: a young, outspoken media darling who switches between East and West with ease. As deputy director of China's State Environmental Protection Administration, he's quick to point out China's environmental woes. But the former journalist is also fluent in Chinese policy-speak. A big critic of capitalism, Pan has, at turns, advocated eco-socialism, once meeting with Germany's Green Party.
Pan's arguments for environmental change are pragmatic, citing fiscal responsibility and continued development to appeal to the typical mindset of the Chinese official. He's been China's biggest advocate of adopting the forward-thinking Green GDP, which figures environmental losses into GDP calculations. Point out how much money the country is losing to fighting epidemics and cleaning up pollution, the logic goes, and leaders will start to pay attention.
More generally, Pan is a proponent of what he calls an "ecological civilization": a reordering of society around green concerns. The argument here is similar to the logic behind the Green GDP: the country has no choice. Trailing behind the West in technological development and unable to export its pollution, China has to face the effects of growth. If it doesn't, things will only get worse. But, Pan says, this gives China a unique opportunity:
[I]t was thought that an ecological civilization would first appear in developed countries, as it is in those countries that ecological crises first occurred. Nevertheless, this expectation has failed to materialize. One reason is that Western countries are able to relieve themselves from ecological crises by depending on their strong technological and financial capacity. The other reason is that the strong inertia of Western industrial civilization will last for a long time and third is that the Western developed countries are transferring ecological problems to less developed regions. While the Western world is losing the opportunity to develop an ecological civilization, there is a possibility for China to realize a leap-forward in this regard.
The idea that China has to clean up its act simply because its waste isn't going anywhere is compelling -- and carries obvious implications for other developing countries.
Earlier this year the Chinese government dealt Pan a blow when it scrapped the Green GDP (leaders paid so much attention that some of them apparently lobbied to have local numbers withheld). But he's now making inroads with the ecological civilization idea. Hu Jintao highlighted the concept in a report to China's 17th Party Congress last month. Since then, the term has been appearing everywhere. The Party Congress news site suggests that "ecological civilization" will be this government's legacy. Prominent environmental activist Ma Jun has weighed in. And the China Daily recently published a long justification of the idea:
This concept reflects an important change in the Party's understanding of development. Rather than emphasizing economic construction as the core of development as it did in the past, the Party authorities have come to realize that development, if sustainable, must entail a list of elements including the right relationship between man and nature....[W]e need to put our relationship with nature in a new perspective: consider nature as part of our life rather than something we can exploit without restraint.
China's leaders are fond of adopting signature phrases to describe their policy concerns. In the 1980's and 1990's, Deng Xiaoping espoused "socialism with Chinese characteristics" -- essentially, capitalism -- and under him China saw unfettered growth. Jiang Zemin had his "Three Represents," an inclusive doctrine that further opened up the Party to business interests (but did little for the masses). Then Hu Jintao came along and started to tone things down with talk of "scientific development," a more restrained model focused on narrowing the gap between rich and poor, as well as undoing some of the effects of decades of unchecked growth. Now it looks like "ecological civilization" is the latest buzzword.
The big question now, of course, is how leaders will put the new thinking into practice. In a country as polluted as China, that's no easy task. At the very least, however, the recent flurry of discussion is an indication that leaders are listening to Pan Yue. And that's cause for hope.
Landscape image: Montrasio International
Recycling bins: SocialTechnologies.com
A Maverick’s “Ecological Civilization” Goes Mainstream is part of our month long retrospective leading up to our anniversary on October 1. For the next four weeks, we'll celebrate five years of solutions-based, forward-thinking and innovative journalism by publishing the best of the Worldchanging archives.