Population, Development, and Ecological Civilization in China

Much of what was said by both Sciubba et al. and Upreti relate to my own research on environmental challenges in China. While Sciubba explains the different consequences that the intercourse between demographic fluctuations and different types of political regimes can have on national security, Upreti addresses the contradictions between development and natural resource management/conservation.

Two points that jumped out at me as being particularly relevant points of discussion in the context of contemporary China are the correlation between population trends and regime change, and certain population trends and internal instability, notably an increase in crime. Both of these phenomena – a substantial young population without available resources and affirmation as a motor for democratization, and this same trend as a cause for increased internal violence and organized crime – have been a reality and a consistent thorn in the side of China’s political elites over the past few decades. The Communist Party’s recent push for the implementation of “ecological civilization” is deeply rooted in these concerns as it aims to put a stop to endemic corruption within society and government, quell public unrest caused by environmental degradation and its effects on the standard of living of a rapidly growing middle class, and reinforce national security by tightening the links between the different components of the Chinese nation by appealing to a sense of a shared Chinese civilization. One of the cornerstones of this project is “green” urbanization. This means that almost all of China’s population will be herded into minutely planned mid-sized urban areas and encouraged to lead a life highly dependent on green technology. It is yet unclear whether or not this constitutes an adequate response to the vicious urban cycle of which Sciubba speaks, in which solving urban problems implies raising the standard of living in cities, which gives incentive to rural populations to move to the cities, which leads to the depopulation of the countryside, which leads to more problems in the cities, and so on.

One thing visibly missing in ecological civilization as a project is the enhancement of women’s rights, women’s security and the enunciation of projects that target women’s environmental security in a country that, since the maoist period, has considered itself post-feminist. Although Sciubba points out that a large population of disenfranchised youth can be a positive force for democracy or a negative force through its use of violence, she does not differentiate between disenfranchised young women and disenfranchised young men. It would even seem that the neutral term “youth” refers almost only to men in his paper, as women are referred to as one of the resources this youth is lacking (p.206). However, Sciubba does mention the correlation between violence against women (notably feminicide) and intra-societal violence. Therefore the security of women is state security. However, it would appear from this reading, as well as from Parenti, that men are the sole perpetrators of violence. Furthermore, whereas Sciubba explains that measures to improve population quality to counter population decrease include tapping the female population as a source of labour. This suggests that democracy is the political regime best adapted to population pressure. Therefore China’s silence on women’s security may be an attempt to avoid a seemingly vital component of the struggle against climate change so as to retain authoritarian control. I do not see this as a sustainable stance to adopt, particularly as education appears to be an important variable in both economic and national security. The fact that education and health factor in so heavily at least partially explains the internal pressure placed on the central government by the general public to improve living standards – especially as concerns China’s shocking pollution levels’ toll on public health. That said, “ecological civilization” resounds as one of the first governmental attempts to avoid the problems associated with a widespread tendency to “view the environment and the economy as separate areas of concentration; if a state focuses on one, it must necessarily neglect the other” (p.214).

Upreti further develops this idea by pointing out the challenges faced particularly by developing countries whose main focus is economic development. This is the main reason for China’s environmental problems and it is precisely this gulf between conservation and natural restoration efforts and economic development. Both the central government and public society are realizing (too late?) that quality of living does not solely depend on high wages and the accessibility of amenities (such as electricity, cars, etc.), but also on such necessities as clean air and water. As until now the extreme decentralization of economic policy making was combined with economic development as the sole criterion in the career assessment of officials, environmental degradation proceeded virtually unchecked at a rapid pace. Although this is doubtful to cease in the near future, the inclusion of “green” performance as a criterion in assessment is a big step towards prioritizing environmental conservation and strengthening what has become very weak governance in a once overly centralized state. This is to be accompanied by efforts to educate the public about sustainable development, to instill a system of green socialist values with Chinese characteristics, and measures that accord a certain degree of freedom to local communities to figure out how to manage and protect their resources. This last point could correspond to the “social learning” that Upreti advocates for. It could, however, signify social learning within the limits of government censorship. Censorship as a possible barrier to sustainable development based on social learning and traditional knowledge is a particularly prevalent concern in regions with a non-Han majority, especially those like Tibet and Xinjiang province that have been foyers of resistance to Han nationalism. For instance, Upreti’s suggestion of implementing legal pluralism – beyond adapting national law to international laws and regulations – is not something that China seems ready to do in any conceivable future.

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