Monday, October 29, 2007

China's quest for sustainable development

All eyes are on China these days. And for good reason. The country's economic growth is impressive. But it has come at a tremendous cost in terms of the environment. China's reliance on coal is alarming. It depends on it to meet 70 percent of its energy needs. Every week to 10 days, another coal-fired power plant opens somewhere in China. Even more alarming is the fact that nearly 14,000 new cars make their way onto China's roads each day. Pan Vue, vice minister of China's State Environmental Protection Administration is quoted in the current issue of Foreign Affairs as saying "[China's] economic miracle will end soon because the environment can no longer keep pace."

Sustainable development is the place where economic, social and environmental goals meet and are integrated. Sustainable development is China's only hope of raising the standard of living of the poorest of the poor while avoiding condemning them and the rest of the world to a seriously degraded environment and unstable atmosphere. (GW)

Hu's dilemma over development

With the 17th National Congress of the Communist Party of China now concluded and the beauty parade of new leaders having been won and lost, it is clear that one issue is to be the political battleground in the coming years: China's sustainable development.

James Rose
The Standard
October 29, 2007

With the 17th National Congress of the Communist Party of China now concluded and the beauty parade of new leaders having been won and lost, it is clear that one issue is to be the political battleground in the coming years: China's sustainable development.

It is clear that the CPC, from Hu Jintao down, agree that sustainable development, in economic, social and environmental terms, is vital for China's and the party's future. But its success comes down to a question of ownership.

For the economic sustainability part of the future, the directions seem clear. Moving away from a kind of derivative economy, one in which China is really just absorbing the growth of the rest of the world and making money from it, must be a priority. Chinese employees, particularly in industrial sectors, and stakeholders will only take being second-class citizens in the global labor market for so long. Real wages and conditions must be raised, lest the very basis of China's economic growth - a strong labor force - becomes eroded.

Here we move into social and even environmental factors in the sustainable development picture. China's closed- shop union system, whereby the state holds the reins of the only permissible union body, will become a hindrance.

Without proper representation, China's laborers are already finding the whole harmonious society/sustainable development mantra wafting out of Beijing a bit off-key. Other issues of representation emerge as other stakeholders consider the implications of China's sustainable future.

Among them is the business sector. While it is fair to oblige businesses to adopt more sustainable goals via regulation and formal and informal monitoring, it will serve China poorly if that is done through a political filter. This is not to say that business should get primacy at the negotiation table, nor that corporate leaders get to set their own agendas.

In simple terms, government support must be offered for businesses to adopt more sustainable practices and, that requires some degree of negotiation.

Other stakeholders must be brought in too; China's massive nongovernment conservationist sector, for instance, as well as international green groups, social welfare professionals, farmers, shareholders, investors, and media, to name just a few.

In short, for China to establish and maintain a truly sustainable economy and society, what we are talking about is a sense of dialogue, freedom of association, liberty of thought, debate and negotiation. Yes, what we are talking about is that word: democracy.

Sustainability has little or no resonance if it is simply a vehicle driven by Beijing's inner circle, with local party hacks and complicit bureaucrats along for the ride. That kind of sustainability is such in name only and will tend only to rumble over the very future it is purporting to encourage.

The core equation being proposed by the CPC is that economic, social and environmental sustainability is to be continually obliged to serve the greater cause of political sustainability - read, the survival of the CPC.

It is horribly flawed.

For now, and for the next few years, the answer to the question of who owns China's sustainability is the same as the question itself. You just have the change the spelling of "who." And, for all Hu's oblique references to increased democratic freedoms and to environmental and social factors, this is a worry.

It is a concern that is only exacerbated by the latest National Congress. The rise of the "princelings," particularly Shanghai heavyweight and Jiang Zemin acolyte Xi Jingping, the president-in-waiting, is potentially troubling.

Take a look at China during Jiang's reign and take a look at, say, Pudong now and at pictures from 30 years ago and you will understand why.

Which is also why the next five years, during which these various machinations will play out, will be so fascinating.

What we can hope for is that something of a flow of ideas finds its way up from the street and from the landscape to inform the new team of the value of an integrated approach to sustainable development.

The whole concept of sustainable development, the very foundation of Hu's and Wen's proposed legacy, is being constructed as a complete contradiction of its stated goals. There's nothing sustainable in the current ossified model, new faces or not.

James Rose is editor of


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