Given that “China watchers” and “climate watchers” rarely cross paths, I’d like to remind the latter to at least stay informed on the current situation in China. Since this spring, many assumptions about China’s domestic and overseas climate actions have been fundamentally challenged, if not already changed.
In my past work, I de-politicised most discussions on China/climate so that we can at least seek consensus on technical issues; many Chinese technocrats working on the issues do the same. It doesn’t mean we are unaware that climate change is probably the most political matter.
Many in the climate community believed that China’s political regime provided some comparative institutional “advantages” in climate goal-setting & implementation. But such advantages are rather vulnerable at times of political turmoil.
When we made assessments, e.g., China could peak carbon emissions before schedule, we used the ruler of the past to measure the future. We might have all assumed a static political context, a robust economic engine, and a stable social environment as enabling conditions for climate actions.
However the dynamic-zero-covid policy evolves in the future, many of us – from modellers to economists – need to revisit one basic assumption: political stability and the consequent efficiency & effectiveness of the state in concentrating nationwide effort and resources to achieve climate goals (“green authoritarianism” and “Coercive Environmentalism” as per Yifei Li & Judith Shapiro)
“Why do Chinese people not care (much) about climate change?” As recent events demonstrate: For most Chinese people, the climate crisis is not as pressing and urgent as many others in life, even though some of their plights can be exacerbated by climate change.
Recent protests and their aftermath only reveal the tip of the iceberg of social unrest that has been building up over the past decade. Various sections of society have realised that their daily struggles are neither accidental nor independent. Resistance will only continue in all sorts of creative ways.
Stricter measures to maintain stability are inevitable, even if the dynamic-zero-covid policy is to be phased out gradually and governing priority shifted towards economic recovery.
As we see in the EU/UK in the “gas crisis”, a de-prioritisation of climate actions – a “cherry on top” – is likely inevitable, as other competing priorities are much more fundamental to the legitimacy of the CPC ruling.
The implication? They are likely to compromise the state’s capacity – and, as many argued, willingness – to make more ambitious climate pledges or take more substantial moves in implementing existing targets beyond the already released 14FYPs.
Undoubtedly, China’s impressive record of “overachieving” energy & climate targets was not entirely the result of state will or a functional state machine. Contrary to the common perception that the CPC and the central government decide everything, the initiatives & innovations from non-state stakeholders, e.g. civil society groups and entrepreneurs, contributed significantly to the country’s climate actions. The question is whether they have the conditions to continue so in the rapidly changing environment.
The article is written by Hongqiao Liu. It was firstly published in the "Shuang Tan" newsletter on 2 December 2022. All rights reserved.