China’s Enigmatic Environmentalism and Alternatives

Global governance has increasingly become a front-line key issue in foreign affairs. We must shoulder
the heavy responsibility and actively promote the building of a global governance system that is more
balanced and reflects the wishes and interests of most countries.
– Xi Jinping, General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party and President of the People’s
Republic of China, remarks at the June 2018 Central Foreign Relations Work Conference
Memo prepared for the [email protected] conference, Madison, WI, September 6-8, 2018.
China’s Enigmatic Environmentalism and Alternatives to the Liberal Order
Jessica Chen Weiss and Jeremy L. Wallace, Cornell University
Political developments in the United States and Europe have called into question the durability of
the liberal international order. As that consensus wanes, we argue for a closer examination of the
domestic drivers of China’s international behavior and willingness to contribute to global public goods,
particularly the environment. Existing approaches to mitigating climate change have assumed that
“autocracies are unlikely to take the lead on this issue” and declared that “US action is a necessary—
probably not sufficient—condition for China, the biggest emitter, to take mitigation seriously.” (Keohane
2015, 23) Yet China has continued to uphold international efforts to curb emissions even after the U.S.
declared its withdrawal from the Paris agreement. We argue that a combination of domestic political
incentives, timing, and geography explain why China has leapt to the forefront of global efforts to combat
climate change while devastating other environmental domains. These factors illuminate an emerging
Chinese model of international leadership, one rooted in private (domestic) benefits.
In recent years China’s personalistic and internationally ambitious leader, Xi Jinping, has
declared a “China model” (zhongguo fang’an) as a counterpoint to the faltering Western consensus. The
contours of this alternative model of domestic and international governance are still being drawn. We
choose China’s environmentalism as a focal context to explore the domestic drivers of China’s
international behavior for two reasons. First, IR scholars have devoted relatively little work into climate
change and the global environment despite its importance as a civilizational threat (Keohane 2015).
Second, China has rapidly become a leader in some areas of environmental policy and climate change
while remaining a laggard in others, presenting an analytic puzzle.
In climate change discussions for the past quarter century, China has shared the developing
world’s chief refrain—that rich countries bear primary responsibility due to their historical emissions
(Lewis 2008, 162). Yet in the past decade three domestic factors—a shifting economic model, a growing
renewable energy sector, and especially the rising political salience of urban air pollution—have changed
China’s tune. Timing and geography also played a role. Whereas air pollution in the US was resolved as a
political issue before climate science developed, in China, airborne particulates have been lumped
together with climate change, since sources of PM2.5 also emit substantial amounts of carbon dioxide.
While hydraulic fracturing (fracking) shifted US energy production to natural gas and away from coal,
geographic constraints have limited a similar Chinese transition.
These domestic factors help explain China’s reversal from recalcitrant polluter at Copenhagen in
2009 to advocate for global action on climate change (IEEFA 2018), as well as why China has thrown its
rhetorical and financial weight behind its renewable energy industry. In 2011, China’s leadership stepped
up its actions against air pollution, even declaring a war on it in 2014. Internationally, China helped pave
the way for the 2015 Paris agreement by agreeing to voluntary emissions targets in a landmark bilateral
agreement with the United States in 2014. China now dominates solar and wind power manufacturing as
well as installed capacity, with subsidies surpassing $50 billion (REN21 2018; WEForum 2018).
Yet China has not become an environmental crusader in all domains. Compared with quantitative
targets for air pollution and CO2 emissions, non-targeted issues with lower visibility, such as water and
soil pollution, have received less domestic and international emphasis. Moreover, the focus on curbing
emissions has had negative knock-on effects. China’s dam projects have generated carbon-free power but
also destroyed domestic ecosystems and arable land, while simultaneously threatening the livelihoods of
millions in downstream countries, particularly in Southeast Asia. More broadly, China’s climate change
efforts have not prevented it from engaging in massive environmental degradation in expanding its
facilities and defending its claims in the South China Sea through dredging and artificial island building.
We conclude by calling for further research into the political and economic interests and
incentives that are shaping the varied form and execution of China’s participation and contributions to
global governance. Some of this research is already underway, including the domestic economic interests
behind the AIIB and decentralized implementation by local actors (Ye 2018). As liberal hegemony fades,
it is incumbent on us to reorient our gaze toward the domestic incentives driving the growing array of
alternative international initiatives.
1. An Uncertain Future: China’s Contribution to Global Governance
Rising nationalism, protectionism, and ambivalence about the international institutions and
alliances created after World War II have called into question the durability of the liberal international
order (Ikenberry 2017). The Trump administration’s attacks on the pillars of this post-war order—
including the United Nations, World Trade Organization, and NATO–have underscored the importance
of examining what might replace or complement it. China’s role in joining, revising, or overturning the
existing order has long been debated by international relations scholars, yet these views have presumed
that the United States would seek to preserve the order it built rather than relinquish or dismantle it. While
realists have emphasized the prospects for conflict between China and the United States (Mearsheimer
2010), liberals have argued that China derives significant benefits from the US-led order and can prosper
peacefully within it (Ikenberry 2008; Steinberg and O`Hanlon 2015), so long as its economic aspirations
are not stymied (Monteiro 2014). A chief concern has been China’s tendency to free-ride or cheat, which
is still different from trying to overturn the system (Christensen 2015). Constructivists have argued that
China’s participation in international organizations reflects socialization into the liberal order (Johnston
2008). Beyond these paradigmatic debates, scholars have also emphasized variation and uncertainty in
China’s contribution to global governance. As Fontaine and Rapp-Hooper note: “Beijing rejects some
rules, accepts others and seeks to rewrite others still. As a result, there is no single answer to the question
of whether China intends to embrace the rules-based international order, nor is there a monolithic way to
characterize the type of great power that China aspires to be” (Fontaine and Rapp-Hooper 2016).
To understand Chinese contributions to global governance and account for its shifting character,
we argue for an approach rooted in the political economy of authoritarian rule. Put simply, the regime’s
domestic interests drive its international behavior, with positive externalities in some areas (climate
change) and negative externalities in others (international rivers and marine ecosystems).
A number of studies have examined domestic-level variables to explain state participation in
international climate change efforts, especially ratification of the Kyoto protocol (Cass 2010). However,
most of these studies have concentrated on developed democracies, particularly the United States, EU,
Japan, and Australia. For example, a special issue on “The comparative politics of climate change” in
Global Environmental Politics emphasizes electoral interests and “executive-legislative institutional
configurations” (Harrison and Sundstrom 2007). A growing body of research on China’s environmental
and climate change practices is excellent but less theoretically engaged.1 Most explanations for China’s
opposition to binding emissions targets center on preserving economic growth and sovereignty. Others
have stressed ideas about equity—particularly the principle of “common but differentiated
responsibility”—in explaining China’s insistence that developed countries bear more of the burden in
combating climate change (Stalley, 2013). Within China, few scholars have studied the global
environment despite its importance (Tang 2018).
Domestic variables are critical given the move to individually-determined, voluntary targets for
reduced carbon emissions put forward at Copenhagen and enshrined in the Paris Agreement (Falkner
2016). The Kyoto model of negotiated, binding commitments foundered on the shoals of well-identified
problems, particularly rational incentives to free-ride (Ostrom 2009). Furthermore, rapid shifts in
domestic interests have inhibited a single comprehensive regime to combat climate change (Keohane and
Victor 2011). Such a domestic politics-first approach requires defining the actors and interests that
“China” represents. It is the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership whose foremost objective–
staying in power–defines these “private benefits,” as distinct from a more abstract domestic benefit that
the Chinese citizenry derives from the public good of clean air and a stable climate. In turn, prolonging
1 See, e.g., (Biedenkopf, Van Eynde, and Walker 2017; Jeon and Yoon 2006; Lewis 2008; Stern
2013; Stokes, Giang, and Selin 2016)
their authoritarian rule requires appeasing and defusing threats from both mass and elite “constituencies”.
At the elite level, the CCP leadership must prevent coups and ensure that its members prosper, fulfilling
the refrain “to get rich is glorious”. At the mass level, despite the CCP’s nominally peasant roots it is
China’s urban residents the leadership most cultivates and fears, both on the internet and in the streets of
its largest cities (Wallace 2013, 2014). The CCP leadership uses both policy performance to satisfy these
constituencies and repression to forestall emergent threats, such as street protests and viral critiques of
government malfeasance. Rising mass and elite concerns about air pollution, along with elite interests in
developing renewable technologies and shifting away from energy-intensive manufacturing, help explain
China’s shift from laggard to global leader on climate change, to which we turn next.
2. China’s International Environmental Shift
China, like most developing countries, has been hesitant to accept international limits on carbon
emissions, fearing the economic consequences. As of 2008, Lewis notes that China had “rarely deviated
from the rest of the developing world” in emphasizing “the historical responsibility that the industrialized
world brings [and] resisting any commitments to reduce their own greenhouse gas emissions” (Lewis
2008, 161-2). Cumulatively, the US and EU accounted for more than half of the carbon emitted from
1850-2011, whereas China had contributed only 4% during that time.2 In 2009, China’s per capita carbon
emissions were well under half of those in the United States. Moreover, that calculation allocates
responsibility for pollution to the site of production rather than consumption.3
China’s resistance to bearing costs persisted through the Copenhagen meetings in December
2009, where its behavior “appeared calculated to frustrate progress” (Christoff 2010, 639). Despite its
reluctance to accept any limitations on its own carbon emissions, China participated in and became the
chief beneficiary of the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), which supported
technology transfer by allowing industrialized countries to receive credit for funding climate mitigation
work in developing countries (Bayer, Urpelainen, and Wallace 2013; Wu 2016). In short, China
participated when international frameworks supported the regime’s goals, such as improving its access to
next-generation technology, but refused to bear economic costs to aid global efforts.
Yet by 2014 China had shifted gears and embraced climate action.4 In November 2014 Presidents
Barack Obama and Xi Jinping made a historic US-China Joint Announcement on Climate Change in
Beijing, including “new targets for carbon emissions reductions by the United States and a first-ever
commitment by China to stop its emissions from growing by 2030” (Landler 2014). Leading up to the
Paris COP-21 meetings, bilateral cooperation between the two largest emitters continued with the USChina Joint Presidential Statement on Climate Change. China’s support was “indispensable” (Stern 2017)
to making the Paris meetings successful as countries promised to make nationally determined
contributions (NDCs) but without a punishment process (UNFCCC 2015).
China’s support for the Paris agreement has persisted despite the Trump administration’s
skepticism and ultimate withdrawal. At the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2017, Xi Jinping
defended the “hard won” agreement and urged the United States to remain (Shankleman 2017). China’s
environmental rhetoric has also permeated its efforts to play a greater leadership role in international
institutions, including working with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) “to build the
green ‘Belt and Road’ [and] promote open-ended ‘South-South environmental cooperation’” (Ministry of
Environmental Protection 2016). The Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), which China launched
in 2016 and is seen by many as a World Bank rival, states that its “mode of operation” is “Lean, Clean
and Green” (AIIB 2017). AIIB president Jin Liqun noted in June 2017 that the AIIB seeks to help
members “meet their Nationally Determined Contributions under the Paris Agreement” (Jin 2017).
Undoubtedly some of this rhetoric and effort to show leadership has been sincere. And China has
consistently emphasized the principles of equity among nations (Stalley 2013). But a consistent principled
stance does not help explain the shift in China’s behavior. Nor is international pressure a compelling
4 “Simply put, China has shifted from a climate free-rider to a climate protector.” (Wu 2016)
explanation, since China was willing to weather international opprobrium at Copenhagen in 2009 and
continues to defy international outcry in other areas where China has devastated the environment.
3. Domestic Interests and Chinese Climate Change Actions
Three major changes in China’s domestic political economy help explain its leap to the forefront
of global efforts to combat climate change. First, following the global financial crisis, China’s leaders
decided to reorient the economy away from energy intensive infrastructure and polluting industrial
exports towards services and technology. Second, China’s renewable energy sector made significant
headway toward cost parity with coal and other fossil fuels. Third, urban air pollution concerns went
viral, threatening the regime’s mass and elite support. The first two factors shaped the Chinese
leadership’s economic calculus, while the third factor provided the political catalyst for limiting air
pollution and carbon emissions.
The global financial crisis affirmed the Chinese leadership’s recognition that the economy had to
be restructured, as by 2007 Premier Wen Jiabao had acknowledged that the economy was “unbalanced,
uncoordinated, unstable and unsustainable.” As demand for Chinese exports dropped by over a billion
dollars a day, the regime responded with stimulus funds from state-owned banks as well as direct
government spending (Wallace 2014, p. 164). As the stimulus kept the economy afloat, the Chinese
leadership planned to reduce dependence on external demand and increase domestically-oriented
production and consumption. In addition, the stimulus produced over-investment in physical
infrastructure and other hard assets, stealing demand from the future for cement, steel, and other energy
intensive products, and leading to government efforts to curb these sectors by the early 2010s.
The competitiveness of renewable energy was a second background factor for China’s shift on air
pollution. Prices for solar and wind plummeted in the 2000s with increased production and technological
improvements, and by 2009 were close to fossil fuel costs.
5 Chinese subsidies played a crucial role in
5 Naam 2011. See also (Falkner 2016).
nurturing technological and industrial development in wind and solar, bringing them to their current cost
competiveness. This competitiveness led to substantial uptick in production and installation of renewables
in China and lowered the global cost of renewables.
Shifting economic priorities and opportunities coincided with mounting environmental damage to
spur the regime’s actions to fight air pollution even at economic expense. By the mid-2000s, inertia had
kept the regime from changing course despite the severe deterioration of China’s environment.
Deforestation devastated communities through floods and erosion, industrial and agricultural chemicals
fouled the water, and the air in China’s cities already was among the most polluted in the world
(Economy 2004, 64-72). In 2007, the World Bank estimated the number of Chinese killed every year by
pollution at 750,000, but this figure was scrubbed from initial public pronouncement after pressure from
Chinese government officials.6 Studies with more sophisticated methodologies linked air pollution to
significant increases in mortality and morbidity (Chen et al 2013; Barwick et al 2018).
The quantification of air pollution provided a focal point for mass and elite criticism. The US
Embassy had begun collecting samples of small particulate matter (under 2.5 micrometers in diameters)
in April 2008 and publishing the results hourly on Twitter despite complaints from Chinese authorities.
In October 2010, the account tweeted that Beijing’s air was “crazy bad” as its reading exceeded 500,
twenty times the World Health Organization’s guideline. Programmers had jokingly had coded that label
for scores beyond index, not expecting it to ever be triggered (Demick 2011). In the fall of 2011, the US
Embassy’s monitoring equipment again registered scores so polluted that they were “beyond index,” even
though the Beijing city government had only reported that the air was “slightly polluted” (Demick 2011).
Pan Shiyi, noted real estate developer, sent multiple messages to over sixteen million followers on Weibo
calling for the Chinese government to monitor PM 2.5 rather than just PM 10, including a poll where over
90% of 40,000 respondents agreed. Days later, Premier Wen Jiabao acceded, saying that the government
6 Barboza 2007. N.b. the World Bank’s report includes water pollution as well.
needed to improve its environmental monitoring and bring its results closer to people’s perceptions.8
More restrictive standards that added PM 2.5 were put in place in February 2012, with monitoring
stations broadcasting hourly reports installed in dozens of cities by the end of that year (Oliver 2014).
These reasons then help explain China’s turn away from coal and towards renewables. China had
offered limited policy support for renewables since the late 1990s.9 Initially ad hoc policies became more
systematized with the passage of the Renewable Energy Law in 2006 and its designation as a strategic
sector (Wang, Yin, and Li 2010; Nahm 2017; Ming et al. 2013). While China’s renewable sector grew
consistently over this time, becoming a global leader in manufacturing and later in installed capacity, the
country’s domestic energy needs grew even faster. Coal peaked as a share of electricity production in
2007 at almost 81%.
10 Only after the airpocalypse did coal’s share start to plummet, by 2016 dropping
below 70% for the first time in decades.11 China’s fiscal support for renewable energy exploded at the
same time. While 2010 subsidies were estimated at about 12 billion RMB,
12 just two years later subsidies
quintupled to 60 billion RMB (Lin 2018). By 2017, subsidies almost tripled again to 170 billion RMB
(Lin 2018). Figure 1 depicts these trends below.
China’s renewable sector, strongly supported by government subsidies, now dominates globally
without peer. In 2017, China accounted for over half of global solar installations and 37% of wind.13 Due
to the falling cost of Chinese-subsidized renewables, other countries have become “more confident that a
gradual shift towards a low-carbon economy will not necessarily harm their long-term growth
strategies.” (Falkner 2016) China’s push into renewables have reduced its own emissions but also
generated positive externalities for global efforts to combat climate change.
8 CCICED 2012; Oliver 2014.
9 Innovation fund, 1 billion RMB. Set up in 1999. (Wang et al 2013, p. 1874)
10 World Bank (IEA data).
11 Ibid.
12 (Ming 2010, p. 267) Extrapolating from 8.91 billion RMB for first 9 months of the year.
13 See Solar Europe 2018 for solar and GWEC 2018 for wind.
Figure 1. Contrasting Trends—Coal’s Share of Electricity and Renewable Energy Subsidies14
4. China’s Enigmatic Environmentalism: Complications
China’s laudable efforts to promote renewables and control emissions are complicated by
questions of implementation and enforcement as well as other actions detrimental to the environment. In
Chinese domestic politics, it is a truth universally acknowledged that central policy directives are distinct
from what is experienced on the ground. Bureaucratic slack is greatest when the interests of the center and
local officials diverge. While the center has begun incorporating some environmental indicators into
assessments of local officials’ performance, economic development remains of primary significance, so
local officials may fail to shut down polluting firms despite policy directives (Kostka & Hobbs 2012;
Yasuda et al 2013).
Chinese officials and industries are also adept at gaming the system and providing as-if
compliance with environmental regulations and incentives. Two examples are fudging pollution
counterfactuals to gain resources through the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) as well as cheating
on CFC agreements. One study found that over 85% of CDM projects had a low likelihood of “emission
reductions being real, measurable, and additional” (Cames et al 2016, p. 152). China is also a party to the
14 Subsidies data before 2011 are from (Ming et al. 2013). Coal share data are from the World Bank.
Montreal Protocol banning the production of CFC-11, which depletes atmospheric ozone and has “a
global warming potential 4750 times that of carbon dioxide.” In 2018, international investigators traced
an increase in CFC-11 to numerous chemical plants in China, which had resorted to producing the banned
substance because its replacement was more expensive and less effective (EIA 2018). Most climate
change pollutants are far too common to identify through these kinds of investigative methods, however.
China’s narrow focus on air pollution and climate change have also led to perverse environmental
actions, notably with dams and hydropower. China is the dominant hydroelectric player globally,
accounting for 40% of new capacity installed in 2017 (REN21 2018). While hydropower is renewable, it
often has deleterious effects downstream, destroying ecosystems, arable land, and fisheries. These
negative consequences have harmed millions domestically, but China’s neighbors are also suffering
(Mertha 2008). In the Lancang-Mekong, fish stocks have been depleted and spawning areas made
inaccessible, threatening more than sixty million that depend on these resources (Bernstein 2017; Zaffos
2014; Japan Times 2018). China created the Lancang-Mecong Cooperation (LMC) group for the riparian
countries in 2016 as a rival to the earlier Mekong River Commission where it only had observer status
(Fawthrop 2018). China’s foreign minister made clear his intentions at a 2017 meeting in Dali: “The
LMC is not a talk shop, but a bulldozer moving forward” (Fawthrop 2018). More remote but equally
devastating are China’s South China Sea reclamation and island expansion efforts in violation of China’s
UNCLOS obligations to protect the marine environment (Bergin 2017). Less visible issues such as soil
pollution have also received little domestic attention (Economist 2017).
5. Conclusion
Self-interest has long been recognized as a crucial factor in the willingness of leading countries to
supply public goods and contribute to global governance (Keohane 2015; Kindleberger 1986; Krasner
1983). The benefits that the United States has derived from supporting the liberal international order have
been well documented. Given the mounting problems and evident failures of “Western” systems of
governance, however, observers and even Chinese leaders have turned their attention to what comes next.
As Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi has noted, “International society is urgently calling for new ideas
in global governance and the construction of a more just and equitable international system and order
(guoji tixi he zhixu)” (杨 2017).
Our argument refines the commonplace observation that China’s international contributions are
first and foremost driven by national self-interest. As David Shambaugh notes, “China continues to
display and practice a distinct ‘transactional’ style of diplomacy, carefully weighing national costs and
benefits, rather than contributing to global collective ‘public goods.’” (Shambaugh 2013, 127) This essay
defines more clearly these domestic interests and incentives, structured by the political economy of
authoritarian rule. Above all, the Chinese Communist Party leadership has sought to retain power by
maintaining mass and elite support and defusing emergent threats to its continued rule. In the
environmental realm, catastrophic levels of airborne particulates—easily seen and measured by citizens
and elites alike—have galvanized Chinese action to control air pollution emissions beyond just
particulates, including carbon dioxide. As Xi Jinping explicitly noted: “our environmental problems have
reached such severe levels that the strictest measures are required… the masses pay great attention to
environmental issues, which never cease to dominate the mass public’s life happiness index [and]
frequently arouse public resentment. If not handled well they most often easily incite mass incidents.” (中
共中央党史和文献研究院 2018, 181–82)
We have also shown that the pursuit of domestic (private) benefits is not incompatible with the
provision of global public goods. Indeed, the provision of global public goods is often a positive
externality of actions in pursuit of domestic self-interest, even when self-interest is defined as
preservation of one-party authoritarian rule. Characterizing private benefits and public goods as
oppositional overlooks the crucial role that self-interest played in incentivizing the United States to
underwrite the liberal international order for so long. Acknowledging the importance of private benefits is
also helpful for policy. As Fontaine and Rapp-Hooper note, “Chinese activism on these issues does not
amount to altruism, and Beijing has abiding national interests in supporting these regimes. As a result,
U.S. policymakers should not convince themselves that they need to ‘buy’ Chinese participation at the
UN or on climate change by making compromises elsewhere in the bilateral relationship.”
Acknowledging the primacy of domestic drivers also cautions against excessive optimism that
naming and shaming will lead to a racheting-up of climate change commitments and compliance. This
optimistic view of the Paris agreement is perhaps best summed up as “instead of suing one another for
failure to comply with a legal obligation, countries will try to outdo one another in their efforts to help
address a shared problem.” (Slaughter 2015) Moreover, as-if compliance with international norms (Hyde
2011; Vreeland 2008) has difficulty explaining China’s continued efforts to show leadership on climate
change when that international consensus is breaking down.
The study of China’s enigmatic environmentalism also has implications for the evolving contours
of a post-liberal hegemonic order. While China has taken advantage of incentives through more formal
institutions, most notably the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism, the international aspects
of China’s climate change policy have tended towards multilateral voluntary actions, such as the Paris
Agreement, and bilateral project-based investments through the AIIB and Belt and Road Initiative.
Moreover, the variation in China’s environmental practices—leading in some areas but offending in
others—reinforces the conclusion that there will not be a singular Chinese-led vision of international
order. China will likely continue to defend aspects of the existing order (“resolutely safeguarding” the
United Nations charter), while seeking to change the distribution of power and voting shares within
institutions like the International Monetary Fund and World Bank (reforming “unjust and improper
arrangements in the global governance system.”)15 In other areas, China seeks to create new rules and
institutions (AIIB, polar regions, cyberspace), while rejecting others that harm China’s domestic interests
(particularly the international tribunal ruling against China’s 9-dashed line in the South China Sea).
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