On Sunday, more than 300,000 people gathered in New York City for the People’s Climate March, calling for climate justice and more governmental action to curb climate change. It doesn’t surprise me that Americans would choose to take to the streets to make their demands, because for many Americans, the streets are where social movements begin. What’s always shocking to see is that some Chinese people, who know all too well that protesting could get them killed, also flood the streets to defend their environment.
Reports of environmental protests in China abound on the Internet, though details are often censored. Nearly all protests are directed against the possible establishment of industries hazardous to the environment in densely populated areas. Even though there was often a heavy presence of policemen and army soldiers, people still marched in solidarity. The latest protest occurred just a week ago, in Boluo County, Guangdong Province. Perhaps the most salient protests erupted in Shifang, Sichuan Province and Qidong, Jiangsu Province within a span of less than one month in the summer of 2012. Surprisingly, in such cases, the brave act of protest often made local governments abandon their plans. Even the state-run mouthpiece Global Times suggested that local governments improve their decision-making process, a rare call for the check of administrative power in official propaganda. But maybe for local governments, this means moving these lucrative but environmentally unfriendly industries to places without much population, or without many streets, because people don’t usually protest when the immediacy of the issue is absent.
So I wonder if the protesters at the People’s Climate March had in mind their brothers and sisters around the world, especially those in a desperate situation like China. “Cheater!” is the first reaction of many Americans when thinking about China’s environmental policies.
China, now the world’s biggest polluter, appears to have “cheated” in some ways. The environment was an afterthought in the party’s official agenda until recently. Recent emphasis on environmental protection was propelled not by pressure to combat climate change, but instead by the importance of stability maintenance, on which the regime now spends more money than the military. Before environment protests appeared, the objective of local government officials was economic growth, without which chaos could break out. Now that they are also evaluated for the control of civil stability, they need to be careful not to let polluting industries upset people. This currently approach to environmental protection is half-hearted.
Why inaction? Every environmental activist must wonder. While part of China’s inaction results from its narrow objective of stability maintenance, another part of China’s problem exists in its economic growth model. Despite seemingly miraculous economic advances in the past 30 years, I would argue that any nation willing to exploit its resources and sacrifice its healthy environment at China’s pace is likely to achieve similar economic growth rates. China’s whole system is reliant on sucking up domestic resources and importing technologies from abroad to better exploit resources. This system must change, but it is so rigid that for now, it will hardly budge.
The reduction of greenhouse gas emission in China will lead to the slowdown of its economy. While growth figures serve little more than a propaganda tool, the shutdown of highly polluting coalmines, steel works and sweatshops such as iPhone factories will directly impact the livelihood of millions of Chinese people. Workers under such a system cannot expect a brighter future without better education and better opportunities.
What’s more upsetting than China’s own desperation is that more countries are eager to adopt China’s get-rich-fast, extremely myopic and eventually self-destructive growth model. From the mines of Africa to the rainforests of South America, both continents seeing a curiously stronger Chinese presence, the China model is being replicated with fervor. Every country has the right to develop economically, but no country has the right to do so by following an unsustainable crash course that destroys the environment, affects the climate and burdens the world.
So at this week’s U.N. climate conference, the delegates representing nations of the world should spend less time bickering and pointing fingers. They should instead focus on drawing up healthier alternative growth models and partaking in more cooperative diplomacy.
Yifu Dong is a sophomore in Branford College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.