As Harry Harding argues in the March/April issue of FP, China has enormous ecological problems that the Chinese government is struggling to come to grips with. It so happens that there's been a flurry of stories lately about how China is supposedly getting more environmentally friendly. A sampling, via the indispensable China Digital Times:
- Is China turning green? by Yale law professor Daniel Esty in Fortune
- Why Tiananmen square could go from red to green, by Jonathan Watts in the Guardian
- Paying the price for a greener China, BBC News
- The China Experiment: inside the revolution to green the biggest nation on earth, by Mara Hvistendahl for Seed
No doubt Chinese leaders are becoming painfully aware of the seriousness of their country's mounting pollution problems, but I seriously doubt China's one party system is capable of fixing them. Consider this carefully worded passage in Esty's article:
Just as the U.S. awakened to its environmental crisis in the 1960s, when Cleveland's Cuyahoga River caught fire and Pittsburgh's air began to choke its citizens, China now faces highly visible environmental harms.
But there's a key difference between Pittsburgh and China. China doesn't have "citizens" in the way that Pittsburgh does—voters who can hold politicians accountable when they fail to, say, bring air pollution down to reasonable levels. Local Chinese officials, in contrast, are truly accountable only to the Chinese Communist Party. And based on their comments at the Bangkok summit on climate change, it's clear that top Chinese officials aren't yet ready to bump environmental concerns ahead of economic growth on the priority list. Rest assured, it's a message that will resonate on down the line.