The Future of the Environment: Sustainability with Chinese Characteristics?

By Rachel Lietzow

China’s Current Environmental Situation

            “As industrial production has grown, so has pollution. You hang your clothes outside to dry, and they turn black!” These are telling words from a shopkeeper living in Futian, a rural township in Sichuan Province [1]. At the start of the twenty-first century, China’s environmental degradation was at its peak, with the country relying on coal, a fossil fuel that releases harmful carcinogens into the atmosphere, for around three-fourths of its energy intake. To the pride of the Chinese people and the Communist Party, China achieved an industrial revolution within twenty years that took many Western countries an entire century; however, this also compacted a century of environmental pollution issues into a mere two decades. As the environmental repercussions of economic growth have gradually diminished worker health and economic productivity, the environment may in fact come back around to cap China’s astounding GDP growth rate.

            Many would attribute the beginning of China’s environmental-related problems, including increased citizen mortality, respiratory infections, birth defects, ruining of crops, contamination of water and food, and public protests, to the Reform and Opening Up movement launched by Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s, which entailed a mass transition from collective ownership to privatization. With the opening of markets and establishing of a “one man for himself” mentality, Deng’s program highly resembled an adoption of capitalism; however, given the Chinese political taboo surrounding the term “capitalism,” the government has named the new pathway “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics.” In essence, this title justifies the pursuit of economic growth as the necessary means to achieve true socialist equality.

            Interestingly, the “socialist equality” that was founded in the Mao era never included environmental equality. Mao advocated a new form of war and violence: war against all opposition to the Chinese Communist regime, including nature [2]. The new doctrine obliterated previous forms of balance between man and nature, adopting an anthropocentric outlook instead. At the heart of Mao’s Chinese nationalism was deforestation, pollution, and the concept that the masses must conquer even the natural forces. All in all, this period in Chinese history—and leading into the reform era—demonstrates that the People’s Republic of China has placed environmental sustainability in the backseat of developmental policy since its establishment; a major shift in policy and priority must take place to avoid the bleak prospects of China’s sustainable future.


Chinese Religion and Philosophy: Hope for Environmentalism?

            Pre-Maoist China offered a number of promising ideologies pertaining to environmental protection. During China’s dynastic era, Confucian-Mencian culture and tradition embraced environment as an irreplaceable feature of man’s relationship with the spiritual. Deeply-entrenched philosophies such as Confucianism and Daoism in fact encouraged a more meaningful relationship between humans and nature than most progressive Western thought. Diverting from the anthropocentrism that underlies capitalistic individualism, ancient China had set collective society as the priority. Confucius outlined the importance of trust and ethics, where the ideal figure portrayed in the Analects is the junzi, or gentleman, who has earned leadership ability and a spotless reputation from his relationship with surrounding people and environment.

            In Neo-Confucianism, the subtler theme of harmony between man and nature is further expounded; Kang Youwei, radical thinker and leader of the 1898 Reform Movement, evoked the aspect of spiritualism in Confucian thought to advocate strong sustainability to Qing Dynasty China [3]. While Western thought usually places society and environment and self into three separate spheres, these realms are in fact interconnected in both Confucianism and Daoism. Therefore, the conventional Western view would identify humankind as the savior of nature; meanwhile, China, due to its long history of Confucian and Daoist thought, would be more open to the portrayal of nature as an organic, omniscient giver of life. Environmental preservation, therefore, stems from an internalized respect towards nature; human understanding that their bodies are symbolic of the heavens causes them to treat nature as an integral piece of society, instead of an inanimate, helpless object to be rescued [4]. In other words, ancient Chinese philosophy can provide the proper mentality for true strong sustainability and a balanced relationship with nature: we do not save the environment — the environment saves us.

            Integrating old religion with revolutionary environmental thought can reframe the current situation in China. Often times, Western scholars slip into the habit of adopting a “positional superiority” that not only defines non-Western sustainability methods as less advanced or sophisticated, but also forms the idea that strategies implemented successfully in Europe or the Americas could be transplanted to China, if the authoritarian government conforms to democracy. However, the international community easily forgets that China—as a developing country—in the 1980s and 1990s struggled immensely with widespread problems of poverty, an agriculturally-based society, and a largely uneducated population. This caused Communist Party leaders, especially Deng Xiaoping, to place unbridled economic growth at the forefront of national policy. China’s resulting years have thus been marked by unprecedented governmental success in spurring speedy GDP growth.


Where is China Headed? Action: Too Little, Too Late?

            Immense economic growth has served as China’s “success story,” but has also led to a “success trap” [5]. Starting with Deng Xiaoping, Chinese leaders have prioritized growth and opened socialist China to capitalist practices, such as encouraging trade and foreign investment, as well as the rapid industrialization-urbanization process that has seen hundreds of millions of citizens migrating to the cities. Because China has fallen into a pattern of economic growth, Chinese leaders have derived significant degrees of legitimacy from these skyrocketing numbers. Therefore, the likelihood that China’s party-state would entirely abandon economic growth to “rescue” the tainted environment is not high.

            With foreign and internal pressure, however, recent leaders Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping have addressed the environment as a primary concern, and have made concrete efforts to achieve urban sustainability. Under the leadership of Hu and Xi, Chinese policy has devoted growing fiscal attention to alleviating the pollution crisis and regulating coal-burning factories. It has also experimented with ways to make urban living sustainable, evident in a number of recent sustainable city endeavors, such as Kunming, Shantou, and Tianjin [6]. The intention is for these cities to serve as replicable models for future eco-city development, in China and around the world. Another sign of China’s compromise of economic development for environmental repair was the creation of the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) in 2008 to set environmental goals, regulate industries’ emissions, and close firms that violated MEP standards [7]. Along with many other initiatives and the government’s slightly loosened rein on environmental NGOs and civil society, positive change may be in China’s eco-future.

            In light of the cultural, political, economic, and societal factors impacting the sustainable (or unsustainable) path that China has chosen throughout its history, we must continue asking the question of whether and how China — as the world’s next emerging superpower — will take the lead in sustainability efforts, and how it would maintain its economic growth in the process.  

 Rachel Lietzow is a senior at the University of Kentucky, where she is studying Chinese, International Economics, and International Studies.


[1] Tilt, B. (2010). The Struggle for Sustainability in Rural China: Environmental Values and Civil Society. New York: Columbia University Press.

[2] Shapiro, J. (2001). Mao's War against Nature: Politics and the Environment in Revolutionary China. New York: Cambridge University Press.

[3] Wang, B. (2018). Confucianism and Nature: Ecological Motifs in Kang Youwei's Great    Community. Telos, 2018(183), summer, 47-67. doi:10.3817/0618183047

[4] Miller, J. (2017). China's Green Religion: Daoism and the Quest for a Sustainable Future. New York City, NY: Columbia University Press.

[5] Mohanty, M. (2018). China’s Transformation: The Success Story and The Success Trap. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

[6] Yanarella, E., and R. Lancaster. (2016). Getting from Here to There? Power, Politics and Urban  Sustainability in North America. Boca Raton, FL: BrownWalker Press. 

[7] Tilt, B. (2010). The Struggle for Sustainability in Rural China: Environmental Values and Civil Society. New York: Columbia University Press.

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