Debating ecological civilisation

The materialisation of ecological civilisation develops in parallel with two key binaiy debates. They offer vantage points on the domestic power configuration. The first debate revolves around whether socialism ideology should be placed at the centre of eco-civilisation, resonating with the notion of eco-socialism elaborated upon in Chapter 2. Beyond the debate of ideology, the second debate is more concerned with practical implications. It brings the interaction between market mechanisms and the state’s intervention into focus and pushes policymakers to prioritise one over another.

“Environmental protection will be marginalised if it is detached from Socialism”, asserts Fang Ning, the director of the Institute of Political Science, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, predicting the convergence of environmental protection and socialism: in his phrase, “green is turning red”.45 The logic behind the connection of ecological civilisation and socialism was further clarified by Pan Yue as follows: “environmental problems are rooted in Capitalism, ecological civilisation is the future of all the mankind, and therefore Socialism as an alternative to Capitalism which is the culprit of ecological crisis, is the only path to ecological civilisation”.46 This quote is particularly important given Pan’s political status. A trained historian and journalist who became Vice Minister of Environmental Protection, Pan was well known for his high-profile environmental campaign, including the experiment of Green GDP.47

The component of socialism in the discussion on eco-civilisation is also represented in academic publications. Based on the dataset from the China Academic Journals Full-Text Database, I retrieved 5601 articles which include eco- civilisation as a keyword. I coded the body of text into the categories of “Marxism and socialism”, “economics” and “tradition and culture”. Articles which locate Marxism and socialism at the centre occupy 66%, followed by those exploring the economic aspect (26%) and those on tradition and culture (8%).

The main advocates of linking Marxism and socialism to eco-civilisation include academics not only specialising in the philosophy of Marxism and socialism but also experts on environmentalism and the political strategies of green parties in capitalist societies. They are inspired by eco-socialist scholars such as James O’Connor, who describes the capitalist debacle as a “marriage broker between socialism and ecology”.4S Equally important is the reflection of Andre

Gorz on the use of science and technology to achieve “an optimum quality of life” instead of “the maximisation of profitability”.49 The leading eco-Marxist Huan Qingzhi from the School of Marxism at Peking University epitomises the consensus within the academic circle that “the crux of China’s environmental problem is the one-dimensional economic ideology of modernisation and development, and obsession with developmentalism”.50

The importance of socialism in this regard is to rein in the level of developmeu- talism hi China, as illustrated by Huan:

We know we are radical in terms of questioning the common practice of environmental governance and challenging the capitalist logic. Our opinions are filtered out in the policy making process. However, why is our work needed while it is impossible for us to propose concrete policy recommendations from our research? Because we can tell our decision-makers, how far developmentalism can go in China as we see clearly its limitations and the caveats of having developmentalism unbalanced by any other ideology.51

The choice of investigating eco-civilisation through the lens of ideology has received active support and encouragement from the National Planning Office for Philosophy and Social Sciences (NPOPSS), “social science research funding inside the propaganda apparatus”.52 From 2007 to 2019,269 projects were funded to investigate eco-civilisation from perspectives of various disciplines. A third (90) of those selected projects are categorised under the discipline of “Marxism, Leninism, and Scientific Socialism”, followed by the subject of “ethnicity” (36) and “economics” (31). Figure 5.1 illustrates the disciplinaiy distribution of party- approved academic research.

A year-by-year breakdown of the number of funded projects categorised by disciplines exhibits the trend of studying ecological civilisation. Since 2010, research through the lens of Marxism, Leninism and scientific socialism has outnumbered other approaches (except in 2017). It is worth noting that the field of ecological civilisation is populated first by economics and has grown to involve applied knowledge drawing from management and statistics, together with the theorisation of this notion. Both the snapshot in Figure 5.2 and the trend shown in Figure 5.3 confirm the ideological considerations projected on ecological civilisation, approved and supported through state funding.

The emphasis on socialism stamps an ideological approval on the notion of ecological civilisation. Discussion on the role of the state versus the market ou environmental governance points towards another touted political advantage of the one-party system: efficiency led by an enlightened ruling class. Ministries are at the forefront to showcase this political advantage and materialise the ideology of eco-civilisation into tangible actions. The operational codes of ministries are developed along two long-lasting traditions of environmental governance: fragmented authority and, relatedly, the weakness of the environmental protection agency.

The rise of ecological civilisation 79

Ecological civilisation research projects funded by NPOPSS

Figure 5.1 Ecological civilisation research projects funded by NPOPSS

Before 2018, the architecture of eco-civilisation agencies mirrored the distribution of power and responsibility in the environmental policy system. Figures 5.3 and 5.4 illustrate the similarities between these two systems, particularly in the executive branch of the political system. The setup of the central leading group signals the top-down approach to centralise implementation of eco-civilisation and, more importantly, suggests that Chairman Xi Jinping is taking ownership of eco-civilisation by leading the highest-level coordination body: the Central Leading Group for Comprehensive Deepening of Reform. Situated at the pituracle of an emerging eco-civilisation system, the leading group includes 27 high-ranking cadres, the majority from the Politburo. The group is tasked with formulating and implementing policy, systematically reforming the “economic, political, cultural, social, and environmental sectors”.53 Within this leading group, there is a Reform Taskforce for the Promotion of Economic Development and Ecological Progress, со-led by Xu Shaoshi and Liu He, the director of the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) and the director of Office of Financial Work Leading Group, respectively.54 The involvement of the financial agency in eco- civilisation is to facilitate the subsequent power reshuffle and realignment of ministerial interests. The deputy director of the Financial Work Leading Group Office vividly explains the necessity of their role: “it is unrealistic to ask ministries to

Yearly breakdown of funded ecological civilisation projects (by discipline)

Figure 5.2 Yearly breakdown of funded ecological civilisation projects (by discipline)

China's environmental policy system Source

Figure 5.3 China's environmental policy system Source: Ran (2015), p. 41

Eco-civilisation system (before 2018)

Figure 5.4 Eco-civilisation system (before 2018)

Source: Compiled by the author based on State Council (2015) and UNEP (2015)

conduct surgery on themselves. Our purpose is to coordinate different opinions from ministries and departments and reach consensus”.55

A close look into the executive distribution of eco-civilisation tasks reveals the awkwardness of the Ministry of Environmental Protection (МЕР). In theory, it is the chief agency to implement and enforce environmental policies and legislations. Yet its ability to meet those expectations is compromised by its fractured authority in the institutional setup of environmental governance, to the extent that one МЕР official whom I interviewed was not shy to admit that they are a “toothless” agency.56 The institutional weakness is acute when compared to the NDRC. As the macroeconomic management agency under the State Council, the NDRC’s primary concern is delivering the overall national economic and social development strategies. This includes formulating annual development plans, guiding the restructuring of economic systems, coordinating industrial policies and setting and adjusting the prices of critical commodities like oil and electricity.57 In other words, the improvement of environmental quality is not less of a priority for the NDRC than for the МЕР.

The competition of ministerial interests over the leadership position in the realm of eco-civilisation was never explicit in my face-to-face interviews. Yet the difference in the interpretation of eco-civilisation attests to the zero-sum game played between these two ministries. Their debate reveals how ministries plug their ministerial interests into the composite ideology and, in return, a subsequent cabinet reshuffle verifies the political significance of winning the argument. The contrasting versions of eco-civilisation shed light on the question unaddressed by Ely and Gaell of why certain rhetoric becomes a pathway and others do not.

The debate between the NDRC and МЕР is in essence about the necessity of centralised control by a designated goveimnent agency and how effective the market is in transforming the Chinese economy into an eco-civilisation. The “Opinions on Further Promoting Eco-Civilisation” drafted and released by the NDRC showcase its confidence in the market mechanism. A rough content analysis shows the mentioning of the keywords economy (27 times), industry (25 tunes), the market (15 times) and development (67 tunes) in comparison to environmental protection (12 times), pollution prevention and control (13 times), policy (9 times) and law enforcement (8 tunes).

The rhetoric of the MEP’s interpretation of eco-civilisation emphasises law enforcement and argues for the centrality of the government in the realisation of eco-civilisation. In other words, eco-civilisation offers an opportunity to fix the flaw of the design of environmental bureaucracy which is plagued by the paradox of unlimited responsibilities and limited power.58 The MEP’s vocabulary of eco-civilisation is distinguished in terms of government accountability, incorporating environmental barometers in the cadre evaluation system, law enforcement and environmental responsibility. The centrality of the government in the MEP’s interpretation of eco-civilisation is also manifest in the opinions expressed by МЕР officials. For example, the director of the Policy Research Centre for the Environment and Economy of the МЕР. Dr Xia Guang, claims that forming a responsibility chain of “the critical minority” of Party and government cadres is the key to building eco-civilisation.59 This indicates the preference of the МЕР to centralise resources and its power to tackle environmental crises.

 
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