Registering domestic interests in the international discourse

Neither the debate on socialism nor the necessity of centralised control has seemed to find a quick resolution domestically. The ideological puzzle has haunted the regime since the introduction of Reform and Opening Up in 1978. It took the ml- ing elites two decades to recognise that industrial pollution does not only exist in capitalist countries. The status of the environmental protection agency has been steadily updated once per decade, and it eventually gained ministerial rank (in 2008), 30 years after the initial formation of the environmental bureaucracy. The political significance of eco-civilisation goes beyond a symbolic gesture of the determination to prioritise the environmental wellbeing of the population. More importantly, it provides momentum to push forward institutional reform and ideological reflection.

An outward promotion of different interpretations of eco-civilisation is used as a strategy to bind domestic interests with international recognition. It is a tactic akin to a “boomerang pattern of influence”, in which domestic groups appeal to the outside world to exert pressure on their own government and ultimately bring change to the existing political situation.60 Active promotion of the “made- in-China” concept to the international community accumulates political capital which can be used to bargain for more power and resources. The validity of this tactic derives from the growing ambition of the Chinese government to increase its discursive power on the global stage and present a positive image. The mentality of bureaucrats in the case of eco-civilisation promotion resonates with Jako- bson and Manuel’s observation that “many actors . . . compete for the favour of higher-ranking bodies, ultimately Xi Jinping”, who is now the “sole coordinator of Chinese foreign and security policy”.61

As attention is a scarce commodity, it is therefore crucial to have the first-mover advantage. The advantage of the MEP's outward strategy is that no other ministry is competing with it in the international community to promote eco-civilisation. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, for instance, has not yet prioritised eco-civilisation in its agenda.62 The speed of the МЕР allows it to acquire international partnerships and start shaping the discourse by instilling its preferences. The МЕР has partnered with the United Nations Environment Programme and the European Commission to mobilise resources hi its favour by explaining the concept of eco- civilisation, collecting information on good practices from Europe and sharing experiences of the Chinese path to sustainable development. The first high-level international promotion of eco-civilisation was initiated and conducted by the МЕР in the 27th Session of the UNEP Governing Council in 2013, in the wake of the Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development. The original proposal was to introduce a new resolution exclusively on “ecological civilisation” to showcase the determination of China’s current leadership to tackle domestic environmental problems and to further contribute to international environmental governance.

The MEP's ambition of advocating for a phrase containing the confusing word “civilisation” sparked suspicion from other delegations. The Chinese delegates.

mainly from the МЕР, were thus challenged with questions such as “Who are you to decide the future of our civilisation?”63 In fact, the choice of the term “civilisation” resulted from the fact that the mam audience for eco-civilisation discourse is domestic.6'1 However, used in an international forum, the same phrase causes confusion and generates the impression that “eco-civilisation” is ideologically driven and conceals an aggressive attempt to export a political agenda.65 The negotiation process on the resolution thus took longer than expected, and as a compromise, ecological civilisation was included, together with three other country-specific concepts, hi Decision 27/8, “Green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication” as practices of “green economy” in the framework of South-South Cooperation.66

The MEP’s efforts to incorporate “eco-civilisation” hi the platform of an international organisation in the format of a resolution have been rewarded by three- year funding worth US$6 million donated from Chuia’s Ministry of Finance to the UNEP.67 The output of this project is a report with the title “Multiple Pathways to Sustainable Development”, which is presented by the UNEP’s Economic and Trade Branch.68 This is the first time that an international organisation, instead of a Chinese ministry, has endorsed the idea of eco-civilisation and advocated it to other countries, a symbolic international recognition of this made-iii-China concept. The irony, however, is that the MEP’s domestic emphasis on governance and law enforcement regarding eco-civilisation ended up putting the “green economy” and “sustainable development” at the heart of the UNEP’s understanding and endorsement of the concept. This, to a certain degree, echoes the emphasis of the NDRC.

The paradox is the inevitable outcome of recognising the green economy and sustainable development as international norms. The most effective way for the new phrase to be accepted and understood is ultimately to indicate that it is a specifically Chinese practice of sustainable development and a Chinese way to develop a green economy. The МЕР thus has to find another platform to elaborate on its interpretation in a way that specifies more clearly the role of state governance. The MEP’s conversation with the EU explicitly emphasises the MEP’s preference for the role of institution-building, governance capability and strict law and regulation enforcement, which ultimately implies the urgent need to expand the power of the МЕР itself.

The MEP’s version of eco-civilisation was honoured in the flagship EU-MEP cooperation project, “The Institutional Innovation of Ecological Civilisation”, that commenced in February 2014. This is part of the EU-China Policy Dialogues Support Facility II, cofouuded by the EU and the Chinese government. Within this, the МЕР is partnered with the Directorate-General for Environment (DG Env) of the European Commission.69 The chief corresponding unit is the MEP’s Policy Research Center for the Environment and Economy, the same centre which played an active role in the Decision 27/8 negotiation. The piupose of the project is to “promote the strategic exchange and cooperation between China and the EU in the environment and development” and to “push for the institutional innovation and policy application of eco-civilisation on the national and local level” so as to

“provide support to the mainstreaming of the environment to economic and social development” and to “offer the experiences of the EU and China for the sake of global sustainable development”.70

The output of the project is the report “Institutional Innovation of Ecological Civilization: Concepmal Understanding and Experience Reference” (or “Institutional Innovation Report”) in which state governance (guojia zhili is

stressed and regarded as an essential factor of eco-civilisation. One section exclusively explains the difference between the “green economy” and “eco-civilisation”. The newly designated importance of state capacity upgrades the discursive status of eco-civilisation in comparison to the UNEP Decision 27/8. Eco-civilisation is interpreted as an overarching international principle of economic and social activities in which a green economy is a means to achieve that end.71 In other words, eco-civilisation is no longer a Chinese version of established international norms guiding global environmental governance. It is an alternative imagination of global environmental governance.

The MEP's interpretation of eco-civilisation, which foregrounds governance capability and institutional innovation, is backed up by another high-profile outward promotion of eco-civilisation: the Guiyang Eco-Civilisation Forum (or the Guiyang Forum) and local experimentation with environmental governance. The synergy between central ministerial preference and the experiments of local governments has been key in both external promotion of eco-civilisation and internal power reconfiguration. The central government needs local governments' support to implement its policy, while local governments see new policy initiatives as an opportunity to obtain resources from the central government and to boost local development.72

The first international conference to communicate eco-civilisation to an external audience took place in Guiyang, the capital of Guizhou province in Southwest China. Guiyang stood out through the prioritisation of environmental governance, in contrast to the common wisdom accepted in local governments in China that economic prosperity comes before environmental protection (xian wenbao, zai huanbao {&) and the common practice at the local level of governments that “pollution comes before control” (xiamvuran, houzhili 9йП"Ш1в'}п JS). Yet the province of Guizhou was only at the early stage of industrialisation back in 2004.73 It has remained one of the most economically backward provinces of China since then. According to the China Statistics Yearbook 2006, the GDP per capita in Guizhou ranked the lowest, at RMB 5052, only one-tenth of the figure of Shanghai.74 Considering this economic backwardness, the embrace of ecological civilisation by Guiyang may be described as the “green leap forward” and can be seen as a litmus test of whether it is possible to avoid the environmentally unfriendly path of development and instead provide an alternative template that would be worthy of the name of “ecological civilisation”.

The outlier case of Guiyang can be partially explained by the strategic agendasetting of the then-party-secretaries, as each is the “number-one leader” who penetrates all levels of local environmental policy implementation, from setting the strategic objectives for his/her term, setting the policy agenda, overseeing personnel arrangement and mediating conflicts.75 The Guiyang Forum has ben- efitted from the vision of Li Jim, the city’s party-secretary from 2007-13. Taking advantage of his expertise in the field of communication and propaganda,76 Li advocates the marriage between Chinese traditional culture and sustainable development and the provincial strategic goal of "huanjing lisheng” which

means environmental issues have strategic value for the province of Guizhou to stand out in the competition with other provinces.77 To a certain degree, the Guiyang Forum is one of his strategic projects for exploring a new development path for an economically backwards province and mobilising international attention to distinguish Guiyang from other local jurisdictions.78

International cooperation between local jurisdictions and foreign countries is categorically important for local governors. Zweig describes local governors having “a feverish demand for global linkages” due to a “fear of being left behind”.79 It is not surprising that Li Jun’s initiative was recognised by Li Zhanshu, the party-secretary of Guizhou Province from 2010-12. Li Zhanshu endorsed the idea of ecologically oriented industrialisation, was lauded by the media as the “hope of Guizhou’s poverty eradication” and brought the “energy of Guizhou’s opening and reform”.80 The fact that Li was on good terms with Xi Jinping was particularly convenient for the promotion of the Guiyang Eco Forum.81 In 2013, Xi sent a congratulatory' letter to the Forum, which stated that “walking towards the era of eco-civilisation and constructing a beautifirl China are important contents of the China Dream” by furthering green development, sustainable development and low-carbon development.S2

Tire Guiyang Forum bears diplomatic significance, as it invites prominent politicians and academics to draw national and international attention. The summary of each annual conference is crystallised to establish a so-called “Guiyang Consensus”, providing a focal point for different actors to contribute to the cause of eco- civilisation. More specifically, it establishes a network of the central government, scientists, local cadres, scholars, entrepreneurs and the media to jointly cooperate under the banner of eco-civilisation. For instance, the 2009 Guiyang Consensus noted that cities are critical for the environment, technology is the cornerstone, enterprises are the main battlefield, and education is the root, while the media is important for conveying the soft power of China.83 The Ministry of Foreign Affairs officially commended and recognised the Guiyang Forum as a legitimate platform to articulate China’s voice to the international audience.84

Guiyang’s high-profile external promotion of eco-civilisation is justified by the city’s institutional experiment and innovation in environmental governance. Both the UNEP and EU-China Policy Dialogue single out the case of Guiyang as a suc- cessfiil example of institutional innovation in local environmental governance. Efforts to streamline environmental bureaucracy and set up the fust environmental protection court make this southwestern city stand out from its counterparts. The top-down idea of eco-civilisation finds institutional backup in Guiyang as it is the first to establish a specialised Committee for Ecological Civilisation Construction to reinforce intra-agency coordination, the absence of winch is deeply rooted and prevents effective environmental governance.85

In order to address the lagging enforcement of environmental legislation, Gui- yang Municipal Court set up the first trial court for environmental protection.86 The establishment of environmental court was not a new development. In the late 1980s, discussions on environmental courts started and didn't come to fruition, as the Supreme People’s Court argued environmental tribunals did not have the legal grounds to exist. The wave of environmental courts, starting from Guiyang, is partly inspired by a global trend of environmental courts.87 Another motivation to resume environmental courts comes from top-level encouragement in “innovations in social management”,88 which offer a stage for ambitious local government to shine. The expectation of environmental courts is to prioritise environmental protection in local governance, raise awareness of the consequences of breaching environmental legislation and exert social control.89 Apart from the green awakening. local governors welcomed the idea of environmental courts because of the assumption that environmental courts could arbitrate disputes which otherwise would have become protests.90

The idea of environmental courts to effectively enforce environmental legislation confronts the fact that the “vast majority of defendants are not hardened polluters but some of China’s least-educated, most-disadvantaged citizens”.91 The emphasis on social stability and enlisting the courts to serve the political campaign of eco-civilisation reinforces the familiar story in the political system in China that the law should serve political ends.92

The high-profile case of Guiyang helps the МЕР endorse its interpretation of eco-civilisation, which prefers enforcement and a strong regulatory role for the designated authority. Local experimentation is interwoven with ministerial proposals to reform environmental bureaucracy. Ten years after the МЕР obtained ministerial rank, another cabinet reshuffle was launched to incorporate the idea of eco-civilisation, addressing the question of leadership and responsibility in the fractured authority.

 
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