Xi Jinping as an environmentalist? C'mon, man!

Xi Jinping as an environmentalist? C'mon, man!
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In time for the United Nations General Assembly, Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping is signaling support for stronger environmental protections, promising “carbon neutrality” in China by 2060. The “soft power” tactic is transparently aimed at replacing American leadership in a new global order. Given China’s abysmal environmental record, Xi’s gesture appears little more than a cynical bid for appeasement by world leaders, banking on the premise that America and other major democracies are more worried about pollution than freedom, human rights and democracy in China and around the world.

Xi’s environmental pretensions need to be seen in the context of China’s economic model. Most international economists think that China’s economy produced a miracle of growth and prosperity over the past 30 years. But their explanations for this putative success diverge, shaped by the conventional theories of the two main schools of Western economics. Specifically, classical economic liberalism attributes “China’s miracle” to the liberalization of the economy, or marketization, while leftist or Keynesian economics attributes it to the success of “socialist” government supervision and intervention.

Both explanations are seriously flawed. The secret of China’s rapid economic growth lies in its unique political endowment, which lowers and shifts environmental costs, labor costs and land costs. These and other public goods such as health care and education, which should be provided by the government, have been shifted to a silent and anonymous society, yielding superficially impressive state and corporate balance sheets. But Chinese civil society’s balance sheet tells another story, showing enormous environmental, social trust and moral deficits, which show how the actual costs of China’s economic growth are being shifted and concealed. The secret of China’s growth and the “Chinese model” can be found in the comparison and relationship between these contradictory balance sheets.


Chinese leaders supposedly take a “long view,” but huge environmental, social trust and public goods liabilities someday will hit the Chinese miracle hard. Seeking short-term advantage, the regime abuses human rights and the environment to push down the costs of the four key factors in production: labor, land, capital, and nonrenewable resources. China has shown an astonishing degree of competitive power that is rarely seen in either free-market states or welfare states, and has left countries that are transitioning to democracies, whether by “gradualism” or “shock treatment,” far behind. 

China has achieved this not by not permitting bargaining, and limiting or even abolishing trading rights to “lower transaction costs,” but by refusing democratization, suppressing public participation, ignoring creative ideas, deriding beliefs, scorning justice, and stimulating citizens’ appetites for material things to induce them to concentrate their energies on the single-minded pursuit of material wealth. 

Neither the “government success” theory advanced by left-leaning theorists nor the “success of the market” theory of their right-leaning counterparts can explain this kind of growth. Further, it has nothing to do with the so-called “Beijing consensus” — namely, the “twin successes of the market and government.” But the actual China model has taken such a heavy toll on the environment that scientists and scholars have given very stern warnings. In 2002, the noted Chinese author and environment scholar Zheng Yi wrote that, if China were somehow to make good on damage done, it would reverse the illusory growth of past years. A 2016 Council on Foreign Relations report said that “environmental depredations pose a serious threat to China’s economic growth, costing the country roughly 3 to 10 percent of its gross national income, according to various estimates.”  

Xi postures as an environmental champion at the U.N., but is deeply fearful of political instability. His administration has not hesitated to clamp down when environmental campaigns have gained broad popular support and taken on a life of their own. Chinese citizens have organized numerous protests about environmental degradation, but they have been harshly suppressed and journalists documenting environmental problems have been persecuted. 

Sustaining the “China model” requires continuing human rights violations and continuing environmental degradation, which is why Xi’s promises lack credulity. He needs to sustain growth in order to maintain the middle class’s acquiescence to his iron-fist rule. If the past is any guide, Xi won’t risk an economic slowdown, and his grip on power, over environmental issues, any more than he will risk liberalizing China’s human rights restrictions. To believe otherwise would be a dangerous error.

Jianli Yang is founder and president of Citizen Power Initiatives for China, a Tiananmen Massacre survivor, and a former political prisoner in China. Follow on Twitter @CitizenPowerIFC.

Aaron Rhodes is president of the Forum for Religious Freedom-Europe and the author of “The Debasement of Human Rights” (2018). Follow him on Twitter @Rhodesaaron.