Post By Eddy E., Regenerative School Research Intern
China, one of the oldest civilizations in the world, has had a centuries-long relation with the environment. Since the Yellow River and Yangtze civilizations in 7000 B.C.E, ancient China’s economic cornerstone was the agriculture sector. From spiritual beliefs in weather phenomenon to people’s continuous innovation in agricultural techniques, the balance between utilizing natural resources and sustainable development had been of great importance for ancient China. Consequently, traces of early environmentalism discussions can be found in some of the most prominent schools of thought at the time. As China entered the modern era, environmental issues for the country became much more complicated, and, at times, the nation stepped backwards. After major political shocks and decades of overutilization, China now stands at a crossroad as the nation reevaluates its environmental priorities. Facing unprecedented pressure from both domestic demands and the international community, now might as well be the best opportunity for China to look back at its rich tradition and the nation’s philosophical foundation to find a greener path forward.
The Old Ways
Daoism, an often-overlooked philosophy and religion when compared to Mahayana Buddhism and Confucianism, devotes significant portions of its teaching on the relation between humans and nature. One of the core principles within Daoism is non-interference. When compared to other Chinese philosophies, Daoism emphasizes “non-doing” or “Wu Wei.” Daoists believe that nature has its own way of growth and balance (the Dao). Human’s role in the system should respect nature’s “individuality” and follow the Dao, not disturb it. At a personal level, Daoism emphasizes the importance of reaching harmony with nature for individuals. It is at the balancing point between human and nature’s coexistence that people truly flourish in life. On the contrary, if one disrespects the balance between Yin and Yang, one loses. Putting this in the modern context, many Daoist monks and followers have found environmental issues so horrendous that they have stepped away from “non-doing” principles and have actively tried to make an impact on environmentalism. Unlike many modern environmental movements, however, Daoist activists don’t march and protest in the open. Most of them believe in leading by example and demonstrating an alternative way of life to others. In these ways, Daoism presents a contrasting image to many modern environmental movements. Rather than focusing on the negativities to come if people continue to abuse the environment, Daoists advocate for a more positive outlook of a possible future.
Confucianism, perhaps the most well known and impactful of all Chinese philosophies, also includes early understandings of environmental protection. Compared to Daoism, Confucianism is more proactive in its approach to life. The Confucian approach towards environmentalism often seems contradictory. On the one hand, the teachings advocate for the state to provide livelihoods for its citizens and man’s use of nature. On the other hand, however, Confucianism attempts to solve both development and conservation issues at the same time. More specifically, Confucianism is concerned with the long-term development of people’s livelihoods as well as the longevity of natural resources. Furthermore, Confucianism has always emphasized the importance of a collective society. Like Daoism, Confucianism presents a degree of respect for nature and the environment. It is these levels of respect, humbleness, and the understanding of proper coexistence between human and nature that set both Daoism and Confucianism apart from many “human-centered” beliefs found in modern China.
Building a Modern State
In 1949, China reached the end of its civil war and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was established. The establishment of the PRC marked the start of China’s experience as a modern nation and presented a notably different set of environmental challenges than those in the dynastic periods. The PRC’s early development also caused some significant damage to the environment. Before discussing China’s environmental issues at the time, it is important to understand the country’s economic conditions and basic quality of life goals as they both directly influenced the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s policy decisions regarding the environment. As the CCP first took control of mainland China, the Chinese economy remained agricultural-dominant with little to no comprehensive industrial sector present. In order to kick start China’s involvement in the modern world, it was paramount for the party, and the Mao administration in particular, to push China’s industrial sector to an unprecedented growth rate. In addition, as the CCP’s first administration was more ideologically leaning, progress was often rushed due to high enthusiasm and lackluster attention to the policy feedback process.
When it comes to the environment, systematic understanding of environmental science did not exist in the PRC’s early days. The Great Leap Forward, among other policies during the mid to late 20th century, is a prime example of the level of understanding regarding environmental science at the time. In order to boost China’s industrial sector and dramatically transform China’s economic capabilities, the CCP ordered many policy directives that, in hindsight, brought environmental damage at an unprecedented level. For instance, as Mao saw steel as the pivotal product in China’s industrial economy, his “backyard smelters” directive aimed to boost the nation’s steel production by mobilizing, and, in theory, taking advantage of China’s mass population size. However, as everyday peasants had no metallurgy training nor adequate equipment, the final products were so poorly made that they were largely unusable by modern standards. The environmental cost of production, however, was devastating. Because of the lack of both regulations and environmental understandings, entire forests were chopped down to fuel these backyard smelters with no sustainable policies in place to deal with the aftermath of mass deforestation. Furthermore, burning fuel at such a large scale without scrubbing the polluting particles resulted in a severe drop in air quality in many parts of China.
Many other ill-informed practices in the agricultural sector also produced grave consequences for China. The “eliminate sparrow campaign” of 1958 is one example of mismanagement of the ecosystem. It was suspected at the time that sparrows were consuming a considerable amount of grain from farms. Extreme measures were taken by both the party and the general public to eliminate sparrows entirely. People destroyed sparrow nests, broke sparrow eggs and drove adult sparrows to exhaustion by hitting noisy pots and pans (so that they drop dead from not being able to rest in their nests). As a result, the sparrow population drastically decreased to a point of near extinction. As the ecological balance was destroyed, the population of locusts and many other insects skyrocketed, leading to further catastrophes for many farms. In the end, a movement that aimed to increase agricultural production devastated not only sparrow populations, but also decreased food production to the point of nation-wide famine.
In all, the backyard smelters initiative, the eliminate sparrow campaign, and other misinformed policies during the Great Leap Forward produced one of the most environmentally damaging periods in Chinese history. Sadly, conditions during the decade-long Cultural Revolution—only four years after the end of the Great Leap Forward—offered little room for China’s environmental considerations to develop. In short, the Cultural Revolution essentially caused China to be “stateless.” With an overarching sense of anarchy and further pursuits for ideology, environmental science was of little importance at the time.
But perhaps more importantly, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution signaled a strong departure from China’s traditional wisdom. Both on the cultural and environmental fronts, China almost completely severed its connection with ancient teachings from the dynastic periods. Many argue that the strong stand against tradition at the time is still the main cause of China’s current cultural identity crisis. Whether China truly recovered, both on the cultural identity and philosophical fronts, is still open to debate.
Crisis and Action
Greater understanding of environmental science was most definitely present in the Post-Mao era when the nation transitioned from a more ideologically-oriented leadership towards more practically-focused policy making during Deng Xiaoping’s reign. While China witnessed the complete abandonment of science during the Cultural Revolution, a greater emphasis was placed on science-based policy making under Deng Xiaoping’s rule and beyond. While this is a step forward from a political point of view, real progress has been hindered by China’s urgent need for economic development. When looking at China’s shocking growth rates from the 1970s forward, it is easy to see that lower end manufacturing and exporting raw materials are among the most important contributors to China’s economic success. Combined with political corruption and a lack of renewable energy technology, these factors all led the PRC to prioritize economic prosperity over environmental protection for more than three decades.
It was not until the Xi Jinping administration in 2012 did the party put serious efforts into environmental policies. While China’s economy had grown to have tremendous capabilities by 2012, the urgency for environmental policies came from other political pressures. First, domestic environmental conditions had been in a steady decline since the 1970s. With the 2008 Beijing Olympics as an exception, previous administrations failed to bring significant improvement to environmental laws. When Xi took the position as General Secretary, many aspects of China’s environmental conditions were so bad that it directly affected most people’s quality of life. Chief among the issues was air quality. After decades of pollution from industrial production and the use of coal and other fossil fuel sources, air quality issues in Northern China became so severe that people often experienced breathing difficulties when without masks. In light of these conditions, the Xi administration ordered entire factories to shut down for months at a time in order to provide short term relief for the population affected. The long-term health risks of these exposures are yet to be seen. However, it is generally agreed that moderate to severe lung related illnesses are to be expected in the coming years for a sizable proportion of the Chinese population. In addition, diplomatic pressures from various nations have also urged China to find a sustainable path for the future. After the nation’s initial exposure on the international stage during the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Xi Jinping brought much greater ambitions for China’s international involvement on the international stage. With multinational programs such as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China’s deeper integration with existing international organizations such as the United Nations, and Beijing’s strong will to push China towards a world-class level economy and regional (if not global) leader, the nation desperately needs to demonstrate its willingness and capability for sustainable development.
It is under these conditions that China had the urgent need and a great opportunity to reexamine the civilization’s ancient teachings under a pragmatic lens. Faced with numerous environmental challenges, the Xi Jinping administration overhauled environmental laws and associated governing structures. Under Xi’s policies, environmental agencies were given much more power to regulate and punish both private and state-owned firms. After testing the decommission of many fossil-fuel plants during the pollution induced ‘haze winters’, the Xi Jinping administration introduced much more strict emission standards for these facilities. Under stricter government supervision, many firms who did not meet the new requirements were shut down permanently. On the civilian front, since Xi took power, emission standards for automobiles have seen major upgrades. To date, car emission requirements in Beijing, Shanghai, and other major cities are comparable to that of the European Union. At the same time, cars with out-dated emission technology are strictly banned by production year. Furthermore, similar to many other countries, the Chinese government is providing significant benefits for purchasing electric vehicles. Not only do consumers get sizable discounts upon their purchase, they can also “jump the line” when entering into the license plate lottery, a problem that troubled many new car owners for years. On an international level, China is bound by various international agreements. For instance, in 2020, Xi announced that China aims to peak emissions before 2030 and become carbon-neutral by 2060. In regards to the COP26 in Glasgow, China joined the United States in a declaration to boost climate action in the 2020s. This was taken as a good sign by the international community as China and the U.S. are the top two emitters of CO2 in the world. In the joint agreement, both China and the U.S. reaffirmed their commitment to work together towards the 1.5C goal set in the Paris Accord of 2015. Among other issues, China has also pledged to target deforestation and fossil fuels in the coming years. While many argue that international agreements can hold more symbolic effects than lawful obligations, it is also true that these declarations are in line with China’s own domestic and international policy goals.
As of 2021, eight years after the announcement of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), more foreign governments are holding both Chinese companies and the Chinese government accountable for the BRI’s vast overseas projects. Both foreign leaders and the CCP now understand that without proper environmental accountability, China’s BRI projects simply cannot be allowed to operate. Thus, it is within everyone’s interests for China to prioritize sustainable development.
Progress and Disconnects
On the matter of traditional values, however, it seems like China still has some distance to go. The individuals I talked with, including my grandparents, mentioned little of China’s ancient philosophies such as Daoism and Confucianism. For them, environmental protection and the act of “reviving old traditions to aid modern challenges” lies mainly within a post-dynastic-period context. This is not to say that these current efforts are impractical, but that they do not connect with China’s ancient philosophy as much. For instance, many of them mentioned the return to natural nutrients for the soil and stepping away from chemical products for farming. Many also mentioned the reestablishment of a “micro cycle” for individual farms where wastes from production can be used back to the growth of new crops and animals.
In other cases, people pay more attention to the natural cycle, and limit the environments around them and try not to force production by industrial means. This sense of a (largely) self-sustaining system overlaps with both Daoist and Confucianism in several ways. While coming from a practical and modern point of view, these actions emphasize the harmony between human and nature. In their stories, I sense at least an attempt to find that proper balance. It has also become clear to me that people’s understanding was largely utilitarian, with little understanding of the greater philosophical realm discussed in previous sections. This, to me, is quite a reflection of the nature of Chinese culture.
As someone who has been navigating between my Chinese and American identity for nearly a decade, I have come to realize the key difference between Chinese and American culture: the audience. Whether it is Hollywood blockbusters or the next Presidential election, modern-day American culture can be appreciated by a large portion of the global population. While nuanced understanding often requires further education and analysis, the core appeal and narratives can be understood by the masses. On the contrary, traditional Chinese philosophy is perhaps not meant for the majority in post-dynastic China. It requires a great deal of high education and academic devotion to truly understand and utilize the teachings of Daoism and Confucianism alike. After spending the first fifteen years of my life in Beijing, I don’t dare to claim I know any more about these great teachings than the superficial principles and memorizing a few “wise quotations.” Many Chinese people today simply do not have the time or energy to pursue something that is quite far from their everyday life.
Compared to my grandparents’ generation, my own upbringing in several major Chinese cities has largely distanced me from China’s agricultural sector. Especially in the capital city, Beijing, the closest I have ever gotten to “learning about the agricultural sector” was going to the farmers markets on the weekends. According to my parents, this is largely a generational transition. For my grandparents’ generation, many of them spent more than half their adult life living within a pre-industrial community where farming knowledge was required. People born around the 1960’s and 1970’s might have had some experience with farming before their high-school days. When it comes to me and my ‘millennial’ classmates, a majority of the population has moved towards the industrial sector. Speaking from my personal experience, my exposure to developments in farming methods have largely been through national news. When writing this article, I was fortunate to have people willing to share their experience and opinions. As China continues to push urbanization, I, and many similarly-aged friends that I have talked to, have been the generation that has almost completely detached ourselves from China’s agricultural tradition and the way of life that accompanied it.
Looking at China’s environmental issues as a whole, my–and many other people’s–awakening moment came during the “haze winters.” As mentioned in previous paragraphs, China’s air quality reached a point at which simply breathing open air became notably uncomfortable and dangerous. While China has always had environmental issues, they were largely hidden in the background and rarely talked about among the public in an everyday setting. People largely accepted the environmental sacrifices that economic development required. The haze, however, brought a new level of concern. From the farmers in rural China to the decision makers in Beijing, no one was safe from the health risks that the haze presented. After experiencing multiple seasons of severe haze, environmental issues were brought to the forefront of not only political decision making for the Chinese Communist Party, but the general population’s “dinner conversations” as well. Progress on combating these issues hinges on regulation and implementation. Similar to many other areas in China’s political arena, national-level policies play an instrumental role in moving the field forward. Consumers are also increasingly more aware of the environmental impacts of their purchases and consumptions. Just as in the U.S., consumers are holding private companies accountable for sustainable supply chains and overall environmental-friendly practices. Now, with the internet so far-reaching in China, people’s voices can significantly influence other consumer’s purchase decisions as well as opinions on brands and products.
As mentioned before, the core issue with a traditional approach to environmentalism is China’s own fragmented cultural identity. Looking through the timeline mentioned in this writing, the Great Leap Forward movement of 1958 started China’s abandonment of science and ancient teachings regarding the environment. The Cultural Revolution further distanced the Chinese population from traditional values, teachings, and philosophies until 1976. Although Deng Xiaoping’s “reform and opening up” policy has transformed China as a nation for the better, its sole focus on economic prosperity has left China with little reason to look back at philosophical teachings that defined traditional Chinese culture. More than sixty years have passed since the Great Leap Forward. Whether China can find its rich cultural roots today is still a question of great uncertainty. Has it been too long since the general population incorporated traditional teachings into their everyday life? When will our utilization of ancient teachings be too little too late when facing the current challenges of global climate change?
— Eddy E. is a virtual research intern at Rē. He completed his US undergraduate degree in International Affairs and Economics. His academic interests mainly revolve around international relations, U.S. foreign policy and economics with an area of focus in Sino-U.S. relations as well as the greater Asia area. While at Rē, he has been researching the ecological perspectives of traditional smallholder farmers in China.