Environmentalism With Chinese Characteristics

Coercion with consent satisfies the dual goals of stability and sustainability for China — and could work beyond China as well.

Yifei Li is an assistant professor of environmental studies at NYU Shanghai and a global network assistant professor at NYU. Judith Shapiro is the director of the master’s program in natural resources and sustainable development at the School of International Service at American University. They are coauthors of “China Goes Green: Coercive Environmentalism for a Troubled Planet” (Polity 2020).

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s pledge that the world’s second-largest economy will achieve carbon neutrality by 2060 has elicited extreme reactions. Admirers applaud China for making yet another bold move in the direction of “ecological civilization,” a term that has been enshrined in the country’s constitution. Critics cast doubt on whether China will fulfill the pledge, especially noting the checkered track record of its environmental promises.

Yet, amid this discordant cacophony of high-minded propaganda and hyped-up accusations, it is important to stress that, when it comes to the environment, the common ground between China and the rest of the world is vast and shared goals are many. Just as the future of global environmentalism hinges on the path that China will take in the coming decades, the prosperity of China rests on the extent to which the global community can mitigate the climate crisis. The interdependence between China and the world manifests most clearly in three areas, all of which have environmental implications: stability, science and trade.


First, stability is both a top policy priority for China and a global concern in the Anthropocene. The Chinese state considers stability to be the fundamental basis of its one-party rule over its population of 1.4 billion. Environmental irregularities add to the leadership’s list of worries about instability, from the dwindling supply of Himalayan waters to the encroaching deserts from China’s vast western regions.

The paramount concern for stability has led Chinese officials to exercise coercive power without the consent of those on the receiving end of state authority. Over widespread concerns about toxic haze since 2013, for example, the central government has launched numerous “wars” on air pollution, shutting down hundreds of factories and snaring the innocent together with the guilty in its blunt-force crackdowns. Over fears about the African swine fever in 2019, agricultural officials destroyed and shuttered tens of thousands of pig farms across China, wiping out an estimated 100 million pigs. These and other instances of coercion without consent may have enabled officials to claim credit for quick successes, but they have grown to become sources of political, social and environmental liability over the long run.

“Instances of coercion without consent may have enabled officials to claim credit for quick successes, but they have grown to become liabilities.”

By contrast, coercion with consent has been attempted in other cases, where a more sustainable measure of success can be recorded. For example, through an innovative “Black and Smelly Waters” app, which the government developed in collaboration with the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs to solicit tips from the public about water pollution, environmental officials have become more effective in locating and prosecuting polluters.

Such crowdsourced environmental enforcement promotes stability by enabling members of the public to vent their spleens about rampant pollution and corruption with a few simple taps on the smartphone. At the same time, regulatory enforcement becomes more effective, as polluters who are adept at skirting government inspections find no escape from the eyes of concerned citizens.


The second main area is the science-policy interface. Modern China has had an uneasy relationship with science. During times of domestic political turmoil in much of the mid-20th century, scientists have been the targets of violence and persecution, despite the socialist state’s desperate need for technical expertise.

More recently, the Chinese state’s unease with science was evident in its initial handling of the coronavirus pandemic. During the first few months of the outbreak, state officials scrambled for knowledge about the new virus even as they imposed draconian limits on the dissemination and exchange of findings by medical professionals, subjecting them to censorship by officials who had little training in public health, and even arresting some medical whistleblowers.

Fortunately, in the area of environmental protection, the Chinese state has demonstrated an increasing willingness to consult with the scientific community. This, at least in part, grows out of the consequences of not heeding warnings from scientists.

In recent decades, environmental interventions such as large hydropower dams, fortress-style national parks and monoculture forests have been fast-tracked by ambitious technocrats despite widespread objections from the scientific community. Chinese-style technocracy grants tremendous epistemic power to those who share the state’s vision for engineering solutions and material progress, while sidelining if not silencing dissenting voices, and officials are beginning to feel the ecological and financial costs of imprudent decisions made years ago.

But the decisiveness of Chinese state power can be put to better use when the state is willing to seek inputs — and eventually consent — from the scientific community. A case in point is the emissions trading system, which aims to reduce the emissions of pollutants by setting caps and allowing those who exceed or underuse to trade with each other.

For more than two decades, spanning multiple iterations of China’s five-year plans, the emissions trading system has gradually evolved from an assortment of pilot programs to a nationwide scheme. In this process, policymakers provided crucial performance data to experts from various disciplinary backgrounds. More importantly, officials made substantial adjustments that were in line with advice from Chinese and international scholars.

Fully backed by scientific evidence, the Chinese national emissions trading system now boasts admirable qualities, including a robust measurement, reporting and verification mechanism, sensitivity to different compliance capabilities, and comprehensive coverage of major emitters. This shows the environmental science-policy interface at its best because the coercive power of the state is anchored by scientific consensus. While we have yet to see whether the nationwide emissions-trading scheme will ultimately involve coercion without consent, as China strives to meet its carbon commitments, the initial success of these carbon markets is encouraging.

It is also worth noting that uninhibited scientific collaboration across national borders may be one of the most effective counterforces to the technocratic tendency of the Chinese state. International partnerships in science not only produce superior scientific results but also place China’s decisive state authority in check.


Much global environmental injustice is due to trade mismanagement, and much global sustainability hinges on the enforcement of supply-chain environmental standards. Trade makes or breaks the promise of global environmentalism.

In the context of China, despite efforts to pivot toward the “internal circulation” of domestic transactions as an engine of growth in the coronavirus-stricken world, the Chinese leadership remains committed to international trade. From regional agreements to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, China has sought to build as many commercial channels as possible and has even been peddling “green trade” and the “green Belt and Road.”

The Chinese state’s coercive backing of “green” trade has had highly disruptive consequences in some cases, especially when officials acted without power checks. This was the case when China cited environmental reasons for abruptly halting the export of rare earth elements to Japan in 2010, after the Japanese coast guard detained the captain of a Chinese fishing vessel for straying near the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. Due to China’s unchallenged monopoly on the global supply of rare earths and the Japanese tech industry’s dependence on such minerals, Japan was cornered into releasing the fisherman.

“International partnerships in science not only produce superior scientific results but also place China’s decisive state authority in check.”

In a similar spirit, in May 2019, when the U.S.-China trade war was rapidly escalating, President Xi made a much-trumpeted visit to a company in China’s Jiangxi Province called JL Mag, one of the major suppliers of rare earths — a visit widely seen as a warning to the U.S. The ecological devastation brought by rare-earth mining remains a significant challenge for a global economy that depends on it, not least for a range of “green” products like solar panels and energy-efficient light bulbs. However, China has manipulated green arguments as a weapon and a cover to impose unilateral changes in import/export quotas in the trade war, amounting to sheer coercion.

But China’s quest for green trade can produce genuine successes when the coercive flavor of state power is moderated by consensus building. China’s efforts to curb the illegal trade in hazardous waste provides refreshing evidence in this regard. Since 1990, when China signed the Basel Convention, an international agreement on the control of hazardous waste shipments, Chinese state agencies have been working with domestic recyclers, waste import companies, filmmakers, domestic and international advocacy groups and investigative journalists to gradually tighten restrictions on the types and volumes of recyclable waste materials that could pass through Chinese borders and customs checks.

On the first day of 2021, the Chinese government enacted a total ban on all categories of waste imports. This move not only brought an end to one of the most environmentally harmful economic activities on our planet but also created renewed incentives for the world to reuse objects and rethink our material footprint. Such a success would not have been possible if the decisiveness of state power had not been premised on broad-based support stemming from more than three decades of work from transnational actors.

While engaging China in these three areas — stability, science and trade — is key to the future of global environmentalism, serious challenges remain. Under the current political climate of distrust and demonization of China, there is little political will to explore the China question constructively. Moreover, under the Trump presidency, the U.S. lost its moral leadership in international affairs but has not yet come to terms with this reality. And China has every right to point out the hypocrisy of U.S. criticism of China’s environmental impacts, given the rollbacks of environmental protections under the Trump administration.

“China’s quest for green trade can produce genuine successes when the coercive flavor of state power is moderated by consensus building.”

When the prevailing political wind is against China, there is a tendency, on the one hand, to blow the Middle Kingdom’s coercion without consent out of proportion, and, on the other hand, to overlook China’s coercion with consent. Such a selective reading of Chinese state power not only misinforms the West’s foreign policy but also leads China to double down with more aggressive diplomacy.

If coercion is among the most frowned-upon ideas in liberal democracies, consent is surely among the most sought-after. In a 1968 article in Science magazine that popularized the idea of “the tragedy of the commons,” Garrett Hardin proposed the need for “mutually agreed-upon coercion.” Over the half-century since then, much has been said and done about the first half of the proposal — building consensus. The idea of environmental coercion, however, remains taboo in the West.

The future of global environmentalism hinges on a constructive partnership between China and the world, which in turn depends on an honest evaluation of both the promise and the risk of China’s coercive state power. Stability, science and trade can become firm anchors for such a partnership. Recognizing the utility of coercion with consent, while heeding the danger of that without, could mark the beginning of a promising future.