China in Three Colors
After a week of meetings with Chinese energy, environmental and clean-car experts, I’m left with one big, gnawing question: Can China go green without going orange?
That is, can China really undertake the energy/environmental revolution it needs without the empowerment of its people to a whole new degree — à la the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004? The more I see China wrestling with its environment, the more I’m convinced that it is going to prove much, much easier for China to have gone from communism to capitalism than to go from dirty capitalism to clean capitalism.
For China, going from communism to its state-directed capitalism, while by no means easy, involved loosening the lid on a people who were naturally entrepreneurial, risk-taking capitalists. It was tantamount to letting a geyser erupt, and the results of all that unleashed energy are apparent everywhere.
Going from dirty capitalism to clean capitalism is much harder. Because it involves restraining that geyser — and to do that effectively requires a system with some judicial independence, so that courts can discipline government-owned factories and power plants. It requires a freer press that can report on polluters without restraint, even if they are government-owned businesses. It requires transparent laws and regulations, so citizen-activists know their rights and can feel free to confront polluters, no matter how powerful. For all those reasons, it seems to me that it will be very hard to make China greener without making it more orange.
China’s Communist Party leaders are clearly wrestling with this issue. I could hear it, feel it and see it. I could hear it while interviewing government officials. They’ve always wanted a steadily rising G.D.P., which is essential for China’s stability and for the legitimacy of the ruling Communist Party, whose abiding ideology is “G.D.P.-ism.”
But more and more I heard these same officials now saying they want a better environment and a higher G.D.P., because the air has become so filthy here, and the damage to China’s health, rivers, landscape, glaciers and even G.D.P. has become so severe, that the legitimacy of the communist regime, for the first time, is in some way dependent on making the air cleaner. And China’s leaders know it.
For now, though, they want to address this problem without having to change the basic ruling system of the Communist Party. They want to be green and red, not green and orange. I could feel it the minute I arrived.
“Hey, is it a little warm here in your office, or is it just me?” I found myself repeatedly asking in Beijing. No, it wasn’t just me. In June, China’s State Council dictated that all government agencies, associations, companies and private owners in public buildings had to set air-conditioning temperatures no lower than 26 degrees Celsius, or 79 degrees Fahrenheit. Air-conditioning consumes one-third of the energy demand here in summer.
The government just ordered it from the top down. Sounds effective. But then you pick up the Shanghai Daily and read: “More than half of the city’s public buildings have failed to obey power-saving rules setting air-conditioning at 26 degrees Celsius, according to local energy authorities.” Hmmm — seems to be a little problem with follow-up.
In 2005, China’s leaders mandated a 20 percent improvement in energy productivity and a 10 percent improvement in air quality by 2010. You can see why — or maybe you can’t.
I was at the World Bank office in Beijing, meeting with a green expert, and outside his big bay window all I could see through the brownish-gray haze was the gigantic steel skeleton of the new CCTV skyscraper — spectacular six-million-square-foot headquarters reaching to the heavens — one of 300 new office blocks slated for Beijing’s new Central Business District.
I play a mental game with myself now as I am stuck in traffic in Beijing. I look at the office buildings I pass — which are enormous, energy-consuming and architecturally stunning — and I count the ones that would be tourist attractions if they were in Washington, but here in Beijing are just lost in the forest of giant buildings.
And that brings me back to China’s leaders. Right now they want it all — higher G.D.P., greener G.D.P., and unquestioned Communist Party rule. I don’t think you can have all three. I also don’t think they are going to opt for democracy. I am not even sure it is the answer for them right now. So they are seeking a hybrid model — some new combination of red, green and orange. I hope they find it, but right now the vista is mostly an ugly shade of brown.