From Zero to Hero

How Today's China is Turning Green


“The East is Grey”

“As China Roars, Pollution Reaches Deadly Extremes”

“Extinction by Traditional Chinese Medicine – An Environmental Disaster”

These recent headlines paint China as a dystopian wasteland, where factories belch out pollutants with impunity and government officials are unable to stop the onslaught. Citizens suffer at the hands of unscrupulous food manufacturers who place quick money over consumer safety. Dilapidated roads, buildings, warehouses and homes crumble under the ever-present push for economic expansion.
Nothing could be further from the truth.

China Reinvents Itself

China is well aware of its reputation as the world’s biggest polluter. While some of the international criticism is certainly warranted, in reality the issue is far more multifaceted and dynamic. It is precisely because of this pressure to perform well on the world stage that China is perfectly ready to emerge from the next few decades as one of the world’s utopias for environmentalism and social responsibility. The New Scientist Magazine recently questioned whether or not China will be the world’s first ecological civilization, an interesting topic some would have considered unimaginable only a few years ago. Other thought leaders, including Thomas Friedman from the New York Times and David Hill from The Guardian, imagine China as the proverbial blank canvas, with its leaders ready to design a new way forward.

The current Communist Party is intent on changing negative images into positive, measurable achievements. They understand that economic growth must go hand- in-hand with sustainable planning and practices. Premier Li Keqiang recently echoed this national shift as a response to “nature’s red-light warning against inefficient and blind development.” To solidify his point, Mr. Li said that the Chinese people must "declare war on pollution.”

With the opening up of the Chinese economy in the 1980s, the focus of development fell squarely on economic growth. A tunnel-vision approach meant that the train of economic growth rumbled on, ignorant of the consequences in its actions. A lack of transparency and monitoring, coupled with haphazard construction and refusal to adhere to international norms, created the image people still associate with China today. The problem with this image is that the face of China is changing daily. China as an environmentalist’s worst nightmare is a concept both outmoded and incorrect.

A Push for Transparency, Accountability and Environmental Sustainability

The timing could not be better for a discussion of a cleaner, safer China. Over the past year, Beijing has made monumental moves towards a more codified system of transparency, accountability and environmental sustainability. In late April, the government made the first changes to the national environmental policy in nearly 25 years. These long-awaited changes make China’s policy more reminiscent of the US Clean Air Act.

Overall, the revisions aim to strengthen environmental protection requirements, sustainable business practices and general accountability. Instead of simple window dressing, the new environmental law appears to create a culture of naming and shaming companies that forego implementation. “The provisions on transparency are probably the most positive step forward,” said University of California at Los Angeles environmental law expert Alex Wang. “These include the requirement that key polluters disclose real-time pollution data.”

Beijing's Changes Ripple Outward

As a precursor to the new policies taking effect next year, China has set up its first environmental court in the southern province of Fujian. The court will make it easier to prosecute, fine and punish polluting companies and individuals. Beijing has also been levying heavy fines against polluting corporations as a form of revenue collection through punishment. Over the first four months of 2014, 652 companies were fined a total of EUR 1.7mn, with a further 44 companies at risk of being closed permanently. Only one day after Barack Obama’s June carbon dioxide cap announcement for the US, Beijing revealed plans to set an absolute cap on the country’s own carbon emissions. While details are still sparse, it seems this is likely to be part of the 13th Five-Year-Plan of 2016.

For individual companies operating in China, these moves mean several different things. First, individual managers can now be held accountable, fined or detained for any environmental damage their firms might cause. According to the new policy, "Acts of environmental pollution and ecological disruption that harm the public interests of the society, social organization” including qualified non-governmental organizations, can now bring suits against polluting companies. Companies are also now required to submit environmental protection plans via a number of methods, including an online portal.

Finally, there is no longer a cap on environmental fines. This opens up the possibility of cumulative daily fines on companies which do not meet new environmental standards.

On a provincial level, the impact of Beijing’s embrace of transparency, accountability and sustainability is also evident. Funding from the central government to provinces will now be contingent on the latter’s environmental performance. Local governments that meet regulatory standards will receive additional funding, while those that lag behind get less money and could even face punishment. New policies are also addressing the corruption endemic to many in government, with Xi Jinping adamant that he would root out the “armies of corruption...regardless of the risk of damage to [his] reputation.” To demonstrate the lengths to which it is willing to go, Beijing has gone on a anti-corruption spree, arresting even the most prominent of officials. In August, an arrest warrant was issued for former Bright Food executive Wang Zongnan on charges of fraud and embezzlement. Word is certainly spreading that China’s response to underhanded dealings is changing. Again quoting Premier Li, "openness is the most powerful anticorruption measure.”

For the individual Chinese citizen, the opening up of a dialogue around sustainable practices is already impacting their daily lives. Smartphone users now have access to at least three different applications allowing them to monitor pollution levels across the country in real time. China has announced plans to remove nearly 6mn “yellow label” vehicles from roads. These vehicles are typically old and highly polluting. This will remove 660,000 cars from the streets of Hebei Province, the country’s dirtiest, alone. One cannot leave out the titanic impact of social media in how everyday people respond to issues affecting their own health and well-being. Micro-blogging site Sina Weibo has over 10mn core users relaying news at a moment’s notice. This, of course, plays heavily into any future plans Beijing might consider.

Food – Safety in the Wake of Scandals

Food safety is arguably the most central issue for every Chinese consumer. Incidents of tampering, fraud and unsavory production all trickle down through the news to the eyes of each and every person. In a recent interview, Andrew Kuiler, Managing Director of MMR Research China (a UK-headquartered company specializing in food, beverage and personal care consumer and sensory research), noted how “Chinese consumers are savvier than ever and are no longer just demanding more products be introduced into the market.” Much like the change in mentality of the government, it appears consumers want more quality and less quantity. Kuiler added that MMR is “seeing a move from brand messages that used to be all about consumer aspiration, to messages focused on superior product formulation and safety.”

In the wake of recent scandals, there is also an increased level of governmental action being taken towards food safety and manufacturers. Beijing is pushing foreign firms to ensure their production processes and systems meet specific standards required by Chinese law to guarantee food safety. “While this is a step in the right direction” notes Kuiler, “for a consumer victory these requirements need to make their way equally into the supply chain at home so that no stone goes unturned.”

Infrastructure Development

The drive from Shanghai’s Pudong International Airport towards the metropolis’ downtown carries the traveller along newly built, smooth-as-silk roads. Towering mega structures pierce the skyline and modern bridges span the city’s main waterway. If one is lucky, they might even see the Maglev bullet train sprint by at 400 kilometers an hour. These images conjure up more of a 1950s science fiction scene than a China the media would have one believe. Infrastructure, adhering to and setting international standards, is the telltale sign of the modernity of China’s cities.

This push for infrastructure improvement is also evident in new factories, warehouses and buildings throughout the country. It is invariably leading to advances in safety for workers and everyday people alike. When considering the construction of some of the world’s largest factories, China now implements world-class building safety and energy codes. According to McGraw Hill Construction, China’s new building codes are very similar to those in developed countries like Germany. Chinese codes are more stringent on tall buildings, particularly those over 240 meters. In terms of energy efficiency, China was the first developing country to set nationwide regulations on a building’s energy use. The 2005 Five-Year-Plan went further by identifying energy intensity use, or how much energy is needed to produce a dollar of gross domestic product. This use will play a crucial part as China plans to build 20bn new square meters of structures by 2020. To put this in perspective, this is equivalent to 180,000 new buildings each the size of the Hannover Fairground. All of these new buildings must be at least 50% more energy efficient, or 65% in larger cities, than pre-building-code structures.

China’s vast network of roads and rail is another shining example of the impact infrastructure development can have on the lives of ordinary people. Chinese can now traverse one side of their country to another in a matter of hours on readily accessible, safe, high-speed trains. With a population which is projected to be 60% urban by 2020, the nation is also expanding rail networks to all cities with at least 200,000 people. High-speed trains, with speeds of 300km per hour or greater, are planned for cities with over half a million people. Certainly an easier tomorrow is well on its way.

The dynamism that many apply to China, particularly through the lens of the economy, applies equally to the realm of sustainable development. While not without its faults, recent moves at all levels of Chinese society show a desire for change, openness and a thorough dialogue on how to move forward. China is no stranger to vigorous cultural adjustments and does not shy away from beginning things anew. Many would even credit the current political landscape as wholly conducive to rapidly and completely shifting from a focus on development at all costs to a more tempered, long-term, holistic approach.

Further Information

John Pabon is a Shanghai-based independent consultant specializing in marketing CSR- and cause-related endeavors for Fortune 500 companies, governmental bodies and non- profit organizations. His widely read blog, John’s Little Green Book (, looks at social responsibility in China from an individual, grassroots level. A prolific writer and speaker, John is always keen to engage in a conversation around societal altruism and sustainability. He can be reached via email.  



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