China’s efforts

After the election of Donald Trump as president of the USA, China has seized several opportunities to reaffirm its support to global agreements on sustainable development and climate change. Mainstreaming of green-transition policies into various policy areas is under way in China. Which domestic and global factors explain China’s commitment to the sustainable development agenda?
Young men enjoying a bicycle ride on the beach in the low-carbon city of Xiamen in South-West China. China is recently experiencing a bicycle and outdoor activity boom. Kuhn Young men enjoying a bicycle ride on the beach in the low-carbon city of Xiamen in South-West China. China is recently experiencing a bicycle and outdoor activity boom.

China has made significant contributions to the process of advancing the 2030 Agenda and the agreement on the 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs). It has overcome its image as a “hardliner in international negotiations” which was attributed to China in the context of the UN climate-change conference in Copenhagen and its staunch support to the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities. It means that developed countries should take the lead in emission reduction and provide support in terms of finance and technology to developing countries, while developing countries should apply this financial and technological support to mitigate or adapt to climate change. The G20 summit in Hangzhou in 2016 was a landmark event for China’s engagement and leadership role with regard to sustainable development.

Domestic factors

The concept of sustainable development intertwines with many concepts and terms that are frequently used in the People’s Republic of China, including “ecological civilisation”, “green development” and “eco-marxism”. The policy of ecological civilisation has been incorporated into the Communist Party of China’s (CPC) Charter at the 18th CPC National Congress in 2012. It serves as a reference framework to develop visions of modern ecological socialism and also highlights specific Chinese characteristics of green development. The term green development has been elevated to the rank of a top policy priority in the context of the 13th Five Year Plan (13 FYP) 2016 to 2020. It has been chosen as one of five themes to describe policy priorities, reforms and targets in the field of environmental and climate policies.

China’s ecological crisis and growing social disparities have led to a proliferation of concepts addressing the need for re-directing economic policies towards more sustainable production and consumption. The exposure to extreme air pollution and growing knowledge on resource degradation has advanced new visions of growth in China focusing more on sustainable development. Chinese citizens have become increasingly sensitive about health threats from pollution. Journalists covered pollution issues and produced investigative stories about “cancer villages”. Environmental issues have made headlines, particularly after January 2013, when air pollution reached record highs in Beijing. Media with international outreach and global index projects, such as the Yale University’s Environmental Performance Index, covered China’s air, water and soil pollution and its degradation of natural resources.

The widening social gap is another driving factor for China’s commitment to the SDGs according to many experts. Chinese provinces display significant disparities in terms of economic performance and social services. Large income disparities exist in particular between the urban and rural residents, between different regions and among the urban and rural residents themselves. Income gaps narrowed after 2000 but the trend has recently stopped.

In China, intergenerational justice is a crucial element of sustainable development. China is facing challenges in the era of population ageing. According to the UN, China is ageing more rapidly than almost any country in recent history. China’s dependency ratio for retirees could rise as high as 44 % by 2050.

Migration continues to be a major social challenge. China has gradually introduced a series of insurances and social-protection schemes of which the main pillars are a pension system, a medical-care system and social-assistance schemes targeting elderly and poor people. A large number of migrant workers cannot access social services near their workplace in the cities.

China’s aspiration in the field of innovation and technology is another driving factor for its commitment to sustainable development. China aims at avoiding the middle-income trap by moving away from an economy that is based on high polluting industries to more technology-intensive and service-oriented growth. Green growth driven by innovations is a leading theme of China’s 13 FYP. Sustainable development is seen as a trend stimulating innovations in the fields of renewable energy, radical resource productivity, green chemistry, industrial ecology, green nanotechnology and others.

China’s pro-active urbanisation strategy and the promotion of smart-city development is embedded into government policies but also driven by a dynamic private sector. The smart-city concept is based on technological innovation, in particular in the field of connectivity. In China, smart cities are core elements of digital modernisation strategy. The Ministry of Science and Technology, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology and the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development all have smart-city programmes.

China’s engagement in international environmental politics dates back to its first participation in a UN summit in 1972. After the country regained its seat as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, the Stockholm conference on the human environment provided an opportunity for the People’s Republic to substantiate its claim for a leading role within the UN.

Global factors

China’s success in achieving specific millennium development goals (MDGs) and performing well overall can be seen as an enabling factor for its commitment to the Agenda 2030. The UN’s process-oriented approach to the sustainable-development agenda and the elaboration of 169 targets and 232 indicators correspond well with China’s own policymaking approach based on target- and indicator-oriented Five Year Plans at central and provincial level. The process-oriented approach of the SDG framework provides China with sufficient time and dialogue opportunities to subsequently integrate international initiatives and commitments into national policy frameworks.

China’s south-south cooperation is also an important aspect in its promotion of the SDGs and climate policies. China has traditionally played a leading role in south-south cooperation, mainly in the context of the Group 77, the largest intergovernmental organisation of developing countries in the UN. More recently, China has deployed multilateral initiatives as member of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) group and a regional powerhouse in Asia, including the establishment of the BRICS Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, two new multilateral development banks. China also greatly extended its cooperation with Africa through the Forum for Africa Cooperation. Moreover, it has contributed to integrating perspectives and interests of developing countries into various global agreements.

China’s most outstanding foreign-policy initiative is currently the Belt and Road Initiative (see D+C/E+Z e-Paper 2018/01, p.6). The strategy proposed by President Xi Jinping focuses on China’s contribution to connectivity and cooperation with Eurasian countries. The Joint Communique released after the Belt and Road Forum in May 2017 noted that the parties involved are determined to prevent the degradation of the planet, to manage natural resources in an equitable and sustainable manner and to achieve comprehensive, balanced and sustainable development of economy, society and environment.

Finally, China’s new outstanding role in promoting sustainable development and climate policies has to be seen in the context of its wider foreign and security policy objectives. The support to agreements on sustainable development and climate policies are opportunities for China to highlight its engagement in global affairs. Such commitments help China to divert attention from sensitive issues, such as protest movements in Hong Kong, the conflict in the South China Sea, the North Korea issue and trade conflicts with other nations.

Berthold Kuhn is a political scientist and international cooperation advisor. He works as an adjunct professor at the University of Berlin and as consultant. He was twice a fellow of the University Alliance for Sustainability at Peking University.

Environmental Performance Index, 2016:

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The UN Sustainable Development Goals aim to transform economies in an environmentally sound manner, leaving no one behind.