China’s leadership transition

China’s new conservative leadership means any changes to help the country's environment will come through the existing policy framework, and not an overhaul of the system.

Selena Wang-Thomas's picture
Guest blog by
27 November 2012
The Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party in the Great Hall of the People, uniformed in identical suits, red ties, and side-parts.

The Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party in the Great Hall of the People, uniformed in identical suits, red ties, and side-parts.Photo: Remko TanisCC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Last week, China’s 18th Party Congress unveiled the new Politburo Standing Committee, naming Xi Jinping the new head of China’s Communist Party. Next March, he will take over from Hu Jintao as China’s president and Li Keqiang will replace Premier Wen Jiabao.

The Congress emphasized ideological continuity. Hu’s speech duly rehearsed the slogans “peaceful development”, “creating a beautiful China”, and “socialism with Chinese characteristics”, and echoed the Five Year Plan. His legacy will be a decade of extraordinary growth, with China now the world’s second-largest economy, but also of uneven development, environmental damage, and rumbling social discontent over inequality and corruption.

Behind the carefully choreographed continuity is a factional division between conservative “princelings”, favouring rapid economic growth, and reformist populists from poorer, inland provinces, who look beyond raw GDP growth for more balanced and equally distributed economic development. Incoming Xi is a princeling; Hu’s preferred successor, populist Li (pushing for affordable housing, basic healthcare and social welfare programmes, and clean energy), was relegated to second place. Reformists were largely omitted, leaving a politically conservative leadership predicted to favour cautious economic reforms, maintain party rule, support China’s state-owned enterprises, and avoid radical or populist policy changes. But the clean handover may strengthen Xi’s hand in moving forward, fighting corruption, and building Chinese wellbeing. 

His speech certainly reflected the increasingly vocal demands of the population: “Our people … expect better education, more stable jobs, better income, more reliable social security, medical care of a higher standard, more comfortable living conditions, and a more beautiful environment.”  

These demands are in part the result of the country’s growing inequality. The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences says the gap between urban and rural incomes has jumped 68% since 1985, creating one of the widest wealth gaps in Asia. Estimates of China’s Gini coefficient, used to measure inequality, are nearing 0.5, a rise of around 50% since 1980. Likely as a result, “mass incidents” like strikes and riots doubled from 2006 to 2010. Xi must tackle this widening income inequality and discontent, which are seen as sources of instability that could hurt consumer spending and obstruct the planned move away from exports towards domestic consumption.

China leads the world in energy consumption and has high levels of air and water pollution. Its new leaders face a population increasingly protective of their environment, with visible impact. Environment minister Zhou Shengxian announced during the Congress that all major industrial projects must now pass a “social risk assessment” before they begin, a response to the recent escalation of increasingly violent environmental protests blocking major construction projects. He also noted a government order issued in September asking government agencies to make all environmental impact assessments and planned responses public.

But it is questionable how effectively these measures will be executed, as the new leaders scramble to meet Five Year Plan targets. For example, with Wen’s departure and unmet 2020 energy targets, they are likely to push ahead with dam projects, which face significant opposition and social impact challenges.

There are policy narratives and legal and regulatory frameworks for tackling environmental problems. Hu’s “Scientific Outlook on Development” amendment to the Constitution states: “promoting ecological progress is a long-term task of vital importance to the people's wellbeing and the Chinese nation's future. It is imperative to [incorporate it into] the whole process of advancing economic, political, cultural, and social progress, work hard to build a beautiful country, and achieve lasting and sustainable development of the Chinese nation”.

Environmental targets also feature highly in the current Five Year Plan, including reducing water, carbon and energy intensity, reducing pollution, increasing non-fossil fuels, increasing forest coverage, and investing 3 trillion yuan (about 472 billion USD) in environmental protection.

But the fundamental problem lies in implementing the existing policies. Enforcement remains too weak, environmental lawsuits too difficult to file, and the cost of breaking the law far below the cost of obeying it. Leading environmentalist Ma Jun argues that in the long run China needs “a clear framework supported by key rights” – a rethinking of the top-down environmental management system so that citizens are environmentally aware and have access to relevant information, are able to participate in decision making and seek judicial redress if their rights are infringed upon.  

That the leadership transition sends no revelatory signals, sticking to well-rehearsed slogans and Five Year Plan targets, is not surprising. It highlights the huge gap between official policy and on-the-ground implementation. Exactly how China’s new leadership will shape the next stage of economic development, fight corruption, and implement social and ecological responsibility remains to be seen. What we can say is that it will likely be through the existing framework, not an overhaul of the system.

Commentators have noted that China’s government is still based on “a rule-by-man system not a rule-by-procedure system.” This extends beyond selecting leaders, to the implementation of any official policy by local authorities. For environmental organizations, especially international actors, the biggest challenge will not be swaying policy narratives or top-down strategies. Rather, it will be empowering those at the bottom, and pursuing accountability from those in the middle.

Pushing for transparency, accountability, and sustainability in practice will remain the onus of civil society and the third sector.

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