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China’s attitude regarding environmental issues and climate change has always been questioned by the international community and scholars. Since China opened up to the world’s economy during the ‘80s, it has mainly followed a path of “getting rich first, clean later”. However, in the last decades, this inconsiderable behaviour has undergone major changes and China’s increasing participation in the UNFCCC, the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris agreement greatly shows the country’s real commitment towards the matter.


If at the international level the People’s Republic has shown a greater involvement in such regimes, it is at the national level that most of the changes actually took place. In 2007, the country has begun to advertise its involvement in the domestic construction of an ecological civilization. There is now the need to reverse the fast economic development that from the one hand has led China to be the second world’s economic leader, but on the other hand has harmed the country considerably, to the point that human lives are now at risk.

The theoretical framework behind Ecological Civilization

The concept of Ecological civilization, in Chinese 生态文明 shengtai wenming, represents the Chinese Communist Party long-term vision for the country’s sustainable development and it has become one of the major focus of the Chinese political discourse in the international arena.

The word “ecological” derives from ecology; it refers to the natural relationship between diverse life forms and their environment. The second word, instead civilization, refers to an advanced stage of human and cultural development. This definition indicates that civilization is a product of the human society, but as human beings need to live in coordination with nature to carry out their lives, to develop, and evolve, civilization cannot transcend nature. Therefore, ecological civilization tries to enhance the need for ecology while carrying on development – determining that any action should be taken in accordance and with respect for nature. The concept thus implies that men should not control nature, as it happens in the western-industrial civilization, but instead, they should shape their lives in accordance with it. Human beings need to find a harmonization between economic development and ecological environment. Once harmony has been found, the global economic system would be revolutionized and a new eco-friendly development system, namely ecological civilization would take.

The idea of men in harmony with nature is actually an essential concept in early Chinese culture. Both in Taoism and Confucianism, the purpose of life is determined by a continuous search for harmony, between society and the universe, a theory that is opposed to the western idea of life grounded on a “different set of values driven by “conquering nature” and viewing nature as a machine to be engineered”. Therefore, the rationale behind ecological civilization is the natural relationship between human being and nature, implying that men must not cause any damage to nature for the sake of their own happiness.

The role of Ecological Civilization in today’s China

After almost two decades of rapid economic development, in 2002 the term ecological civilization appeared for the first time in China’s national agenda in the character of a new national development strategy. Under the Hu Jintao leadership, the idea of harmony between man and nature started to become a central element in the political rhetoric of the CCP, hereafter affecting the following generation of leaders’ ideology. By reclaiming Taoist and Confucianist concepts, the state tries now to find a solution to the past decades failures in protecting the environment; by providing a new set of theories and rules that will be benefitted by the whole population, while avoiding any possible failure from threatening the CCP’s claim to rule in the future.

Hu Jintao’s theory can be considered the natural outcome of socialist ideology. The basic assumption of ecological civilization is that the whole humankind must eliminate the capitalist system, which has led us to where we are today, and establish a socialist one that seeks harmony between human and nature, with survival being the ultimate objective. 

What we face seems to be more an ideological dispute rather than a practical set of rules. But in reality, when analysing both industrial and ecological civilization, even some western scholars have come up with the idea that only the abolition of capitalism can solve the ecological crisis and problems that are affecting today’s world. The ecological can be the only civilization – among agricultural and industrial- able to address the problem of sustainability. However, this rejection of capitalism does not coincide with a devolution in which men should go back to a primitive stage of development. In fact, the creation of an ecological civilization must involve some features of the industrial civilization, among this the most useful being technology, and must transplant and adapt some useful features to the new system, while discarding the useless ones of capitalism.

Since President Xi took his place as the leader of the People’s Republic of China, the discourse on ecological civilization has deepened and started to assume a different connotation. It has been raised as the main objective of the CCP and the Government as the only possible way to further foster economic and social development while spreading socialism with Chinese characteristics to the international community. As a matter of facts, the establishment of such ecological civilization it is now of vital importance for the people’s wellbeing and China’s future, considering that the nation is increasingly facing resource constraints, severe environmental pollution, and a deteriorating ecosystem.

The government should therefore create a sound working and living environment for the people and contribute its share to global ecological security. To solve the effects of capitalism in China, Beijing needs to  “establish a legal and policy framework … that facilitates green, low-carbon, and circular development,” to “promote afforestation,” “strengthen wetland conservation and restoration” and ” to stop and punish all activities that damage the environment.” But the most ambitious goal to achieve is to adjust people’s mind. In fact, only when people will realize that “lucid water and lush mountains are invaluable assets”, the establishment of ecological civilization will be completed.

The Xi Jinping leadership has brought about many positive results: China has been able to increase its forest areas of 154% compared to forty years ago, counting now 208 million hectares of forests land; it has increased its investments in green energies, increasing its solar capacity of 174 gigawatts and its wind capacity of 184 gigawatts. Moreover, it has been able to halve air pollution levels and to decrease its CO2 emissions of -45% in only three years since the rhetoric on ecological civilization has started to spread. However, the best is yet to come. An outline of the latest 14th five-years plan reveals that China’s goal for the 2021-2025 is to turn to a green and low-carbon development, in order to achieve a carbon neutrality by 2060.

How the Chinese rhetoric affect the western

Albeit China has reached significant progresses domestically, more attention should be paid to commit to international standards. The PRC is the leading country in terms of CO2 emissions, contributing as much as 27.2% to global emissions. However, it is worth to note that China still belongs to the list of developing countries; this means that its level of industrialization, as well as welfare, are still low compared to advanced economies. As a result, the actual leadership is overlapping sustainable methods to old capitalist patterns with the aim of maximizing wealth, thus contributing more and more to CO2 global emissions and not pledging the country’s national target of cutting emission by -58%.  Other factors that have contributing to China’s increment of emissions are the developments in the Sino-US relations. As a consequence of technological competition, China is still pursuing its growth ambitions, thus neglecting its emissions that have grown by 4% in the second semester of 2020.  

Nonetheless, the Chinese vision of Ecological Civilization might have actual applications as well as implications in the international community. Although the COVID-19 pandemic and the rise of anti-globalization sentiment have mined the Chinese aspiration towards a construction of a global ecological civilization, the Chinese model can still inspire other countries to turn into green States, thus tightening the cooperation at the international level. The essential concept of ecological civilization, in fact, surpasses borders and limitations, addressing its final scope to the whole humankind. In any case, the completion of such a sustainable civilization will require two deep transformations at the society level: a reconceptualization of the role of humankind and nature, and so shifting from the traditional anthropocentric view of the west; and a change in lifestyle, towards a more sustainable way of life that disregards materialism and high consumption, the main contributors to ecological disaster.

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