China urgently needs emancipated thinking to survive
China's environment is sick, suffering not just a single, isolated disease but widespread epidemics. This is indisputable. And no matter how thoroughly we analyse individual causes, it is clear that without fixing its ill-fated development model, China will be forever chasing its pollution problem and will never get ahead of it.
The country is once again in urgent need of an emancipated mind-set, redefining the concept of development to address today's conditions and to bring order out of chaos.
In the early 1980s, to clear various political and economic roadblocks erected during the Cultural Revolution – and to improve people's livelihood – Deng Xiaoping encouraged the "trials with fails (摸著石頭過河)" approach to reform and raise the banner of "development".
He deliberately focused on the rigid target of GDP growth to align all powers with the goal of economic development. During this period, Deng’s famous aphorism that “I do not care if the cat is black or white, what matters is it catches mice," came to the fore and China entered its first phase of mind-set emancipation.
When Deng later said that “development is of overriding importance (發展才是硬道理)”, he made the statement within the specific context of the early 1990s. Since then, however, it has become an irrefutable truth and powerful weapon employed in the blind pursuit of GDP growth at the expense of the environment.
With our environment under extreme threat everywhere, is there still a reason to stick with this development model? How should development now proceed, in order to make sense in today’s China?
With the realities of climate change, resource shortages, aging population and social inequities, what should be regarded as development can no longer been measured solely by GDP. It is, however, the only effective indicator in many people’s minds.
Although the scientific development concept has been the official doctrine since 2003, it has not been applied to the creation of a more holistic system of evaluation. For the government and party officials, GDP is still the key metric for performance evaluation.
When it comes to personal promotion, hitting GDP targets is still the critical success factor as other indicators, such as harmonious society and happiness of people, are seen as hard to measure, therefore, impossible to compare. The result is that mere lip service is paid to the scientific development concept and, after three decades of rapid development, China’s environment has been pushed to the brink.
No matter which way you look at it, sacrificing the environment for the sake of economic growth is not only outdated but also disastrous. If this form of development is allowed to continue, ecological collapse will be followed by economic crisis and social unrest. In the end, the wealth and development fruits of decades of growth will come to naught.
Take the Xiaonanhai Hydropower (小南海水電站) project for example.
According to an open letter co-signed by experts in Chinese Academy of Sciences and Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, together with nearly 20 non-governmental environmental protection organizations: “The Xiaonanhai Hydropower project is neither scientific nor economic. The power plant will not only block rare and endemic fish migrating to the upper reaches of the Yangtze River, but will multiply the devastating ecological impact on the Yangtze River aquatic ecosystem, ruining more than one quarter of the protected river section.
“It has no strategic significance in the overall China energy plan, nor prominent economic gains in terms of investment return (with cost per kilowatt 3.6 greater than four nearby hydropower stations). It can generate limited power and has better alternatives … In short Chongqing’s construction of the Xiaonanhai hydropower station on the Yangtze River will be enormously expensive and will do more harm than good socially, economically and environmentally."
In the face of such strong questioning and opposition from the communities, experts and NGOs, advance work on the Xiaonanhai project was nonetheless launched two weeks ago. How is it that this project is being driven through all reasonable objections and legal constraints?
From the perspective of political performance analysis, Xiaonanhai’s total investment will be RMB37 billion (USD5.9 billion). Last year Chongqing’s total GDP was nearly RMB one trillion (USD158.6 billion) and this year’s national GDP growth target is 7.5 percent so Chongqing incremental target this year is RMB75 billion (USD11.9 billion). So a single project like Xiaonanhai hydropower accounts for almost 50 percent of Chongqing’s annual GDP growth target. For people seeking to drive up their personal scoreboards, this is too great a temptation to reject!
Under the current system, it is difficult to hold the decision makers accountable for this kind of "growth". Those in power usually hold their positions for a five-year term so the cost and consequences of their decisions can be easily ducked, leaving the mess for their successors to deal with and ecological costs to be borne by future generations.
Where there is no individual responsibility then the accountability process becomes a meaningless formality. The corollary is that there is no incentive to go against the flow; there is almost no cost to breaking environmental rules, while striving to protect the environment may result in losing tangible political benefits and other interests.
Unless we have a systematic mechanism that can guard against the arbitrary “rule by man”, the Xiaonanhai fishery protection area will be in crisis, if not today, then tomorrow.
Putting this systematic mechanism in place requires the country’s mind-set to be emancipated again. This will enable us to get to the root of the problem and determine the right concept of development to address current conditions, reconciled with nature and humanity as a whole.
Economic growth does not equal development; it is only one form of development. For a country that is facing the limit of growth, deciding where to go and what to do is far more urgent than just steaming forward regardless what lies ahead.