Speed and poor governance a lethal combination

Friday, September 9th, 2011
China high-speed train wreck

In the absence of a good governance system China’s “Power the Nation” dream is pushing the country into rapid environmental deterioration. Throughout this year, the alarm bells have been ringing:

  • In January “Three Red Lines” were established as the most stringent measures ever taken to manage water resources.

  • In March the Fukushima nuclear disaster led to a comprehensive inspection of China's nuclear facilities and the suspension of new project approvals.

  • In May the severe drought in the middle and lower Yangtze River renewed a heated debate on the pros and cons of the Three Gorges Hydropower Station.

  • In June an oil production platform owned by CNOOC and ConocoPhillips sprang a major leak, pollution a large swathe of the Gulf of Bohai.

  • In July two high-speed trains collided at Wenzhou, causing heavy casualties ... and the list goes on.

Such incidents are raising questions across the country about what “China Speed” will ultimately bring to the nation and its people. Despite the economic miracles, is “China Speed” driving the country further from its people and hijacking the environment? If “China Speed” continues, will the country proceed down a broad road or is its headed for the cliffs?

Maoist legacy

Historically, “China Speed” had had disastrous consequences. In the late 1950s, Mao Zedong dictated that China must “catch up with the US and surpass the UK”, kicking off the Great Leap Forward which resulted in huge economic, ecological, humanitarian and cultural disasters in the early '60s.

Unfortunately a fallacious mindset is a continuing legacy of the Great Leap Forward since little effort was made to review and criticize the underlying beliefs. Slogan's such as “Fight against nature to conquer it for human use (战天斗地)”; “Think bold, talk bold, and act bold (敢想敢说敢干)”; and “how bold one can be, how big the capacity of the land production could become (人有多大胆,地有多大产)” are echoed in the blind pursuit of GDP growth and grand projects with high propaganda value in the era of “Reform and Open (改革开放)”. The famous slogan “black or white, a cat is good if it catches mice (白猫黑猫,抓住老鼠就是好猫)" is a reflection of this mindset.

The “Power the Nation” dream is generating environmental crises on all fronts: water, soil, air, ocean, biodiversity … none are safe from danger. Without an effective system of governance policies, laws, and regulations become dead letters. Lack of good governance is not only a disaster for the environment but also a vicious disease that damage the Chinese government’s authority and legitimacy to rule.

Currently in China legislation and the rule-of-law lag far behind the speed of environmental degradation. When legislation is not comprehensive, rule-of-law is difficult to implement and when governance is not in place, law exists merely in name.

The question is how can China ensure good environmental governance through rule-of-law rather than rule-of-man, undertaking effective implementation rather than paying lip service? There are three major challenges:

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