In China, Climate and Ecology

Tea House, China

Over the past year, China’s president Xi Jinping has made three key commitments to tackle climate change.

By Jianqiang Liu

Published on Carbon Brief, Oct 25, 2021
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Over the past year, China’s president Xi Jinping has made three key commitments to tackle climate change.

In September 2020, he told the United Nations general assembly: “We aim to have CO2 emissions peak before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality before 2060.”

Then, last month, he offered a further commitment to the same gathering of world leaders. China “will not build new coal-fired power projects abroad”, he said via videolink.

The pledges represent the latest staging posts on China’s long journey towards tackling its carbon emissions, which, currently, are the largest of any nation.

However, China’s attitude to addressing climate change has undergone a significant transformation over the course of this century.

Little over a decade ago, China was strongly arguing against reducing the emissions being caused by its booming, coal-fuelled economic growth. Instead, it said rich, developed nations should be leading the way.

Speaking to a diverse range of experts within China and beyond, Carbon Brief has learned that Xi has personally played “the most important role” in this shift in views.

Below, Carbon Brief describes nine key moments over the past two decades that have helped to influence China’s attitudinal change.

These moments – many of which have not been widely reported before – do not include the more obvious important incidents, such as Xi becoming China’s leader in 2012, or China ratifying the Paris Agreement in 2016.

But each of them – some of which might appear trivial at first – has impacted and influenced China’s current stance on climate change.

Walking through each one in turn chronologically, this article then concludes with a summary of the three broader reasons why China’s stance on climate change has shifted.

2003: Xi starts a newspaper column called ‘Zhijiang Xinyu’

Many of the China experts interviewed by Carbon Brief for this article say that one of Xi Jinping’s most distinctive characteristics is that he attaches great importance to environmental protection and sustainable development – something that is in stark contrast to previous Chinese leaders.

Furthermore, this characteristic was clear to see years before he became China’s top leader in 2012.

Evidence of this first arises in a series of newspaper articles Xi wrote which show that he was one of the first officials to realise that China’s “energy-intensive and high-polluting” economic model was unsustainable.

From 2002 to 2007, Xi, then in his early 50s, was the secretary of the Zhejiang Provincial Party Committee, the region’s highest ranking party official. Zhejiang is a province on the east coast of China. It went through rapid economic development following China’s “reform and opening up” – a national policy devised by Deng Xiaoping, then the nation’s leader, in 1978 with the aim of “opening up” China to the world.

Zhejiang province is located in the Yangtze river delta area in southeast China. The designations employed and the presentation of the material on this map do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever on the part of Carbon Brief concerning the legal status of any country, territory, city or area or of its authorities, or concerning the delimitation of its frontiers or boundaries. Credit: Carbon Brief.

On 25 February 2003, Zhejiang Daily, the official daily newspaper of the Zhejiang Provincial Party Committee, introduced a new opinion column called “Zhijiang Xinyu.” (The term “Xinyu” is inspired by a 1,600-year-old classic Chinese text called “Shishuo Xinyu“, 世说新语, which, translated, means “a new account of the tales of the world”. Zhijiang is the name of a key river in the region.) The author was listed as “Zhe Xin”, which is Xi’s pseudonym.

Xi wrote this column for four years and, on average, published one article per week. The articles were normally very short – with most of them comprising just 200-300 Chinese characters.

Xi later said: “That was like documenting my daily feelings in a few words.”

Xi Jinping wrote “officials should serve the people, not themselves” in an article published on 12 May 2004 in Zhejiang Daily.

On 25 March 2007, Xi left Zhejiang to work in Shanghai. On that day, he published his very last piece in the newspaper – after having penned 230 articles in total. Xi’s last column was a special edition containing not one, but two entries – one cautioning officials not to become “bookworms” and the other advising them to regularly check and control their “wants”.

“Zhijiang Xinyu” covered a wide range of topics. Some articles talked about how to drive the economic and social development of Zhejiang. Others focused on officials’ work ethics and guided them to view power and their interests “correctly”. A few even advised officials to read more, cultivate “delight in life” and improve the writing of their official documents.

A screenshot of Zhejiang Daily, dated 20 February, 2006. In the article, Xi quoted five ancient Chinese sayings to warn officials to be “honest”. Source: Zhejiang Daily.

Carbon Brief analysis of Xi’s 232 articles shows that at least 22 – or 9.5% of the total – touched upon environment-related subjects, such as environmental protection, sustainable development, circular economy, conservation-oriented society and reducing resource consumption and pollution.

This was extremely unusual for that time. As Xi was writing “Zhijiang Xinyu”, no other provincial-level official from China’s 30-plus provinces and regions were routinely promoting environmental protection and sustainable development. For them, the most crucial thing was economic growth, as measured by gross domestic product (GDP).

After China joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001, it underwent an economic boom. Its per-capita GDP rose from US$1,038 in 2001 to US$6,767 in 2013 and its economy jumped from the sixth to second largest in the world. At the same time, China became known as the “world’s factory”.

When Xi worked in Zhejiang, China’s bureaucratic assessment system regarded GDP as the most important indicator. As a result, officials were keen to seek investment in industrial factories to drive their regions’ economic growth and, in turn, boost their own work performance.

Energy, chemical and steel projects quickly became a typical official’s “first choice” because of the considerable investment they required. However, these projects also brought with them high energy consumption, high pollution and high emissions. But most officials simply ignored the environmental consequences.

At the same time, Xi was expressing his opinions in plain, non-bureaucratic language, as seen in this article published on 16 May 2005:

“Since the reform and opening up, the average annual economic growth rate of our province has reached 13%, but it has also paid a heavy environmental price. Now, the problem of environmental pollution is no longer a partial or temporary problem.

The Jiangnan water town is polluted and there is no water to drink, so it is necessary to transfer water from here and buy water from there. The coastal waters are polluted and red tides occur frequently. This is like borrowing money to do business. The money is earned, but it also owes a lot of debts to the environment and at the same time pays high interest rates. Repaying debts is justified. It is better to pay the debts of the ecological environment as early as possible, and take the initiative early, otherwise there will be no way to explain to future generations.

Why should we strive to build a resource-saving and environment-friendly society? You are kind to the environment, and the environment is friendly; if you pollute the environment, the environment will turn around one day, and will retaliate ruthlessly against you.”

Xi later said in 2018:

“I had always taken ecological and environmental work very seriously. During my terms in Zhengding, Xiamen, Ningde, Fujian, Zhejiang and Shanghai – among other places – I treated [the ecological and environmental] work as an important mission and a major task.”

His enthusiasm for environmental protection was even evident when he was a young man.This is reflected in a letter sent by Xi on 6 January 2020 in reply to student representatives of the Global Alliance of Universities on Climate:

“Over four decades ago, I lived and worked for many years in a small village on the Loess Plateau in western China. Back then, the ecology and environment there was seriously damaged due to over-development and the local people were trapped in poverty as a result. This experience taught me that man and nature are a community of life and that the damage done to nature will, ultimately, hurt mankind. I have since put forward the concept that lucid waters and lush mountains [see below] are invaluable assets in themselves.”

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Jianqiang Liu previously worked as China Dialogue’s Beijing editor and as an investigative reporter for China’s Southern Weekly newspaper. He was a visiting scholar at University of California, Berkeley and has a masters degree in journalism from Tsinghua University. His books include Tibetan Environmentalists in China: The King of Dzi, The Last Rafting and Chinese Research Perspectives on the Environment.

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