Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

"Green" as Spectacle in China

Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

"Green" as Spectacle in China

Article excerpt

In recent years, environmental protection has increasingly been incorporated into municipal policy agendas in China. Although rising environmental awareness is an indicator of progress toward sustainable practices, a closer examination of recent policies reveals a tendency toward "spectacularization," i.e., municipal governments actively endorsing various green initiatives to stage "spectacles" that promote their cities. This article critiques green spectacles and urges a return to tbe "'ordinary" in urban environmental policy making, in which urban spaces would be developed based on a city's unique needs rather than with a predetermined template. This would require abandoning costly flagship eco-city projects and top-down policy campaigns, as well as reflecting critically on what "green" means in everyday city life.

After three decades of market reform, urban governance in China today is characterized by competitive decentralization, a process in which power, authority and resources are transferred from the central government to municipal governments. Municipal authorities engage in competitions of all sorts to position their cities ahead of others--from conventional practices of offering subsidies and tax cuts to businesses, to more creative ones such as commissioning iconic architectural projects for city branding, to more recent efforts of building eco-cities and endorsing sustainable development. (1) Unprecedented urban growth and decentralized urban governance present urgent challenges for Chinese cities, particularly with regard to housing, infrastructure, services and environmental protection.

This article examines the recent environmental turn in urban policy making and addresses obstacles to and opportunities for achieving sustainable urban living in China. Until recently, local officials have tended to view economic growth and environmental protection as incompatible. With job promotion in mind, these officials focused largely on boosting GDP while environmental performance languished at the bottoms of policy agendas." Consequently, the Chinese economic miracle has been accompanied by significant environmental degradation and acute public health crises, as evidenced by numerous incidents of water and air pollution, skyrocketing levels of carbon emissions, energy-inefficient new buildings, the rapid loss of farmland and forests and the emergence of hundreds of so-called cancer villages. (3) In response to an unfolding environmental crisis and growing popular discontent over environmental degradation, the Chinese government announced in 2005 that the nation's eleventh Five Year Plan would shift from a "growth first" to a "sustainable development" model. (4) In 2008, China established the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP), which has since promulgated an impressive number of environmental laws, regulations and policies. (5) At the local level, there has been a wave of policy innovations like the introduction of environmental protection taxes, eco-city initiatives and competition among localities to obtain the status of National Model City for Environmental Protection, earned by meeting quotas on carbon emissions and air and water quality.

These policy measures signal the "greening" of urban governance in China, as environmental protection is actively incorporated into urban policy making. As in Europe and North America in the 1990s, urban entrepreneurialism and environmentalism in China are no longer seen as incompatible. Rather, restoring and protecting the environment have become core elements of city strategies, which are then leveraged to distinguish cities as they compete for capital and talent. (6) Rising awareness about environmental protection represents a remarkable shift. However, a closer examination of this environmental turn reveals its tendency toward "spectacularization" as local governments embrace various green initiatives for place promotion. This article critiques the "green spectacle" observed in urban China today and urges a return to the ordinary in urban environmental policy making. …

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