“China Goes Green” by Yifei Li and Judith Shapiro

Wind farm in China (via Wikimedia Commons) Wind farm in China (via Wikimedia Commons)

It probably goes without saying that there will be no solution to what has come to be called “climate change” without China’s active participation. (The same holds for the United States, but that’s another matter.) In their new book China Goes Green, Judith Shapiro and Li Yifei view China’s environmental policies and practices, both domestically and internationally, as—goes the subtitle—“Coercive Environmentalism for a Troubled Planet”.

It may come as something of a surprise to those who haven’t followed this issue very closely that China is considered in some quarters “as the last best hope for efforts to save the planet.” Yet, say the authors, “the Chinese state appears indeed to be offering the world a green vision… the central leadership has issued hard-nosed policy changes intended to resolve China’s environmental crisis. Green China boasts solid achievements …”


China Goes Green: Coercive Environmentalism for a Troubled Planet, Yifei Li, Judith Shapiro (Polity, September 2020) (Author)
China Goes Green: Coercive Environmentalism for a Troubled Planet, Yifei Li, Judith Shapiro (Polity, September 2020)

China Goes Green sets out the question, albeit somewhat rhetorically, whether “the urgency and gravity of the planetary situation justify decisive state interventions”:


At a time when liberal democratic states repeatedly fail to address environmental problems, it is tempting to feel that draconian measures are needed, or at least worthy of serious consideration.


Rather than answering the question, the book is instead a granular, very granular, look at China’s policies and programmes over (for the most part) the past two decades or so. In this, it is (at least for someone who isn’t as immersed in the subject matter as the authors) hard to see how the book could be equalled. It manages to be broad and deep, well documented and clear.

Their conclusions (spoiler alert) are that China is showing clear intent and acting on it, but that the record is mixed: some programs have had positive results, others less so. They note that a top-down centrally-planned approach can result in unintended consequences, that increased control may be a corollary objective and that coercion itself has consequences. While these may not come as a great surprise, Shapiro and Li provide chapter and verse, and do so with nuance, teasing out case by case the pros, cons and unknowns.


That being said, those looking to gird themselves for a discussion about global efforts regarding climate change should perhaps read the book with some care. The book runs the gamut of environmental issues, from local pollution to recycling, environmental destruction, over-fishing, carbon emissions and even extraterrestrial mining. Whatever one may feel about sharks, they are a different sort of problem than rising global temperatures. The environmental issues are also conflated with such broader concerns as digital surveillance, coronavirus restrictions, the “weaponizing” of rare earth export restrictions, etc., which, it might be argued, and the authors implicitly do, are all of a piece, but aren’t environmental issues per se.

When looking at the way China integrates with the rest of the world on environmental questions, the various strands should probably be teased out. China could show global leadership in controlling global carbon emissions—undoubtedly with the expectation that it will be involved in writing the rules—while still playing hardball in bilateral negotiations over dams, or conversely work to reduce local air pollutants while engaging in environmentally dubious projects overseas. Nor does the global community have equal interest in all aspects of China’s environmental policies.


The question remains whether environmentally satisfactory results can be achieved without coercion of some kind. Some of the examples of coercion cited by the authors—such as narrow and inconvenient times for trash collection—seem annoying rather than serious threats to principle. Conversely, a considerable amount of coercion is now (generally) accepted to be necessary to control the coronavirus. The subtle question is what kind of coercion for what purposes, and who decides.

While the authors never quite return to the question they set, whether a Chinese-type “coercive environmentalism” provides a model for “liberal democratic states [who] repeatedly fail to address environmental problems”, they leave little doubt that their answer is “probably not”.

Yet it remains that case that China is still committed to the Paris targets, while the United States has pulled out. And Shapiro and Li document both considerable grass roots interest in China on environmental issues and considerable ingenuity in attempting to deal with problems large and small.

They end with an invocation to China to “truly ‘go green.’” But the readers of this book may be left with a question some might find uncomfortable: Chinese success “at home and overseas” is likely to come with wider acceptance of the Chinese modus operandi: is that a trade-off they are willing to consider?

Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.