The performative state of China’s environmental governance

Politics & Current Affairs

Iza Ding, assistant professor of political science at the University of Pittsburgh, discusses how performative and substantive governance influence environmental protection efforts in China.

Environmental protection volunteers patrol the Huaxi wetland park in Guiyang, Guizhou Province, on November 4, 2022. Image via Xinhua.

Below is the complete transcript of the China Corner Office Podcast with Iza Ding.

Chris: Hi everyone. Thanks so much for joining us today on China Corner Office, a podcast powered by the China Project, the New York-based news and information platform that helps the West read China between the lines. I’m Chris Marquis, a professor at the Cambridge Judge Business School.

And today, we are joined by Iza Ding, who is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Pittsburgh. Iza is a scholar of comparative political development and has published a number of important papers on environmental policy making, implementation, bureaucratic organizations, and more. Our podcast today focuses on her recently published book, The Performative State: Public Scrutiny and Environmental Governance in China. Iza first explains what she means by a performative state with helpful comparisons between performative and substantive governance, and she also provides useful examples of performative governance that she gathered through her on the ground field work in an environmental protection bureau in China.

We also discuss the trajectory of China’s environmental governance and how her theory can be applied beyond the context of environmental protection, most notably to China’s COVID policies. Iza notes, while the repertoire of performance might be different, her theoretical ideas are quite generalizable. We also discussed the public’s reaction to performative governance and Iza gave specific case studies, both inside and outside of China on when and how performance governance will work and when it’ll fail. While we recorded this podcast in mid-November, our discussions are remarkably relevant given the recent waves of protests across China on COVID lockdown policies.

Iza also gave her assessment of the current state of environmental governance in China, and she reflected on how COVID lockdowns, economic downturns, wage cuts and more have reduced individual consumption significantly and thus lowered carbon emissions. She also put forth the interesting idea that the Chinese government may preempt future complaints about economic slowdowns through emphasizing sustainable development. We concluded the podcast with a discussion of how the outcome of the 20th Party Congress will affect the future of China’s environmental protection efforts.

Thanks so much for listening and enjoy the show.

Chris: Iza, welcome to China Corner Office.

Iza: Good to see you Chris, and good to be here.

Chris: Really excited to talk about your new book, The Performative State: Public Scrutiny and Environmental Governance in China that just came out in September. It is really interesting given the environmental situation of the world and China. And also the theory of performative governance that you unpack in the book. Can you just say a little bit more about what you mean by the performative state?

Iza: The performative state is about how states engage in theatrical performance of good governance for its citizen audience. It’s well known that the Chinese Communist Party, CCP, derives its legitimacy from substantive performance, and especially economic growth over the past few decades. In this book, I’m arguing that when the state is shorthanded on some issues like environmental protection but faces really strong public pressure to do something, it can also use these words, gestures, and symbols of good governance to appease public outrage.

Chris: In political science is it like responsive authoritarianism? Where you know the state attempts to make it seem like it’s being responsive to citizens’ demands. So, I think this is part of it. But I think that many people think that authoritarian governments are all so powerful and they can just control everything. Why are doing these gestures and symbols important for the legitimacy of the regime? And part of that, can you say what some of the actual examples of some of those are that you studied?

Iza: The main evidence in this book is from five months of ethnography, participant observation at a municipal environmental protection bureau. And then during these five months, I went to the office every day, I participated in their daily operations, I follow the bureaucrats around, and I climb smokestacks with them, and then sometimes descend into sewage ditches. So, I was observing them. And the first thing I noticed is that actually before I started my field work, I thought that I would see substantive environmental governance. This was originally my dissertation. When I defended my proposal in front of my committee, I said, the city, Lakeville, is going to be my good case of good substantive environmental governance. And I had some bad cases from inland China, and I would go to these cities and then compare.

But then, when I got to Lakeville, which was supposed to be my good case, and what I realized gradually is that there was very little substantive environmental governance to speak of. And what I saw was performative governance instead. And what I saw, the first thing is that the bureaucracy actually had very, very little capacity. The capacity is not really obvious because when you see them, they hire extremely qualified bureaucrats. All these bureaucrats, they have masters or PhD degrees in environmental sciences, engineering, and law. And then the bureaucracy also had some super fancy technology. Everybody had this law enforcement iPad they carried around with them, where they could enter data, and the data will be synced with the EPB central database, and so on and so forth.

So, it’s not obviously weak, but then you gradually realize that actually they couldn’t do anything to enforce regulations. So, I saw some of the egregious practices by the factories and it was very clear they were not abiding by regulation, but then you also saw that EPB was really weak in front of the businesses. They didn’t even have the legal authority to close down factories or to issue large fines. And the authority was actually in the hands of the municipal government or higher-level governments. So, then the people I’m observing, these street-level bureaucrats, they’re held responsible, right? Citizens think they’re responsible for improving air quality, but then they actually couldn’t do anything.

So then, what did they do? They did performative governance. So, they would be extremely nice to citizens who come to the office to complain. They would serve them tea; they would play therapists to citizens on the phone. And then some of my favorite stories were from just bureaucrats answering calls, these petition hotlines, and then they would be talking to the people on these petition hotlines.

And then, oftentimes, the conversations, it turned out, had nothing to do with the environment and somebody caught in and complained about air pollution from his neighbor’s cooking. And then you listen to them, you realize there’s some ancient hatred between this person and the neighbor.

And also, enterprises calling the hotline to complain about environmental violations, regulatory violations by this enterprise, this paper plant, and then you realize the caller is another paper plant that’s right next to this paper plant that’s being complained about. So, there’s a lot of those things.

And then people calling with their marital problems and wanted somebody to cry to, and things like that. In those situations, the bureaucrats are told to not hang up the phone, and then to keep talking to them until they’re satisfied with a conversation regardless of the content of the conversation.

Why did they have to do that? They had to do that because you can actually get fired if you don’t appear responsive and devoted to the citizens. Occasionally, you do see people getting fired. And then I just saw this recent regulation in Beijing saying that if somebody gets two citizen complaints about them, usually it’s about their attitude, while interacting with the citizens, then your year-end bonus could be significantly cut. You can actually get punished for not being nice to the people.

Chris: That’s really surprising, what a tough position all those bureaucrats are in. I never would’ve guessed that. It maps really nicely to the two by two that you have in your development of this performative state discussion and theory. One dimension is capacity. So, you described how this is a situation of low capacity, but also this idea that people can get their bonus reduced or fired, so the bar on scrutiny is very, very high. And I know that’s the cell where low capacity, high scrutiny is where performative governance is dominant. Can you say a little bit more about this two by two you developed and how it helps us understand governance, both performative and substantive more generally?

Iza: So, the two by two has two dimensions. The first dimension is state capacity and the second dimension is scrutiny. In this very case, I’m looking at public scrutiny, because in the literature on bureaucracy, we typically focus on scrutiny from principals to their agents, so the classic principal agent problem.

But in this case, that adds to the equation scrutiny from wider society. And then, just one more note on capacity, which I define as the state’s logistical ability and political authority to perform its function. So, when we think about how to measure capacity, it’s both the amount of money, personnel, equipment, and expertise, the state bureaucracy, the single bureaucracy has, but is also — to borrow this Marxist term — It’s the super structural power of the state.

So, it’s the amount of authority cloud and influence this bureaucracy wields. And what this means is that capacity has to be understood in relative terms. And the example I like to give is the, I don’t know if it’s a good example, you can tell me, it’s the Russian-Ukraine conflict. So, we thought Russia had a strong army, but what does it mean for us to say Russia has a strong state, strong army when it cannot achieve its purposes of occupying the territory? And so, in this case, the Chinese EPA or the Chinese EPB, the Chinese Environmental Protection Bureau, even though it hired really good, well-qualified bureaucrats, but if it cannot actually enforce regulations, at least not at the time during this study, then I call it weak. So, then those are the definitions of capacity and scrutiny.

So, I argue that when both are low, state behavior is inert. So, the state, in this case, is incapable of delivering its promises and solving the problem in question, but it’s under no public pressure to do so. And then, when capacity is high and scrutiny is low, state behavior is what I call paternalistic. In this case, the state is like the parent of a small child with lots of power over there unscrutinizing offspring. And then just like a parent, the paternalistic state can use their power to do either good or bad things.

Then in social science terms, they can be either developmental or predatory. And then, indeed, in our literature you see both terms — developmental and predatory — have been used to describe powerful agencies within China, like the National Development Reform Council Commission and the state-owned enterprises.

Then lastly, when capacity and scrutiny are both high, the state behavior is the most substantive. So, this is what I call substantive governance. In this case, the state has the ability to deliver its promises and public opinion will hold it accountable if it does not. That is my two by two in a nutshell.

Iza Ding, The Performative State, Cornell University Press, 2022

Chris: I think that’s really helpful to think about different types of governance. And I like the paternalistic one, I think it really fits different situations you can think of. I’m curious, particularly on the environment front, do you think there’s been a trajectory over the past decade or so where there’s more capacity, maybe more scrutiny? I mean, you mentioned this recent announcement you saw in Beijing about if you get sort of two complaints, your bonus gets docked. So, I’d love to hear a little bit about how this has changed over time.

Iza: There’s absolutely been a trajectory and an evolution on Chinese environmental governance. So, there’s a historical chapter in my book which traces this evolution. The Chinese EPA was first established in 1980s when the agency was very small and largely inert. So, if you read the literature on environmental governance at the street level in China during the ‘90s, for instance, and what you see is that descriptions of bureaucrats sitting in their offices reading newspaper, drinking tea, monitoring the stock market. You see a lot of evidence of such, so inertia. And then, as scrutiny intensified around the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, if you remember athletes training in Beijing were complaining about air pollution. And then, eventually, the U.S. embassy installed these air pollution monitors on its rooftop and started tweeting out hourly air pollution data in Beijing. And then, this is when you see a spike in public scrutiny over air pollution. And also, we still remember the documentary, Under the Dome, that was released in 2015. So, during this period, every time I open social media, it’s all about complaints about air pollution. That is no more, we can talk about this later, but during that period, the agency was facing a lot of public outrage, but it lacked the capacity to resolve citizen complaints about pollution.

And then, finally in recent years, the EPB has gradually acquired more capacity, especially since the 2018 Super Ministries reform, and it seems like it started to tend toward more substantive modes of governance. But this is still few and far between and still sporadic, at least based on my recent interviews. And this interesting thing I notice is that when I go to China and talk to folks in the government, and when I talk about the EPA or the EPB nowadays, I’ll say, “It’s a weak bureaucracy, right?” And they say, “Oh no, now it’s a strong bureaucracy.” But they say it with this grin on their face. It’s like somebody talking about their little cousin that’s grown up to be this gangly teenager. Stronger, but it’s still kind of considered as one of the weaker bureaucracies. Since the 20th Party Congress, since the elevation of people like Chén Jíníng 陈吉宁 into the Politburo, there is one more elevation of the environmental bureaucracy, or at least environmental governance on the government’s agenda. In this case, it seems like recently, people have been more optimistic about environmental governance in China in the future, but that’s kind of a basic trajectory of the environmental governance in China.

Chris: Really helpful to hear. And I think I definitely have some questions about current day, but I’m going to hold on those for a second. One thing that I found really interesting, because I hear this word thrown about in media but I hadn’t really fully digested it, is how Xi has this attack on formalism. And this actually really syncs with your ideas of performative governance as well. And I’ll read a couple of quotes here, he says that it uses “flamboyant forms to replace concrete implementation” and/or uses a “glamorous appearance to cover up contradictions and problems”. This seems like not just an issue with the environmental bureaus and environmental governance, but maybe a broader set of issues. Can you say maybe how this then extends beyond the environmental bureaus and is affecting governance in China more generally?

Iza: I think it was 2018 or 2019, Xí Jìnpíng 习近平 started this campaign against formalism and bureaucratism to tackle this problem. Formalism, it’s a really interesting concept. Formalism is obviously a big part of bureaucracy because bureaucracy is about forms and it’s about procedures. And then, formalism is also a term that’s being used by communist regimes critically. So, Stalin wrote about formalism.

And then the CCP has, since the 1940s, if not earlier, criticized formalism, pejorative in the CCPs terminology, and was borrowed from the Soviets, and refers to this prioritization of forms xíngshì (形式) over content, nèiróng (内容) or substance, shízhì (实质). In a study I did with Michael Thompson-Brusstar, who’s a PhD candidate at the University of Michigan, we found that there’s been skyrocketing, and this critical mentions of formalism in the People’s Daily in recent years. And then there’s been this campaign, I think 2018, 2019 about campaign against formalism. And what that tells me, and obviously the first thing is I’m not crazy. This is something that does exist, and not just in this little bureaucracy and in this big city, not little city. So, it is also a problem that the Party notices and is aware of and is concerned with.

However, I also want to emphasize that there’s some differences between formalism and performative governance because performative governance is not just about filling out the forms, going through the motions and modeling through, and so on and so forth. It captures the formalist side of performative governance, but it’s not just that. It is also gestures of concern, gestures of submission, gestures of benevolence, and submission to the people. It is about being people’s punching bags. It is about serving people tea, it is about being nice to people, really showing that your sincerity, and then how much you care about them even though you cannot do anything about what they’re upset about. So, there is this more theatrical performative side to performative governance and there’s more this formalistic side of performative governance that is closer to this sociological concept of symbolic implementation, perhaps.

Chris: One thing that also jumped out, I mean, you do discuss it in later chapters, is COVID, and this is something where it seems that there was a lot of substantive implementation. Can you say a little bit about how China’s COVID policies and responses fit with theory that you’re developing?

Iza: It’s really hard to, thinking about this, and surely, there’s been a lot of performative governance during COVID management, and perhaps the repertoire of performance would be different in that case. People have mentioned to me, “You have these dàbái (大白).”

Chris: Yeah, I was thinking the same thing actually.

Iza: Yeah, then go into the street spraying disinfectant onto the street, being performative. I guess it is also, people consider that symbols of effective good governance that is performative governance. But then you also see a lot of predatory behavior from the state. And it’s hard to figure out how public scrutiny plays a part into that, because in this case, do we still believe that the state cares about what people want, and what exactly do people want? Do they want zero COVID or do they want more economic activities and more freedom to move around? And I think people’s preferences have changed. If you think about public opinion, it’s very capricious., it’s malleable, it changes even from day to day in this COVID situation. So, it’s hard for me to wrap my head around this COVID thing.

And I did read yesterday this PhD student at Johns Hopkins SAIS, Zhuoran Li. He wrote this piece in the Diplomat saying performative governance has taken on this new twist during COVID when these lower-level bureaucrats, their performance were aimed at upper-level authority. So, they’re doing a lot for their superiors, but they cared a lot less about what people want. And I think you could see that through the lockdowns. And perhaps that’s not exactly the performance of good governance, in my definition of performative governance, but it’s a lot of performativity, I suffice to say.

Chris: Definitely a lot of symbolic action. I think maybe that we’re sort of still too historically close to everything that’s happened to have a good perspective on all of the different processes. One of the things that I was thinking about when reading your book, and some of the work that I’ve done in the past, and not just in China, but globally, has looked at social movements, protests, more active type of civil society. And obviously COVID is a little bit different of a situation. Around 2010 to 2015 or so, my impression was that there was a lot more activism around governance or if there’s some sort of plant was going to be built in some place that had some chemicals, there was a lot of citizen activism. But it seems that has slowed in recent times. Is that your sense or maybe just the news isn’t getting out?

Iza: That is definitely my sense that around about the trade war, and I think my observation is that Chinese citizens, just like the voters in democracies, that they’re also a single issue, not voters, but single issue people, right? Like we’re all single issue people, maybe like two or three, but not more than that. I think the attention of public opinion really changes. Obviously, when Chái Jìng’s 柴静 documentary, Under the Dome, was first released, it was viewed so many times, and everybody was supporting it on social media. But if you think about how people talk about this today, many people believe it’s some kind of American conspiracy because it received funding from American foundations, and it’s a documentary to sabotage China’s economic growth. And then Chai Jing is also perceived as not a good figure. And then some might even call her a traitor.

So, I think this shows, not only has the public paid less attention to pollution in recent years, and also, I think there’s no doubt that air quality, at least in Beijing, has improved since 2017. And I think I haven’t seen the latest data because we also know that in the past two years, some of those coal plants that the government stopped building, they restarted construction for these coal plants. We don’t know what’s happening right now, but I think part of that perhaps also comes from improving air quality. But I think a lot of that also is related to public attention shifting toward things like U.S.-China relations or rivalry with the United States, and also economic problems. So, the economic downturn problems with employment for graduates, and I think those are the bigger issues people are paying attention to, and obviously COVID.

Chris: On the sense of what people are paying attention to and sort of thinking back to reading your book, reactions to the performative actions on the results, sort of from these street-level bureaucrats, it’s really interesting to me. Like, I think about myself, my neighbor is cooking things that are creating a lot of smoke and are very annoying, and I go to the EPB, and they’re like, “Yes, I understand. Let me give you some tea.” And they’re very, very nice. That might work once or twice, but if my neighbor or the factory next door keeps doing it, I’m going to be kind of annoyed. And so, what’s your sense about the reaction of the general public to this performative governance?

Iza: I’ve got an answer that’s kind of two parts. The first part is from the perspective of the state or these street-level state agents, it’s less of a concern how long lasting the effect is or even whether it works, because from their perspective, they’re dealing with day-to-day crises, and they’re trying to prevent crises from getting bigger. And then they’re trying to protect their own rice bowl, no longer iron rice bowl, trying to keep their jobs and keep their bonuses. So, doing performative governance is really not some kind of Machiavellian master plan to improve regime support in three months, six months, a year, right? Those are the questions that we political scientists think about, but those are not the questions that the actual street-level bureaucrats think about.

One might argue that there’s a variation in time horizon for street-level bureaucrats and higher-level political leaders who actually are what we considered a part of the regime or regime insiders. For the street-level bureaucrats, it doesn’t matter if it works or not. That’s the best they could do. So, you do see sometimes performative governance breaking down, which is the penultimate chapter in my book. And you do see that breaking down, for instance, in Wuhan when whistleblowers released these destructive information about state performance. And another case study I feature is the Flint Water Crisis. And the same thing, for the longest time, there was inaction, but as soon as the whistleblower leaked the news to the news media and then you had the publication of this Virginia Tech report, and then you see performative governance, politicians getting on TV to drink water and so on and so forth. But it doesn’t work, right? Oftentimes, citizens don’t buy it.

Then there is the second question, do people still remember such things, right? Public attention is really short-lived. If you do it periodically, I don’t know if there is this clear rational learning thing that people are doing. This morning, one of my grad students, Huseyin Zengin, just published this paper on politicians weeping, crying for a public audience, which I consider it’s performative. What he found is that the effect, it does improve your popularity, but the effect lasts for about two months. That was really interesting to research. I thought two months is not too short, and then you don’t cry every day anyways.

Chris: It’s really interesting. I know Wen Jiabao was very famous for this

Iza: Yeah. Exactly. It’s an Erdogan crying, and apparently public approval improves for about two months.

Chris: One of the things that I think was really interesting in your book is that it did have this core initial focus on environmental protection bureaus, but then you expand it and talk about Wuhan and COVID, and Flint, and also Vietnam, I think, as well. Can you say a little bit more about those cases and how they really show how this performative governance can break down a little beyond what you just described?

Iza: Sure. So, that chapter is about the breaking down of performative governance, and basically, when shall we see, and clearly, it’s something that doesn’t always work. This is something that breaks down very often.

So, I have four cases. The first two cases I compare two water crises in China and Vietnam. And then, typically, China and Vietnam are considered as “most similar cases” because they’re both authoritarian regimes getting similar scores from the Freedom House. But then, after these water crises and officials in both countries went swimming into the river, and then their swimming was also captured in the news media.

But performative governance or going swimming worked better in China than it did in Vietnam. And why is that the case? My explanation is about the information environment, because as soon as the water pollution thing happens, and key fact to note is that Facebook and Google are not censored in Vietnam, but they are censored in China. Vietnam is actually one of Facebook’s, or Meta, if you will, largest markets. People use Facebook all the time. And then, to the extent that, I think a few years ago, the government had to set up their own Facebook page to compete with dissidents in this sea of information. So, as soon as the water crisis happen, you had these, what Erving Goffman called destructive information just circulating on Facebook about state malpractice. So, in this case, you could go swimming all you want and then put on these gestures, but people did not buy it. Whereas, I think, in an information environment, that’s more restricted. People are less likely to see such destructive information.

However, it’s not to say that performative governance always works in China, it’s not the case. The second comparison I did was between Wuhan government’s response to the COVID virus and then the Flint Water Crisis. In this case, despite the fact that China and the United States had very different regimes, one is autocracy, the other is a democracy, but performative governance broke down in both cases because of whistleblowers releasing of distracting information to the public.

Chris: I’m curious as well, thinking more about the current day, and we started talking about this a bit before, right now as we’re recording this, still the COP27 in Egypt is going on. Central government of China has made a number of important commitments to the general global climate change efforts of, I think, peak carbon by 2030, and then carbon neutrality by 2060. Curious to hear what your assessment is of the current state of environmental governance in China, both related to the international community, and then also coming out of the 20th Party Congress, where in Xi Jinping’s speech, environment was mentioned a number of times.

Iza: The beauty of writing a book like this is that if you’re wrong, that’s even better because if we see more substantive governance now, it’s good for the world, it’s good for China, and China has indeed done a lot over the past few years. Everybody’s noticed the improvement of air quality in Beijing since 2017, although I think last year, there was another airpocalypse that happened. And then, China has also been trying to wean itself off coal. And then I think these commitments are definitely not just symbolic. And there’s been a lot of substantive actions. As a social scientist, I’m more comfortable talking about those things in relative terms than in absolute terms, just that I think capacity is relative. We see this clear trajectory from performative governance towards substantive governance in recent years. But am I comfortable with saying everything’s substantive? I think it’s definitely not the case.

I think there’s still a long way to go. It’s never a smooth ride. And I think the most dramatic example was also from 2017, this CO2 gas policy that the central government implemented in some northern provinces and asking people to switch from coal to gas overnight. And then, right after that, we read in the news about, because some places didn’t have the infrastructure for gas or gas price was really expensive, and then we read about news stories of schoolchildren freezing in the cold and things like that. And then, immediately there was this reversal of this policy change, and a lot of places went back to coal burning. So, it’s never a smooth ride. It’s always ups and downs, a mixed bag of pros and cons. But I think, in terms of the China meeting its carbon peaking and promises and pledges, and I think one thing that I’ve been thinking about, and I’m curious to hear what you think, is that we’re also in a stage of economic slowdown, if not an economic crisis, at the global level. And many people think that’s coming.

What I want to emphasize here is that a reduction of emission does not only come from intentional government efforts. Many factors come into here. On the intentional effort side, you have the development of renewable energy, the deployment of renewables, which is just being very significant, and I think very impressive what China has done. And I think those are the areas that we can be very happy about and optimistic about. And then there are other factors that are not directly related to government efforts. For instance, natural gas has become cheaper for China due to the Russian-Ukraine conflict. So, then burning gas instead of coal can be one temporary source of emission reduction. And Europe instead has become more coal-friendly recently.

And then the other thing is consumption. That’s something I’ve been thinking about. Consumption is an important contribution to carbon emission. Obviously, it’s related to manufacturing, coal burning, and so forth. It’s not just the coal power plants that are pumping out carbons. Also, every one of us driving our cars, taking flights, eating meat, buying clothes, and so on and so forth, me, myself included. And this means something like COVID lockdown has unintendedly reduced a significant amount of emission usually generated by traveling. And also, the slowing down of the economy, widespread wage cuts, and increasing unemployment has probably also reduced or is going to reduce individual consumption and this emission associated with that.

What I’m guessing now, and this is purely just speculation on my part, is that we might see that the Chinese state will preempt the bad moods that will arise during future economic crises through the rhetoric of sustainable development and fighting climate change. Ironically, a slower economy makes it easier for China to achieve its carbon peak and carbon neutrality. And obviously, we can get into this debate about green growth and how likely that could happen. What I’m suggesting is that I think the economy has to be considered when we think about what China is going to do in the future in terms of the environment.

One of my concerns is that I don’t know if the public will buy this thing about climate mitigation and so on and so forth. Because when the economy is good, everybody could afford to care about the environment. But when the economy is bad, I don’t know if people will continue to care about this. So, I think the irony here is that the society cared about the environment when the state didn’t. That would be 2008. But now the state cares about the environment, and I’m not sure if the public still does or if it still will. I think we’ll see that. But I think when push comes to shove, people always pick their own economic survival, their livelihood over air pollution or environmental protection, even though we know that environmental quality is obviously linked to your livelihood. But I think that’s a less obvious part, at least in the eyes of citizens.

Chris: Yeah, that’ll be really interesting to observe. I hadn’t really thought of that sort of intriguing puzzle that you described. Economically, China has grown at almost 10% between 1978 and 2019. I mean, that’s just unheard of historically. And so, of course, there’s going to probably have a slowdown and justify that post hoc type of way with, “Oh, we want to do this because it’s actually about better livelihood for all of you and better environment,” is really an interest development. And then to see if the population actually buys it is a whole other question, which I think people would prioritize their economic wellbeing over their commitment to a long-term healthy society. But we’ll see what happens. That’ll be interesting to observe.

Iza: Yeah, and they do have a point, right? We’ve talked about environmental justice. So, people in developing countries, they do have a point in that, maybe not China, China’s contributed historically, what? 18%? It’s lower than the United States and Western Europe, right? To think about historical responsibility and the idea that, to what extent can developed countries tell developing countries to stop emitting, and then to not live the kind of life that people in the West can live? I think that’s a normative question that we really need to talk about while we were thinking about these empirical questions about governance and so forth.

Chris: And certainly, and I think just at the recent COP meeting, China joined with many of the countries in the global south to really demand these climate reparation payments, which, in part try to help address this, but whether countries in the north actually follow through on that and whether it’s enough, sort of too little, too late is another empirical question, but also very much a normative one. But we’re just about out of time. I guess my final question, and you touched on it earlier so I want to just come back to it, can you say a little bit about the outcomes of the 20th Party Congress as it relates to how you see the future of China’s environmental protection developing?

Iza: One of the things that I’ve noticed, and I think many have, is that Chen Jining, who’s the former minister of environmental protections, now in the Politburo, I think he was formerly the Minister of Environmental Protection between 2015 and ‘17. These developments are all in light of other initiatives that China has taken recently.

And I’ve always said, and maybe I’m wrong, Xi Jinping is personally an environmentalist at heart, and that’s my belief. And he was pro-environment, or at least ideologically pro-environment way before he became the General Party Secretary. When he was the Party secretary of Zhejiang, he regularly wrote about environmental protection for this column in Zhejiang Daily under a pen name. He talked about this theory of Green Mountain and Gold Mountain way back then in 2003 and ’04. Talked about things like human beings only have one earth, unsustainable development will draw nature’s revenge. GDP growth is performance, ecological protection is also performance. We need green GDP, and things like that. So, he was talking about green GDP in 2003. I think that was sincere. And I think it seems very clear even based on what he did. Some of the rhetoric has been quite consistent, and even things like circulatory economy, these things that we’ve noticed recently, he wrote about this 20 years ago. He is environmentalist or he likes the environment, believes in the protection of the environment, and I think he continues to be one.

But the story obviously is not simple when you’re managing so many different priorities that potentially come into tension. When your job is generalist as opposed to being working for the environmental protection bureaucracy, then you have to balance so many competing priorities. This is something that the people I know used to work for the EPB, and now work for other bureaucracies, have told me is that your personal passion over the environment, sometimes your power can come into tension.

And I see this a lot at the local level. And I say the same thing will probably go for Xi and Chen Jining. So, it remains to be seen. When their job are generalists, you have to give people employment, you have to deliver economic growth, and while protecting the environment, it’s really hard to do going forward. So that’s one of my observations.

One thing that was noted, and also, I mentioned in my book is that in the past, I think there are some really intriguing empirical studies showing that if you are a director of the environmental bureaucracy, it means the end of your career. One of my interviewees from the organization department, which is the CCP’s bureau office, said that being assigned, being promoted to become a director, EPB director, it means the end of somebody’s careers. And then there’s this really interesting paper in the Journal of Contemporary China finding that if you’re a local director of an Environmental Protection Bureau, your likelihood of being promoted to more powerful positions within the Party State is a lot lower than if you were directing the DRC or other more powerful bureaucracies.

I think like Chen Jining, as a counterexample to that theory, so maybe we’re going to start seeing people in the environmental bureaucracy being promoted. And obviously, this has not happened at a systematic level yet. But I think, once, if that happens more, then I think that’s also another good signal for the environment.

Chris: I always like ending on a good note. And so, both of these things that you mentioned, the one history that Xi Jinping has in promoting environmental topics, which I was not aware of, does sort of bode well for at least, potentially indicate some of his underlying interests, which is so hard to tell nowadays.

And I think, too, I do think that if someone’s going to be promoted to the Politburo, it probably, there’s sort of a leading indicator of future trends. And I think that, because China is really a country that potentially could have some serious negative impacts from climate change issues, that alone I think will hopefully spur attention. So, good. I think the environmental outlook for China actually is relatively a positive trend. Thank you so much, Iza, for joining us on China Corner Office.

Iza: Thank you for having me.