Sisyphus in Shanghai

students explore shanghai

Balancing China’s growth with sustainability efforts is an uphill battle

by Tony Moore 

With a population of more than 23 million, Shanghai is the largest city in the world, and it's also developing faster than just about every other city on earth. So if you've been awarded a grant through the Luce Foundation's Initiative on Asian Studies and the Environment (LIASE), Shanghai would be a great place to carry out your research.

In May 2012, grant recipients Neil Diamant, professor of Asian law and society, and Michael Fratantuono, associate professor of international studies, business and management, gathered a diverse group of students and embarked on a trip to the massive Chinese city to learn about the local environment and sustainability policies in place. Leading up to the trip, Diamant and Fratantuono met with students to provide historical, cultural, social, political and economic background, but what the students found in China still often came as a surprise.

"China was not what I expected in a lot of ways," says Vanessa Ceja-Cervantes '15, a double major in Spanish and environmental science. "I expected to see a China that was not motivated to improve its environmental issues and continue with its path of economic growth. But there were a few organizations that were working hard to improve the condition of their environment."

Foreign companies, in particular, are already working to minimize their operations' effects on the environment.

"While we were there, we visited a couple of electronics assembly factories, and even the Coca-Cola factory," says Vivian Butali '13, an economics major. "All of these companies were already increasing their annual profit year by year, while at the same time reducing their carbon footprint. What was surprising to me was that they were very aware of the pollution that Chinese industry releases into the atmosphere and that they were taking serious steps to improve their environmental circumstances."

Incentivized growth

Once in Shanghai, the group attended lectures and briefings and participated in Q&A sessions with Chinese officials. The students learned that the government's incentive structure for its officials is based strictly on economic growth and shoves sustainability to the back burner, often indefinitely.

"Not too many people look at China as a model of environmental sustainability," Diamant says. "It's a long-term goal, and officials don't stay in one post long enough to see these initiatives through. Tenure is three or four years, so if they initiate something—close down a factory and a river starts getting better—they won't be there to see it, and it won't affect their promotion, and this affects how officials behave."

All of this is occurring at a time when growth in China as a whole is being compared to that in the United States during the Industrial Revolution. And students saw this growth firsthand as they traveled to different parts of Shanghai and to other cities via the metro system and high-speed rail.

"The key difference is that in China time is sort of compressed and telescoped," Diamant says. "Things that took a long time to develop in the West, including the Industrial Revolution, are happening much more rapidly in China because they are playing catch-up."

"We visited China at a transitional moment," says Fratantuono. "Only a few years ago, most thought leaders argued that China should continue to pursue rapid economic growth until 2020; only then should it turn attention to environmental sustainability. Now, many people say that China cannot wait and must strike a better balance between those two goals."

"I asked people of various backgrounds what they thought about the environmental issues occurring in China," Ceja-Cervantes recalls, "and they agreed that [damaging the environment] was wrong because we're losing valuable resources, but no one said it was wrong because we should protect the environment just because it's the right thing to do. This type of thinking was a big shock to me, because I thought everyone saw the environment as I did."

Solutions and illusions

In a country where people are generally hesitant to oppose the government, the solution to the pollution problems faced there might ironically come through doing just that: China is on record as wanting to improve its environmental policies, so environmental politics is an area where people are in fact freer to engage in activism.

"It's about maintaining power," Diamant says, "and the threat of social instability is likely to be the biggest impetus to a stronger environmental protection regime." Enter old-fashioned protests, just the kind of thing the government might clamp down on otherwise.

"The examples of sustained environmental protection are in democracies, not authoritarian states," Diamant adds. "But when people don't have clean air and water and their kids get poisoned, they don’t limit themselves to filing lawsuits—they also demonstrate. In the end, activists can use the government's fear of losing control to their advantage, because it strikes fear into the heart of the Communist Party."

What the future holds

For now, what the Chinese government wants and what it says it wants may be two different things, and re-balancing priorities may prove to be one step forward and two steps back for a while to come. "All in all, the students were constantly confronted by the intensity, scale and complexity of contemporary Shanghai and formed opinions about the formidable challenges of balancing economic growth with environmental sustainability," Fratantuono says. "We believe that experience provided students with a foundation for further exploration in the years ahead."

For Butali and Ceja-Cervantes, foundations were certainly laid. "I am originally from the third-world country of Kenya," Butali explains, "and after this trip, I further realized my desire to help improve my home country's educational and economic-advancement opportunities for young women like myself. So, after college, I hope to work with or, if I am lucky enough, start up an NGO that can help me reach this career goal either in the United States or in Kenya."

"I want to go back [to Shanghai] and become more familiar with the environment and culture and which areas of the environment are in greater need of help," says Ceja-Cervantes. "I feel like trips like this will really help me in the future, especially when I'm dealing with larger environmental issues. If anything, this summer program solidified my plans for the future, after Dickinson."

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Published October 4, 2012