I visited China a few times in the years before Covid. In Hainan, I rode my bike past streets of empty high rise apartment buildings. In Tianjin I visited a near empty new financial district. Locals I spoke to talked about the ‘ghost cities’ of empty buildings. I observed conflicting rules for different parts of the economy.
While the national Chinese government focused on emission reduction, ‘export oriented’ areas were exempted from constraints on burning coal. Chinese people I lectured at RMIT initially strongly rejected my comments about coal use in export zones, then later apologised because they had found that I was right. Local industry was under strong pressure to shift to gas and improve energy efficiency, but the protected export zones could burn coal. Yet many of the businesses in those export zones were owned by multi-national businesses based in developed countries.
The national Chinese government might set agendas, but regional governments could adopt very different strategies. This has often involved building coal-fired power stations, excess housing and other infrastructure based on the philosophy of ‘if we build it they will come’, relying on outdated information and beliefs. To be fair, I have observed similar dissonance between the EU parliament and some member states, and in Australia.
One of my Chinese students commented to me that, when they had first come to Australia, they thought our approach was chaotic and inefficient. But, after spending some time here, they had realised that this actually involved checks and balances that reduced our risk of doing silly things, even though it took time. In contrast, in China, if top level governments made poor decisions, they would be rolled out without debate and could have serious adverse impacts. So the issue became balancing the inefficiencies of democratic processes against the inefficiencies of ‘top down’ control.
A practical example of the situation was the issue of ‘sponge cities’ – management of water pollution. China has many large and polluted rivers. But most of the land along those rivers is controlled by powerful land developers that are well-connected to senior bureaucrats. My students were very excited by a case study of Melbourne Water’s approach in the Dandenong Creek Valley. MW diverted water from the creek to nearby areas where they developed wetlands to treat the water before it was returned to the creek.
The group realised that, while the riversides were controlled by powerful developers, there was a lot of polluted, unutilised land not far away. So there was potential to divert polluted water from a river for treatment in polluted areas, then feed it back into the river. This would allow them to create new recreational areas and regenerate degraded land. Instead of confronting powerful vested interests, they could become heroes by creating valuable recreational spaces, rehabilitating degraded land and enhancing environmental outcomes.
There were some important lessons for me. There are many intelligent and skilled people in China who want a better world and a better local environment, just as many Australians do. But they have to cope with the complexities of their circumstances, just as we do. They face increasing challenges due to the agendas of their national and regional governments and the power of vested interests.
It is not clear to me how all this will play out in China, but we face similar uncertainties in Australia as we begin to recognise the appalling behaviour of many of our elected representatives and businesses.
I think we need to recognise that, as in Australia, there are many well-intentioned people with genuine public interest in China. But they have to work within seriously inadequate and distorted institutional structures – not very different to us. We need to fix our failures before they undermine our democracy even further.
Alan Pears AM has worked on clean energy and climate policy for several decades. His work spans all sectors of the economy, ranging from practical site-level projects to program development and implementation, policy analysis and education. He is a Senior Industry Fellow at RMIT University and a Fellow at the University of Melbourne’s Climate and Energy College.