Both boosters and critics of the Chinese Communist regime seem to agree on one thing: When the government puts its mind to something, it gets done. Supporters boast that's how China quickly controlled the spread of Covid-19; rivals warn that's why China poses such a threat to the more divided democracies of the West. In fact, what both sides should worry about isn't the fact that China can do big things, but the ways in which it can't.
The country's ongoing struggle against pollution presents the clearest example. Chinese leaders once viewed air and water pollution largely as a Western problem. After decades of rapid industrialization, however, China is struggling with issues even the West never had to confront. An estimated 80% of Chinese citizens are regularly exposed to pollution levels much higher than those considered safe by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. While China has recorded only around 4,600 Covid-19 deaths, each year 1.24 million Chinese die from pollution, second only to India.
The West got a handle on its pollution problems by writing new laws and strengthening environmental protection agencies. Non-governmental actors — individuals, NGOs and the press — were encouraged to expose problems, monitor governments and corporations, and file lawsuits against polluters and government agencies.
Along with an independent judicial system, these policy tools have proven powerful enough to outlast even radical changes in government. That's why the Trump administration's efforts to roll back environmental regulations have generally failed. According to the Institute for Policy Integrity at the New York University School of Law, the administration has lost 87% of legal challenges to its "regulations, guidance documents, and agency memoranda."
Rather than promoting such grassroots action, China has approached pollution as it has other big problems — through intense, politically charged campaigns. In March 2014, China launched its "war on pollution." By setting a clear goal with a measurable outcome and by mobilizing society and civil servants, the campaign helped cut through the red tape that plagues China's complex and multi-layered bureaucracy. By the end of 2018, according to government data, China had curtailed concentrations of PM 2.5 — the most dangerous particulate matter — by 46%.
There are several problems with such campaigns, however. First, they remain too dependent upon the whim of government. Once the campaign achieves the stated target, the leadership's attention often slips and society goes back to business as usual.
Coal and steel production and consumption, for instance, declined during the four-year campaign and were slated for further cutbacks after 2018. Instead they've risen as the government has shifted its focus to stimulating growth. Local governments looking to accelerate the recovery from Covid-19 are continuing the damage.
Second, in a political system where officials are only accountable to their superiors not the people they serve, underlings can carry out orders so enthusiastically that they backfire. In 2017, when the government initially planned to convert 1.8 million homes in Hebei province from coal-burning to gas furnaces, officials were so eager to comply that they prompted more than 2.5 million homes to make the switch, oftentimes physically destroying their coal stoves in the process. Increased demand for gas, combined with unexpectedly low imports, left a large number of households without heat that winter.
Third, by zeroing in on targets designated by the state, top-down campaigns aren't good at responding to new challenges. With its single-minded focus on reducing PM 2.5 levels, the campaign against air pollution largely failed to contain other pollutants such as ozone. Indeed, lower levels of PM 2.5 combined with record industry output and hot weather has created a favorable environment for ozone; average ozone exposure in China rose by 17% during 2014-2017. In 2019, the average ozone concentration rate saw a year-on-year increase of 6.5%, indicating stronger photochemical pollution.
To tackle its pollution woes more efficiently, China would need to work more through laws than campaigns. It would also need to expand public participation in the policy process and empower citizens and NGOs to hold governments and companies accountable. This would in turn require a freer press, a more independent court system and a more autonomous civil society.
None of that is likely to happen, of course, because it would undermine the state's grip on power. To the contrary, President Xi Jinping has moved to reclaim political dominance for the Communist party, depriving the media and ordinary citizens of any significant and independent role in combating the scourge of pollution. The government not only decides which NGOs can file environmental lawsuits, it controls the decisions of judges.
China arguably faces the worst of both worlds: Its internal challenges are mounting even as the systematic underdevelopment of governance institutions makes it harder to confront them. The country is no longer insulated from the problems that once plagued industrialized nations. Yet it arguably lacks the institutional capacity needed to solve them.
This suggests the West should be preparing for the possibility that China might lose its battles against pollution and other systemic challenges, creating a deeply unstable superpower. That problem might be too big for anyone to solve.
Disclaimer: This opinion first appeared on Bloomberg, and is published by special syndication arrangement