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A billboard in Mount Zhao featuring the slogan "clear waters and green mountains".

Environmentalism in China consists of philosophical concepts and the movement within China with the goals of preserving its environment and addressing environmental issues.

Within the governing Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the concepts of ecological Marxism, eco-socialism, and ecological civilization are key elements of national environmental policy. These terms can be defined differently by various thinkers. Ecological Marxism is defined as the thought that capitalism accumulation has led to the eventual collapse of the environment through commodifying aspects of nature. Eco-socialism is like ecological Marxism but differs in the fact that it infuses traditional socialism with the environmental movement. Ecological civilization is the current term used by the Chinese government to explain their new environmental policy, yet whether it is considered radical or conservative is determined by who is analyzing the policy. While all these theories share similar foundations and views of the future, they are all theoretically different and view the methods to obtain their future differently. These theories have made an impact on China and the CCP in general on how they implement environmental protection and the language they use to describe the policies.

Theoretical overview

Ecological Marxism in China

Ecological Marxism emerged in 1979 in the book Western Marxism: An Introduction, Classical and Contemporary sources by Ben Agger.[1] Though it has been discussed since then by a wide array of thinkers, there is no set definition of the term, but more a collection of varying ideas. The term is based on the idea that the effects of capitalist accumulation and growth on the environment will lead to eventual collapse and that commodifying nature is unmanageable.[1] The term ecological Marxism can be misleading since many[who?] can believe it will have a lot of scientific influences. Rather, ecology in this theory is referring to movements and ideas about nature and how capitalism relates to it.[2] It discusses the failure of capitalists in understanding of nature and seeing its sources as inexhaustible and the relentless pollution and degradation of these natural resources. James O'Connor explains that ecological Marxism is "the drive for the endless accumulation of capital—and the state apparatuses that support that drive—leads to the undermining of the very processes that enable the reproduction of capital."[2] Capitalism is inherently anti-ecological[according to whom?] because it rests upon the destruction of the surrounding environment for the sake of accumulation. This accumulation rests upon having an outlet of unethical actions, such as dumping, and pollution with no end in sight. Since capitalism sees its future as endless growth, the surrounding environment itself must create an endless access to extract resources and dump waste.[1] Furthermore, the resources that allow capitalism to produce more are treated as commodities, yet these aren't real commodities. Described as 'fictitious commodities', nature cannot be given a money value and this absence of exchange value creates a violent appropriation of resources by the state and capitalists.[2]

In China, ecological Marxism is being used as a guide to create a new ecological civilization. Yet while this theory may provide a basis for a new method of building China and protecting its environment, it has led to self-criticism of government policy or other nations' complicity in China's environmental record.[1] Ecological Marxism is supposed to be the antidote to capitalist logic about endless accumulation and reveal the destructive policies capitalism has on the environment. China as a socialist country is posed to be able to implement this theory easier since it rests upon Marx's critiques of capital and free markets.[1]

Ecological civilization

Main article: Ecological civilization

One main avenue ecological Marxism dives into is the creation of an ecological civilization. This idea is being pushed in China and the CCP as a way to solve the climate crisis. Ecological civilization tries to clarify the true meaning of civilization without the violent structure of capitalism, a utopic future.[3] While ecological civilization does not have a set definition, this[clarification needed] allows it to be interpreted in different ways on how it can be applied. This allows China, and possibly others, to claim it has achieved ecological civilization even if it hasn't to other theorists. China projects itself as a socialist country, able to take over the mantel of ecological Marxism and the future of ecological civilization. Currently[when?], it engages in neoliberalism, which puts China at odds with this proposed future. The way they make policy is through socialist terms, but it engages in neoliberalism and market capitalism which puts it in an oxymoron situation.

Though the term emerged first in the Soviet Union in 1984, it was in China under Pan Yue, the vice-minister of China's state environmental protection administration, that it was promoted within the CCP and Chinese society. The idea of ecological civilization has been embraced by the government, as central policy objective, but this has been more surface level support.[3] Under Pan Yue, he promoted the idea of "green GDP", which takes into account environmental damage to show that economic growth is really false. He goes on to further argue that to solve the global climate crisis, people need to be engaged and mobilized in public decision-making of how to solve it.[3] Pan Yue believed the state is responsible in mobilizing its resources in fixing the climate crisis, with the public in control of the government to control the economy. Pan Yue was able to garner support with his use of Chinese traditional thought and history by "assert[ing] that Chinese tradition is eco-centric, endorsing ideas about an intrinsic harmony between humankind and nature."[4] He uses this interpretation of Chinese tradition to contrast with the West, arguing, "Western tradition is essentially anthropocentric, placing humans in a dominant position vis-à-vis nature."[4] By using traditional Chinese thought, particularly Confucianism, he claims that ecological civilization is in line with Chinese tradition that has been forgotten.[4]

Ecological civilization in terms of China

Since 2007, ecological civilization has been incorporated into the CCP rhetoric, with Secretary General Jintao Hu's working report to the 17th National Congress naming ecological civilization as a main policy objective for the government. This would bleed into the 18th National Congress report by Secretary General Jintao Hu, where the implementation of an ecological civilization must be accelerated. This included reversing environmental pollution trends, more environmentally sustainable production systems, and ensuring global ecological security.[5] To obtain the goals previously mentioned, implementation requires: revamping land-use patterns, promoting resource conservation, enhancing ecosystem protection, and supporting the growth of an eco-civilization system. Within five years, the CCP moved from language of support to policy objectives on how to implement ecological civilization. To the CCP, ecological civilization has become the logical next step in supporting the growth of socialism overall, while meeting the objectives of leading environmental reform in the world. For the Chinese government, "Eco-civilization emerged as a result of the political leadership's recognition of the magnitude of environmental and climate-related challenges that China is facing," and seeks to bring Chinese culture with socialism to address the problems of the climate crisis.[4] Finally, while the Chinese government and intellectuals frame eco-civilization as a Chinese project, they also offer it as a solution for the rest of the world. Its focus on solving the climate crisis with continued economic growth, is appealing to any country that wishes to take the climate crisis seriously.[4]

General Secretary Xi Jinping's relationship with ecological civilization

Since becoming General Secretary in 2012, Xi Jinping has led the response and direction of the CCP regarding ecological civilization. As General Secretary, and his previous leadership roles, he has championed eco-civilization, even coining a popular phrase: "clean waters and lush mountains are gold and silver."[4] His theoretical viewpoint has 5 main points. First, its foundations start with Marxist philosophy, which centers upon the relationship between nature and humans. Second, it also builds upon traditional Chinese ecological thought on the ideas of unity of man and nature. Next, ecological civilization follows a progression of increasing environmental thought due to ecological crises. With the most looming crisis of all, the climate crisis, ecological civilization becomes a more radical approach to face this crisis. Fourth, the move toward sustainable development across the world, has pushed Xi to make a sustainable development plan that has Chinese characteristics and can lead the global movement. Lastly, it sustains the process of Sinification of socialism.[6] To make this theory a real-life system, 5 reforms need to be taken as required by Xi Jinping. First, "an ecological cultural system to enhance the whole society's scientific and moral capability of ecological civilization under the guidance of ecological values."[7] Secondly, the new economic system created should incorporate environmental assessment into the development of industrialization, forming the two into one being. Third, targets for ecological quality that sets a minimum of requirement. Fourth, the streamline of environmental law, legislation, and policy into one structure that complements the government. Fifth, a security of the environment that focuses on the prevention of disasters.[7]

Eco-socialism in China

Ecological Marxism also spreads into the domain of ecological socialism, or eco-socialism, which seeks to be the antithesis to neoliberalism. Its critique of capitalism explores the way "capitalist production relationships influence or otherwise shape the productive forces (defined as land, energy, raw materials, technology, machinery, labor skills, work organization, and other means and objects of production and also as housing, transport, and other means and objects of reproduction or consumption).[8] Eco-socialism takes traditional socialism and reforms it to include environmental issues, describing a utopian society of direct democracy, decentralization, communal ownership, and focus on the local stakeholder.[9]

Eco-socialism research in China began in the 1980s and has focused on three main themes: Marx's and Engels thoughts on the relationship of nature and humans, Western eco-socialists and eco-socialists' analyses of socialism with Chinese characteristics. Ecological civilization in China has become the future utopia once industrial civilization has ended.[3] Though it only can be thought of as the technical term for how to solve ecological problems with technological solutions, similar to the method the West has taken. Yet it can take a radical view that the centralization of the government by capitalism should be challenged by institutions that subordinate markets and empower individuals at the local level.[3]

Ecological Marxism in use

To address environmental problems in the theoretical sphere, the three major political ecologies used are: national environmental protection policy, sustainable development strategy, and scientific concept of development.

Environmental protection national policy 1978–1991

In 1978, when China moved the political conscious from class struggle to economic construction, it, in turn, welcomed environmental protection. But economic modernization still gained priority when in competition with environmental protection.[10]

Sustainable development strategy 1992–2001

This strategy was adopted when China was to attend the Rio summit, and to follow the international treaties on environmental protections, new national laws were made to meet the standards. This led to a new philosophy regarding economic development and environmental protection—both can be achieved at the same time if the economic goals are framed in environmentally safe methods.[10]

Scientific concept of development/ecological Modernization, 2002 onwards

To ensure the Chinese economy achieves a highly competitive and long growth, it has to make plans to carry out a transformation focusing on scientific development that is still environmentally friendly. This would be the foundation for the ecological civilization that Jintao Hu put forth in 2007 and 2012 in the working paper to the National Congress. This new principle works upon the idea that economic growth that is centered upon environmental harm will not help long term and is a high cost for the environment.[10]

Forest conservation in the Greater Khingan Range, China

The Greater Khingan Range has become a key area for forest conservation under the Natural Forest Conservation Program, which seeks to lower commercial logging amounts along with illegal logging.[11] In the article "Eco-socialism and the political ecology of forest conservation in the Greater Khingan Range, China" by Kevin Lo Liyuan Zhu, he explores the effects that state-owned enterprises have over forest conservation through the lens of eco-socialism. By looking at conservation practices through an eco-socialist or political ecology lens, a cost–benefit analysis for the environment and the political social dynamics of the area can be evaluated. Political ecology "seeks to reveal the politics at work in distributing, managing, and redistributing access to natural resources, political ecology has been influential in explaining socio-ecological crises—especially in the developing world,"[11] Because nature has become commoditized, looking at the ways the forest has become politicized by different actors explains how nature and the government can either become a positive or negative feedback loop. Political ecology helps explain this phenomenon, coining the term political forest, which expresses "the nature of the denaturalized forest and reveal how different groups of actors compete for access to and benefit from natural resources."[11]

The forestry sector is heavily populated with SOE's or state-owned enterprises. With the passing of the Natural Forest Conservation Program (NFCP) in 1998, this slowly changed how this area could make a profit from the SOE's. The program wished to put small incremental regulations that would allow the SOE to continue but not add to any existing environmental problems or disasters. Environmental problems in rural areas are seen by the government as caused by rural backwardness, and the use of SOEs as needed to mitigate these inefficiencies. The SOEs can use land enclosure and resettlement policies to enact programs in sync with government policies. The local community has become resistant to the new changes due to their trickle-down effect.[11] Studies see the change from traditional practices to the market-based conservation intervention as hazardous to the resident's culture with nominal environmental benefits.[11] But local officials are found to have greater control over the projects even if they are directed by the central government and SOEs on the overarching theme.

These SOEs are relics of the Mao era but have gone through changes in principles and structure. SOEs are more in tune with the market, being government-affiliated organizations that are focused on profits.[11] Though they are affiliated with the government, not all SOEs function the same regarding environmental protections and reformation. SOEs that are in resource-based industries located in remote areas can exhibit the most control over government management regarding environmental policy.[11] With China's move towards environmental protection and the forestry, SOEs have been restructured to hit the targets that the central government has put forth. Because they are sponsored by the state, they are given more benefits by the government to stay in business even through the restructuring process. The four reorganization processes the Liyuan Zhu identifies are "(1) declining timber sales and increasing central subsidies; (2) restructuring of work-units; (3) creating redundancies; and (4) developing new sustainable economic activities."[11]

With the SOE in the area being the main employer, those that have been dismissed faced large issues in being able to stay in the area and contribute. Those that were still employed by the Huzhong Forestry Bureau took a pay cut but were able to improve on work conditions overall. Those that lost their job joined other millions in becoming migrant workers, which continued their financial instability. Additionally, eco-restructuring of the company became negatively viewed.[11]

Declining timber sales and increasing central subsidies

The SOE focused on the article is Huzhong Forestry Bureau (HFZB) which, under the new guidelines by the government regarding forestation, was given subsidies for the loss of revenue and to carry over forest conservation. They received 1666.6 million yuan from the central government from 2011 to 2017.[11] This ensures that the company does not have to go under and runs the same amount of profit even with decreasing timber sales.

Restructuring of work units

Workers that had originally been in work units that focused on logging, storage and management, delivery, processing, and the delivery of the processed product would be transferred to new work teams that focused on forest conservation policies, such as forest supervision teams, afforestation teams, and social welfare and fire protection teams.[11]


While the government provides subsidies to help with the restructuring of the company, this still affects the employment of workers. Many were laid off, starting with the contract workers, due to lack of job security protection. But with each new period of more stringent forest protection, job layoffs would follow. Contract workers originally had no compensation until 2008, when they received a one-off compensation of 341 yuan per service year compared to permanent workers that received 800 yuan per service year, with an additional 5000 yuan per person.[11]

New economic activities

Since the company could no longer fulfill its original purpose with the adoption of new forestry laws by the central government, the company worked to build an eco-tourism sector and the collecting and planting of non-timber forest products.[11]

13th Five Year Plan 2016–2020

One of the main policies is a national zoning plan to determine land use functions; one of the subsidiaries of this is the ecological redline policy "whereby governments designate and enforce regulatory targets on ecosystem area at the landscape level, which is considered a 'lifeline' to protect ecosystem functioning for vital services."[12] While China has over 10,000 protected areas that cover around 18% of the country, the ecological conservation redline areas will designate areas that are the bottom line of the area to keep them healthy and biodiverse.[12] To ensure that the ecological conservation redlines are successful, reforms need to be made, including new legal mechanisms of protection, ecological assessments, conversation with local stakeholders, and performance targets with benchmarks and monitoring systems to determine the success of actions. At the moment, 15 provinces have created their ecological conservation redlines, accounting for about 25% of the total area of the provinces.[12]

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e Zhihe, Wang; Huili, He; Meijun, Fan (2014-11-03). "The Ecological Civilization Debate in China: The Role of Ecological Marxism and Constructive Postmodernism—Beyond the Predicament of Legislation". Monthly Review. 66 (6): 37. doi:10.14452/mr-066-06-2014-10_3. ISSN 0027-0520.
  2. ^ a b c Saed (2019-10-02). "James Richard O'Connor's Ecological Marxism". Capitalism Nature Socialism. 30 (4): 1–12. doi:10.1080/10455752.2018.1495307. ISSN 1045-5752. S2CID 218586785.
  3. ^ a b c d e Gare, Arran (December 2012). "China and the Struggle for Ecological Civilization". Capitalism Nature Socialism. 23 (4): 10–26. doi:10.1080/10455752.2012.722306. ISSN 1045-5752. S2CID 144136503.
  4. ^ a b c d e f Hansen, Mette Halskov; Li, Hongtao; Svarverud, Rune (2018-11-01). "Ecological civilization: Interpreting the Chinese past, projecting the global future". Global Environmental Change. 53: 195–203. doi:10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2018.09.014. hdl:10852/65609. ISSN 0959-3780. S2CID 158660350.
  5. ^ The Routledge handbook on ecosocialism. Leigh Brownhill, Salvatore Engel-Di Mauro, Terran Giacomini, Ana Isla, Michael Löwy, Terisa Turner. Abingdon, Oxon. 2022. ISBN 978-0-429-34142-7. OCLC 1266195380.((cite book)): CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link) CS1 maint: others (link)
  6. ^ Huang, Chengliang (2019-06-01). "Theoretical Origins of Xi Jinping's Thought on Ecological Civilization". Chinese Journal of Urban and Environmental Studies. 07 (2): 1975002. doi:10.1142/S2345748119750022. ISSN 2345-7481. S2CID 204475726.
  7. ^ a b Pan, Yue (2021), Pan, Jiahua; Gao, Shiji; Li, Qingrui; Wang, Jinnan (eds.), "Developing Socialist Ecological Civilization with Chinese Characteristics", Beautiful China: 70 Years Since 1949 and 70 People's Views on Eco-civilization Construction, Singapore: Springer Singapore, pp. 399–408, doi:10.1007/978-981-33-6742-5_39, ISBN 978-981-336-741-8, S2CID 234137186, retrieved 2022-05-28
  8. ^ Fukuyama, Francis; O'Connor, James (1998). "Natural Causes: Essays in Ecological Marxism". Foreign Affairs. 77 (3): 132. doi:10.2307/20048895. ISSN 0015-7120. JSTOR 20048895.
  9. ^ Pepper, David (2010), Huan, Qingzhi (ed.), "On Contemporary Eco-socialism", Eco-socialism as Politics, Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands, pp. 33–44, doi:10.1007/978-90-481-3745-9_3, ISBN 978-90-481-3744-2, retrieved 2022-05-28
  10. ^ a b c Huan, Qingzhi (2010), Huan, Qingzhi (ed.), "Growth Economy and Its Ecological Impacts Upon China: An Eco-socialist Analysis", Eco-socialism as Politics, Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands, pp. 191–203, doi:10.1007/978-90-481-3745-9_13, ISBN 978-90-481-3744-2, retrieved 2022-05-28
  11. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Zhu, Liyuan; Lo, Kevin (2022-03-01). "Eco-socialism and the political ecology of forest conservation in the Greater Khingan Range, China". Political Geography. 93: 102533. doi:10.1016/j.polgeo.2021.102533. ISSN 0962-6298. S2CID 243777771.
  12. ^ a b c Jiang, Bo; Bai, Yang; Wong, Christina P.; Xu, Xibao; Alatalo, Juha M. (2019-02-01). "China's ecological civilization program–Implementing ecological redline policy". Land Use Policy. 81: 111–114. doi:10.1016/j.landusepol.2018.10.031. ISSN 0264-8377. S2CID 158829260.