NRC interviews Annah Zhu: ‘China plants trees the way it builds buildings: quick, efficient and large’

Published on
October 6, 2020

This NRC Opinon Editioral piece by Paul Luttikhuis (September 2020) is an interview with dr. Annah Zhu regarding her research on China's growing role in global environmental governance. What does environmentalism look like outside of an understanding rooted in the Western world?

(English translation of the NRC interview below)

Annah Zhu: ‘China plants trees the way it builds buildings: quick, efficient and large'

Now that China is taking part in climate and environment debates, the focus will shift from pure nature conservation to creating sustainable ecosystems with a strong human presence. "Untouched nature isn’t prized in China."

When President Donald Trump decided shortly after taking office in 2017 to pull the United States out of the Paris climate agreement, his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping was ready to step into the vacancy. Xi never missed an opportunity to voice his concerns about climate change and the environment.
In the same week that Trump was sworn in, Xi became the first Chinese leader to attend the World Economic Forum in Davos. Speaking to the global economic elite, he appealed to all countries to affirm their commitment to the climate agreement. "We have a responsibility to future generations," he said.
The next day, visiting the United Nations in Geneva, he referred to the climate agreement as a "milestone in the history of climate governance." According to Xi, we must realize "that there’s only one Earth in our universe, and mankind has only one home."
This was music to Europe’s ears. But Annah Zhu, who researches environmental globalisation at Wageningen University, warns that while the European Union might be eager to do business with China on climate- and environment-related issues, it's not the same as dealing with the US.
"China’s emergence as a global player in environmental negotiations will not be without consequences," says Zhu, speaking over Skype. "Concepts like nature and the environment have a very different meaning in China than they do in the West."

China’s emergence as a global player in environmental negotiations will not be without consequences. Concepts like nature and the environment have a very different meaning in China than they do in the West.
Annah Zhu

Zhu’s interest in Chinese environmental policy started about 10 years ago when she was volunteering in Madagascar with the American Peace Corps. She noticed how vast numbers of rosewood trees were being felled, with most of the wood being shipped to China. What was driving the demand for this expensive timber? And why was China seemingly unconcerned by the damaging impact this was having on Madagascar’s environment? These questions made their way into her doctoral research.

‘Ecological civilisation
According to Zhu, who has a special interest in China's growing role in global environmental policy, it’s specifically Western to regard nature as existing separately from mankind, with an inherent value of its own. This is not to say that China has no interest in nature and the environment. Xi has often said that "green mountains are as good as gold mountains."
As recently as a few years ago, the Chinese government still regarded pollution as an inevitable outcome of the economic development that would lift its population out of poverty. But since 2018, China’s constitution has defined the country as an ‘ecological civilisation’. This includes caring for the environment.
Zhu explains how in Europe and the US views of nature have been changed under the influence of Romanticism. Rather than being a frightening wilderness, nature came to be understood as something beautiful, and vulnerable. As such, nature also became something worth protecting, in all its pristine beauty.
"That shift in perception never happened in China, or indeed in most other countries around the world," says Zhu. "Pristine natural landscapes aren’t prized in China. Instead, it’s always about people in the context of their environment, and about balance and harmony. Traditional fine art will depict beautiful natural landscapes, with mountains and waterfalls. But there’s always a village or group of people in there somewhere."


What does that mean for China’s role in global environmental policy?
"Climate and the environment are strategic issues for China. Domestically, the environment is one of the few topics where the Communist Party accepts a certain degree of public dissent. They really want to solve environmental problems, and it’s easier to do so if they give citizens space to express their concerns. Not too overtly and not in the form of demonstrations. But there must be an opportunity to raise environmental issues.
"The party allows more dissent on this issue than on many others. And that’s partly how China is able to present itself as a environmental leader to the global community. That leadership will go hand in hand with a shift to sustainable ecosystems with a greater human presence."

Western countries complain that China takes advantage of the fact that it isn’t a democracy.
"Yes, people speak of authoritarian environmentalism. I’m not a fan of that description. It doesn’t allow for a nuanced assessment of China’s policies. And it glosses over the fact that the country’s citizens put a lot of pressure on the government to solve environmental problems. The term does, however, clearly show the tension between democracy and personal freedom on the one hand, and the will of the state to get things done on the other.
"Up until the start of this century, many people in the West thought that China opening its doors to the West would drive a move towards greater democracy. Democracy was seen as a natural outcome of development. But it doesn’t seem to work that way. China was eager to learn from the West, to emulate its knowledge and prosperity. But this was always based on the understanding that China does things in its own way. The Western idea of a universal humanism doesn’t permit the possibility that there are other ways of thinking. That was rather naïve."
According to Zhu, anyone who negotiates with China on climate and the environment must first accept that the Chinese have a different way of thinking. China will not simply adopt the Western agenda on the environment. Granted, they won’t simply dismiss that agenda either. But they will want to modify it.
This will mean a shift away from protecting nature as we know it and towards the creation of sustainable ecosystems. Take tree planting, for instance – widely regarded as one of the most efficient ways of combating climate change. China has done it on a larger scale than any other country in the world.
"Satellite images prove that over the past two decades, China has contributed by far the most towards greening the landscape," says Zhu. "At first there were all sorts of problems, and many trees died. But China has significantly developed its expertise in this area.
At the same time, the way in which China plants forests is controversial. They do it as they build buildings: quick, efficient and large. It’s about capturing CO2 and, in the north, combating desertification. They’re not trying to restore nature to its original, pristine state. Critics sometimes refer to these artificial Chinese forests as ‘green deserts’."
Will this type of environmental governance start to take hold beyond China?
"Through the Belt and Road Initiative, China is exporting its expertise and enormous development capacity abroad. What started as an infrastructure project for countries that wanted to participate, has expanded into a vast cultural and geopolitical project. This means that the world will face large-scale environmental destruction, but also new, large-scale forms of environmental protection. Forests will be cleared to make way for new infrastructure, and new forests will be planted to compensate."

China has shut down its own coal plants, and it protects its own fishing territories, while elsewhere the country builds power plants and plunders the ocean. How is that possible?
"China says that they leave the choice up to the countries with which they make agreements. Do they want a coal plant? Fine, they can have one. Do they want a cheap one rather than a clean one? That’s fine too. It’s assistance without any demands attached. National sovereignty comes first."

Is it really that simple?
"No, of course not. Many of these countries have weak governance. And China is a powerful player that also wants something in return. Natural resources, for example. But the Chinese approach will always be different from the Western one, with fewer moral judgements. There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches. You have to take account of these, both in terms of the Chinese and the Western approach, without automatically taking sides."

How is it possible for the first major international environmental conference in China to be focused on biodiversity, an issue the country shows so little interest in?
"For China, biodiversity is mainly about sustainable use and sustainable consumption. In that sense, biodiversity paves the way to an ‘ecological civilisation’. In the West, sustainability is based on the relationship between the environment, economy and social responsibility. By framing sustainability in terms of ecological civilisation, China is making the concept more political and cultural – particularly in terms of the role of the state.
"By applying this to international negotiations and, in particular, as part of the biodiversity conference [delayed due to coronavirus, ed.], China is trying to engage with the debate more on its own terms. This gives China greater control of the discussion."

Can anything good come out of that conference?
"Yes, but for that to happen you need to view biodiversity and nature conservation more in terms of creating a landscape that is good for people and that works for the whole. The point is not to place humanity in opposition to nature but to see how humans can fit in harmony with their environment instead.
"We need to consider a natural world in which sandstorms don’t wipe out entire harvests. It helps if that world is diverse, with all kinds of life able to co-exist, but untouched nature is not the goal. This might take us away from the Romantic notion of a pristine natural world. But maybe, in the process, we’ll discover a type of environmentalism that doesn’t appeal only to the Western world."