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China: economic powerhouse, environmentally unsustainable - part two

By Pan Yue - posted Wednesday, 25 July 2007

Why is environmental protection considered a cultural issue? One of the core principles of traditional Chinese culture is that of harmony between man and nature. Different philosophies all emphasise the political wisdom of a balanced environment. Whether it is the Confucian idea of man and nature becoming one, the Daoist view of the Dao reflecting nature, or the Buddhist belief that all living things are equal, Chinese philosophy has helped our culture to survive for thousands of years.

It can be a powerful weapon in preventing an environmental crisis and building a harmonious society. It is a shame that two historical events almost wiped out these traditional ways of thinking.

The first was the May Fourth Movement, during which Confucian ideology was viciously attacked; the movement had a certain degree of historical rationality, but it can be criticised for going too far. The second was the Cultural Revolution, during which Confucianism was held up as the “opposite” of Marxism and anything representing traditional culture was smashed.


We blamed Confucian culture for our hundred years of humiliation at the hands of Western powers, and we saw it as an obstacle to China’s modernisation. However, Chinese society now finds itself in a situation where traditional morals are in danger of being lost.

People see the world purely in the pragmatic terms of their own interest. The whole process of production and human life has been simplified down to the goals of earning money and consuming. The core value of harmony between man and nature has been utterly abandoned.

However, when the same things we abandoned were picked up and used by others, miracles have occurred.

The success of the Asia’s “Four Little Dragons” has shown that Confucianism is a tool exclusively owned by the east, and can be a corrective to the flaws of capitalism. Sinology is still a subject worth studying: the young should study it for the sake of their ancestors, but even more for the sake of the future. Chinese culture can be a powerful weapon to deal with the challenges of the future. The complicated changes that will occur in the world cannot be confronted with computers alone.


The environment is also an ideological issue, or at least an issue that relates to one's view of the world. For various historical reasons, Marxism, which is so full of vitality, has been twisted and made dogmatic. After the reforms, many people focused on the parts of Marxism that discuss developing the forces of production, and ignored the theories that concern the integrated development of humanity.

This subjective understanding has meant that when we criticise capitalism, we only criticise the contradictions in the forces of production and the relationships of production. We rarely criticise the contradiction between excessive production and consumption on the one hand, and environmental resources on the other. The environment is a problem for all industrial societies, and capitalism and socialism both need to find solutions. This is an issue that transcends ideology and questions of “left and right”.


Western Marxists came up with a new ideology: “eco-socialism”. With this they hoped to revise and rescue traditional social democracy. Scientific socialism focuses on changing unequal relationships of production, where eco-socialism suggests that we should also try to adjust the aims of production. Instead of aiming for the highest possible levels of production and consumption, we should be aiming to improve quality of life and levels of happiness.

Instead of being merely a way of earning money, labour should be a creative activity. In contrast to economism, eco-socialism demands that we value natural resources and put an end to bureaucratic waste. In contrast to extreme environmentalism, eco-socialism does not seek to negate industrial civilisation, and does not advocate abstinence. Eco-socialism aims to create a new model of development, which can meet people’s needs while also reducing waste.

Only through this can humans resist the pursuit of insatiable desire and overcome the contradictions of industrial civilisation. Eco-socialism could have much to contribute to China’s sustainable development and the ideas of the “scientific concept of development” and “harmonious society” currently promoted by the central government.

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First published as “Green China and young China - part two” in Chinadialogue on July 18, 2007.

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About the Author

Pan Yue is deputy director of China's State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA). Part of a new generation of outspoken Chinese senior officials, Pan has given rise to a tide of environmental debate, attracting enormous attention and controversy.

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