The size and speed of China’s economic growth has lifted more than 500 million people out of poverty since the 1980s. But rapid growth came at a great price. Today the cost of China’s environmental degradation and resource depletion is estimated to be around 9 percent of its GDP yearly. How is China dealing with this enormous challenge? This was the core topic of our first day of meetings in Beijing, which we spent with senior staff from the global environmental think tank “World Resources Institute” (WRI). Founded in 1982 under the auspices of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, WRI is an independent, non-governmental think tank which seeks to create equity and prosperity through natural resource management. WRI set up shop in Beijing in 2009, initially helping Chinese industries and cities to collect more accurate GHG data. It also developed programs to create new financing schemes for Chinese energy efficiency and mitigation opportunities at the municipal level.
Today, the organizations two core topics in China are sustainable urbanization and green finance. In fact, the scale of Chinese urbanization is without precedent in human history. According to the World Bank, in 1950, 13% of people in China lived in cities. By 2010, it was 45% and in 2030 the urban share of the population is projected to reach 60%. This rapid urbanization not only reshapes the physical environment and the cultural fabric , but has lasting impacts on the environment. WRI assists the Chinese government in confronting these challenges by linking China’s specific policy demands to global development trends. WRI sees itself not so much as an implementor at the local level but more involved in policy dialogue and intellectual exchange with the government. As a foreign NGO, WRI faces difficulties in engaging the Chinese public sector at this level, because it will usually consult government think tanks in the formation of strategy. In order to overcome this institutional barrier WRI has developed a four pronged approach to engaging the Chinese bureaucracy which is focused on policy clusters, analysis tools, public affairs consulting and international best practices transfer. WRI has learned to combine policies in policy clusters to drive policy change while accommodating changing preferences in the political leadership. If the new director of Beijing transport for example shifts priorities from congestion charges to illegal parking and non-motorized transport, WRI proposes policy packages to ensure the inclusion of congestion charges. This is why convincing mid-level bureaucrats (those who stay in the bureaucracy) of their policy proposals is key in such a decision-making environment.
In terms of converting international best practices to the Chinese context and public
outreach consulting, WRI focuses on thorough risk assessments of potential policy impacts. Social stability is a key concern of the Chinese administration which means that there needs to be sufficient public support for e.g. policy proposals such as congestion charges. Conveying the benefits of such programs to the public through the right framing strategy is one of WRI core areas of focus. The case of Professor Mao Baohua is a poignant reminder of how quickly online commentary can turn against a specific policy or public official when the around 700 million Chinese “netizens” channel their anger through social media. Professor Baohua had estimated the cost of the Beijing congestion charge to be approximately 20 to 50 yuan, which led to announcements of his death on the Internet. Although Professor Baohua is still very much alive today, this has highlighted the delicate balance foreign NGOs have to strike in advising public authorities in China. More than ever, publicity driven accountability in contemporary China is an effective mechanism to hold officials accountable in an environment where elections and courts are not appropriate fora for redress.
Timothy Trollope is a second year student at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy and passionate about all things energy policy, including international climate policy.