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China: going for the gold, silver, bronze ... green?

Linking China with Olympic medals is easy; at the 2000 Games, China received 28 gold, 16 silver, and 15 bronze medals. But China is now pursuing a new color: green, the "medal" of environmentalism. Probably China's most visible effort in this regard is that the capital city of Beijing, while preparing to host the 2008 Olympics, is "playing the green card"--stressing the billions of dollars that have been, are being, and will be spent on environmental protection projects (Yang, 2000). Equally important, Chinese citizens have indicated in a recent poll conducted in ten Chinese cities that residents perceive environmental protection as the primary issue of concern, over and above topics such as economic growth, tax and housing reform, and reform of State-owned Enterprises (SOE's) (Chen, 2000a).

Roadblocks to Obtaining the Green

Several important factors are blocking China's attempts at becoming a "green" country. First, China has 40 million poverty-stricken citizens and 145 million illiterate or semi-illiterate people (Ying, 2000). In a 1999 survey of over 9,000 people in 31 provinces, the number of correct answers to 13 questions about environmental protection averaged only 2.8 (Jiaoyu, 1999). Many Chinese are more concerned about obtaining the basic necessities of food, shelter, and clothing than whether there is phosphorus in laundry detergent--assuming they even have or use such a product!

Second, Chinese farmers in provinces where agriculture is the predominant means of support must learn how to adapt to the "green" food industry in which products are grown without using chemical fertilizers and pesticides. It is difficult for these individuals to understand why they should minimize or eliminate the use of products that generate a larger crop output--and, thereby, a better living.

Third, the western region of China, with a population of over 20% of the nation's total population and more than half the country's acknowledged natural resources, is not fertile, wet or developed. Creation of farmland in the area has caused significant erosion and desertification. Poor working and living conditions have contributed to the lack of a highly educated workforce and thus, a lack of industrialization in the area. Lax environmental standards have allowed obsolete equipment and highly polluting projects to be located in the western hinterland. Now, however, the government must ascertain how to accelerate the opening of the country's vast western region without any more damage to the ecology. Officials are trying to keep one eye on restoration of the ecosystem and the other eye on industrial development, while making sure that they do not "look down their noses" at the potential of significant foreign investment.

Fourth, some key State-owned Enterprises are among the nation's heaviest polluters and are the primary deterrents to meeting China's environmental policy targets (China Daily, 2000a). The SOE's have been singled out specifically for massive reform measures. Currently, the need to be proactive in the area of environmental protection is not directly mentioned in the reform and development of SOE's agenda adopted in late 1999 by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China. However, part nine of the agenda ("Speeding Up Technological Renovation and Industrial Upgrading") mentions the need to provide policy incentives to facilitate the application and renovation of technology in SOE's as well as the need to properly manage the relationship between developing the economy and protecting the environment (CPC Central Committee, 1999). Reforms focus primarily on changing those organizations from money losers to money makers. Combining this objective with one of creating non-polluting entities may be difficult. Making large expenditures for advanced, environmentally friendly technology may be less a priority than making profits that reflect SOE reform goals.

The problems facing China are not unique. The primary issue is whether the physical environment can be sustained while the country is being economically developed. There are five primary questions that are associated with this kind of sustainable development: (1) Are the present needs of the country and its citizens being met?; (2) Are future opportunities being compromised?; (3) Is economic viability being provided?; (4) Is environmental care being exercised?; and (5) Is social justice being promoted and practiced? (Payne, Joyner, & Dauterive, 2000). Although China is publicly professing concern on the first four of these, concern for social justice remains an area of little emphasis or action. What then are China's plans with respect to the sustainable development of its tremendous physical and human resources?

Generally, environmental pollution is commonly caused by two factors: inappropriate discharge practices by producers and inappropriate consumption practices by users. Laws can help prevent the former and education can help prevent the latter. China is pursuing both types of activities in seeking to eliminate the roadblocks to its environmental progress.

China's Legal Path to the Green

The Law on Environmental Protection, drafted in 1979 and passed by the National People's Congress in 1983, stipulated that protection of the environment should be a basic national policy. The China Council for International Cooperation on the Environment and Development was established in 1992 as a senior advisory body for the Chinese government. In 1996, China's environmental strategy was formally developed and adoption of important environmental laws began in 1997. The State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) published industrial pollution standards in 1998; determination of the degree to which companies are meeting these standards will begin in June 2001. Thus, as of late 2000, China's legal framework for environmental protection was firmly established. In addition to the nation's 150+ environmental protection and sustainable development laws, there are nearly 400 state technical standards and more than 600 local laws for environmental and natural resource protection (Chen, 2000 b).

Additionally, as part of the National Ninth Five-Year Plan (1996-2000), China also established the Trans-Century Green Project which details key environmental problems and seeks to ensure the technological and economic feasibility of new projects. Policies of "prevention first" and "combining prevention with control" exist in concert with a policy that firms causing pollution are responsible for paying "the cost of sorting it out" (Jingen, 2000). New laws that address issues such as assessing environmental impacts, requiring cleaner production processes, and licensing the disposal of hazardous wastes are on the drawing board for passage within the next few years (Chen, 2000 c). For the Tenth Five-Year Plan (2001-2005), China will establish a new quota system in which each region produces no less than 5.5% of its electricity from "green" sources such as wind power, solar energy, hydropower, and other renewable energy sources (Nei, 2000). Also, Qu Geping, Chairman of the Environmental and Resources Protection Committee of the National People's Congress, said that China's impending entry into the World Trade Organization provides an "historic opportunity" to adjust the country's economic structure and facilitate the building of a more environmentally-friendly, recycling economy (China Daily, 2000c).

These initiatives are very much in line with suggestions that have been made for actions to encourage sustainable development. Shrivastava (1995) has suggested that three particularly important actions are to encourage energy conservation, resource regeneration, and environmental preservation. China is pursuing each of these goals. In addition, the country is making an effort to substitute between resources--an effort that will ease the consumption rate for some scarce resources and decrease pressure on the environment (Pearce & Warford, 1993). Last, China has established a goal for the 21st century of pursuing a sustainable development strategy. As a start, China's State Development Planning Commission, in a co-operative project with the United Nations Industrial Development Organization, has agreed to integrate a sustainable development strategy in the following industrial sectors: machinery, electronic and information technology, automobiles, energy, petrochemicals, building materials, and basic urban infrastructure (Ning, 1999).

China's Educational Path to the Green

Environmental education was included in the 1994 "White Paper on China's Population, Environment and Development in the 21st Century" as a key part of sustainable development plans. In 1997, China instituted an Environmental Educators' Initiative (EEI) that was designed to integrate environmental education into the curricula of primary and middle schools. The EEI program was enhanced substantially in October 2000 by a $1 million grant from British Petroleum, an aggressive advocate of sustainable development and environmentalism (Ning, 2000). Promoting environmental awareness in school-age children is critically important as indicated in the following quote by Liang Congjie, founder of the Friends of Nature: "Children are tomorrow's leaders and activists, as well as tomorrow's consumers and polluters. So we should teach them to love the earth we live in and protect our environment" (Jie, 2000).

In addition to the EEI, several nongovernmental organizations (NGO's) are increasingly important in promoting a "green culture" of environmental protection and awareness. The most active of these include the Green China Foundation, Friends of Nature, Environmental Education Television Project for China, China Wildlife Conservation Association, and China Environmental Protection Foundation (China Daily, 2000b). The NGO's help transfer information among their members, other Chinese citizens, and government officials as well as help educate the Chinese people about the need for environmental protection and about ways to change consumption patterns to protect the environment (including even small things such as not using disposable wooden chopsticks to protect trees). Changes in consumption patterns are essential in a country that generates an estimated 155 million tons of urban waste per year (Chen, 2000c).

Businesses in China are being made more aware of the need for environmental management of their operations. For example, an International Seminar on Implementation and Development of ISO 14000 was organized in 1999 by SEPA and sponsored by the Mobil China Group. Implementation of the ISO 14000 standards on environmental management systems is being increasingly adopted by businesses within the country. The ISO 14000 program is being touted to organizations as a way to reduce costs, improve managerial efficiency, raise product quality, and expand exports, all of which will contribute to increased profitability. The Dalian, Suzhou, Shanghai, and Wuzi economic development zones have even been named Certified National Demonstration Districts of ISO 14000 (Li, 2000).


Although efforts to educate children, adults, and businesses are on the rise, China cannot yet be viewed as a role model for environmental proactiveness. For example, approximately 71% of Chinese citizens' and business' energy needs are still met by coal usage, a recognized anathema to the concept of sustainable development (Holland, 2000). The country is engaged in environmentally detrimental projects such as the Three Gorges Dam that will, it is estimated, submerge many cities, towns, and villages, as well as archeological sites dating back 15,000 years (Salazar, 2000). Fines for environmental pollution have often been lower than the cost of operating pollution control equipment (Fairley, 1998).

There are numerous ways of fostering environmental protection and its extension, sustainable development. Although not even close to the theoretical level of achievement suggested by Raiborn and Payne (1990) and by Payne and Raiborn (2001), China's current initiatives show that the country is, in fact, making substantial progress. The country's citizens, businesses, and government are attempting to engage in many of the activities necessary for promoting societal change that have been suggested in the literature and that have been enacted by sustainable development activists. As suggested by Milbrath (1995), the country has recognized the need for sustainable development and has set about informing the public about the related issues. These activities have resulted in changing attitudes created from increased recognition and education. This will set the stage for a deep-rooted cultural change within the country as suggested by Barcena and Payne (1995). Such a change should be expected to promote an atmosphere of learning, caring, and working toward improving the environment.

It is not clear what role economic growth will or should play in China's move toward sustainable development. What is clear is that economic growth will continue to be a major goal of China as well as other developing countries. Although some individuals/entities may pit economic growth against environmental responsibility for short periods of time, the two cannot be mutually exclusive because of the need to provide decent living conditions for the general population. Economic growth is necessary to raise living standards for the poorest, as well as the richest, in China. Therefore, for the foreseeable future, economic growth and sustainable development will, and should be, irrevocably bound partners.

China's efforts to become an environmental winner will not be as easily achieved as its efforts to become an Olympic winner. But some of the same traits are needed for both: desire, dedication, and diligence. The Chinese government appears in a word to have embraced these traits and to have laid out a game plan to achieve results. If the government can also embrace these traits indeed, the results will be achieved. In such a case, the new rallying cry for China may be "Go for the green!"


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Cecily Raiborn

McCoy Endowed Chair in Accounting

Texas University-San Marcos, Texas

Brenda Joyner

Associate Dean/MBA Director

Associate Professor of Management

Loyola University New Orleans, New Orleans
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Author:Raiborn, Cecily; Joyner, Brenda
Publication:Business Forum
Geographic Code:9CHIN
Date:Mar 22, 2006
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