Apr 19, 2023
S2E6. Alex Wang on Environmental Governance in China
On this episode of Free Range, host Mike Livermore is joined by Alex Wang, Professor of Law at UCLA, co-director of the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, and expert on the law and politics of Chinese environmental governance.
Beginning with Wang’s initial experience in environmental issues in China, the US, and the NGO community, he discusses the generational and globally formative transformation he witnessed over his three decades in the field (1:37 - 9:36). After China’s entry into the WTO, there were some expectations for a broader economic and political liberalization. While there has been an increase in marketization and economic freedom, the Communist Party has maintained tight political control (9:37-14:26). Although formal political freedom is limited in China, Wang emphasizes that there are many mechanisms through which politics occurs; he also discusses important developments in the state’s administrative law and responsiveness to citizen demands in the past several decades. Wang discusses protests, concessions, and accountability that operate through less formal means, which can be effective at mediating social conflict, even if lacking traditional procedural fairness (14:27-22:18).
The conversation highlights the difference between the US and China in regard to responsiveness to recent large-scale protests which also speaks to the extremity of Chinese policy. While rapid change is possible in China, it is core to the design of the US political system to diffuse power, which limits capacity for rapid change (22:19-35:24).
Over the last two decades, there has been a large shift toward greater prioritization of eco-civilization and environmental protection in China. This transition is at the intersection of environmental, political, and economic change. Pollution began to be seen as a governance and social stability problem. Regarding the shifting geopolitics and the changing relationship between the US and China, the level of respect towards China has gradually changed throughout Wang’s experience over the past three decades. Globally, China has taken on a much more substantial leadership role, and power in the global system has shifted away from the United States and the single dominant player. Politics, energy security, and economic opportunities played a large role in China’s investment into green technologies, where they are now dominating the supply chain (35:25-53:47). Wang covers the human rights story, symbolic politics versus implementation, and the issue of achieving climate goals in light of economic consequences (53:48-56:41). The US and China may be in competition for the foreseeable future, so maybe this competition can be socially beneficial. But is it an open question whether this proxy battle will be enough to fuel serious decarbonization (56:42-1:04:59).