'Green' as spectacle in China.

AuthorRen, Xuefei

In recent years, environmental protection has increasingly been incorporated into municipal policy agendas in China. Although rising environmental awareness is an indicator of progress toward sustainable practices, a closer examination of recent policies reveals a tendency toward "spectacularization," i.e., municipal governments actively endorsing various green initiatives to stage "spectacles" that promote their cities. This article critiques green spectacles and urges a return to tbe "'ordinary" in urban environmental policy making, in which urban spaces would be developed based on a city's unique needs rather than with a predetermined template. This would require abandoning costly flagship eco-city projects and top-down policy campaigns, as well as reflecting critically on what "green" means in everyday city life.

After three decades of market reform, urban governance in China today is characterized by competitive decentralization, a process in which power, authority and resources are transferred from the central government to municipal governments. Municipal authorities engage in competitions of all sorts to position their cities ahead of others--from conventional practices of offering subsidies and tax cuts to businesses, to more creative ones such as commissioning iconic architectural projects for city branding, to more recent efforts of building eco-cities and endorsing sustainable development. (1) Unprecedented urban growth and decentralized urban governance present urgent challenges for Chinese cities, particularly with regard to housing, infrastructure, services and environmental protection.

This article examines the recent environmental turn in urban policy making and addresses obstacles to and opportunities for achieving sustainable urban living in China. Until recently, local officials have tended to view economic growth and environmental protection as incompatible. With job promotion in mind, these officials focused largely on boosting GDP while environmental performance languished at the bottoms of policy agendas." Consequently, the Chinese economic miracle has been accompanied by significant environmental degradation and acute public health crises, as evidenced by numerous incidents of water and air pollution, skyrocketing levels of carbon emissions, energy-inefficient new buildings, the rapid loss of farmland and forests and the emergence of hundreds of so-called cancer villages. (3) In response to an unfolding environmental crisis and growing popular discontent over environmental degradation, the Chinese government announced in 2005 that the nation's eleventh Five Year Plan would shift from a "growth first" to a "sustainable development" model. (4) In 2008, China established the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP), which has since promulgated an impressive number of environmental laws, regulations and policies. (5) At the local level, there has been a wave of policy innovations like the introduction of environmental protection taxes, eco-city initiatives and competition among localities to obtain the status of National Model City for Environmental Protection, earned by meeting quotas on carbon emissions and air and water quality.

These policy measures signal the "greening" of urban governance in China, as environmental protection is actively incorporated into urban policy making. As in Europe and North America in the 1990s, urban entrepreneurialism and environmentalism in China are no longer seen as incompatible. Rather, restoring and protecting the environment have become core elements of city strategies, which are then leveraged to distinguish cities as they compete for capital and talent. (6) Rising awareness about environmental protection represents a remarkable shift. However, a closer examination of this environmental turn reveals its tendency toward "spectacularization" as local governments embrace various green initiatives for place promotion. This article critiques the "green spectacle" observed in urban China today and urges a return to the ordinary in urban environmental policy making.


Continuous economic growth and rural-to-urban migration have made Chinese cities some of the fastest urbanizing regions of the world. In the early 1980s, when market reform in China had just begun, merely 20.6 percent of the population lived in urban areas, a rate lower than in most developing countries at the time. As the center of market reform shifted from township and village enterprises in the 1980s to large urban centers in the 1990s, the urbanization rate began to climb sharply. The urban share of the national population increased by 10 percent in the 1990s and by an additional 13 percent (207 million) in the first decade of the 2000s, according to the 2010 census. In 2010, an estimated 49.7 percent of the Chinese were living in cities. (8) In 1981, there were eighteen Chinese cities with more than one million people, bur by 2010 there were 129 cities with populations exceeding this number and another 110 cities with populations between 500,000 and one million. (9) In 2011, China's urbanization rate finally exceeded 50 percent: there are now more urban than rural dwellers in the world's most populous nation. (10)

Population movements often follow resources and economic opportunities. Thus it is no surprise that populations in China's most developed urban regions-Beijing-Tianjin-Tangshan and the areas around the Yangtze and Pearl River deltas--have grown faster than less developed regions. Despite China's strict measures to curb population growth in megacities, Beijing's population increased by about 42 percent between 2000 and 2010, while during the same years, Shanghai and Tianjin's populations increased by about 38 percent and 30 percent, respectively. (11) Between 1978 and 2011, the number of cities ar the provincial, prefecture and county levels increased from 193 to 654. (12)

The coming of an urban age in China is also manifest in the physical transformation of cities and the staging of a series of spectacular mega-events. Beginning in the late 1990s, Beijing and Shanghai witnessed the construction of numerous high-profile architectural projects designed by prestigious international architects. These projects have profoundly reoriented the images of these cities. (13) The most publicized projects include the CCTV headquarters, the National Theatre, the National Stadium in Beijing, Jin Mao Tower and a large number of commercial projects in Shanghai. International "starchitects" are actively pursued by local Chinese developers to promote their own projects, and by government officials to advance their political careers and to leave personal landmarks in the cities they govern. China has become a major destination for international planning and architecture firms seeking to diversify their...

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