A beacon of hope for a troubled planet? A critical analysis on China’s authoritarian approach to constructing ‘ecological civilization’

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference contribution


The earth is facing an unprecedented ecological crisis. From climate change to species extinction, the urgency and gravity of the ecological situation in the age of Anthropocene has led to a call for concerted efforts across the globe to address the environmental emergency. Disappointed at the liberal democratic states’ environmental inaction, as evidenced in the political gridlock after attempts to compromise capitalists’ interests in overexploiting natural resources, or to limit individual freedoms in engaging
unsustainable behaviour, scholars turn to more decisive and draconian state actions in combating environmental problems, among which, China’s authoritarian approach to constructing ecological civilization is an exemplary alternative.

Since the ascendance of Xi to power, China has been witnessing a transition to a ‘green’ China. Once seen as a country with prioritized economic growth, lax environmental standards, and consequently, serious environmental problems and health risks, such as soil and water contamination and cancer villages, China now shows solid determination towards environmental concerns by aligning the environmental mission with its legal and political agenda. The construction of ecological civilization required by the national constitution is such a mission on the agenda. ‘Ecological civilization’ is often viewed as ‘sustainable development with Chinese characteristics’, whose achievement requires concrete measures like strengthening environmental regulatory institutions, reducing carbon emissions, promoting renewable energy and phasing out polluting industries, notwithstanding the tension posed by the economic task meanwhile. China’s state-led construction of ecological civilization is regarded as a newly radical solution to the
planetary emergency, and accordingly, a potential beacon of hope for this troubled planet.

This paper, by critically analyzing the authoritarian approach to the construction of ecological civilization under the mandate of the Party-state, argues that the authoritarian environmental response is by no means a beacon of hope to address contemporary environmental challenges, either domestically or globally, considering China’s influence around the world. With the exploration of the bureaucratic institutional fragility and human rights infringement under an authoritarian style of environmental governance, such as campaigns and ecological migration, this paper delineates how the top-down state-led construction of ecological civilization adopted by an authoritarian regime not only fails to solve ‘the tragedy of the commons’ (individuals deplete shared resources), but also results in ‘the tragedy of the ordinaries’ (ordinary people whose human rights are violated in the name of environmental protection). This paper finally concludes with the necessity of the human right to a healthy environment in saving the troubled planet.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publication2022 Toronto Conference on Earth System Governance
Subtitle of host publicationGoverning accelerated transitions: justice, creativity, and power in a transforming world: book of abstracts
Place of PublicationLund, Sweden
PublisherEarth System Governance Project
Number of pages2
Publication statusPublished - 20 Oct 2022
Externally publishedYes
EventToronto Conference on Earth System Governance - Toronto, Toronto, Canada
Duration: 20 Oct 202224 Oct 2022


ConferenceToronto Conference on Earth System Governance
Internet address

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