When China launched its campaign to reduce emissions during the Asia–Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in 2014, in order to clear the haze and fog which have become permanent features of Beijing, the occurrence of a blue sky over Beijing caused the phrases ‘APEC Blue’ to storm the internet. Despite the enthusiasm, the arrangement largely concerned temporary measures and is not a substitute for a long-term plan to reduce air pollution. In discussing this, Blue skies over Beijing provides an interesting account of how urbanization in China is causing environmental problems; the book pushes for sustainable urban growth. Blue skies over Beijing, building on the experiences of cities in the United States, is optimistic about future ecological progress as both central and local government in China are promoting sustainable development to create a ‘Beautiful China’. The book thereby moves away from the usual non-Chinese discourse on environmental problems in China which tend to be pessimistic. In the first part of the book, Matthew E. Kahn and Siqi Zheng examine the geographical distribution of the urban population in China by investigating urban industrialization, the migration to cities, the causes and consequences of Chinese suburbanization and private vehicle demand in urban China. The second part emphasizes the rising demand for a greener China by looking at the lives of children, youth and the elderly. Part three shows that there is a growing desire for environmental protection and environmental accountability in the country. In examining the environmental impact of China's industrial production, Kahn and Zheng assert that the geographical distribution of industries and the availability of coal (p. 27), together with a somewhat relaxed hukou (household registration system), prompted the migration of industrial workers to eastern and coastal cities. This has not only worsened pollution but also caused the cost of living to soar. Despite this, the authors now observe a new trend across China: manufacturing is moving away from the wealthy coastal megacities (p. 31). This industrial relocation strategy allows provincial governments to reduce the environmental impact on the big cities while simultaneously helping their underperforming areas. Kahn and Zheng calculate that a ten percentage point reduction of manufacturing jobs in a city will reduce its air pollution (PM10 concentration) by 3 per cent (p. 35). Moreover, shifting industries to smaller cities reduces the number of people exposed to pollution and, as new industries are greener, the overall air pollution is further reduced (p. 36). Blue skies over Beijing asserts that part of this shift is due to the rapid growth of bullet trains. This has not only ensured the relocation of industries, but its low-carbon technology could also further reduce the use of private cars. Finally, Kahn and Zheng state that political stability in China now hinges on whether or not the expectations of poor migrants are met in cities and believe that the liberalization of the hukou regime would reduce urban–rural inequality. Thus it appears that there has been a change. Pollution poses severe health risks and affects the overall growth trajectory of China, and both the government and the public are aware that if coming environmental crises are not averted, they have the potential to destabilize China's rise. Nevertheless, the party and officials have tended to favour economic growth over environmental protection. However, Blue skies over Beijing contends that a ‘regime shift’ has taken place, as environmental and energy efficiency criteria are now explicitly incorporated into the nation's performance targets (p. 160). Kahn and Zheng provide three explanations for this paradigm shift. First, the new leaders of China have stronger preferences for clean water and blue skies than previous leaders. Second, the Communist Party is seeking to boost its political legitimacy by implementing a more ambitious environmental protection agenda which appeals to domestic and international audiences. Third, the central government believes that the rest of the world is embracing a low-carbon energy agenda thereby creating a market imperative for China to become a technological and economic leader in this field (p. 162). Blue skies over Beijing also recognizes that civil society in China is instrumental in spreading environmental awareness and promoting the environmental and ecological agenda, as well as being the critical link between policy formulation and implementation. One ambiguity in Blue skies over Beijing is the problematic nature of translating and interpreting hukou as ‘internal passport’. Moreover, although one of the authors is Chinese, the book cites mostly from English-language media. For example, Kahn and Zheng highlight that Chinese media have started devoting much greater attention to environmental issues, but refer to Google news items to substantiate their argument. However, Kahn and Zheng's book is an essential read for students of economics, political science and environment studies. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Royal Institute of International Affairs. All rights reserved. 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International Affairs – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 1, 2018
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