What Does Eco-civilisation 生态文明 Mean?

Eco-civilisation, like the various other forms of ‘civilisation’ propounded by the party authorities since the late 1970s (spiritual civilisation, material civilisation and, latterly, political civilisation), is a rhetorical device that, over time, may gain policy substance, or be subverted to ends that are at logger-heads with its superficial aims. Meanwhile, the nation is now more clear eyed about the fact that heedless developmentalism, which has benefitted both China and the consuming globe, has come at a high price, one that will only be realised, and repaid, in the long years and decades to come.

The Chinese authorities have form when it comes either to denying or speaking around pressing realities such as environmental disasters: in the 1970s, as pollution increased in Shanghai and even drinking water became all but toxic, Cultural Revolution apparatchiki attacked any who dared question the fact that China had avoided Western-style industrial pollution due to its ‘mass line politics’ . Under Xi Jinping’s neo-liberal bureaucratic-Maoism which champions an admix of exhortative mass campaigning and choking red-tapism may well lead to similar obfuscations.

James P.F. Oswald is a PhD scholar at the Centre for Asian Studies, University of Adelaide. He is currently conducting research on environmental issues at Renmin University in Beijing. He has a particular interest in the how the authorities are planning to ameliorate the most urgent problems facing the Chinese environment.—The Editors


Eco-civilisation Explained

Image from education materials explaining shengtai wenming. Source.

Image from education materials promoting shengtai wenming. Source.

At the Seventeenth National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CCP), Party General Secretary Hu Jintao 胡锦涛 announced a proposed change in China’s model of economic growth. Thus began the incorporation of the expression ‘Ecological Civilisation’ (生态文明) into the official discourse as a new model of growth to replace the old unsustainable model.

The idea of ‘Ecological Civilisation’ is based on ideas of frugality, environmental protection and sustainability. The term was adopted in response to rising public concern over widespread environmental degradation. The government thus sought to assuage Chinese citizens that it was committed to solving the egresious problems of air pollution, polluted waterways, cancer villages, unsafe food products, desertification and deforestation.

‘Ecological Civilisation’ is the fourth in the official series of China’s civilisation or civilising slogans,[1] coming after Deng Xiaoping’s/Ye Jianying/Hu Yaobang’s  concurrently pronounced Spiritual Civilisation and Material Civilisation (精神文明; 物质文明) and Jiang Zemin’s 江泽民 Political Civilisation (政治文明). Ecological Civilisation (hereafter ‘Eco-civilisation’, an abbreviation used by the leading rural development scholar Wen Tiejun 温铁军) has not garnered the attention it deserves by scholars and observers of China. Indeed, even the 2013 China Story Yearbook titled Civilising China assigned only one brief sentence to Eco-civilisation.

Unlike previous ‘civilisation’ slogans which were focused on domestic development, ‘Eco-civilisation’ has international implications. Given that ‘Eco-civilisation’ urges people to rethink humanity’s relationship with nature, it is likely to be politically appealing to a Western audience. Based on the developmental ideal of shared global responsibility, ‘Eco-civilisation’ has been promoted since the Third Plenary Session of the Eighteenth CCP Central Committee as a commitment to be enshrined in law and policy. But, despite the fanfare, the aims, goals and methods of achieving an ‘Eco-civilisation’ remain hazy. [One obvious reason why the 2013 China Story Yearbook did not give much focus to the subject.Ed.]

Eco-civilisation as Sustainable Development
The Western understanding of ecology as an environmental ethic is popularly attributed to Aldo Leopold’s work A Sand County Almanac, a collection of stories and anecdotes based on his observations of nature on his property in Wisconsin. This concept of ecology has since developed into what Barry Commoner calls the four informal laws of ecology:

1) Everything is connected to everything else
2) Everything must go somewhere
3) Nature knows best
4) There is no such thing as a free lunch.[2]

These four ‘laws’ show striking parallels with traditional Chinese Daoist concepts of naturalness (自然) and non-interference (无为).

With an ecological ethic already existing in the West, it is little surprise that Eco-civilisation captured the imagination of some international scholars. The Chinese scholar Ma Jun also helped introduce this term into the Western lexicon. In an article titled Ecological civilisation is the way forward written for China Dialogue in 2007 shortly after the Seventeenth Party Congress, he lauded Western scholars for proposing an ecologically friendly model of development.

Several Western scholars have now published articles that use the term ‘Ecological Civilisation’. However, the meaning of the term remains unclear and has not been properly contextualised against the particular circumstances in which it is used and promoted in China.[3] In the handful of articles that cite ‘Eco-civilisation’ the term is described along the lines of Western-style sustainable development (in a fully industrialised country) and is related to green energy, a minimal global-footprint, carbon-free degrowth and other such Western theories and movements. In an article titled ‘Ecological Civilisation’ published in the Monthly Review (self-described as an ‘independent socialist magazine’), Fred Magdoff conducts the most thorough examination of the term to date. He lists eight points that would be necessary for the creation of an ecological society. These include (but are not limited to): a dismantling of the current capitalist system in order to limit consumption when basic human needs are met; discouraging over-consumption; far-sighted planning without neglecting immediate needs; discouraging the use of fossil fuels; and, the fostering a culture of sharing, reciprocity, responsibility and cooperation.[4]

There is nothing new here. In Magdoff’s account, the Chinese-derived term ‘Eco-Civilisation’ merely embellishes a typical Western response to global environmental issues. He does not discuss how ‘Eco-civilisation’ would benefit an enormous population, the majority of whom are unlikely to achieve in their lifetime the standard of living in developed countries.

Eco-civilisation as Developmental Stage Theory
Chinese scholars explain and elaborate on the concept of ‘Eco-civilisation’ very differently. Some writers take the term to mean the next link in the chain of human civilisations.[5] They follow the logic of stage theory that draws inspiration from nineteenth century British anthropologist E.B. Tylor’s Study of Man and Civilisation. Tylor proposed three stages of social progress: savage (hunter gatherers), barbaric (large scale agriculture, war) and civilised (literacy, diplomacy).

Translated into Chinese, this model is described as beginning with a hunter/gatherer lifestyle or ‘original civilisation’ (原始文明); followed by ‘agricultural civilisation’ (农业文明); and culminating with ‘industrial civilisation’ (工业文明). If industrial civilisation highlights the human/nature binary, the Chinese literature argues that ‘Eco-civilisation’ – as the next stage – represents the transformation of society from mindless and destructive industrial progress toward ecological mindfulness. In brief, ‘Eco-civilisation’ involves shifting human society away from the destructive consequences of human attempts at mastering nature and seeks instead to nurture an interdependence between people and nature, and among people in society.

Eco-civilisation as discussed in China is very much a China-focused strategy. The term is treated as a guiding principle for China’s sustainable development and attentive to local Chinese situations. The advocates of ‘Eco-civilisation’ see it as a necessary measure for achieving a ‘Moderately Well-off Society’ (小康社会). The primary aim of ‘Eco-civilisation’, they argue, is to ameliorate the damage already done to the environment while reducing further damage. The educational aspect of ‘Eco-civilisation’ is to promote a healthy relationship between humans and nature, and to reintegrate humankind and the natural environment. Despite the domestic focus, the term has also been used to discuss the global nature of environmental issues. In this broader use, ‘Eco-civilisation’ serves as a critique of Western-style industrialisation.

Eco-civilisation as wenming Discourse
Eco-civilisation in the Chinese context is related to the idea of ‘human quality’ or suzhi (素质). As mentioned above, prior to Eco-civilisation, the CCP espoused Spiritual Civilisation, Material Civilisation and Political Civilisation. During the early stages of China’s ‘Reform and Opening Up’ (改革开放), and goaded on by the emphasis on ‘letting some get rich first’ (让一部分人先富起来), radical economic disparities developed. The dual concepts of Material Civilisation and Spiritual Civilisation were introduced to separate material wealth from mere economic profit. Material Civilisation was set as an ideal material standard of living and Spiritual Civilisation was intended to guide the morality of the Chinese ‘nouveau riche’, as well as of the vast majority of workers and producers who were to be domesticated to the new market imperatives of the state and the economy.

For the Chinese leadership, the term ‘Civilisation’ meant a model life to which people must aspire. It was also supposed to distinguish China’s model of modernisation from that of the West, notwithstanding the fact that China’s ‘modernisation’ was often associated with ‘Westernisation’.[6] In  the early days of China’s market reforms, Deng Xiaoping and other senior Chinese party-state leaders visited Singapore, hoping to learn from an alternative model to guide China’s development. Chinese scholars and officials looked at the examples of Japan and Singapore as two highly developed Asian nations (i.e., as places with high levels of Civilisation) that had not lost their unique cultural identity. They argued that China similarly should develop its cultural heritage while seeking to achieve economic success.[7]

In 2002, Jiang Zeming delivered a speech in which Political Civilisation made its debut in official Chinese rhetoric. This Political Civilisation was focused on regulation, law, governance and institution-building.[8]

The official rhetoric of civilisation is always tied to the Party’s vision of a ‘Moderately Well-Off Society’. Thus, when it became increasingly obvious that China’s development drive was of great detriment to its environment with reports of air pollution, water and soil pollution and cancer villages on the rise, Eco-civilisation was introduced. Human quality was now to be measured in terms of raising environmental awareness in addition to other already stated civilisational goals.

Eco-civilisation as Alternative Modernisation
A different, more practical bent on Eco-civilisation is tied in with the current so-called ‘New Rural Reconstruction’ movement (新农村建设). Initiated by Wen Tiejun (mentioned earlier), it indicates a revival of the original ‘Rural Reconstruction Movement’ of the 1920s, which was spearheaded among others by Liang Shuming 梁漱溟 and Dr James Yen 晏阳初. The present-day Eco-civilisation argument proposed by Wen starts with the premise that China must not follow the Western model of modernisation. This is because the latter relied heavily on exploitative labour practices achieved through colonisation that significantly damaged the environment in its colonies.[10] Wen also points out that China’s environment is already damaged and that there is strong evidence to show that rises in GDP and increases in the level of urbanisation do not necessarily raise living standards or improve equality.[11]

According to Wen, the aim of Eco-civilisation is to revive China’s long tradition of agriculture. He highlights (what the World Bank is calling) ‘China’s new model of urbanisation’ as ‘townisation’ (城镇化) and distinguishes it from urbanisation per se.[12] This model seeks to strengthen smaller cities outside China’s mega-metropolises so that they can act as a centre for satellite villages – to offer services that are lacking in rural areas, such as health care and education. It also seeks to revive China’s agricultural tradition, which Wen describes as a true ‘agriculture of circularity’ that minimised waste and did not rely on chemical fertilisers or pesticides. He claims that this integration of environmental protection with the reconstruction of rural culture is essential because it would redress the imbalance caused by policies that have favoured the urban at the expense of the rural (农业反哺工业). A reconstruction of rural areas that produces a revival of rural culture and traditional methods of agriculture would also reduce pressure on cities and make them more resilient to global economic crises. Wen claims that strong rural centres would have the effect of cushioning economic challenges faced by China and provide the country with a ‘soft landing’ (软着陆).[13]

Wen writes, focusing on what he sees as a situation unique to China:

China’s problem is the tension aroused by an agrarian society, characterised by overpopulation and limited resources, in the process of internal and primitive accumulation of capital for state industrialisation.

In short, Wen’s understanding of Eco-civilisation is as a pragmatic approach to relieving the tension between environmental degradation and development.  Implementation of this alternative model of modernisation would be a mammoth task and one that would require positive recognition and support from the wider global community.

Implementing Eco-civilisation
In late 2013, the report of the Third Plenary Session of the Eighteenth CCP Central Committee was released, incorporating detailed guidelines for the ‘speeding up of the construction of an Eco-civilisation system’.[15] It outlined a four-step strategy for implementing an Eco-civilisation that would: strengthen property rights over natural resource assets and [strengthen] the systems to control their usage (section 51); demarcate a ‘red line’ [i.e., danger zone] for ecological protection (section 52); implement systems for resource usage compensation and ecological compensation systems (section 53); and, reform environmental protection management systems (section 54).

Several concepts used in this plan need to be noted if we wish to understand the Chinese government’s approach to addressing environmental issues. The first is the idea of ‘national territorial space’ (国土空间), which can be understood as any area of importance within China’s territorial borders including: maritime, land and air space. These spaces can be divided into four kinds; urban spaces (areas that already have significant populations and industrial and mining areas); agricultural spaces (areas mainly used for agricultural activities); ecological spaces (areas of ecological significance including tourism hot-spots); and other spaces (including transport and communication networks, energy, irrigation and religious sites as well as those assigned for military use). Section 51 of this report proposes a registration system that would allow for the controlled management and use of territorial spaces based on these four categories.

The next concept that needs to be understood is that of ‘main functional area divisions’ (主体功能区划)[16] which allows the above-mentioned four divisions of ‘national territorial spaces’ to be further articulated into four subdivisions based on their capacity for development: optimum areas (优化开发区); important areas (重点开发区); restricted areas (限制开发去); and prohibited areas (禁止开发区). Section 52 of the report outlines this proposal as a means of monitoring land use in accordance with principles of environmental carrying capacity and efficient use of resources. The report notes that areas defined as ‘restricted areas’ would not be assessed based on GDP growth. It also proposes the establishment of a system to investigate those responsible for causing environmental damage.

The final important concept outlined in this report is that of ecological compensation (生态补偿). This proposal would assign monetary values to natural resources and their products, in order to reflect market supply and demand, the extent of resource scarcity, the cost of environmental damage and the benefits of environmental restoration. Ecological compensation is based on a general principle of responsibility: namely, ‘who develops it must protect it, who damages it must rejuvenate it, who profits from it must compensate, and who pollutes must pay’ (谁开发谁保护、谁破坏谁恢复、谁受益谁补偿、谁排污谁付费)[17]. The report refers to the need to examine the extent to which it would be possible to ‘return pastures to grassland’ (退牧还草) and ‘return farmland to forest’ (退耕还林). The stated aims of ecological compensation are to: develop trading schemes that would encourage a reduction in energy use and carbon and other emissions; establish systems for water use rights; and marketise environmental protection so as to promote third-party administration of environmental pollution, such as by using Pigovian taxes.[18]

The report’s overall emphasis is on implementing laws to enforce environmental policies and introducing control and monitoring systems to ensure adherence to these laws. This reflects the potential of Eco-civilisation to play a positive role in ameliorating environmental degradation in China. However, doubts about the effectiveness of this program abound. To date, China has a poor history of environmental law enforcement. This is because of its weak legal system and the continued reliance of local governments on measuring progress in terms of GDP.[19 & 20]

Li Hongwei 李宏伟, a professor at the Central Party School who runs a course on Eco-civilisation for party cadres writes: ‘Though there are laws they are not observed; when laws are broken they are not investigated; when laws are enforced they do not entail severe punishment’ (有法不依、违法不究、执法不严). [21 ] Further, she points out that the government lacks a clear policy framework with regards to environmental protection. She calls on the government to take leadership in environmental law enforcement and to invest in environmental infrastructure. She also notes the need for a substantial change in the mode of economic development in order to realise the goals of an Eco-civilisation.[22]

Promotion of Eco-civilisation is clearly aimed at addressing problems that have arisen out of China’s ‘pollute first, clean up later’ (先污染后治理) mode of development. The education of party cadres in environmental issues is certainly a step in the right direction, as are the recent amendments to China’s Environmental Protection Laws which stipulate harsher punishments for polluters (such as removing the fine cap for polluters) and greater powers to environmental authorities.[23] However, Eco-civilisation is still in its infancy. Apart from an increase in the number of banners and signs sporting this term on Chinese streets, there is little evidence as yet of any positive change arising out of the promotion of Eco-civilisation. Nonetheless, unlike the other ‘civilising projects’ promoted to date, Eco-civilisation is more than mere rhetoric. It  is a slogan attached to specific actions and goals that represent a positive move towards environmentally sustainable development in China.



[1] Dynon, Nicholas, ‘ “Four Civilizations” and the Evolution of Post-Mao Chinese Socialist Ideology’, China Journal, No. 60 (2008), p.106.
[2] Commoner, Barry, The Closing Circle: Nature, Man, and Technology, New York: Knopf, 1971.
[3] See for example Cobb, J. B. Jr., ‘Necessities for an Ecological Civilisation’, online here; or Magdoff, F., ‘Ecological Civilisation’, Monthly Review, Vol 62, Issue 8, January 2011, http://monthlyreview.org/2011/01/01/ecological-civilization
[4] Magdoff, ‘Ecological Civilisation’.
[5] Yan Geng, Yang Zhihua 严耕, 杨志华, Constructing a Theory and System of Ecological Civilisation 生态文明的理论与系统建构, 生态文明丛书, 严耕[编] 北京: 中央编译出版社, 2009.; He Aiguo 何爱国, Contemporary China’s Road to Eco-Civilisation 当代中国生态文明之路, 当代中国现代化丛书, 姜义华[编] 北京: 科学出版社, 2012.
[6] See Dynon, Nicholas. ‘Four Civilizations’, p.89; see also Luo Rongqu [editor] 罗荣渠 [主编], From [Westernisation] to Modernisation 从[西化]到现代化, 黄山出版社, 合肥市, 2008.
[7] Anagnost, A., ‘Constructing the Civilized Community’, in Huters, Theodore, Roy Bin Wong, and Pauline Yu, Culture & State in Chinese History: Conventions, Accommodations, and Critiques, Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1997, p.359.
[8] Dynon, ‘Four Civilisations’, p.100.
[9] Thøgersen, Stig, ‘Parasites or Civilisers: The Legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party in Rural Areas’, China: An International Journal, Vol.1, no. 2 (2003), pp.204-5.
[10] Wen Tiejun, ‘Deconstructing Modernisation’, Chinese Sociology and Anthropology, Vol. 39, no. 4 (2007).
[11] Ibid.
[12] See for example: Yuen, L, ‘China’s Not Just Urbanizing – lt’s ”Townizing”’, Tea Leaf Nation, 28 May 2013, online here.
[13] Wen Tiejun 温铁军, Eight Crises: Lessons From China 1949-2009 八次危机:中国的真实经验 1949-2009, 北京: 东方出版社, 2013.
[14] Wen Tiejun, ‘Centenary Reflections on the “Three Dimensional Problem” of Rural China’, Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, Vol.2, no.2, 2001, pp.287-8.
[15] CCP official document (available online), ‘The Complete Report of the Decisions Arising from the Third Plenary Session of the 18th CCP Central Committee 十八届三中全会决定全文报告’
[16] Hence, the territorial spaces would be defined as 城市主体功能区,农业主体功能区,生态主体功能区 and 其他类主体功能区 respectively.
[17,18] Li Hongwei 李宏伟, ‘Shaping “Environmental Justice”: Functional Zone Demarcation and Benefit Compensation Arising From the Construction of an Eco-Civilisation 形塑“环境正义”: 生态文明建设中的功能区划和利益补偿’- 《当代世界与社会主义》( 双月刊) 2013 年第2 期, 24页.
[19] Wang, Alex ‘Environmental Protection in China and the Role of Law’, China Dialogue, 2nd May 2007, online here.
[20] Li Hongwei, Li Lei 李宏伟,厉 磊 ‘Eco-civilisation and the “Green Rise” of Underdeveloped Areas 生态文明与后发地区“绿色崛起”’, 开放导报2014年2月第1期总第172期, 48页.
[21,22] Li Hongwei 李宏伟, ‘The Scientific Implications of Constructing and Eco-Civilisation and Constructing an Eco-Civilisation in Contemporary China 生态文明建设的科学内涵与当代中国生态文明建设’, 求知月刊,2011/12年, 11页.
[23] Huang, Zhen ‘China’s Environmental Protection Law Lays Groundwork For Greater Transparency’, The Asia Foundation, 28th May 2014, online here. See also: Kaiman, Jonathon ‘China Strengthens Environmental Laws’, The Guardian, 25th April 2014, online here.