Annesha Bhattacharjee, Research Intern, ICS
China’s resilience has been typically observed from a civilizational and culturist perspective, so far. Resilience as an organized indigenous systemic concept has yet to be defined by China from an ecological slant. Being an ancient civilisation, the idea of nature was restricted to romantic and spiritual ideation – in literature, philosophy and art, as found in the recorded history of cultural resilience. Often invested in learning the ways of nature, Tao(天) is the dreaded god that cradles human life. China jumped from being an agricultural civilisation into the Anthropocene, spearheaded by industrial revolution. After learning the ways to ‘exploit nature’, it went on to narrowly focus on accumulating ‘economic resilience’. China, by then had realized that it had reaped economic well-being at the cost of nature’s ‘collateral’ devastation leading to continuous events of natural calamities which became evident with the passage of time. As a result of this, modern China initiates a vision of constructing a civilization that promotes ‘harmony’ between ‘man’ and ‘nature’.
“弹性”(Tánxìng) or elasticity, “韧性”(Rènxìng) or toughness, or “恢复力”(Huīfù lì) or the power to recover. These are the direct translations for the word ’resilience’ in Chinese which however lacks any conceptual rendition or indigenous scientific framing, unlike the West. The president of China, Xi Jinping, earlier this year in the 2021 Earth Summit, reiterated the vision of Shengtai Wenming or Ecological civilisation. China’s ‘economic resilience’ during the pandemic has led to several scholarly appraisals. In 2017, the withdrawal of the US from the Paris Agreement increased China’s willingness to lead global environmental governance. Being one of the biggest polluters in a climate hostile world and an economic power has put China in a tight space for international scrutiny. Thus, achieving ‘ecological resilience’ might be the next big thing for China to prevent any major risk of regime shift that will hurt the developmental state of the nation.
The conceptualisation of resilience in IR discourse began in the West during the cold war period, emerging in various social and natural science fields. As a consequence of rising environmentalism after industrial revolution. Ecological resilience, got popularly defined at the time by ecologists such as C.S. Holling as, “the time required for an ecosystem to return to an equilibrium or steady-state following a perturbation.” Around 1980s, environmentalists in Soviet Union were the first to propose the term ‘ecological civilization’ which was later incorporated by China’s CPC party. Scholars in the West were conceptualising resilience around the same time. The 1972, the Stockholm conference resulted in political effectiveness against environmental issues in China. China’s evolution of political ecology has been marked since then. Repercussions of Deng Xiaoping’s reforms and economic liberalism was already showing signs of enviornmental issues. Leading Hu Jintao’s regime, to push forth the idea of ‘Beautiful China’, specifically stressing on the ecological degradation factor irrespective of significant industrial growth in the sustainable sector. This unfolded the imbalanced socio-ecological systems that was systematically observed after President Zemin’s leadership who maneuvered China into becoming a major global producer and user of clean and renewable energy technology. China, a developing nation has largely been a reform and transformation-based society than just being induced by any strong ideological standards. Especially after the cultural revolution in the post-Mao phase where the focus was to ‘grow’ in the neocolonialist world, curating a strong labor force with little to no tolerance for traditionalism. Hence, the ‘laws of nature’ that were once preserved in traditional Chinese literature were significantly discouraged until then. As a rectification, Xi Jinping initiated the party’s intention to build a ‘community life’ together that allows man and nature to co-exist based on the political foundation of modern socialism with a brush of Chinese characteristics. This had been surfacing reluctantly in the party’s political agenda for the past two decades.
Remembering as David Easton once quoted that ‘scientism’ is good, but the ‘mad craze’ for the same is bad that should be avoided. In the past four decades, China had similar bout of lessons from impelling an intensive industry built on the foundations of capitalism and growth-based sustainability. Thus, choking the boundaries of the biosphere and opening alternatives for energy-based industries. The Western resilience system has been ‘empirically’ based on typical rational consciousness and minimal ‘value’ inclusiveness. China recognized it’s failure to balance the ecological sphere along with its economic growth despite taking the best developmental lessons from the West. Coercing them to think about creating a balance between being less ‘yang’ and more ‘yin’ until a state of equilibrium is reached, referring to an anti-waste-based society caused by intense globalisation. The Chinese scholars thus, argues that the situation can be altered by imbibing a socialist modern culture coupled with Chinese characteristics while acknowledging the fall of communism in Soviet Russia. China has been striving to defend its integration of a constantly transforming domestic socio-ecological system against the West-inspired, ‘universalism’. Their value system is predominantly based on Confusion philosophy. It promotes the idea of ‘relational self’ in a way where one does not limit oneself to evolve just as an individual entity but transcend that very evolving-self to the extended virtues of the community. “What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others?”, quoted Confucius. Only then one can achieve a harmonious community life together. Thus, trying to align with the traits of socialism by building communal responsibility along with the self. This ideation of China’s ‘harmony’ towards establishing a political nation based on eco-socialism certainly signals a new wave of resilience thinking that diverges from the existing trends of liberal environmentalism governmentality.
Internationally many critics are however, skeptical of how China is likely to achieve the ambitious dream of stable economic growth as well as an Eco-civilization, simultaneously. As they argue that continuous growth is detrimental to the ecological crisis. To which, Xi remains hopeful especially after observing its ‘triumphant’ pandemic situation in comparison to the rest of the world, further encouraging growth over 6%, in the post-pandemic phase. Green development (one of Xi’s 6 developmental policies), is likely to induce a possible alternative including green economic reform that shall be introduced along with several other structural changes to suit the 2050 vision of ‘ecological civilization’. Chinese scholars, meanwhile are speculating about the possible challenges the government will have to tackle with the emergence of the upcoming reforms. Uncertain outcomes might spark social contestations and disruptions – to which, however, the government prefers authority and not democracy. Successive transformation in the past couple of decades has been slowed down and stalled due to various challenges of such kind. The risks looming around in the post pandemic world will thwart China’s growth in the long term if it does not adapt to the situation and take control while it can. Especially as the industries experience a paradigm shift. Irrespective of Xi’s ability to achieve the ambitious political agenda, it will be refreshing to see how China brings about a new holistic system of green transformation that might stimulate a lot of other developing countries in the future while adhering to the international and domestic standards and stresses.