If You Want to Change the World, Partner with China
November 27, 2013 Editor 0
China has packed the equivalent of 200 years of industrialization in America into just two decades. A population of two million is considered a small city. A Chicago of new skyscrapers is built every year. And 200 million more people will move into cities in the next 12 years. Here, big is bigger than you can imagine.
This vast scale means that if China can’t carry out breakthroughs in sustainability fast enough, the consequences will break the planet. But the speed of change means China has an opportunity to leapfrog to the latest practices. And changes in infrastructure and behavior are in many ways easier to trigger here.
In order to support an expected one billion people living in cities by 2030, China is the only country building whole communities at a time. It’s using this development to rapidly experiment with new technologies, policies, and financial systems. In fact, China is innovating at a city level, designating tens of cities at a time as pilots for every viable clean technology. Each of these pilots exploring sustainable urbanization is a potential model that China might be able to scale to go green. Its ability to experiment and accept failure is making China not just the world’s factory, but its cleantech laboratory as well.
Local mayors in charge of these pilot cities have the flexibility to implement their own approaches, but they lack solutions. That means these mayors are eager for social and technological innovation and they’re keen to partner with organizations and governments overseas. The government of Singapore, along with Singaporean companies, is working with Tianjin on testing eco-city concepts in clean energy and urban planning. A coalition of German companies and the German government is working with Changzhou to provide vocational training at scale based on German manufacturing equipment.
Chinese cities can implement, test, refine, and bring to market innovative solutions to large-scale infrastructure problems faster than anywhere in the world.
Because of the corporate nature of China’s centralized government, one announcement from the top can make an impact on the behavior of 1.3 billion people. On June 1, 2008, China banned free plastic bags in grocery stores across the country. The policy has led to at least 67 billion fewer bags in its first five years.
When President Xi Jinping took office, he popularized an “Empty Plate” campaign that promoted less food waste. The number of official banquets immediately plummeted. Share prices of Chinese liquor Kweichow Maotai dropped 37% because no banquets means no toasting.
Ministries across the government are constantly reviewing new policies to implement. Constant incremental reform is the norm, so bringing good ideas to China has the potential to create significant long-term change.
In cities, the Party Secretaries and Mayors are the key decision makers, and they exert CEO-like control. China’s heavy industries, similarly, are state-owned, with only a few large players and decision makers. This means that introducing economically viable systemic changes in these industries is more straightforward in China than other countries.
For example, a small group of researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab working with China’s National Development and Reform Commission have been working on one of the most effective energy efficiency programs in China. The Top 1,000 Energy-Consuming Enterprises Program saved 150 million tons of coal equivalent (Mtce) during China’s 11th Five Year Plan. Its success led to a Top 10,000 Program covering two thirds of China’s total energy consumption, or 250 Mtce savings by 2015. The program’s success is tied to the fact that all these enterprises and buildings are owned by the government.
In practice, implementing new systems is problematic and dependent on growing a skilled labor force, but the first step — getting the ball rolling with a few crucial influencers — is simple. One way to influence government leaders is through China’s government training system, which doles out mandatory annual training to city, state, and central government officials. As a curriculum development partner on sustainable development, my organization — the Joint U.S.-China Collaboration on Clean Energy — has trained close to 600 leaders at Central Organization Department academies. The COD not only dictates the content of training programs but also promotions for government leaders. This makes it an effective channel for introducing new memes, best practices, and technologies to the Party.
Though the power structure in China makes massive change possible, and the government is willing to partner with Western NGOs, governments, and businesses, culture remains a barrier to international collaboration. Chinese culture is not just different from Western cultures; it’s opposite. When I introduce myself in the West, I say “Hi, my name is Peggy Liu, Chairperson of JUCCCE, from Shanghai, China.” In Chinese, I would say “Hi, I’m from China, Shanghai. I’m JUCCCE’s Chairperson, Liu Peggy.” That speaks volumes on the importance of the collective versus the individual.
China’s culture is changing as rapidly as its infrastructure, as its younger generation and emerging middle class are beginning to travel more freely and interact more with the West. But for now, if you want to create sustainable change here, you have to find a locally trusted partner on the ground.
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