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Imagining Nature in China

May Tan Mullins: Imagining Nature in China
“(Dis)Harmonious Society”? Chinese Perception of Nature
Good morning, everybody. My name is May Tan-Mullins from the School of International Studies at the University of Nottingham, Ningbo, China. Today we are going to talk about a concept of harmonious society in China, and how this has altered or influenced the man-nature relationship in China. The harmonious society concept was introduced by Hu Jintao in 2005 at the National People’s Congress. A lot of people termed this as the New Confucianism, because it’s rooted at the philosophical parts of Confucius that there needs to be harmony within the society. This concept was introduced to bring about social justice and equality, and to close the income gap. What does this concept mean for the environment then?
According to Hu Jintao in 2005, in his speech, “a harmonious society is a society that is democratic and ruled by law, fair and just, trustworthy and fraternal, full of vitality, stable and orderly, and maintains harmony between man and nature.” So there is this reference to a harmonious relationship between man and nature. The Chinese Communist Party in 2006 further reinterpreted this concept to policies, which needs to cover a broad range of topics, including policy orientation regarding rural development, regional development, employment, education, medicine, and public health, environmental protection, the social security system, et cetera, et cetera. I want to bring your attention to the rural development and environmental protection.
It is part of the policy orientation to focus on how to develop the environment in a protective manner. Just give a very quick background of Hu’s rhetoric, why this concept came about. As we all know, in the 1950s to ’60s, there was this great leap forward, which focused a lot of modernisation, collectivizations, and huge industrialisation projects were implemented. In 1979, Deng Xiaoping, then leader of China, also implemented the opening up policies. The implications of these policies and political torts brought about high increases in FDIs, privatisation process, and rising income for a huge population of China. However, this economic development came with a huge cost. First, there was social tensions.
What we saw was uncontrolled rural-urban migration, which caused a huge strain on the urban amenities. This also resulted in huge environmental degradations, both at the rural, and the urban areas. Due to the loss of farmlands and forest lands to urbanisation process, there was also a huge loss of biodiversity in China. And finally, food and livelihood security were threatened by this urbanised process, and uncontrolled development. So what we’re seeing in China is that there is this huge environment versus economics nexus. And there is this huge contestation over use of resources. To give you an example disharmony, let’s look into water. In China, over 300 million people rely on hazardous water source, due to water shortage and scarcity.
And there is this huge competition over usage of water resources between enterprises and private households. In China, over 77% have access to piped water, which is a great achievement, and 94% in the urban area. However there are rural communities in China that have been exposed to unreliable sources. And all these have huge implications and costs, such as on health care. In China, in 2007, there over 60,000 wastewater treatment plants. Again it is an achievement. But if you compare to the population in China, 60,000 is very, very, very minimal compared to 1.4 billion people. Hence, there is this huge need to increase basic sanitation and governance of contaminants from industrial facilities and agricultural use of pesticides.
To illustrate this point, I would like to move five years later, after the implementation of the harmonious society concept by Hu Jintao. Let’s go into Tingjiang River in Fujian. On the third of July 2010, there was a huge chemical leak by Zijin Mining Group, ZMG, at the Tingjiang River in the Shanghang county of Fujian Province. As a result, over 2,000 tonnes of fish were poisoned and dead. This caused a huge threat to the livelihood security of the fishes and farmers around that area.
What is more scary is that due to the poisoned fish, which was meant for human consumption, although they were compensated by the mining company, there were huge questions of how this poisonous chemical leakage will philtre into the food chain, and finally reach human consumption. The bigger implication for this is that after the government investigation, they found that over 9,000 metal processing companies in China has emitted more heavy metals than allowed by the government. So what we are seeing is that this is not just one random case of leakage and pollution. But it is consistently happening throughout the whole of China. So are we living in a harmonious society in China? Perhaps not.
Perhaps it is disharmonious society, as GDP is more important to the policymakers, and to many of the citizenries. We do see some forms of harmony between man and nature at a personal micro level, for example, through the practise of feng shui, through the personal practise of environmental protection. However, at the macro large-level scale, what we are seeing instead there are a lot of examples of disharmony between man and nature. This is due to the perception that nature is a sink to absorb pollutants. And as a result, there is no real concern of protecting nature as a legacy for humankind. This is what brings us to the larger issues of governance.
Why this is happening in China is due to the lack of holistic approach, due to the dichotomy between the central and local government. And as such, there is very little capacity and enforcement ability for the government to protect the environment. And finally, there is this huge lack of information, not just between ministries, but also between the government to the citizenry. And finally, what does this mean? We should not be all doom and gloom. Because there are improvements. For example, Li Keqiang recently announced the war on pollution. The APEC blue in Beijing in 2014 December, also demonstrated that it is possible to mitigate negative implications of environmental degradations. And these are all positive signs that there is a way forward.
But what we need to really ask is what are the implications for China if we don’t do something, and more importantly for the rest of the world.

The recent revival of Confucian thought in Chinese politics emphasises the need to live in harmony with nature. In this video, Professor May Tan-Mullins, University of Nottingham China Campus, suggests that this is more than just state propaganda. Similar ideas, she argues, resonate in everyday life, as people enjoy gardens or other representations of nature.

Do attempts to connect with nature aesthetically and in personal experience open up possibilities for a more ecological politics of the future? Or do you think such ritual appreciations of nature on a micro-scale a substitute that distract us from caring about the environment at large?

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