Dispatches from China's happiest city
Hangzhou skyline. Photo by 戸山 神奈 on Unsplash
Is Hangzhou China’s happiest city? I was there recently for the UN World Data Forum and indeed, according to an official survey, it has ranked among the “happiest” (or perhaps most liveable) cities for the past 15 years.
This was my first trip to China since the pandemic, and while I have no idea how happy the residents of Hangzhou are, the city itself is very smart, green and hyper-connected. Electric vehicles are really the dominant mode on the roads, 80% of the taxi fleet is electric, and what you notice is that there are a lot of cars, little noise and the air quality is good.
Among the impressions that stood out were:
👉 Everything feels faster because digital services are efficient, centralised and universal. If you’re not integrated, its hard not to feel like you’re excluded, lagging behind, backward.
👉 When you’re struggling to meet basic needs such as buying food, water, metro tickets and ordering taxis, this crowds out concerns like data privacy and makes it almost seem like such issues are a luxury. Your basic need is to pay for a product or a service, and a “whatever it takes” mindset takes over.
While I was at the UN World Data Forum, there was a lot of talk, especially but not exclusively from Chinese officials, about the role of data and technology to drive sustainable development and economic growth.
This newsletter will look at the connections between the big Chinese narrative that informs geopolitical discourse today, and the “Ecological Civilization” concept, both of which are not well understood outside of specialist circles. Sustainability updates on a new EU deforestation law, and coffee’s carbon footprint.
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The Chinese narrative in 2023: What is it, and where did it come from
As economist Keyu Jin says in her new book The New China Playbook: Beyond Socialism and Capitalism, it is difficult to read China in the original.
Decrypting official positions and statements require context, and a new book from French historian Victor Louzon “Le grand récit chinois: L'invention d'un destin mondial” is useful. As I’ve noted in a previous newsletter, China’s role at the UN and in the SDGs space is growing, so it really helps to have a sensemaking framework.
What’s more, there’s a huge gap between the sensemaking on China provided by analysts of geopolitics and those in the more technical sustainability space.
Louzon organizes the book around different elements of the narrative, and where they come from in the long trajectory of Chinese history. Among them, China as the bearer of an ancient universalist message, an inherently peaceful nation, an empire without colonial domination, and a leader of the "South".
A big takeaway from Louzon’s essay is that the Chinese model of globalization is an alternative to the West, and one that offers a win-win for all, and is a bit sketchy on detail by design.
What is more surprising in the "great Chinese story" as it is presented today is its rather weak internal coherence: it is moreover less of one than of several stories, with rather diverse themes and uses.
In a podcast interview, he notes that a big shift in the new narrative is the CCP’s reconciliation with its imperial past.
Previously the revolution was seen as a rupture with the imperial past, this has now become a narrative of renaissance. And the Chinese Communist Party is seen as the restorer of the most glorious elements of the Chinese past.
What role for “Ecological Civilization” in the big narrative
Enter Ecological Civilization. This term was enshrined into the Chinese constitution in 2018, but the concept itself has been around since the early 2000s.
Among the papers on this topic, this provides a good overview, and argues that the concept can be described as a “socialist-ecological future with Chinese characteristics”.
The authors argue that ecological civilization constitutes the most significant Chinese state-initiated imaginary of our global future, and that it is therefore crucial to explore in more detail what this vision entails.
👉 Advocates of eco-civilization assert that harmony between humankind and nature is hardwired into the Chinese tradition since ancient times, in contrast to the Western tradition which placed humans in a dominant position vis-à-vis nature.
The argument - which grounds the concept in a selective and contested reading of Chinese history and philosophy - goes that proper ethical conduct, as prescribed by Confucian philosophy, will ensure care and benevolence for nature, and form the basis of ecologically sound behaviour.
In recent years, science and technology have become major components of the vision, and the driving force towards the “green future”.
Today, Ecological civilization is a government framework for developing China’s environmental laws and policies, and a term that will get increasing global attention as it becomes mainstreamed through China’s growing status and influence in the international environmental space.
To go deeper:
Ecological Civilization in China: Challenges and Strategies. Xin Zhou (2020)
Highlights from the Sustainability Agenda
👉 New landmark EU law on deforestation just adopted will require companies to conduct due diligence on commodities such as cattle, cocoa, coffee, palm oil, sugar, timber, rubber and soya, as well as derived products such as chocolate, furniture and beef.
The EU Deforestation Regulation was formally adopted this month, and will enter into force some 18 months after the expected publication date in June.
This is a milestone in global efforts to protect forests which has major implications for global supply chains. The law aims to prevents products and commodities linked to deforestation and forest degradation from being placed onto the EU market.
Once the law enters into force, large and medium-sized companies will have 18 months to implement the new rules.
👉 The future of coffee - Carbon Brief published a deep dive on coffee & climate change which, among other things, highlights the vulnerability of the crop to climate impacts against a backdrop of fast-growing demand. It cites one study which says “under a moderate warming scenario, the researchers project that the world’s largest coffee producer, Brazil, could lose up to 80% of its best-suited coffee-growing land.”
Coffee has a big carbon footprint, which can be reduced by switching to more sustainable growing conditions - in the shade, in biodiverse, water-rich, complex agroforests, instead of monoculture plantations exposed to the sun, reliant on irrigation and energy (for fertilisers, pesticides and operating machinery).
Coffee also has a big water footprint: one study from the UNESCO-IHE Institute for Water Education estimated that a single standard-sized (125 millilitre) cup made from seven grams of coffee needs about 130 litres of water. A cup of tea, made from three grams of black tea, has a water footprint of 27 litres per cup.