Is global warming real? Is environmental devastation the single greatest problem facing our society? If you believe that either of these things, then you probably know that China is the single greatest contemporary despoiler of the Earth, and emitter of pollutants into the atmosphere. The enormous productive capacity sits virtually unregulated, pumping out nearly a third of all carbon dioxide and more GHG’s than any other country in the world (though don’t feel great, America still leads per capita). The reason this is the case is a series of political failures that indicate the underlying weaknesses of communism.

Every 5 years, China’s leaders set a new agenda for the country in an event that we call the Plenum. In the 2012 5th plenum, the Chinese policy apparatus made ending the devastation of the environment one of its top priorities. This decision was made in accord with the will of the people, for whom air and water pollution are the top issues only after corruption according to research done by Pew. Thus many Americans who naively believe that China’s communist government functions like an ideal aristocracy believed that, things would “get done” because China’s central government wished it so.

There is a Chinese saying that I have used a number of times — “The mountains are tall, and the emperor is far away”. What this points to is one of the great political failures of China, and communism as a whole. Unlike the West, many important Chinese people have completely failed to internalize a system of ethics and beliefs that revolves around what is good for the state and the nation. This means that China’s communist party functions less like an aristocracy and more like a very bureaucratic oligarchy. We have barely seen any progress on the environmental issues: carbon dioxide emissions have been flattened but not reduced, and the reductions are probably more a result of financial woes than successful policy.

Estimated CO2 emissions in China 1990–2016 broken down for coal (brown area), oil (black), gas (blue) and cement (grey). Source: China National Bureau of Statistics and authors’ calculations

Let’s take a step back for a second. The truth is that, the successes of the environmental movement in the United States were only partial. They succeeded in ending a bunch of environmentally troubling practices in this country, but they did not end people’s demand for cheap goods produced by dirty factories. These factories just moved to places with less regulation and, just as importantly, fewer institutionalized rights for workers. These factories first began reappearing and growing among American Cold War allies in East Asia; Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore. Once these countries began to rebuild economically and profit off of their export-oriented economic policies, manufacturing began to reappear in China.

Many of the fundamental conditions for manufacturing were strong in China in the 80’s and 90’s: workers had no institutionalized rights, extremely generous zones were created to encourage manufacturing development, no environmental protection existed, and these countries were connected by social networks to the greater non-mainland Chinese communities. Soon a sophisticated network of trade developed between these networks and countries to sell products to the consuming United States and Europe. The bargain bin, non-durable goods that are now icons of the 90’s were probably made and assembled in China, painted and boxed in another country, and shipped to Long Beach harbor.

That is not to minimize the genius and achievement of many Chinese people, but where most people get the story wrong is to credit the Chinese government and party institutions. The modern industrial strength of China was built off of the same kind of entrepreneurial spirit, determination, and savvy that we credit the original American robber barons with — and competing with a government that had mercurial attitudes about free trade at best. China did not go from zero to one — history reveals that it has achieved heights of mercantile power and industriousness that, relative to the technological power of the time, rival if not surpass the achievements of the West. China was ramping up in the same direction even in the first half of the 20th century, before two decades of civil war and invasion from Japan created a period of hellish chaos.

Going back to the 1970’s, the study and understanding of the science of environmentalism and ecology grew to the point where the American people rallied against the pollution and implemented legislative reform that would punish corporations who generated these negative externalities. Like the American people, the Chinese people deeply concerned about pollution. At this point, the negative impacts of pollution in this country for their people — beyond the release of GHG’s, including pollution of the water and soil, exceeds what any other country has experienced in the past. Yet attempts to reign in this problem have met mostly with failure.

Non-compliance in general is a huge problem in China. To understand why, we only need to look at history. It is common practice to get through difficult paperwork or inspections with various forms of bribery. Bribery is considered such a big problem by the CCP that they have fought a dogged battle under Xi Jinping to restrict bribery on as small of a scale as $20-$30. There is simply a culture that is far more difficult to change than a small-time operation. Bribery is a standard part of the civil promotion process, a sign of respect and reciprocity, and needless to say a great tool in the hands of the rich relative to the less rich. One of the reasons why it is so hard to get compliance with environmental laws, which are already in place and passed with the full intention of being enforced, is because the foot soldiers are used to this culture, and will be bought off quite easily.

There is also a greater systematic problem with China, and communism in general. The lack of a civic culture, or a culture that encourages the social sciences, activism, and participation in non-governmental organizations, has probably resulted in a generation of civil servants who are apathetic about greater concerns. That is not to say that there are not many, many Chinese that are deeply angry about this issue — there are also climate change scientists and environmental advocates who are educated, and many party elites who have a genuine but sanguine belief in fighting pollution. However, without the backbone of a civic culture, how can a society stand up to a monolothic source of power? The EPA is a product of organizations such as Green Peace, The Sierra Club, countless actors, and even groups of questionable character such as the Animal Liberation Front. Without groups like this, it is impossible to imagine people with the character and support needed to stand up and fight for a cause — or any cause.

There are deeper conflicts and questions that surround the consequence of environmental production that also trouble the Chinese people. It is easy for Americans, who even the relatively worse off have lived a decent life, to ask Chinese people to close down factories and contribute to the greater good. But the livelihood of a small town may depend on a single factory, and the food they eat may be paid for by the price of a river that is tainted. For every civil servant who can be bought, there may be one or even two who will stand back because they know what the industry means to their community and their country. Many American communities have made similar poisonous choices, for the same reasons.

Environmental measures in large cities like Shanghai and Beijing have been successful. However, when it comes to areas outside these key cities, the central government finds itself quite impotent as a result of reciprocity relations, situations involving potential mutual blackmail, and some doubt about the validity of the whole product against the success achieved with the dirty industries so far. Even a Chinese Communist party that was fully committed, at the head, to making environmental protection a top priority, will find a difficult political guerrilla warfare ahead, involving the dismantling of thousands of local fiefdoms — many of which are public enterprises run by members of the same party.

I think there are two sides to this story. One is that China is not so much an ideal communist aristocracy, but a dysfunctional oligarchy that cannot impose the basic discipline necessary to pass obvious and desperately needed reform. In the 5th plenum, Xi Jinping put environmentalism on the referendum — for that, the party elites show that they are committed to the cause of the Chinese people, and for whatever good they think a cleaner world can give them, but they have so far not delivered.

On the other hand, the East Asian economies that continue to manufacture and pollute are making rational choices that are no different than what American communities would make in the same circumstances. The reason there is a market for these products. Entirely blaming the supplier of these products is akin to blaming only drug dealers, or only prostitutes, instead of realizing that drug users and john’s are also responsible for the nefarious transactions occurring in the first place. East Asian manufacturing only exists because Americans and Europeans are willing to buy products that they fully understand are detrimental to their livelihoods. The only difference is that fewer of the offenders are in our backyards.

The relevance of the environmental issue to American-Chinese relations is thus complex. However, the dysfunctional centrally planned Chinese economy is no longer entirely tied to Western market demand. The country is out of control — many of the coal plants and steel mills that get “shut down” magically reopen. Standards are meaningless if there is no compliance; rule of law by the party is meaningless if the very individuals who require discipline are the ones supposed to discipline themselves. A country that is addicted to selling the future to invest in unprofitable ventures in the present, and lacks any kind of civil society backbone to intervene, will not effectively implement environmental control.

I want to make one final comment here. Check out an article like this. It is a long, well-researched article that presents an alternative viewpoint to the one expressed in this article. However, it makes a key mistake — they fail to understand that plans, government policies and standards are all meaningless if they are not enforced. China’s party has a lot of great policies, but the truth is that the authors uncritically accept that these policies will be implemented. They believe in the aristocracy and do not see the real oligarchy. If we want to get serious about the environment, we can’t live in a world of ideas. We have to demand nothing less than action, whether it is in Flint or in Shaanxi.