The climate crisis is a human rights crisis on a colossal scale, and to help mitigate it, the world needs the Chinese government to take urgent action. But is Beijing capable of reducing environmental harm without committing further human rights violations? There’s reason to worry.
Consider the story of Linfen. Linfen is a prefecture in Shanxi province, one of China’s largest coal-producing regions. As part of a nationwide drive to reduce air pollution, in 2017, the local government enacted coal-burning pollution prevention regulations, which designated certain areas as coal-free and imposed fines of 20,000–200,000 yuan (US$3,200 to $32,000) on anyone who illegally burned coal after the regulations took effect in 2018.
In December 2019, reporters at Beijing News went to a village in the area to investigate the regulations’ effect on residents. They found that although the local government had attempted to ease the transition from coal by installing natural gas-powered heaters in many homes for free, the villagers couldn’t afford the gas to run them. A man in his 60s, for example, told reporters that sufficiently warming his home with the heaters in winter would cost 2,000 yuan ($320) per month—an annual amount greatly exceeding his yearly income of 2,000 to 3,000 yuan ($470). And so, to fall asleep at night, he would lie next to his cooking stove, still warm from his evening meal.
If villagers were found burning coal, inspectors would confiscate their burners and, on occasion, detain the perpetrator. They sometimes also broke into empty homes to take equipment.
While air pollution did drop, the immediate toll the regulations took on families who couldn’t afford to heat their homes got little attention outside of approved stories in the stringently controlled Chinese media and Internet. The Linfen case precisely illustrates the kind of environmental governance model the Chinese government is imposing: a top-down initiative that systemically disregards and violates people’s rights and in which surveillance technology is used to entrench state control. That story, however, has been largely lost.
Given the profound challenge of global warming, many are desperate for China, by far the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, to make drastic reductions in its emissions. In 2021, a number of environmental organizations urged US president Joe Biden to “eschew the dominant antagonistic approach to U.S.-China relations” to get the Chinese government to cooperate on climate change. And Beijing’s recent promises in that regard have raised hopes. At the United Nations General Assembly in September 2021, China’s president Xi Jinping pledged to “strive to peak carbon dioxide emissions before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality before 2060.” He also announced that China would no longer “build new coal-fired power projects abroad.” At the COP26 climate summit in November, China and the United States announced an agreement to ramp up cooperation on measures to mitigate climate change, including reducing methane emissions, protecting forests, and phasing out coal.
But before people get giddy about working with Chinese authorities on this issue, they should have a better understanding of the work Chinese authorities actually intend to do, and the human rights abuses built into it. In fact, it is increasingly clear that the Chinese government has been exploiting environmental causes to consolidate political control and expand its power at the expense of human rights inside—and increasingly outside—its borders.
Under Beijing's Green Fist
The Chinese government really has made some progress on tackling environmental degradation in recent years. Authorities in Beijing, for example, have touted a reduction in air pollution (particulate matter 2.5) of 63 percent between 2013 and 2021. David Vance Wagner, the China counselor to President Barack Obama’s climate envoy, called that “extraordinary progress that was almost unimaginable 10 years ago.” According to a study published in Nature Reviews Earth & Environment, “by 2020,” China’s “carbon intensity decreased by 48.4% compared to 2005 levels, achieving objectives outlined in the Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions and Nationally Determined Contributions”—a significant improvement, though one no doubt heavily influenced by the COVID-19 pandemic.
But this progress has its human cost, and it is often those in the most vulnerable positions who bear the largest immediate impact.
In a one-size-fits-all fashion, for example, the authorities over the last decade have closed down numerous factories and businesses in Hebei province, which completely surrounds the Beijing and Tianjin municipalities, because of high levels of pollution. Central government plans for affected areas around the country to transition coal workers into new jobs and training opportunities and provide subsidies during the transition have yet to be systematically analyzed for effectiveness. Anecdotal evidence from the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region reported in one study, however, points to high levels of unemployment from industrial restructuring. And those who were hit the hardest, according to a regional stakeholder interviewed for that study, were often the “low-educated, low-skilled, and not insured.”
Other studies back this up. One found that in Xingtai, a city in Hebei province where 40 percent of local GDP comes from high-polluting industries, 37 percent of those laid off because of industrial restructuring failed to find new jobs. In Xuanhua, also a city in Hebei province, the state-owned Xuanhua Iron and Steel company ceased operations and had laid off all of its employees—amounting to one-third of the city’s entire population—by September 2021. One affected worker who posted on Weibo, the Chinese Twitter-like social media platform, likened the workers to “fish on a cutting board, helpless and pitiful,” in great need of officials’ attention.
The people living in areas surrounding Beijing have borne most of the sacrifices for the cleaner air those living within the city now enjoy. “For Beijing’s blue sky, for environmental protection, how many people in Hebei have lost their jobs, the Hebei people sacrificed so much but still got forgotten by Beijing,” a netizen posted on Weibo.
The central government follows much the same strategy for building up clean energy as it does for shutting down polluters. Well before the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics opened in February, China had pledged to power them using only renewable energy. In the past few years, that has meant the construction of new wind and solar projects nearby, with the goal of delivering clean energy not only for the games, but for all of Beijing. Yet reports allege that, to build the infrastructure, the authorities forced people off their land and coerced them into accepting inadequate compensation for lost land and income. Those who protested were subject to detention and even criminal prosecution.
In Huangjiao village in Baoding, Hebei province, for example, local officials required farmers to lease their land to a sprawling solar park built by a state-owned company for a meager rent. “We can make more than double the amount by growing corn in the same area,” a villager named Long told Agence France-Presse in December 2021. “Now without land, I eke out a living as a day laborer.” Long’s family, which lost more than half its farmland to the solar farm, has “so little income they are burning corn husks and plastic bags to stay warm in winter,” the reporter notes. Long served nine months in prison for “illegally gathering and disturbing the peace” for protesting the arrangement.
For Beijing, all this may be seen as the cost of success. In December, the state-owned Hebei Daily reported that all rural areas in the province had achieved clean energy heating. But for many people, it isn’t a price worth paying. Responding on Weibo, many local residents complained in exasperation about being unable to afford natural gas heating: “Every winter is a winter of suffering, so tragic!”; “[It’s] so sick, people are freezing to death”; and “After getting rid of poor people, [the country] will achieve internationalization. It’s us who don’t deserve [to live].”
Surveillance in Green
In some ways, issues of eminent domain, the difficulty of transitioning workers to new jobs, and the higher consumer costs of cleaner energy are challenges all nations have to deal with in reducing greenhouse gases. But not all governments are using these issues as an occasion for tightening control.
The deployment of technologies for monitoring various aspects of people’s lives to ensure compliance with all manner of regulation is part and parcel of China’s governance. Human Rights Watch has extensively documented the authorities’ disproportionate, opaque, and discriminatory practices of monitoring that intrude on the privacy of hundreds of millions of people in China. And without an independent judicial system, people in China have little ability to challenge the government’s surveillance or seek remedies.
Not surprisingly, the Chinese government also harnesses its vast surveillance power to enforce environmental rules, further expanding the scope of control and intensifying the penetration of the state into people’s lives. For example, authorities in Wuhan have used their fishing ban automated supervision system, with its high-resolution surveillance cameras and drones, to catch those who engage in illegal fishing on Wuhu Lake. In September 2021, the local Changjiang Daily reported that, after the system detected a man surreptitiously fishing, the authorities arrived at the scene within three minutes and confiscated his equipment. “Be it a windy, rainy or foggy day, as long as a person appears, it will be detected by the system,” quipped the article. Elsewhere, the Hubei Department of Ecology and Environment reported that, as of 2018, the province had installed 4,336 surveillance cameras to detect “stubble” burning by farmers. (The burning of these residual crops after a harvest is a source of air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.)
Using unmanned surveillance to enforce fishing and stubble-burning bans is not necessarily problematic; the United States enforces speed limits that way. But in China, it is yet another instance in which authorities have set up high-tech monitoring without being clear on how much data is being collected, how it is shared or stored, whether it is being used beyond legally permissible goals, and without recourse for those being surveilled.
A set of recycling rules introduced in 2019 in Shanghai is illustrative. The strict, complicated recycling rules frustrated many residents, and one commentator dubbed it “eco-dictatorship.” Authorities there use monitoring probes, receipts retrieved from trash, and smart cards that must be swiped to deposit garbage in assigned containers in order to monitor residents’ garbage-dumping behavior. The authorities said the system was not only used to catch those who didn’t comply with recycling rules, but to detect other “abnormalities” in the community. “If a certain residency’s garbage is particularly high volume, [we] can check whether the house is being [illegally] partitioned and rented out,” said a community officer. In some areas in Beijing and Hangzhou, the lids of garbage bins are equipped with facial-recognition technology.
These monitoring systems are part of the Chinese government’s long-term development of a “social credit” system to shape social behavior. Under this system, people and companies are rewarded for good behaviors and penalized for bad ones. The system in its current form is highly fragmented and uneven and is mostly used by local authorities to enforce their policy priorities. In cities such as Changzhou and Guiyang, compliance with recycling regulations is a criterion for good “social credit.” In Shanghai, failing to properly sort one’s trash could affect job and loan applications.
Strangling Civil Society
Beyond monitoring, China’s commitment to green development involves severely restricting what citizens and civil society groups can say or do on these issues. The government seems intent on monopolizing the production of environmental knowledge and implementation of policies and will not tolerate any dissent.
With the government’s iron grip on civil society under Xi, the kinds of marches and demonstrations taking place in the rest of the world demanding greater climate action are mostly impossible in China. Over the years, authorities have cracked down on numerous environmental protests and arrested scores of environmental activists, whistleblowers, journalists, and concerned citizens. Social media posts exposing scenes of environmental degradation and the authorities’ neglect have been censored.
Since 2018, moreover, police have repeatedly harassed Ou Hongyi, a teenage climate activist who mounted a series of one-person protests. Her school barred her from attending for fear that her activism could bring trouble from the authorities, prompting her to eventually leave China. In September 2021, a court in the Ningxia Autonomous Region sentenced Li Genshan, an activist known for protesting wastewater pollution in an Inner Mongolia desert, to four and a half years in prison for his work to protect endangered animals. In December 2021, a court in Jiangxi province sentenced three villagers who participated in protests against factory pollution to suspended sentences for “disrupting social order.”
The Chinese government has also tightened the screws on non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Since the draconian new law restricting the operations of foreign NGOs came into effect in 2017, many environmental groups in China that once partnered with foreign donors and groups on capacity-building and advocacy issues have been compelled to dismantle themselves. Those still operating have had to walk a fine line between demonstrating support or giving advice to the government’s initiatives and, ever so subtly, criticizing them. And they don’t always succeed. In November 2021, the authorities accused the Shanghai-based group Rendu Ocean of receiving foreign funds and gathering sensitive oceanic data after it published data on ocean pollution several times higher than the official numbers.
Beijing’s actions come at a cost to both civil society and the environment. In a study of some of China’s big “going green” projects over the past two decades, Yifei Li and Judith Shapiro have shown that environmental regulatory efforts were most effective when they were complemented by civil society inputs: “counterintuitively, the success of state-led environmentalism for both ecological wellbeing and good governance hinges not on a strong state but on mechanisms that place state power in check. A closed-door, mandate-driven state undermines its own power but an open, collaborative, and adaptive state shows real promise.” However, Xi’s intensifying repression of civil society is rendering hopes for collaboration between the state and non-state actors increasingly dim.
Greenwashing Crimes Against Society
In China’s farther reaches and beyond, the central government’s green-related behavior gets even more extreme.
In Tibet, since the early 2000s, the government has forcibly resettled at least 1.8 million Tibetan nomads into sedentary houses in the name of poverty alleviation, environmental conservation, and the combatting of climate change. Tibetans had no say in the design of policies that radically altered their way of life and no ways to challenge them, and they received scant compensation for the damage caused. Such policies were implemented despite mounting ecological evidence that indigenous stewardship and herd mobility play an important role in protecting the carbon-rich grasslands.
Tibetans told Human Rights Watch that they saw the resettlement and “remodeling of their villages as designed in part to facilitate the Chinese government’s control of Tibetans, who already face sharp curbs on political, religious, and cultural expression imposed in the name of combating ethnic separatist sentiment.” In that vein, in 2020, the authorities banned the offering of burnt juniper boughs and other smoke ceremonies outside an iconic temple in Lhasa, Tibet, alleging concerns over air pollution. Local residents perceived the move as a step to further tighten restrictions on religious practices. Meanwhile, prominent Tibetan environmental activist and philanthropist Karma Samdrup has been in prison since 2010, serving a 15-year sentence on trumped-up charges. Karma Samdrup’s brother Rinchen Samdrup, also an environmental activist, was sentenced to five years in prison in 2010.
There’s an element of environmentalism in China’s treatment of the Xinjiang region too. It is widely recognized that a global transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy is needed to tackle the climate crisis. China dominates the supply chains for renewable energy infrastructure, from source minerals to the manufacture of products including wind turbines, electric vehicle batteries, and solar panels. And this comes at a human rights cost.
Xinjiang, a region in northwest China where 13 million Turkic (Uighur) Muslims live, produces 45 percent of the world’s supply of polysilicon, the key component of solar panels. According to many allegations and reports, it is also the region where Chinese authorities are committing the most serious crimes against humanity, including mass arbitrary detention, torture, mass surveillance, cultural and religious persecution, family separation, forced labor, and sexual violence. A comprehensive study of Uighur forced labor and the solar industry revealed the extent to which major solar companies benefit from at least some forced labor, including workers transferred from parts of Xinjiang under the government’s “labor transfer” scheme, in which participants had to undergo training aimed at instilling loyalty to the ruling Chinese Communist Party. In June 2021, the US government banned some imports of solar products from Xinjiang based on concerns about forced labor in the supply chain.
That won’t be enough. China accounts for up to 70 percent of the world’s output of rare earths, a group of elements that are essential materials in renewable technologies but are expensive and whose processing involves the use of potentially toxic chemicals. But news reports suggest that the metals are often mined and processed without adequate protections for miners. Long-term exposure to the metals can pose serious health risks, including cancer, central nervous system damage, and cardiovascular and respiratory problems. The mining waste also has harmful effects on residents living in surrounding areas.
China’s authoritarian approach to environmental governance is also going global. The country’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a trillion-dollar infrastructure and investment program launched in 2013 and stretching across some 70 countries, has drawn criticism for inadequate environmental protection measures. In recent years, the government has placed increased emphasis on sustainability for its BRI projects, but even the green BRI projects have been riddled with allegations of human rights abuses.
Several Chinese government-funded and -built mega-dams, often billed as environmentally clean and sustainable sources of energy, have faced criticism for land-grabbing and displacement of Indigenous communities. In Cambodia and Guinea, Human Rights Watch documented economic, social, and cultural rights violations of tens of thousands of people who were affected by the construction of Lower Sesan 2 dam and Souapiti dam.
In December 2021, thousands of people in Pakistan protested the Chinese-built Gwadar Port. Local residents said that the port project, billed by the Chinese government as a bastion for green industry development, had disrupted the fishing ecosystem and marine biodiversity in the area that they rely upon for their livelihoods.
Beijing knows that it has an essential role in addressing climate change and leverages it. On the one hand, it keeps professing enthusiasm for international cooperation. In January, in a speech to the World Economic Forum’s Davos Agenda, Xi urged countries to “promote international cooperation on climate change” and said that China “stands ready to work with all partners” on sustainable development. On the other hand, according to China’s Foreign Ministry, China-US cooperation on specific issues like climate change “is closely linked with bilateral relations as a whole.” In other words, Beijing is willing to hold cooperation on climate change hostage to other governments’ positions on issues of concern, such as trade and territorial disputes.
On numerous occasions, Beijing has demonstrated its willingness to leverage economic arrangements, including those concerning energy sources, to serve political goals it considers more important. In 2010, in response to a territorial dispute with Japan, China halted shipments of rare earths to Japan. In 2019, amid a trade war with the United States, Xi paid a visit to Jinli Permanent Magnet company, the world’s largest supplier of rare earths, reminding the world of China’s monopoly on materials of great economic interest. In 2020, despite a power shortage in China, the government banned coal imports from Australia in response to Canberra’s demand for a World Trade Organization inquiry into the origin of the coronavirus and other perceived political infractions. And in 2021, during a dispute with Lithuania over Taiwan, Chinese state-owned energy companies “cooled” their interests in cooperating with Lithuanian companies on renewable energy, according to the Lithuania-China Trade Association. These incidents should serve as warnings for countries that rely on China to supply materials for their own transitions to clean energy—or who offer unreserved praise for its net-zero pledge.
The climate crisis poses an enormous and unprecedented threat to human rights globally. And as the world’s largest emitter, China has a critical role and a human rights obligation to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions responsible for climate change. But this should mean doing so in a manner that does not devastate the rights of people across China. People can have clean air without freezing to death. Residents should not be required to hand in their biometric data just to throw out their trash. And nobody should be forced to work to provide solar panels for global markets. There should be no trade-off.
Important and much-needed climate action by the Chinese government should, instead, be pursued in a manner that respects rights, and the global environmental movement should hold that government, along with others, appropriately accountable. Discussions about and cooperation with Chinese authorities on climate change should start from this baseline.