A group of researchers from China, Africa, Latin America and Europe met last week in Beijing to launch the new China Sustainability Hub, in collaboration with the STEPS Centre’s long-term partner Beijing Normal University (BNU) and other institutions. Hosted at BNU School of Social Development and Public Policy (SSDP), the launch was packed with a wide range of activities for students, researchers and wider stakeholders to engage with the STEPS Centre’s approaches to sustainability and exchange ideas on what these might mean in a Chinese context.
For Sunday’s early risers, the launch kicked off with a Masterclass where inquisitive Chinese and international students at BNU discussed with STEPS researchers from the UK, Africa and Latin America, concepts, methods, and on-going research. The following days opened to a wider of audience of both participants and speakers with an International Conference called Pathways to Sustainability in a Changing China, including diverse sessions navigating the landscape of domestic and international developments relevant to both STEPS and China such as health, energy and agriculture and innovation.
Welcome to China’s New Normal
The conference particularly shed some light on current changes in China and what recent policy discourses have referred to as ‘China’s New Normal’. The term, first proposed last May and further elaborated in November, may sound slightly odd to novices of either the Chinese language or current developments in the country. Several speakers, however, shed some light on a term designed to emphasise the turning point China’s economy is currently at, contrasting the country’s past and future development trajectories and characterised by a lower economic growth.
Particularly, the Dean of BNU-SSDPP, Professor Zhang Xiulan, who shared the opening keynotes with Professor Melissa Leach, formerly STEPS Director and now Director of the Institute for Development Studies, provided fascinating insights into how The New Normal may translate not only linguistically and culturally but also in relations to STEPS’ approaches to sustainability, particularly the 3Ds (Direction, Diversity, Distribution) framework. As a start, three key points characterise the new phase, including a shift from high to medium speed growth, an economic structure that is constantly improved and upgraded and an economy increasingly driven by innovation rather than input and investment.
In the past, China’s development paradigm has strongly relied on Growth Domestic Product (GDP) as the key driver and indicator for an “harmonious society” with much improvement over the past 10 years, in health for example. But the impressive speed and scale at which China has been developing has brought a combination of what Prof. Zhang described as “the good, the bad and the ugly” with persisting inequalities and poverty within parts of the population. Furthermore, although GDP growth has occurred fast, it does not capture how social norms have changed. In attempt to address these, the New Normal has declared ‘War on poverty’, making its reduction a top priority in the domestic agenda with a target of absolute poverty elimination by 2020.
The focus on poverty reduction under the New Normal, however, goes hand in hand with increasing concerns and specific implications for environmental issues. Prof. Zhang explained how the key “izations” mantras of China’s development, including ‘industrializations’, ‘informatizations’, ‘urbanizations’, and [agriculture] ‘modernizations’, have increased from four to five with ‘greenizations’ as a newcomer that could potentially lead to multiple and substantial changes in China.
Indeed, rapid and large-scale development has also led to rising pollution issues and greenhouse gas emissions (GHG). According to the Global Carbon Project, China is the highest emitter in the world, with a 27% share of the global carbon emissions. Indeed, climate change has become a central issue as development has triggered a staggering level of emissions, said Chen Ying from the Institute for Urban and Environmental Studies and deputy director of the Research Centre for Sustainable Development (RCSD) at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS). In a separate session on ‘sustainable and equitable urban transformations’ she described last year China’s joint commitment with the US towards a climate change agreement as a “positive signal.” The country is also aiming to bring early its 2030 target for its emissions to peak. While these are ambitious targets, key challenges remain and no easy solutions exist to achieve them.
Particularly, China’s rapid and significant growth rate has come with a high level of urbanisation and associated challenges. As a result, the city-level brings further dimensions in what Cheng Ying describes ‘The New Normal of urbanization’ by contrast to the New Normal of the economy. In a country where 98.99m people lived below poverty lines in 2012, including poor people in both rural and urban areas as well as increasing migrant workers, ensuring sustainable urbanization and avoiding carbon lock-ins has become crucial and several shifts are needed. Among them, Cheng Ying referred to the need for ‘citizenization’, contrasting the former focus on land towards more attention on people, with for example more emphasises on health and education and further considerations of rural-urban integration.
Another area of particular interest, recurrent throughout the conference, related to potentials for new patterns of South-South cooperation with potentially more engagement and more resources from China. These could, for example, include opportunities for the country not only to share its experience but also draw lessons and encourage mutual learning with partners. At a time when the Millennium Development Goals are being redefined as Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the national Chinese New Normal paradigm may resonate well with post-2015 frameworks currently being negotiated.
Potential changes in governance models
But beyond the global platforms establishing the future climate change and development regimes, the need for a new governance model at national level was also a hot topic of discussion among Chinese and international participants. In the end, policy makers need to think about whether New Normal is a synonym of slow down or a ‘new mental model’, explained Prof. Zhang. While opportunities exist to link international and domestic development agendas in the context of both the New Normal and the SDGs, considerations of China’s specific structural and cultural context and attention to policy processes and who makes policy is also required. Consensus is built when policy is made and while elites write policy recommendations, media reports explain what policy means, which is a different process to other places, Prof. Zhang emphasised.
The New Normal of ‘urbanizations’, for example, will require more public participation, explained Cheng Ying, adding that the situation has nevertheless been evolving with increased involvement of environmental non-governmental organisations and differences in the level of public participation to local government policies, notably around issues of ‘ecological civilisation‘.
Towards a pathways approach ‘made in China’
There is no doubt that current environmental, social and technological developments in China provide rich grounds for a research agenda to elaborate a pathways to sustainability approach that is ‘made in China’. Key linguistic, contextual and cultural translations are, however, needed to understand how concepts and methods may apply and evolve in such environment. For example, despite strong policy slogans on innovation, questions remain around what innovation means in a Chinese context and how to do it.
Beyond this, discussions around governance and opening up and broadening out policy making will require specific attention in a country where empowerment remains a sensitive topic and terms such as bottom-up and top-down may be alien. While adaptations might be needed and uncertainties remain as whether the word ‘pathways’ can be literally translated to Chinese or a new word is required, does not however preclude the scope for transdisciplinary research within the new China Sustainability Hub at BNU and rich collaborations with regional partners around the globe.
Chinese researchers’ strong enthusiasm and interest in translating the approach according to their own understanding and establishing mutual learning platforms provide interesting opportunities for future STEPS-inspired research. Certainly, the Pathways to Sustainability in a Changing China conference has provided a platform for local and international participants to connect, exchange ideas and define common interests, a basic key ingredient for collaborative and co-equal work, that offer promising scopes for enriched research across cultural differences.
The initiative comes as a part of the STEPS Centre’s move exploring new grounds for further partnerships within the emerging Pathways to Sustainability Global Consortium. The Consortium links six regional Sustainability Hubs with longstanding partners, including Jawaharlal Nehru University in India, BNU in China, Fundacion Cenit in Argentina, Arizona State University in the USA, the African Centre for Technology Studies in Kenya and a collaboration between the Stockholm Resilience Centre in Sweden and The STEPS Centre in the UK. The official launch of South Asia Sustainability Hub in India last year is also to be followed by the launch of the Africa and Latin America hubs in June and November this year, respectively.
Sandra Pointel is a Doctoral Researcher, SPRU Science Policy Research Unit, University of Sussex
Photos from STEPS-BNU conference by Sandra Pointel