Narratives and Pathways towards an Ecological Civilization in Contemporary China

Journal Article
Published In: The China Quarterly

This journal article by Sam Geall (, University of Sussex,  Chatham House) and Adrian Ely (SPRU/STEPS) draws on theoretical insights from the pathways approach to explore the ways in which dominant policy narratives in China might drive particular forms of innovation for sustainability and potentially occlude or constrain others. In particular, the authors look at ecological civilization (shengtai wenming) as a slogan that has gradually evolved to become an official narrative and is likely to influence pathways to sustainability over the coming years.

Since the United States committed to withdraw from the UN Paris Agreement on climate change, international observers have increasingly asked if China can take the lead instead to raise global ambition in the context of a world leadership vacuum. Given the country’s increasing economic and strategic focus on sustainable and low-carbon innovation, China might seem well placed to do so. However, much depends on the direction of governance and reform within China regarding the environment. To better understand how the government is seeking to make progress in these areas, this article explores key political narratives that have underpinned China’s policies around sustainable development (kechixu fazhan) and innovation (chuangxin) within the context of broader narratives of reform.