Fragile Chinese Democracy to Invest in Anti-Pollution Measures

After a week of raging protests in Beijing and the other major Chinese cities calling for measures to fight corruption, inequality, and pollution, the military moved to arrest Xi Jinping and release several high-profile dissidents from prison. In a statement, the military said it would schedule free elections to the National People’s Congress for the end of this year. Based on statements by leaders of the New Citizens’ Movement, the new government will prioritize building infrastructure and enacting regulations to fight pollution, adding that the measures passed by Xi had too many loopholes and did little to improve public health.

Sources within the transitional government say that the hukou registration system will be abolished in the coming days, as will the two-child policy. With rich cities like Beijing and Shanghai expecting a surge in internal migration, there is friction between urban middle-class protesters and migrants over future development policy. Protesters in Shanghai indicated that they would prefer local control over housing development and education policy. The degree of federalism is up in the air and will not be settled until after the election, but most of the freed dissidents believe that the new government should devolve substantial autonomy to the provinces.

Political leaders, including both freed dissidents such as Liu Xiaobo and CCP faction leaders within the National People’s Congress, have said they will work on anti-pollution measures, to be passed after the election. Environmentalist protesters have proposed a national cap on the purchase of new cars, akin to existing policies in Beijing, Guangzhou, and Shanghai, and stricter emission controls on cars. They have also proposed a national program to build more solar plants and retrofit apartments to be more energy-efficient in order to close coal plants; within Beijing, middle-class reformers identified with the political right have proposed ending government subsidies to coal heating.

In the near term, the largest cities plan to continue building out their subway networks at the same pace as before. Planners at the Beijing Subway and Shanghai and Guangzhou Metros said they expect passenger numbers to rise modestly as the abolition of hukou leads to higher population growth, but all three cities already have low car ownership rates, so replacement of car trips by subway trips is unlikely. However, in some other cities, where car ownership rates are higher today, planners expect higher rail traffic in the future. Because there already are plans for rapid expansion of subway service, it is unlikely any city will build out its system faster; however, some long-term plans without a timeline may be accelerated and built in the next decade.

There is some nationalistic element to the proposed infrastructure and environmental policies. Planners at China Railways have expressed dismay that Chinese passenger rail traffic density is not the highest in the world, but ranks second, after Japan. This is part of a broader split between democracy activists who are pro-Western, like Liu, and ones who are not and came to oppose the CCP out of recent concerns about economic and environmental problems. The latter activists take it for granted that China should reunify with Taiwan on its terms; some have proposed an undersea rail tunnel connecting Taiwan with the mainland.

But sources within the Japanese rail industry expressed some pessimism about the ability of the new democratic China to solve its pollution problems via better infrastructure. They note that Chinese urban train stations are poorly located, usually well outside city centers, and urban rail lines lack express tracks, limiting train speeds. Nearly all protesters oppose China’s use of eminent domain to clear areas for new development, making it hard to build more central train stations.

The transitional government said that it would welcome a global climate change agreement and that China would reduce its greenhouse gas emissions provided the rich industrialized countries committed to sharper reductions. Analysts within Europe and Japan believe that this proposal is aimed at the United States, which has substantially higher per capita emissions than the rest of the developed world, and is the world’s second largest emitter after China. A minority of anti-American protesters in China have proposed declaring trade war on the United States until it agreed to combat climate change, but the views of both the transitional government and most growing political factions are that there should not be any change to Chinese foreign policy, outside the issue of Taiwan.

A faction of protesters, currently planning to form a green party and contest the upcoming election, has proposed far-reaching taxes, investments, and regulations, intending to ban cars for non-emergency uses by 2025, and phase out all coal plants by 2025 and gas plants by 2035. Members of this faction have said that this would ensure Chinese supremacy in the realm of green technology, which China could then export to the United States, India, and industrializing African states as it sheds low-value added manufacturing industries. The majority of Chinese reformers do not support those measures, and it is unlikely the conservative factions within the CCP will agree to any further regulation. However, the upcoming green party is likely to be a key component of any reformist coalition, and substantial additional regulations stopping short of a ban can be expected.

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13 comments

  1. Eric

    “Planners at the Beijing Subway and Shanghai and Guangzhou Metros said they expect passenger numbers to rise modestly as the abolition of hukou leads to higher population growth, but all three cities already have low car ownership rates, so replacement of car trips by subway trips is unlikely. ”

    I’m not sure I would agree with this. These cities have massive networks, but there are still very extensive areas in them with little to no subway service. For example, Beijing (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Beijing-Subway-Plan_en.png) is most of the way to a subway grid with ~1km spacing which covers the city core, but the massive northern suburbs (Changping etc.) have very little subway service relative to their size. One would expect there is much room for ridership growth in those outer suburbs.

    Secondly, there is big question of where Chinese people take the subway *to*. In Western countries, the main transit destinations are offices and entertainment concentrated in the urban core. In China, I don’t know what the destinations are, but surely factories in the outer suburbs are much bigger contributor, and I wonder if white-collar jobs are more broadly distributed as well. So perhaps there are jobs which people currently reach by car, but with further growth in population, the generally higher traffic levels will make this untenable.

    P.S. Looking at how much rail the Chinese megacities are building, compared to their US peers NYC and even Los Angeles which equally need rail, is just depressing.

    • Doctor Memory

      Depressing barely even begins to cover it. In 1999 my (American) wife spent a year working out of Chonqing; the metro didn’t even exist then. In the intervening 18 year they’ve built out a subway system roughly the size of Boston’s — during which time Boston itself managed mostly to fail to extend the Green Line and build a handful of BRT stops.

    • Alon Levy

      Judging by the massing of office towers in Lujiazui, Shanghai is as centralized a city as any. I’m less sure about Beijing and Guangzhou, though.

      • Eric

        I can’t speak to Guangzhou, but Beijing has very little of a downtown. There is a “financial district” but only a handful of office towers there. In general I get the feeling Beijing is more focused on government than private business – similar to DC vs NYC.

        None of these 3 cities has a higher concentration of subway lines in its business district than elsewhere…

        • Alon Levy

          I’m not familiar with Beijing and Guangzhou, but yeah, Shanghai is bad at serving Lujiazui. There’s a clear center at People’s Square, but then the new CBD development isn’t there. People’s Square has a fuckton of retail, though. (Singapore is the opposite, by the way – the MRT has a center at the office CBD, but just one station at the retail center, Orchard.)

  2. Nate

    You motherf****r. You got me good. To be fair, I didn’t read this until April 3rd, but still. Good job.

  3. Hugh Shepard

    Is this fake news? None of this is true. I live in China, and no dissedents are being freed, Xi Jinping is not arrested, and there is no new democracy. Major cities in China are rapidly expanding their subway systems, but none of the political information is true. There is no planned abolition of the hukou system. Where did you get all this information?

  4. Benjamin Turon

    If there was a revolution in China, would mass transit be a big story??? Given Chinese history “regime change” is likely to be very bloody, perhaps resulting in outright civil war and even the breakup of the country. If China turned into another Syria on a grand scale… would investing in new rapid transit systems be a high priority?

    OK… I understand this is an April Fools joke but with Trump as president: every day is April Fools!

    Actually China’s current national rail system including the line to Tibet was originally sketch out by Chinese republican revolutionary Sun Yatsen; if I recall correctly while traveling by rail after the fall of of the Qing Dynasty. It took decades and a change of governments but his dream came true. The Chinese seem take these “crayon drawings” by their dear leaders seriously. The Three Gorges Dam and “Nine Dash Line” are other grand plans touted by post-imperial Chinese leaders who had not ability to realize them in their time, but in time there successors would bring then to fruition. It be like if President Theodore Roosevelt after witnessing a demonstration of the Wright Flyer telling the press that the USA would put a man on the moon by the end of the 20th Century, and then that dream being kept alive by following leaders and bureaucrats until it was achieved in 1969!

    • Alon Levy

      South Korea managed to undergo regime change without civil war. Same is true of Tunisia.

      I also disagree about the comparison between today’s China building infrastructure Sun Yat-sen proposed and Teddy Roosevelt hypothetically predicting a moon landing. Early republican China was trying to catch up to the West (and to Japan); China today is still catching up. What Sun proposed, and what China is building to his specifications, is modernization based on technology that was already available to the developed world in the 1910s. But China is also investing in technology that did not exist then, like cellphones and solar power.

      • adirondacker12800

        Geograph/topography is a cruel mistress. People looking at the same river valleys tend to come up with the same routes. …or the dots on the map…

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