China’s leaders have rubber-stamped their plan for the next five years, and they’ve started talking the language of western sustainability aspirations. But is it any more than lip service?

The Communist party recently met in what China refers to as its parliament, officially the National People’s Congress. A major task of this NPC was to roll out China’s new five-year plan – its 12th, which runs from 2011 to 2015.

The delegates then unanimously voted for the plan (rather than discussing it or anything messy like that).

The five-year plan is always a closely watched ritual for China’s media (by official order). It’s concocted using supercomputers by China’s top geeks who still believe in Stalinist-style plans, despite the evidence that they tend not to work from the likes of the USSR, GDR, DPRK, Albania and Cuba, to name but a few.

The geeks try to estimate how much steel, electricity and soap will be needed by China’s 1.4 billion people in its $5tn economy, how much shoppers will shop, how many babies will be born, and so on.

It’s always great sport for foreign hacks and analysts to watch where the uncontrollable freewheel of the market ruins the spreadsheet of the plan. Usually some Orwellian retrospective fixes mean everyone later learns that the plan worked.

So what’s in store for the next five years?

The plan contains plenty of broad-brush claims – an enormous acreage of solar panels, loads of new dams, a car for just about everyone.

Events, events

However, annoying global events interfere. The planned 40GW of nuclear capacity, added to the existing 10GW, has been swiftly smothered post-Fukushima. A major rethink – especially in earthquake-prone Sichuan province – is now under-way.

The Guardian newspaper’s east Asia environment correspondent Jonathan Watts says the Japanese earthquake has alerted the Chinese public to issues around where reactors are built and that an outbreak of Chinese-style nimbyism may be about to emerge. 

What is also evident is how western terminology has infiltrated the Communist party. It is being “inclusive”, talking about economic “integration”, and emphasising the “rule of law”.

And that’s not to mention some tricky terms for senior party leaders: “transparency” and “governance” were mentioned at the congress, although no real commitments were made. It was a bit like the way one always says one is a “team player” at interviews.

“Alternative energies” and “environment” were two major interlinked themes. Of course, 30 years of demon exporting have done China’s environment no favours.

Veteran China watchers, such as CLSA bank’s Andy Rothman, all agree that the coming decades must be more about quality than quantity if the economy is to “transition” to being creative, entrepreneurial and environmentally friendly.

There is also the question of balance. Ma Jun, a leading environmentalist and author of the influential book China’s Water Crisis, notes that the new plan’s intention to raise hydropower by a whopping 140GW by 2015 sounds good but might just tip many of China’s fragile river systems into environmental disaster.

Meanwhile Ailun Yang, Greenpeace’s China campaign manager, believes the targets are too cautious and too vague. Greenpeace’s argument is that the 2015 targets for carbon emission reduction and more alternative energy are too low because previously stated longer term commitments to 2020 were already too conservative. Now China is effectively in a cycle of lower ambitions.

So, all hail the plan. Just don’t look too closely for detail and don’t ask too many clever questions between now and 2015. It won’t be appreciated in Beijing.



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