In the third installment of the TSDM Case Studies in Chinese Political Economy, Dr. Tyler Harlan of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), spoke with students on the topic of Chinese small hydropower as a transnational model for green development. Dr. Harlan’s talk sought to challenge the erroneous belief that only one model for Chinese energy development presently exists, as well as the misconception that China has achieved its economic growth entirely through the use of dirty energy at the expense of the environment.
Dr. Harlan began by highlighting that China is the world leader in small hydropower plants, with 47,000 plants currently in use after having first utilized the renewable resource in 1911. The prevalence of this technology within the country is the result of its ability to both provide off-the-grid energy and cut down on the need for deforestation, favorable traits that led to their historical deployment primarily as a means of energy and revenue for poorer provinces with low levels of industrialization. China’s unique demographic needs also led to differentiating characteristics in its standardization of hydropower, often defining a 50-megawatt (MW) hydropower source as small, compared to most countries’ 10 MW.
Unfortunately, these benefits can come at the cost of river ecosystems, which are disrupted with the requisite damming needed for the structures to function. Additionally, energy production can be limited by the weather patterns of specific seasons, leading many Chinese small hydropower dams to effectively shut down during dry spells. This particular shortcoming can prove to be enough of a problem that Dr. Harlan recounted hearing a provincial official in Yunnan, a region with a high number of small hydropower plants, refer to small hydropower as “garbage electricity”. As a result, China has sharply ceased in approving new small hydropower sources during the past decade, particularly as the previously dependent southwestern regions have developed.
Dr. Harlan also noted that wind and solar are generally seen as newer and “sexier” technologies when compared to small hydropower, thereby increasingly receiving vastly more attention in recent years from the Chinese government. This is trend away from small hydropower is true abroad as well – among developed states, only Turkey, Western Canada, and the former Yugoslavia are hotbeds of small hydropower today. The vast differences in renewable energy implementation across Chinese provinces and municipalities highlights a central problem in analyzing Chinese environmental policy - the variation in practices and model-making.
Following on this note, Dr. Harlan argued that rather than a single unifying “China model” of environmental governance, there are in fact many smaller China models which other states may look to on a case-by-case basis. While there are still few studies on the models of green development in China, despite their growing prevalence, Harlan contended that there was little evidence of a Beijing-directed grand strategy in green energy development. Instead, research suggests that local and provincial governments, as well as non-state actors, implement policy, with wide-ranging methods and results. To this end, small hydropower in China is primarily financed by both government and government aligned institutions such as the Hangzhou Regional Center for Small Hydro Power (HRC) and the International Center on Small Hydro Power (ICSHP), which also operate abroad through either direct aid, sale, or support from Chinese investors.
In terms of international development, while the Chinese government has made a strong pivot towards investments in green development in the past decade, they do not pressure other countries to follow suit. This is particularly notable given that Chinese foreign direct investment (FDI) has increased to 135 billion USD in 2017, up from 10 billion USD only ten years ago. While green model-making is confined to China’s domestic sphere, aid and investment can also be a space of transnational model-making. Other countries that heavily rely on small hydropower include India, Nepal, Turkey, Croatia, and Montenegro. However, since current transnational model-making lacks a firm connection to politics, it is of limited use; aid and investment always have a geopolitical purpose. Small hydropower is not a universal panacea and can therefore only be evaluated on a country-to-country basis.
With a focus on hydropower, solar, and wind energy, Dr. Harlan asserted that self-reliance, flexible policy-making, and a strong central government and management system, are all essential for other states to develop a firm green development strategy. Simultaneously, the critical challenge to finding success lies in the balance between attracting profits via FDI and helping the local community and ecosystem prosper.
为此，哈伦博士认为，中国的环境监管无法简单地被定义为一个“中国模式”。事实上，中国存在很多零散的、小规模的发展模式，这些模式都非常值得一一进行研究。尽管当前中国的绿色发展如日中天，对中国绿色发展模式的探索却仍然停留在很初级的阶段。几乎没有证据能说明当前中国政府提出了一个主导绿色发展的“大战略”。相反，研究表明，地方和基层以及非政府组织在面对绿色发展时，各自采用不同方法来落实政策，并且落实的结果也大相径庭。正因如此，中国的小水电站主要同时由政府和与政府有合作关系的相关机构推动，例如杭州小水电区域发展中心【Hangzhou Regional Center for Small Hydro Power (HRC)】以及国际小水电发展中心【the International Center on Small Hydro Power (ICSHP)】，它们主要是通过直接援助和中国企业投资来实现融资的。