CHINA’S GAMBLE, OUR FUTURE…. Reporting this spring in China, I became convinced that the western impression of Big Brother Beijing needs serious revision. Yes, China can at times crack down with terrible ferocity. But when it comes to routine maintenance and oversight, the ordinary business of running a government (read: ensuring Beijing’s laws are followed in the hinterlands), the central government often stumbles.

I know some folks will be skeptical: After all, isn’t China an authoritarian regime with the power to silence free media and execute top officials? Yes, but keep in mind that although Beijing’s crackdowns are highly publicized, they are nowhere near comprehensive.

BusinessWeek’s current cover story, “Can China Be Fixed?” tackles the same question. It’s well worth a read:

Why, then, is it so hard for this same government to crack down on exporters of dangerously tainted seafood, toothpaste, and medicine, despite years of warnings by local and foreign experts? …. Product safety is just one aspect of Beijing’s inability to enforce needed regulation in everything from manufacturing and the environment to copyrights and the capital markets.

It’s not all gloomy news, though. Desperation breeds experimentation. On the environmental front, the central government is opening a rare window for citizens to play a role. A little over a dozen years ago, civil society was nonexistent. Today there are over 3,000 citizen-run environmental groups operating legally in China. Yes, restrictions exist. But the concept of public participation, a radical departure from the recent past, is gathering momentum. As China’s deputy environmental director, Pan Yue, the most vocal advocate for public-involvement, said in June:

The public is the most interested party when it comes to the environment and has the biggest incentive to protect it. Therefore, people should be given the right to know, to express, to participate and to supervise.

As for global warming, the pertinent question now is not only whether Beijing adopts carbon caps — a big if — but whether the Chinese government, perhaps with the help of unlikely partners, can find a way to convert its edicts into reality.

UPDATE: Here’s the link to my Monthly piece, with more details.

Christina Larson

Christina Larson is a Washington Monthly contributing editor and an award-winning science and environment journalist who has reported from five continents.