Where this is a will there is a way: How understanding China’s political will could mean hope for the future of our world

China on Globe

With one of the fastest-growing economies and the largest human population, China is arguably the most influential country in the world. Understanding its political will and agenda could mean learning how to navigate the powerhouse and, most importantly, how to leverage its influence for good.

In a first-of-its-kind case study, recently published in the journal People and Nature, researchers at Northern Arizona University led an interdisciplinary literature review to examine the Chinese government’s core political priorities. The goal? Uncover opportunities to leverage Beijing’s political will for sustainability and conservation gains, thus helping slow climate change.

Lead author Hubert Cheung, adjunct faculty in NAU’s School of Earth and Sustainability, grew up in Hong Kong and witnessed China’s rapid economic growth and geopolitical ascent. He believes it is crucial that people understand how China works and the motivations that underpin decision-making in Beijing, especially when it comes to biodiversity conservation. The country’s growing influence on ecosystems and natural resource use, both within and beyond its borders, makes an analysis of its leadership’s political will both valuable and timely.

“We need to cooperate and work with China if we are to find lasting and effective solutions for climate change, for illegal wildlife trade, for sustainability transitions,” Cheung said. “Understanding the Chinese leadership’s core strategic interests—and where political will already exists in Beijing to deliver on these strategic interests—will help conservation scientists and practitioners find opportunities and manage challenges.”

The case study, which was developed in 2019, brought together researchers from China, the U.S., Japan, Australia, Canada, the UK and South Africa, all of whom share a common goal of learning more about the Chinese government.

“Environmental solutions are more politically feasible if fundamentally aligned with the core interests of key policymakers,” reads the second of three points in the case study’s abstract. “Understanding the political agendas of decision-makers enables conservationists to identify where political will already exists and allows environmental objectives to piggyback on the motivation to deliver results.”

Hubert said the deep dive the researchers did into the interworking of the economic giant was a long process of discovery that brought together ideas of conservation and political science, giving researchers, and people everywhere, a deeper, more structured understanding of the motivations behind some of Beijing’s decisions, both with regards to environmental issues and beyond. He hopes these findings allow conservation scientists and practitioners to navigate our complex world more strategically.

Though it is difficult to confidently predict where China is headed in the future, many of the Chinese leadership’s core strategic interests described in the case study can be observed in the high-level decisions that are being made today.

“The world is becoming an increasingly divided and polarized place,” Cheung said. “Hopefully, by understanding each other a little bit better, we can find ways to work together more effectively and find lasting solutions to the big environmental challenges we are facing.”

NAU professor Duan Biggs, a senior author of the paper, added “The environment and conservation represent an opportunity for soft-diplomacy and for countries and societies to maintain dialogue and collaboration despite growing tension.”

NAU Communications