Mercy Anguah, Anqi Guan, Maria López Conde ,and Lemuel Robinson are second-year International Development students who recently traveled to Beijing, China to build a business case for increasing Chinese investment in environmentally-friendly goods and services on behalf of the World Wildlife Fund

The IDEV Practicum allows students to work directly with public, private and non-governmental organizations as a capstone to their graduate studies. The IDEV Practicum Blog is a six-part series that chronicles the travels of IDEV students who take on client projects over winter break.

Nothing about Beijing is modest in size or grandeur. From the city’s jaw-dropping and expansive skyline to its intricate and labyrinthine hutongs, the city is bustling with activity on every corner. Upon arrival in this massive metropolis, we were struck by its cavernous and futuristic airport, and the customs line that felt more like a security checkpoint in a spaceship hangar. But if we felt Beijing has one foot in the future, it also has one foot deep in the past. The smog, an ever-present reminder of the costs of the country’s quick economic development, shrouded our nighttime taxi ride to the hotel and gave the Cold War-era architecture of old Beijing an air of mystery. Our visit to the Forbidden City, a magnificent government structure built over 500 years ago, was impressive proof that Beijing’s historical heritage is as vast as it is rich.

In our two weeks there, China showed us that it is grappling with its past and trying to define its place in the future. Through our interviews with government, we came to understand a country reinventing itself once more. The country’s remarkable economic progress lifted almost 700 million people out of poverty since 1980 was partly driven by development in the manufacturing and industrial sectors. But the negative externalities of such rapid growth are showing: cases of food safety scares are common and there are high levels of air, water and soil pollution, as well desertification, which has led the government to announce that 1/5 of the country’s farmland is contaminated.

Nevertheless, China’s government has shown it is committed to addressing the effects of the country's economic transformation. In 2012, China included the phrase "ecological civilization" - its own version of sustainable development - in its official blueprint for development to highlight economic progress that results in a better ecological footprint.  In 2015, the country launched a number of environmentally friendly reforms to protect natural resource rights and establish water management protection systems, among others.

The same interest in reversing environmental damage in China is also shaping China's position in the world and its commercial relationships with other countries. In January 2017, at a time when the United States seemed poised to retreat from its COP21 commitments, Chinese President Xi Jinping told an audience at the World Economic Forum his country wanted to protect the environmental progress made in Paris “for future generations.” Efforts to change the reputation of Chinese firms in Africa and beyond for "pillaging and pilfering" valuable natural resources and wildlife while employing few local laborers have also emerged. A former Chinese journalist that covered illegal wildlife trade opened up an NGO, China House, in Kenya, to help Chinese companies engage in conservation as corporate social responsibility. In late 2016, the Chinese government announced it would shut down its ivory trade by the end of 2017, news that were hailed by conservationists who had long worried about China's prominent role in the worldwide elephant tusk trade.

China’s interest in “greening” its economy and its footprint around the world has also led to the proliferation of companies that specialize on delivering “green” products and services, such as solar panels, selling organic products and providing eco-friendly tourism. As a newly-emerging key trade partner to developing countries, China could also play a role in “greening” the economies in nations that provide it with commodities, especially those in Africa. During our trip to Beijing, we met with representatives from the government, private sector and academia to discuss the development of the market for “green” products and services at home and abroad. Working for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) as it prepares to present recommendations to the Forum on Africa-China Cooperation (FOCAC), we were tasked with exploring both the potential of ensuring that China’s future role in the world would be environmentally friendly. In conjunction with the other SAIS practicum team working with WWF, we chose Kenya as our African case study for this project due to the close economic ties between the two countries.

In particular, we examined how China’s “green products” could make their way in larger volumes to Kenya, and how Kenya’s “green” products or services could be absorbed by a Chinese market more conscious of its environmental footprint. Solar power products, for example, are China’s specialty. The country has developed technical expertise that has cut down the price of these products across the board. Chinese producers recognize Africa’s potential as a market for renewables due to missing national power grids. Chinese consumers, some of the biggest tea drinkers in the world, are becoming more aware of the origin of their food in the wake of highly-publicized food scares and are seeking alternatives to conventional products, such as organic tea, which is Kenya’s cash crop. And in ecotourism’s case, East Africa has a unique mystique for Chinese travelers interested in wildlife and nature. Though the number of Chinese tourists that visit Kenya at present is small, especially when compared to Europeans, tourism that has a social and environmental benefit holds great potential for Chinese tourists looking for adventure that also preserves nature. 

While China already has made sizeable investments in developing capacity for solar energy in Kenya and plans to increase its cooperation in agriculture, Chinese actors face some challenges in Kenya. For one, Chinese solar power firms are hindered by high barriers to entry into the market and the poor reputation of some Chinese solar products. To remedy these obstacles, we recommend that Kenya set international standards on these solar products to help Chinese firms sell affordable mini-grid systems in Kenya. While there are some Chinese-run hotels in Kenya, Kenyan ecotourism hotspots should work on improving their adherence to ecotourism standards to draw more tourists to their accommodations. And similarly, the Chinese Organic Food Certification Center should work more closely with Kenyan organic tea farms to bring their tea to China with organic labels. And generally speaking, our group is recommending that Chinese and Kenyan embassies in both Nairobi and Beijing work together to bring investors and industry insiders to the same table to forge stronger commercial ties.

These recommendations are specific to Kenya’s case, but China faces similar difficulties in neighboring countries. Enhancing cooperation in these three areas could help transform China's environmental footprint in its country and around the world, as well as change its reputation in developing countries. Luckily, Chinese policymakers and firms recognize the challenges they face in African countries like Kenya, but are confident that they can reinvent themselves. After all, they’ve done it before.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo of Beijing's buildings at sunset in the winter by Maria López Conde. A thick layer of smog shrouds the buildings on the horizon.