Seeing the World in China: An Interview with Haibing Ma

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In this interview we talk with Haibing Ma, the China Program Manager at the Worldwatch Institute, about the increasingly large role that China is playing in global agriculture development.

Haibing Ma is an expert in climate change policy analysis and development and international environmental policy. A native Chinese, his primary focus is on China-related topics. Before coming to Worldwatch, Ma was an International Policy Associate at the Center for Clean Air Policy (CCAP), where he played a leading role in managing several China-related projects.He holds a B.A. in Public Administration from Zhejiang University in China and an M.A. in Public Policy Analysis from Beijing University. He is currently completing his doctoral degree at the University of Maryland, College Park, where his primary research focus is on waste electric and electronic equipment management issues in China.

(Photo credit: The Worldwatch Institute)

Please outline the China Program at Worldwatch. What are your main projects right now?

I think of the China Program is an overarching brand and inside of this program is climate and energy and also agriculture and food, also transforming cultures—essentially all of the other programs that are relevant to China, and can be integrated into the program, are under the umbrella of the China program.

Right now we are focusing on two projects. One is focused on a general discussion of China’s potential to contribute to a green economy with a special focus on green job opportunities. From my personal experience talking with Chinese officials, they were really keen on this one. They saw this as something that could really help them make decisions about future development strategies. It is a very general concept and I hope in this report to establish the Worldwatch role in defining the” green economy” concept, just like we did for “sustainable development” back in 1970s. We’d like to put the Worldwatch brand on this. There are a lot of different opinions about green economy, low carbon economy, green growth, etc., and maybe we can offer something unique.

The second focus is a discussion of what should be China’s role in shaping sustainable global development. The focus will be on the impact of China’s shifting development pattern on other developing countries. We are trying, in a sense, to create a “south to south” dialogue. Given China’s increasing dependence on foreign based natural resources—they are buying resources such as metal and energy from other developing countries, for example— its policy decisions have a growing influence on sustainability throughout the developing world. How can we enhance China’s leading role and how can we engage China to help the rest of the developing world in alleviating poverty and other discrepancies? We’ll look at China’s green transition as a model and explore its implications on the international level. We want to see what experiences and lessons we can draw on from China.

Also, I would like to further integrate other programs like water and energy into the China Program because I think that is a field that deserves more attention. Water needs, and water impact, especially given China’s tremendous new energy development planning, are increasingly important now. It’s a challenge for China to have enough water resources to support its ambitious energy plan while also providing for residential and agricultural water needs. Current energy development plans are not taking into account the population’s water needs, so we sense the need to shed a light on that.

The gas program is also very important for China. In the next five years, china wants to double its share of gas in the total energy mix. It’s an impressive target but it might need some out-of-the-box practices to achieve it. We’d like to work with Chinese partners to explore the potential role of unconventional gas. So, there is a lot of potential to grow that aspect of the China program, as well.

Why is it important to focus on China apart from other countries?

China in many ways is a unique country. It has such a massive economy and population. A  recent report stated that China’s GDP has surpassed that of Japan, becoming the world’s second largest. And in terms of energy consumption, and green house gas emissions, China is viewed by many as the world’s largest as well. But in terms of the per capita figures, China is still very much a developing country. Within this country you have the southeastern coastal cities that are almost like western metropolitans; but in the inland, rural areas, people are really poor. There are still about 40 million people living under the poverty line. China, in terms of development standards, is facing most of the problems of both developing countries and developed countries at the same time. Given the size of China’s economy and its potential impact on the world, it’s crucial to have a strong understanding of the country. China’s efforts in its green transition, if successful, will significantly encourage other countries to pursue an environmentally sustainable development path.

In what ways can the Food and Agriculture work at Worldwatch partner with the China Program and why is this collaboration important?

Much of China in the northwest is mountainous or desert and not suitable for large-scale agriculture. At the same time, the pace of urban expansion is accelerating. As a result, agriculture development and food security in China is a growing concern and could have a big impact on other countries.

During the industrialization process, China’s agricultural and food sector wasn’t given the attention it deserved. At the current stage, I think, when you talk about development strategy, you can’t ignore the population’s basic needs, not to mention that China has a huge population that has to be sustained by a well designed and sophisticated agriculture system. Any national food insecurity will eventually lead to internal social instability, and in turn might trigger international problems just based on, as we already discussed, the huge international role China already plays. We have already seen conflicts over food sensitive resources like water, in fact, at the southern border. The river sources, the building of dams and contaminated run-off, for example, if loosely planned and controlled, could have tremendous impact on neighboring areas in terms of water availability and human health.  So agriculture and food availability is incredibly important both within China and in determining how China interacts with other countries.  There is clearly a lot to be done in our China program together with food and agriculture and I look forward to integrating these possibilities into a sustainable China framework in the near future.

To read more about China and the role it play in agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa, see: Is There a ‘Win-Win’ Solution to Land Acquisitions?, China’s Agricultural Development: Lessons for Africa?, In Ethiopia, Getting to Market on Chinese Roads, and Reducing Emissions: it Not Just About Climate Change.

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