Measuring China’s Harmony

CANBERRA – Scientific circles have generally accepted the need to account for natural capital – and the ecosystem services that it provides – when assessing progress toward sustainable human well-being. Now, the highest levels of China’s government seem to be recognizing this need, too.

Indeed, at the Chinese Communist Party’s recent 18th Congress, top officials advocated “ecological progress,” in addition to the longstanding goal of economic prosperity and a “harmonious society.” As President Hu Jintao stated in his keynote address at the start of the Congress, the CPC views ecological progress as a “task of vital importance to the people’s well-being and China’s future.”

The “harmonious society” concept, which can be traced to Confucius, has become a hallmark of Hu Jintao’s socioeconomic vision, which calls for a fundamental shift in China’s policy focus from economic growth to social fairness and environmental protection. But, while the idea of a harmonious society has widespread appeal, whether China has actually begun to move away from a GDP-driven development model is open to question.

For example, in 2004, China attempted to replace standard GDP accounting with the “Green GDP” index, which accounts for the environmental consequences of economic growth. But the initiative was abandoned three years later, after it became clear that factoring in health and environmental costs would reduce otherwise remarkable GDP growth to politically unacceptable levels.