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If China's success in the past 10 years is about considerably expanding the middle class, the next decade should be about making it feel happy, respected and secure. And a clean environment certainly counts big in the formula of happiness of the middle class.
This is probably what was implied by General Secretary of the Communist Party of China Hu Jintao's opening speech at the 18th CPC National Congress on Nov 8. Hu said we should "reverse the trend of ecological deterioration and build a beautiful China". Beautiful is the new green.
Under the leadership of Hu, China maintained an average annual economic growth rate of 10.7 percent from 2002 to 2011, the envy of most of the other major economies that are still suffering from the repercussions of the global financial crisis. During the same period, China's per capita GDP rose from $1,000 to $5,432. Also, under the current leadership, China surpassed Japan to become the world's second largest economy.
This is an achievement that deserves applause, just like the one Premier Wen Jiabao received when he unveiled these figures at the 2012 summer Davos summit. Observers are already saying China has reached a tipping point where a large number of people will enter the middle class. According to the Brookings Institute, by 2021 China will have 670 million middle class consumers.
Rising affluence is often accompanied by rising environmental awareness. As has been seen in other parts of the world, when income level hits a certain threshold, mounting public pressure drives down the emission of pollutants. This is already happening in China. Beijing residents' campaign to reduce PM2.5, particulate matters largely responsible for the city's hazy air, is just one example.
With rising income, people become less satisfied with promises of top-down clean-up actions. They also want to be part of the process that gives them clear skies. For the newly emerged middle class, the integrity of procedures, such as information disclosure rules, access to courts and the right to participate in the decision-making process, is as important as the end results. This is a system that not only delivers environmental benefits that the middle class wants, but also speaks directly to middle class values.