Reframing “Circular Economy” in PRC

I have been supporting the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s operations in PRC as their first full time employee in Beijing. First phase of the project was a macroeconomy study on “Circular economy potentials in China: urban and industrial innovation”, which is set to be launched at the World Economic Forum soon.

Starting an NGO’s operation in a new country naturally presents unique challenges. Hence beyond the title “research analyst” as printed on my business card, my role at times resembles that of a journalist, a representative, an entrepreneur, a PR manager, and a personal assistant… I think it suits me well, for someone who fears boredom.

And this year has been anything but boring. Being in the NGO sector in this particular country, at this particular time, for me particularly, is a story that I can’t keep to myself.

  • Political issues

PRC, even beyond the economic boom and the enormous population, is a very special country. An organisation classified as an “NGO”, “charity” or “foundation” triggers very peculiar pre-conceptions. Instead of warm appreciation for our pursuit of public good, the word “foundation” could inspire cold suspicion due to “political sensitivity” and low level of general societal trust. This has been one of the biggest challenges for our mission and for me personally.

  • Timing

Though the timing of this job was perfect for my surge of interest to explore China, it unfortunately also coincided perfectly with the new law to “regulate” foreign NGOs operating in PRC. A year after the announcement of this policy, only about 200 of the 6000+ NGOs in PRC have succeeded in finding a governmental unit to supervise their operations, which is just the “Step One” for opening an official local representative office.

  • Culture

As for me, I couldn’t say that I experienced much “culture shock” returning to my home country after almost 7 years abroad, but I feel that I am very much of an outsider: no longer in the expat bubble, but not in the local system either. Rediscovering my home country has been a learning journey for me, examining the culture through new lens, figuring out how to interact with people of all ranks (especially those of power), and exploring the circular economy landscape.

Despite the crowdedness that I hate, tap water that I cannot drink and dearest friends left in Europe, I couldn’t think of a better place for me to be. PRC is very exciting. It is inconceivably complicated, with so much happening at an unfathomable speed. Just for one: the story of how bike sharing companies taking over Chinese cities, fundamentally changing urban mobility, inspiring discussion on urban space management and general sharing economy in merely 2 years’ time is something of a legend. Frontrunners companies like Mobike and Ofo are already on their way to conquer the world so chances are, wherever you live, you might come across them rather soon.

Despite the firewall, media censorship and NGO regulations, there are very encouraging signs in the political landscape. PRC’s new waste ban not only has significantly impact domestically but also globally, possibly putting further pressure on the EU and US to transition towards the circular economy. It’s also invigorating to see the government dramatically putting more emphasis on “ecological civilisation”, i.e. the Chinese version of “sustainable development”. In 2017 alone, besides the “waste ban”, a new set of circular economy indicators, a guideline on circular development actions, and policy on extended producer’s responsibility have been released. And there will soon be an “environmental tax” and a new ministry in charge of natural resources, not to mention the renewable energy investment, green finance momentum and digitalisation backdrop. PRC is the single biggest circular economy potential market, even compared to the 1.8 trillion in the EU by 2030 as identified by Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

Great challenges ahead for sure, but I feel truly privileged to sit in such a position and to be able to feel the pulse of such a special country at such a historical time of change.

*I should probably explain the word “reframing” in the title: the concept of “circular economy” has been in China for more than a decade; however the common understanding of it is still hovering around “reduce-reuse-recycle”. Another barrier to overcome and opportunity to bring new perspectives.