China exports its environmental problems as consumer culture booms

China is attempting to pursue the same impossible path as the rest of the world: generating consumer demand and wealth without destroying its natural resources and the planet
If you look at who bears the brunt of pollution in China, it’s often the poorest

Despite its well publicised investment in green technology, China today has an unenviable list of ecological problems; its reliance on coal has left it with 16 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world; the north of the country is prone to frequent water shortages which have created hundreds of thousands of ‘environmental refugees’; and the dumping of chemicals into the Yangtze and other rivers means half the Chinese population drink water contaminated with human and animal excrement.

In a new book, ‘As China Goes, So Goes the World', Oxford professor Karl Gerth, claims that many of these problems have been directly caused by China’s move towards a more consumerist society. In just twenty years, writes Gerth, China has gone from being almost exclusively an exporter of consumer goods, to being ‘the world’s largest consumers of everything from mobile phones to beer.

The decision to stimulate consumer demand in China was a conscious one taken by the country’s government. With a growing saturation of its products in Western markets, Chinese industry needed new consumers to ensure continued economic growth, and the only obvious place to turn was their own population.

In the light of the worldwide financial crisis, however, it is not just the Chinese Government which is relying on its population to help spend their way out of a recession, but the entire Western World. ‘In the West, we’re looking to a very poor country to save us twice’, says Gerth, referring to the economic dependence on China, and also the Western expectation that the Chinese will develop the green technology to combat rising emission levels.

Explosion in car ownership

The link between China’s consumption patterns and its ecological problems are clear.  In 1993, there were only 37,000 private cars on the road, with the vast majority of the population using bicycles for transport. Today there are more than 35 million cars, a figure that is expected to grow to 150 million within the next ten years. All these cars have contributed to the severe air pollution and smog that blights many of China’s cities.

In dietary choices too, the Chinese have begun to move towards a more carbon-intensive Western lifestyle with meat and dairy products increasingly replacing the traditional protein source of beans. In the mid-1990s daily milk consumption was less than 5kg per person, today it is 11kg, whilst city dwellers eat twice as much meat as they did in the 1980s. This move has been facilitated by the rapid emergence of fast food restaurants such as MacDonalds. The resultant increase in cattle-rearing has lead to the erosion of top-soil, desertification and has helped to cause China’s water shortages.

The ruling Communist Party’s response to its environmental problems has often been to engage in dramatic large-scale building projects or alter consumer patterns with strict market control. For example, in order to combat water shortages in the North, the South North Water Diversion Project is being constructed to divert 44.8 billion cubic meters of water from Yangtze River to the Yellow River and Huai River. To drive down car emissions, various measures at both a state and municipal level have been introduced to encourage the use of electric vehicles, including the introduction last week of a congestion charge in Beijing.

China's state-led solutions

These dramatic policies have lead some commentators to conclude that China’s authoritarian system is better suited to tackling climate change and dealing with its own ecological problems than Western democracies. ‘This New Confucianism is misguided’, says Sam Geall, deputy editor of online environmental publication China Dialogue, ‘although it seems sensible philosophically, one only needs to look empirically at the record of the implementation of environmental law and regulation in China to see that it’s incorrect.’

In reality, environmental policies are hampered by the structural problems in China’s system of government. As Geall explains, whilst many government directives ‘might look good on paper’, they are often sidestepped at a local level, and frequently conflict with previous directives, even those issued by the same government department.

There are countless failed initiatives which attest to this inefficiency and corruption. For example, in 2006 the National Bureau of Statistics abandoned attempts to calculate a ‘Green GDP’, due to the difficulty of gathering the necessary information. This difficulty was largely caused by companies falsifying their emissions statistics, something which they had been doing for years with their economic figures.

Many academics and environmentalists have suggested that the solution to tackling Chinese environmental problems lies not in more authoritarian measures, but in greater accountability in government and industry and a higher degree of popular participation in government.

‘The government can’t tackle these problems without people themselves pointing to instances of mis-implementation of directives’, says Anna Lora-Wainwright, Lecturer in the Human Geography of China at Oxford University. ‘They simply don’t have enough capacity to find all the cases of pollution all over China; they rely on people’s assistance.’

There have been encouraging moves in this direction. On 13 August, the Dalian Fujia Petrochemical Company facility in Liaoning province was ordered to shut following demonstrations by locals who were concerned about a possible toxic spill.

Organisations such as the Institute of Public Environmental Affairs, run by Chinese environmentalist Ma Jun, have also recently been pushing for more transparency on environmental issues, utilising the 2008 government directive, Measures on Open Environmental Information, to obtain pollution statistics about companies and governments, much in the same way that people use freedom on information requests in the UK.

Exporting the pollution to Vietnam

As encouraging as these developments might seem, there is always the danger that they will simply result in China exporting its environmental problems to other parts of the globe in the same way Western nations have done. In fact, says Kerry Brown, Head of the Asia Programme at Chatham House, ‘it’s already happening’, with the ‘new Chinas’, like Vietnam and Thailand suffering the consequences. 

‘What Chinese environmentalists will also point out is that this also plays out on a domestic level within China,’ says Lora-Wainwright, who has studied the effects of pollution on rural communities. ‘If you look at who bears the brunt of pollution in China, it’s often the poorest,’ she adds.

This is not, however, a simple case of industry imposing itself on poor farmers. ‘The pressure for development also comes from rural Chinese people, not just the government... they recognise that if they oppose pollution in their local area, they are less likely to reap the benefits of the investment that industry can bring with it,’ says Lora-Wainwright.

The Chinese government seems to be facing the impossible task of balancing the requirement of bringing wealth and prosperity to its people and meeting growing consumer demand, with preventing the destruction of its natural resources and the planet. As Gerth puts it, ‘The Chinese Communist Party is now riding the same tiger as the rest of the world.’

If you look at who bears the brunt of pollution in China, it’s often the poorest
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