By Walden Bello*
Dale Wen’s short book China Copes with Globalization: a Mixed Review, published by the International Forum on Globalization, is probably the best comprehensive introduction to the environmental and social impacts of China’s breakneck industrialization available in English (http://www.ifg.org/) Based on both Chinese and non-Chinese sources, the report carefully reviews China’s economic policies from Mao to the present leadership, discusses the consequences of the economics of the reform era from 1978-92, analyzes the globalization of the economy since 1992, and surveys the alternative voices in the Chinese scene, including the environmental movement and the “New Left.”
How serious is the environmental crisis in China?
The environmental crisis in China is dead serious. For example, the ground water table of the North China plain is dropping by 1.5 meters (5 feet) per year. This region produces 40 percent of China’s grain. One cannot help wondering about how China will be fed once the ground aquifer is depleted.
What in your view are the three most serious environmental crises being faced by China at this point?
Water pollution and water scarcity; soil pollution, soil degradation and desertification; global warming and the coming energy crisis.
What in your view is the role of western TNCs in the current environmental crisis?
Taking advantage of lagging implementation of environmental laws in China, many western TNCs have relocated their most polluting factories into the country and have exacerbated or even created many environmental problems. For example, Pearl River Delta and Yangtze River Delta, the two Special Economic Zones where most TNC subsidiaries are located, have the most serious problem of heavy metal and POPs (persistent organic pollutants) pollution.
There are reports (e.g., LA Times, Nov. 26, 2006) that the Chinese government is considering allowing Chinese farmers to plant genetically modified rice. What do you think about this?
According to the report, the Chinese government is going slowly on this-the earliest possible decision would be two years from now. I remember that in 2005, there were rumors that GM rice might be approved within a year. I am very glad that this is not happening. Now there is more time and room for debate. I understand that the Chinese government has invested a lot of money in GMO technology and is desperately looking for silver bullets for the rural crisis. But from the past experience of Green Revolution, we should learn that technology alone cannot solve social problems and sometimes can even be counterproductive,
Some people say that the problem is capitalism? Do you agree?
Capitalism is certainly a big contributor that we have to address. But it is not the only factor-we should not forget that the former Soviet Union also had a dismal environmental record. A critical view of developmentalism needs to be fostered by progressives to address the environmental crisis.
Is the resolution of the environmental crisis dependent on democratization in China?
Not necessarily. With the type of representative democracy that exists in western countries, the rich and powerful can always manage to externalize the environmental cost to the poor and voiceless-this is a major problem of the US environmental movement. The prevalent “not in my backyard” approach often results in relocating of pollution and environmental devastation instead of addressing the real problems. So I do not think the US-style democracy can help to solve the environmental crisis in China. A true participatory democracy may help-as everyone will have a say, including the victims of ecological destruction. Social democracies in northern Europe work better than US model and are much closer to a true participatory democracy, but they also have much less population and resource pressure than China, thus copying that model directly will not be an easy way out. China will have to develop its own inclusive political system according to its own history and culture. The current leadership is emphasizing “the harmonious society” and “sustainable development”. While the details of these phrases still need to be spelled out, I think it is a good start.
Western environmentalists criticize Chinese for reproducing Western lifestyles that have a heavy impact on the environment? What can you say about this?
The criticism is right on target, as the rapid adoption of Western lifestyles by China’s elites is a sad reality. But we should not forget why it is happening–the mainstream West (including the governments, the media and even some NGOs) has fiercely encouraged the middle class mentality and lifestyles in China, as they think these are the basis for western type of democracy. Western environmentalists would be more convincing to their Chinese audience if they also criticized the lifestyles in their own country and the influence of the West in spreading such lifestyles.
What does China’s “New Left” have to say about the environment? Do they have a program of environmental regulation? What are the key points of this program?
As China’s “New Left” refers to anyone who disagrees with the neoliberal orthodoxy, so they do not have a unified voice about the environment yet. Some New Left scholars, like Wang Hui, Huang Ping and Wen Tiejun, have written extensively against developmentalism and are active participants in China’s emerging green movements. However, other New Left scholars assume that once the equality problems are addressed, the environmental issues will be automatically solved. This is a position I disagree with. The combination of green and red perspectives will be a challenge for China’s New Left, as it is for many progressives in other parts of the world.
China is the second biggest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world. Should China be subjected to mandatory limits for greenhouse gas emissions under a new Kyoto Protocol?
I think that under a new Kyoto Protocol, greenhouse gas emission quotas should be allocated on an equal per capita basis, and all countries should be subjected to such mandatory limits under a cap-and-trade arrangement. While some may object that such a program reward over-population in the developing countries, we should not forget that current quota allocation according to previous emissions rewards big emitters (i.e. developed countries) who have created the global warming problem at the first place. As a compromise, we can use current or 1990 population for quota setting, then an equal per capita quota system, which would discourage both population growth and greenhouse gas emission.
Another issue is that in this age of transnational corporations, the boundaries of nation states are blurred. For example, if a forest in Indonesia is cut to supply Chinese factories set up by US companies, and the finished goods are exported to satisfy western consumers, who should be responsible for the GHG emissions in the process? I think the end-consumers should bear most responsibility.
James Lovelock, the environmentalist of Gaia fame, has advocated adoption of nuclear energy as part of a strategy to counter global warming. Do you think nuclear might or should be part of China’s alternative energy program?
I do not know enough about the pros and cons of nuclear energy to answer this question directly. But I think there are many proven, environmental-friendly, cost-effective and less-controversial technologies already available-including energy efficiency, wind power, bio-gas digester (using human/animal wastes and agricultural leftovers), solar cooker, solar heater, etc. And China is the world leader in some of these technologies (e.g., bio-gas digester and solar heater). I hope all these proven and safe technologies would be significant parts of China’s alternative energy program before we get dependent on nuclear energy.
What do you think about the environmental movement in China? How independent are the environmentalists from the government? How effective are they?
The environmental movement in China is growing very fast. It has great potential and faces a big challenge at the same time. Most environmentalists are quite independent from the government, but they are not independent enough from their western funders-financially, and more importantly, ideologically. In my opinion, this is the big bottleneck that limits their effectiveness. They need to break out of their middle-class cocoon to reach the larger public.
Environmental organizing was a training ground for democracy in Eastern Europe in the eighties. Do you think that might be the case in China as well?
I do not know enough about the real situation that existed in Eastern Europe. From the limited information I have, environmentalists and their ideas were pivotal in bringing about change. But from what happened afterwards, I am not even sure whether this was a change for the better. Since the 1990s, materialism and consumerism have swept across the land, and environmentalists have been marginalized. I have heard that some environmentalists there are quite bitter about this or even feel that they had been used in the eighties-what they wanted was a more humanized socialism instead of the unchecked capitalism of today. I certainly DO NOT want to see all this replayed in China. As I mentioned before, China needs to develop its own inclusive political model according to its own history and culture.
What is your own alternative ecological and economic path for China?
Personally, I would like to see an alternative that combines social justice and ecological sustainability: some kind of ecologized socialism, or ecologized social democratic system. Another important task for the progressive left is to reclaim the spiritual and religious sphere. This is a challenge for all progressives around the world. Those who are already engaged in the task, including diverse interfaith efforts in the west and liberation theology in Latin American, can be an inspiration for many of us. As someone spiritual, but not religious, I think traditional left ideology such as Marxism has emphasized too much on material production, and this has actually facilitated the prevailing developmentalism and consumerism in the 20th century, and it has surrendered the religious and spiritual realm to the right. Secular materialism is not the right thing to combat religious fundamentalism, which is rising in the world. We need to cultivate and promote a healthy and tolerant spiritual life to forge the way forward. As some Achuar Indians say, the problem with the west is that people there get their dreams wrong. The indigenous peoples and many land-based peoples the developing countries a still have a strong spiritual connection with the land and environment, and we need to learn from them. For Chinese, we should reexamine and relearn some positive aspects of our traditional culture including Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism, as well as learn from the rest of the world.
You are unique in that you are an expatriate Chinese that nevertheless cares about the future of China a lot and holds progressive views that is critical of both the Chinese government and the US. Are there other people like you here in the US? What would you advise other Chinese expatriates? And do you think the Chinese government will listen to you?
There are other people like me here in the US, but we are certainly a small minority. For other Chinese expatriates, my advice is: “The US is not the whole world, and the middle class people we normally interact with is only a small part of the world population-it even does not represent the majority of those who grow and pick our food in US. So get in touch with reality, get more informed, do not take your middle class experience in US for granted and try to impose that on China.”
I do not know if the Chinese government will listen to me, but I hope that it will judge my ideas according to their content instead of my expatriate status. More importantly, I hope the government will listen to the grassroots people more. One problem in the reform era is that the government has listened to the elites (technocrats, intellectuals, expatriates, foreign experts, etc.) too much and has gotten disconnected from the majority of working people. There have been some positive indications in the last two years that the government is responding more to people’s need. I hope this trend will continue.
How confident are you that China will change course before it is too late?
It is not only China that has to change course, but other countries as well. Some problems, like global warming, seem so severe that even our best efforts may only mitigate them in the near future. Any solution will require long and hard work, and this holds for China as well. These problems have been known for some time without being adequately addressed, but it is better late than never, and we should all hope and work for the best.
*Walden Bello is an associate of the Global Collaborative Program of Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainable Development. He is also the Executive Director of Focus on the Global South.