China is not helpless

ChinesePoliceGrist Mill approvingly quotes Chinese researcher Pang Zhongying‘s essay yesterday in the China Daily, which in its broad strokes copies the Chinese government’s official position that climate change is a very serious problem that it’s not China’s responsibility to address.

You see, even though it’s China where the factories are, and the dirty coal plants feeding them electricity, this whole thing is the West’s fault.

A fact we must remember is that Western countries and industrialized Asian nations like Japan and the Republic of Korea have moved many of their factories to developing countries such as China and India, where cheap labor allows them to manufacture at lower costs than at home. This globalization of production has resulted in the discharge of much more waste in poor nations that otherwise would have been released in developed countries. As a matter of fact, not all of the greenhouse gases released “in China” or “from China” are really “China’s”.

I’m just baffled by this line of reasoning. I’m certainly for putting as much power — and responsibility — in the hands of the consumer, but nobody has forced China’s many state-owned companies to take on all this environmentally unsound business, or to work in such an environmentally unsound way. These economic exchanges wouldn’t happen without a willing supplier.

China’s major advantage is cheap labour, not its lax environmental rules; if the government that runs its still heavily controlled economy wanted to toughen up on greenhouse-gas emissions, it could be done within a year.

Indeed, not only does Pang argue that China’s greenhouse gases are largely the responsibility of the West because of our trade arrangements, but so are yet other countries’:

With a population of only one-fifth of China’s, the United States is the top consumer of natural resources and the leading waste producer in the world. It has benefited the most from economic globalization and developed a production style and life-style based on indiscriminate and care-free consumption of the world’s resources. This “American” production style and lifestyle have spread to the rest of the world, thanks to globalization, like a contagious disease, especially in the non-Western world: Go to any non-Western corner of the world and one will see copied, cloned or even blown-up versions of the American style.

This is written as if “globalization” were a force unto itself, and as if “production style and lifestyle” spread on their own, without anybody else deciding to adopt them. It utterly denies the role of human agency in these decisions. Which might be expected from a state with its roots in as determinist a philosophy as Marxism, but is still bunk.

(Photo credit: “Rule by Law,” Flickr/Luo Shaoyang.)

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6 responses to “China is not helpless

  1. > if the government that runs its still heavily controlled economy wanted to toughen up on greenhouse-gas emissions, it could be done within a year.

    If only that were true. Unfortunately the Chinese government has very little control over business actions. Chinese businesses are a law unto themselves, bribing officials and the army along the way.

    This was clearly brought home to me in an excellent article in the IHT newspaper by a reporter investigating the world’s largest toy making manufacturer. The reporter got in the gates of the 100 sq km compound but was promptly arrested and held for 9 hours while police and officials tried half heartedly to get him released.

    Finally he was released and was later down at the police station. He noticed in another room the company bosses and the police boss were sitting around a table having a good laugh, eating and drinking, talking about the days events.

    Just because China appears totalitarian does not mean it’s in control!

  2. This is true. There are plenty of places where central and local authorities are at odds — and the local authorities, being on the scene, have the advantage.

    But the same as here, the big emitters are comparatively easy to regulate, since there are relatively few of them. State-owned coal plants could be fitted with scrubbers, the coal mines themselves cleaned up… Not that China would or could be a zero-emissions economy by this time in 2008, far from it, but if it became a national project, China could make enormous progress. Its leaders are just choosing not to.

    (I’m adding “The Coffee House” to my reading list, BTW.)

  3. Yes, I think China is angling for CDM monies via carbon trading deals. They drive a hard bargin!

  4. Dude. It’s been a while since GFSS days, but that social networking tool has led me to follow this space for a few weeks. I must admit, I don’t get to all your articles, understand less, but I’m hoping that it’s going to ‘osmosis’ into my mind!

    I do disagree with your conclusion of the China Daily essay. Grist Mill concludes correctly that it’s a perspective. Neither Mill nor Zhongying deny China’s responsibility.

    I also reject the idea that the essay seems to think globalization is the driving force. He rather believes that “American” production style (and values). It seems to be that Zhongying is waiting for leadership from the leader – who he paints to be the US. And that’s surely a common sentiment outside (and within sometimes!) the US. Climate change is a global problem, and we can pick on the individuals all we want, but didn’t we learn about game theory in first year economics? If someone can shirk, they will. And in the same way that China Daily’s editors are using this good essay to allow China ammunition to shirk, you’ve used your forum to the same effect for the US (it’s a good thing you pick on everyone fairly equally – like south park!)

    At the end of it, I think the essay is of the prophetic nature – calling developed nations like the US into account. It’s an introductory essay, really, and there’s value in it. My primary criticism is getting published in China Daily rather than say, the NY Times.

    Anyway, I’ve rambled too much on too small…

  5. Hi, Alan. Fancy meeting you here…

    I don’t think I’ve ever let the United States off the hook on this thing. Look at these. Nor is Canada exempt, by any means.

    But there’s theory and what people should do, which I’m keen on, and what politics permit. For now, China and the U.S. are each other’s alibis, and that’ll only change — as it has to — in the itty-bittiest baby steps, barring some spectacular game-changing act by either country’s leader.

    The U.S. is probably better-placed to make changes, but I’m tired of the lines that (1) China is a “developing country” and therefore off the hook; (2) the U.S. is doing this thing everyone agrees is very bad, therefore we must do it, too; and (3) the U.S. and others got rich burning fossil fuels, so nobody has the right to tell us we shouldn’t.

    On the first point, China’s per-capita GDP is one-third the U.S.’s, and yet the state supports a space program; some of those resources should be redirected. On the second, acting according to the lowest common denominator is a sure road to hell for all of us.

    The third, I guess, has a germ of a reasonable appeal to fairness in it. But as with the Congressional blue dogs’ idea that atmospheric CO2 became a problem over a very long time, solving the problem should take a long time, too, the notion that what’s “fair” has any relevance to Earth’s temperature is just fantasy. We’re all in a multiplayer game of chicken and we all need to stop, but the United States and China are driving the biggest trucks into the middle of the field. Neither of them gets to shirk.

    I also reject the idea that the essay seems to think globalization is the driving force. He rather believes that “American” production style (and values)…

    Either way. Though I know the writing was either translated or not in the writer’s first language, the construction of the paragraph I quoted is extraordinary. He writes that “Western countries and industrialized Asian nations like Japan and the Republic of Korea have moved many of their factories to developing countries such as China and India.” That’s not actually true. They moved production to China and India; the factories are of local construction, generally of local management, and always under local government. China and India aren’t innocent victims of other countries’ dirty manufacturing — they welcomed it, begged for it. The China Daily piece suggests it was imposed on those countries, which isn’t true, and that they can’t do anything about it now, which is even less true.

  6. Fair enough. (by the way, the South Park comment was a genuine “good going, Dave!” on your efforts to hold US (and Canada) to task!)

    I didn’t really get the point about the factories, that’s good insight. In fact, I agree on all three points, except maybe the first point…

    As for an added positive comment on your second point – the root problem is that hell comes after all the leaders in question are long gone or rich, out of office and could care less. So I guess that leaves us trying to find enough allies to push economies and politics in the life-saving right direction. (I’ll help!)

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