Three cheers for China’s ‘economic miracle’

Ignore the Yellow Peril view of Chinese economic growth as dirty and dangerous. There are good reasons to welcome China’s leaps forward.

James Woudhuysen

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Each week, the West’s charge sheet against China grows longer and more vehement (1). Last week, the denunciations reached fever pitch. China’s levels of pollution, we were told, have made it a danger to itself and the rest of the world.

On Tuesday, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in Paris published a review of China’s environmental performance. The 336-page document contained 51 recommendations on air pollution, water pollution and waste management, which China has been ‘encouraged’ to implement (2). Launching the review at China’s State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) in Beijing, Lorents Lorentsen, chief of the OECD’s environment directorate, berated China for polluting not just the environment, but also its own international brand image. He said that once a country is associated in the public mind with pollution, ‘then you have a bad trademark abroad’: ‘It’s very hard to sell pharmaceuticals, to sell food and feed from a country that has a reputation for being polluted.’

In the US, China’s exports have lately been singled out for venom (3). And now, in US circles, Chinese economic growth has been made synonymous with contamination. For months, the right-wing Wall Street Journal has assailed China’s exports of seafood, toothpaste, medicines and pet-foods, which apparently are tainted with nasty ingredients. Barney Frank, a Massachusetts Democrat and chairman of the House of Representatives financial services committee, has demanded that the World Bank release estimates of the number of premature deaths caused by pollution in China. And now, the OECD has added a more international, official tone to this campaign against Chinese growth.

By growing in an unchecked manner, China is a threat to everyone’s health, says the OECD. Mario Amano, deputy secretary-general of the OECD, declared at the launch of the review in Beijing that, ‘A healthy economy needs a healthy environment’. His statement completely misses out the possibility that a stronger Chinese economy might lead to a better environment rather than having to be based on one.

Each year, China racks up a double-digit percentage increase in GDP. That fact is now very much feared in the West. Thus, China is being made to take the rap for the truly cardinal sin of our times: sullying the world’s environment. China’s economic expansion is now widely referred to as a ‘poisoning’ of the planet, a process which is making Chinese people, and the Earth itself, sick and diseased. Through its coal-fired power plants and its greenhouse gas emissions, China is accused of being a major perpetrator of global warming. And according to the OECD and others, through its geographical size and worldwide exports, China is contaminating not only its own people’s lives, but the lives of people in Asia and around the world, too.

That growth on this scale can be denounced as ‘dirty’ and ‘polluting’, that the export of goods can be discussed as ‘contamination’, provides a shocking insight into the anti-development and misanthropic outlook that dominates in the current period. China is being made into the fall guy for today’s lack of faith in growth and progress.

The West has opened a fresh chapter in the vilification of China, and in what Daniel Ben-Ami calls ‘growth scepticism’ (4). The West is targeting China for failing to recognise that impetuous growth brings a terrible cost. The OECD intones that, in China, ‘Economic priorities have overridden environmental concerns’. China’s growth is not judged by how it benefits Chinese people but only by how it damages the environment. There is no mention, for instance, of how transport brings benefits to China’s rural areas; instead, the OECD recommends that China recognise the downsides, the ‘environmental externalities’, of new modes of transport.

There is no mention of how increased availability of energy has made Chinese people’s daily lives more pleasant. Instead, the OECD tells China to make energy, water and other natural resources more expensive, ‘so as to better reflect their scarcity value and internalise externalities’. The OECD also calls on China to adopt clean (and preferably foreign) technologies to deal with coal and waste management, and says China’s environmental policymakers should focus on protecting human health, rivers, lakes, forests and animals.

Here, China’s limited but important economic successes in combating mass poverty are obliterated (5). Instead, China’s growth is described as being bad for health and bad for nature. Once the West makes China the subject of its scepticism about growth, there can be only one consequence: an insistence that China slow down development and direct it along ‘sustainable’ patterns laid down by the West.

China seems to be learning the lesson. A senior SEPA official said two years ago that China’s environment and energy situation ‘makes it bound to develop a recyclable economy and discard its traditional development mode characterised by high consumption of energy and resources, heavy pollution and low economic returns’ (6). Official Chinese policy on foreign investment is now to turn down ‘high-pollution and low-efficiency ventures’ (7). Yet even the obtuse regime in Beijing is not yet so wedded to Western sustainababble that it misses the logic of the West’s outcry over Chinese pollution. It can see what lies at the root of the accusations that China is polluting the world: a desire by foreigners to boss China around (8).

We are witnessing the return of ‘Yellow Peril’ arguments: a view of the East as threatening and polluting. In his milestone epic War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War, American historian John W Dower noted how, in the nineteenth century, Chinese immigrants to America were met with unremitting racial antagonism. After Chinese immigration was prohibited in 1892, Japanese immigration became the focus of America’s fears (9). From the interwar Depression to the postwar years, there was in the West: hysteria about Japanese militarism; outright hostility toward Maoist China, the backer of communism in Korea; and in the 1970s concerns about an emerging Japanese ‘superstate’ (10).

In all of these earlier phases of Western delirium about Asia, worries about the growth or the militarisation of the East actually expressed the West’s own sense of economic and political uncertainty. Yet today, the West suffers from an unprecedented crisis of legitimacy and unprecedented doubts about the benefits of growth. And it is this collapse of belief in progress, even along capitalist lines, that has made China’s apparently unswerving commitment to growth a nightmare in the Western imagination. The West may salivate over the economic opportunities available to it in China – but since it is fearful of economic development and frightened of the very idea of more than a billion people, the Western psyche tips over towards nasty premonitions and an uneasy sense of foreboding about the Chinese.

Where earlier expressions of ‘Yellow Peril’ fears discussed the Chinese (and the Japanese) as racial inferiors who might corrupt the world with their strange value systems, today’s view of the East as perilous sees China as rampant and out of control, and a threat to the world through its smoke and smog and apparently contaminated exports.

The criticism of China is becoming increasingly shrill and hysterical. The London Guardian’s environment editor John Vidal says China is guilty of the ‘mass poisoning of a people’ (11). He says China’s smoke and algae reflect not just its ‘dash’ for development, but also the face of Western consumerism. Pollution in the East is apparently a reflection of Western investment in horrid Chinese manufacturing, and the fact that we in the West just can’t get enough material things. China’s environmental ‘catastrophe’ is, says Vidal, ‘quite simply the product of greed. Ours and theirs.’ (12)

We are seeing the rise, in political and commentary circles in the West, of a one-sided diatribe addressed to the Chinese masses. This is imperialist arrogance. China’s physical problems with pollution are real enough; but a hatred for man and his works, both in China and back here, now pollutes the Western intellect. China’s steps forward should be welcomed by all those who believe in progress, rather than being written off as ‘footprints’ that are damaging the planet.

James Woudhuysen is professor of forecasting and innovation, De Montfort University, Leicester. Visit his website here.

(1) Rising UK energy prices, it’s said, come about because China needs more oil. Rising UK food prices? That’s because China is buying more food on world markets to meet burgeoning domestic demand. Too many EU imports of tee-shirts, brassieres, and low-energy lightbulbs? That’s because EU trade commissioner Peter Mandelson has failed to cap China’s exports to the EU. Your new Harry Potter, Microsoft Office software, Apple iPod or Callaway golf club? Illegal, they’re fakes, bootlegged in Beijing. Islamophobia? The clash of civilizations ‘resounds loudest’, it seems, not in Guantanamo Bay or the mountains of the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, but in Kashgar, western China – see ‘Beijing’s “war on terror” hides brutal war on Muslims’, The Sunday Times, 22 July 2007

(2) The recommendations are available on Environmental performance review of China: conclusions and recommendations (FINAL), OECD, Working party on environmental performance, June 2007

(3) In recent months, Democratic Party presidential hopefuls have redoubled their longstanding, populist outbursts in favour of protectionist policies directed against Chinese goods. The US Department of Commerce has also launched investigations into imports of Chinese paper, packaging, pipes and tubes.

(4) Who’s afraid of economic growth? by Daniel Ben-Ami, 4 May 2006

(5) Over 1981-2001, the share of Chinese living in poverty fell from 53 percent to 8 percent. See ‘Learning from Success: understanding China’s (uneven) progress against poverty’, Finance & Development, International Monetary Fund, December 2004, p17. The United Nations Development Programme suggests that, in terms of its broad ‘human development index’, which is about life expectancy, education and living standards, China has improved as fast as any other world region since 1975, and has done better than any other world region since 1990. See Human Development Report 2006: Human Development Indicators – Country Fact Sheets: China

(6) Wan Lying, SEPA director for provinces, quoted in ‘China still has a long way to go in recyclable economy’, People’s Daily Online, 5 January 2005

(7) ‘FDI rises by 12.2 percent in first half’, China Daily, 13 July 2007

(8) See for example ‘Work with, not trash, China on climate change’, China Daily, 13 June 2007

(9) War Without Mercy, John Dower, Pantheon Books, 1986

(10) The Emerging Japanese Superstate: Challenge and Response, Herman Kahn, Prentice-Hall, 1970

(11) ‘We just can’t get enough’, Guardian, 18 July 2007

(12) ‘We just can’t get enough’, Guardian, 18 July 2007

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