Three cheers for China’s economic miracle

Development in China has lifted tens of millions of people out of poverty, and in the past decade alone Shanghai has built more skyscrapers than already exist in New York. Listen carefully: this is a good thing.

Austin Williams

Topics Books

The following is an edited extract from Austin Williams’ new book, Enemies of Progress: The Dangers of Sustainability, published by Societas on 1 May.

Notwithstanding the fact that the president of the Economic Strategy Institute in Washington, Clyde Prestowitz, says excitedly that visiting China is ‘always an epiphany’ (1), in general, when considering the Chinese ‘economic miracle’ (2), the West has developed a nagging cynicism about that country’s rapid rate of development.

Undoubtedly there are clearly arguments needed against what political commentator Mark Leonard has described as China’s apparent emergence ‘as the biggest champion of autocracy around the world’ (3), but this tends not to be the principal basis of the West’s criticism – indeed, some erstwhile leftist voices actually see the ‘advantage of a one-party state’ (4) because it can get things done. No, it’s not the undemocratic nature of China that the West is so exercised about: instead criticism tends to focus on China’s pace and direction of development.

China, with its ‘562 coal-fired plants by 2012, is expected to overtake the US as the world’s largest carbon emitter around 2025’ (5). Or is it ‘850 new coal-fired plants’ (6)? Or is it ‘a new coal-fired power station every week’ (7)? No matter, for what the critics are really attacking is the relentless growth of the Chinese machine; they are pointing out the terrible risks that China is prepared to take with all of our futures. As the New York Times headlined it, China is ‘choking on growth’ (8). But for those of us who would rather see society advance in its energy supply for the sake of its productive capacity, then it is hardly surprising that China is going down the non-renewable route, given that there is no non-renewable alternatives on offer on such a scale as is needed.

Actually, much of the debate about China is fairly confused these days. On the one hand, China is held up as a beacon of economic and material progress, on the other it is condemned as a smog-ridden sweatshop. China is either portrayed as a symbol of hope… or of despair. Commentator Will Hutton says it is a ‘gigantic dilemma’ (9); business analyst George J Gilboy says ‘China is a work in progress’. Depending on who you talk to about China’s modernisation, its ever-changing skyline is, on the one hand, a metaphor for progress and social advancement, or on the other, proof of a society growing out of control and producing and consuming at an unsustainable rate. As one environmental journalist put it: ‘The single biggest uncertainty on the path to a bright green future can be summed up in one word: China.’ (10 – 11)

With around 120million people having moved to China’s Special Economic Zones in the past 10 years, the UK Financial Times points out that ‘the urban/rural divide is intensifying – farm incomes have been growing at half the pace of urban incomes for the past decade’ (12) – and Western liberals are appalled, noting that ‘while China has succeeded over the past 25 years to lift 250million people out of poverty, income inequality has doubled’ (13). Well hold the front page. No one, not even hard-nosed Chinese apparatchiks, claim that this is some kind of socialist egalitarian experiment, and so the iniquities and inequalities of the market will undoubtedly be real and profound. But to criticise the general level of social development because of the particularities of that development is like throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

The debate about China’s short march to development is, at best, envious, and at worst reflects a completely degraded interpretation of progress. A society emerging out of a peasant economy and into the full glare of hi-tech industrialisation will inevitably provide scope for a widening income gap, but the important thing is that rather than stabilising at some median level, more and more people are aiming for the top. Most of them won’t get there, but at least they want to.

While we in the West are trying to invent fatuous sustainability benchmarks in order to prove that we have reduced our footprint, the Chinese are dissatisfied with their lot and are striving for betterment. The World Bank points out that between 1981 and 2001, ‘the proportion of the population living in poverty [in China] fell from 53 per cent to eight per cent’ (14). Leaving to one side the fact that the World Bank uses a pathetic measure of poverty – less than one dollar a day, or 300 Yuan per person per year at 1990 prices (15) – it is still a remarkable societal transformation. And this kind of thing is in evidence everywhere.

The little known city of Suzhou, in the middle of the Yangtze Delta, is spending $13 billion on a light rail system, equivalent to the entire capital budget spent in Iraq this year. Shanghai’s subway network has been designed, constructed and is operational in the same time that Los Angeles has taken to discuss the construction of a single new subway line (that is, in the same time that London has been engaged in a consultation about a discussion about constructing a new underground line). The Chinese budget for the Olympics in 2008 is 2.5 times that for London’s Olympics in 2012 (16). Meanwhile, Shanghai has built more skyscrapers in the past decade than already exist in New York, and is reputed to be building 20 cities a year for 20 years. Architect Sir Richard Rogers once complained that in the time he had been interviewed, commissioned and had sketched out a new sustainable city in China, they had built most of it. He was peeved that they wouldn’t slow down. But China is clearly a country in a hurry.

As a result, cheap labour, or ‘in-migrants’ (17), are undoubtedly brutalised. About 20 per cent of Shanghai’s population has moved from rural areas into the cramped, unpleasant surroundings of its workhouses. A progressive answer would be to support demands for workers’ rights, decent pay and conditions – demands which have been the staple of working-class organisation for years. That would be an enlightened response, and indeed Paul Mason, writing in his latest book Live Working or Die Fighting, states that ‘the new Chinese workforce has so far done everything its predecessors did except organise trade unions and fight for political rights’ (18). But environmentalists’ instinctively focus on campaigns to stop enticing people coming to the city in the first place. No one with an ounce of progressive humanity can doubt, or relish, the squalid conditions in which many of these people have to work and recognise that they are a scandal (19) – but engagement with a view to transforming things for the better, rather that evasion or trying to turn the clock back, is the answer.

Looking at a static snapshot of the undoubtedly harsh conditions in which the Chinese poor survive leads many campaigners to express righteous indignation and to claim that it represents a situation which is unsustainable. One report concludes that ‘despite the putative benefits of urbanisation, the evidence supports the view that urbanisation, especially when its pace is rapid, can impede development and exacerbate environmental problems’ (20). The United Nations UN-Habitat calls it ‘premature urbanisation’, defined as urbanisation without the economic base to support it, as if people should be more circumspect in their ambition. On this basis, presumably every city was urbanised prematurely. In fact, in the African context, the UN now suggests that ‘sustainable urbanisation is… a quest for balancing rural and urban solutions’ (21).

Knowing that there is little that they can do about it now, even the UN has all but given up on this kind of direct advocacy of restraint. Admittedly urbanisation has led to slum formation, but like poverty, this ought not always to be with us. We look on the squalid conditions many find themselves in with admirable empathy but sometimes that blinds us to the positive developmental impulse conveyed in the in-migration of people who already know that the streets aren’t really paved with gold, but are prepared to suffer for the benefit of their families and their future generations. In truth, it is a major advance that in today’s China, migrants from rural areas are able to travel freely and work in the cities, unlike during the Maoist era when their access to the city was strictly regulated (22).

It is only 20 years ago that the vast majority of peasants (as they were self-consciously called) survived predominantly on subsistence farms (what environmentalists today might call zero-carbon, self-sufficient, sustainable, local production units). They were effectively denied entry to the city (what environmentalists today might call a sustainable population-reduction policy). On this basis alone, the liberation of free movement is clearly an advance, and ever has it been thus. Parents want a better world for themselves and their offspring and are prepared to endure hardship so that their children won’t have to. It’s usually called ‘self-improvement’ and is a fantastically positive, progressive impulse. Similarly, auto-didacticism, entrepreneurship or simply inquisitiveness have been part of the heroic story of human development since the chains of feudalism were broken. Now, in modern China, as families have got wealthier, more than 2.5million take foreign holidays every year, with 1.7million Chinese tourists travelling across the border (23).

Looking back to the Victorian era in Britain, the influx of rural poor into the hovels of London would now be seen as a snapshot of squalid repression. In many ways it was, but the torch of liberation shone through. As Ford Madox Ford wrote of those times: ‘One would, quite literally, never get any for’arder if one stayed to inquire to the end of every tragic-comedy of which, on one’s road, one caught a glimpse.’ (24) His magnificent social anthropological study The Soul of London identifies the ambition, the dynamic, the inventiveness, the personal and social drive in Britain at the turn of the twentieth century which outshone the dark reality for many people. He, and they, recognised that this was a struggle from which poor people would emerge, if not exactly triumphant, at least better off: healthier; more socialised; and even more demanding.

In America, too, many of the poor downtrodden masses arriving in the new world in the 1800s were in for a rough life in the ghettos, but each invigorated with the ‘American dream’ knew that things were on the up. Science analyst George Wand has a slightly harsh take on the price of progress, but outlines an important dynamic, observing that ‘all the workers who made radio and television tubes lost their jobs over time when electronic devices were developed. What’s more, all the persons who built carburettors were displaced when fuel injection became the norm in the automotive world… this is what we consider progress. However, life will always go on and get even better than before, for all those who have been affected.’ (25)

Let’s take a snapshot of China’s road to material, infrastructural progress:

In 1887, the Yellow River flooded and killed between one and two million people. Admittedly, that’s a pretty wide margin of error for fatality statistics, but with such a poorly developed infrastructure not only could they not be saved, but they couldn’t even be accounted for. Such was the end of the Qing dynasty. But half a century later, in 1931, between one and four million people died as the river flooded again. Time does not necessarily – automatically – bring progress, and these tragedies give the lie to the simplistic notion that progress is a simple, fatalistic, linear continuum. Chinese society had undoubtedly changed in those turbulent intervening years between these two events, but not necessarily for the better, and there were outside forces to contend with, from agricultural collapse to Japanese invasion.

Seventy-five years later, and China is more able to control its own destiny. To that end, Shanghai now has a barrier that can rise to 6.9 metres (based on a 1 in 200-year storm) and is planning to construct another one at a height of 8.5 metres and a cost of £350million. Notwithstanding this technological development, China Daily reports that marine information experts in Shanghai are monitoring the sea levels once every five minutes to gauge whether anything untoward is going on. Maybe that’s overkill, or maybe, in a country of circa 1.5 billion people, there’s a place for a proportion of them to be gainfully employed to stare at the waterline. Either way, it just goes to show that breaking free from feudal chains, and overcoming a subsistence economy, has enabled Chinese society to develop the tools to command where and how they live… and to deal with the climate.

As we can see in these practical realities, social and economic development in China – as elsewhere – is not a simple equation. But at the same time, defining progress is not as difficult as some people make it out to be. Economic growth and increased productivity have a liberatory potential to free individuals from the subservience of their labour. It is not that technology reduces exploitation, but that it creates the conditions for humanity to have no exclusive sphere of activity forced upon it – that is, it ought to offer the potential to liberate. While sustainability gurus interpret progress in a million and one different ways, each more abstract than the next, I am happy to assert that the ability to improve the material lot of a society, to free people from the constraints of nature, to increase their socialisation and to provide them with the physical means of not having to be reliant on the whims of weather, land and seasons is exactly what progress is. With that, almost inevitably, comes social advancement (even though it might still have to be fought and argued for).

For observers on the ground in China, the dynamic humanistic drive for social progress is almost palpable. As people have more time in which to think about issues beyond their immediate self-preservation, so they can begin to consider that the continued material improvements are only limited by the very nature of the prevalent social relations. Historically, that is when demands are raised. Social and economic progress allows people to revel in the opportunities thrown up by that development. We can see this already in the Chinese model. The apparent iniquities endured by peasants relocating from village to city in Beijing, Mumbai and a hundred and one other different cities across the developing world are not the full story. In the first instance, these people are striving for personal and familial betterment. That striving is a heart-warming aspirational instinct that has the potential – but only the potential – to begin to challenge the grinding inequality of that society for others. Those most keenly in favour of development are ordinary people, whose aspiration is itself a liberation. The fact that many people will not have their full ambitions realised can result in an even greater desire to overcome the societal barriers that are put in their way.

It is a real shame to see that some Chinese environmentalists are constructing some of those new barriers themselves. Mimicking the sustainability mantras of the West, Chinese low-growth advocates are already beginning to marginalise what they call ‘development extremists’ (26). Fortunately, as one commentator notes, ‘the Chinese are not prepared to sacrifice the present generation for the generation 100 years hence’ (27).

Austin Williams is the author of Enemies of Progress: The Dangers of Sustainability, from which the above article is an edited extract. The book is published by Societas and available from 1 May 2008. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).) For more information, click here.

(1) Clyde Prestowitz quoted in ‘Three Billion New Capitalists: The Great Shift of Wealth and Power to the East’, Joanne J Myers, Carnegie Council transcripts, June 2005

(2) ‘China’s economic miracle: the high price of progress’, CBC News Online, 20 April 2006

(3) What Does China Think?, Mark Leonard, Harper Collins, 2008, p124

(4) China’s great green leap forward?, Geoff Mulgan, The Times (London), 27 November 2007

(5) ‘The Climate of Man: III’, Elizabeth Kolbert, New Yorker, 9 May 2005

(6) ‘Turned Off by Global Warming’, Katherine Ellison, New York Times, 20 May 2006

(7) ‘Speech by Rt Hon David Miliband MP at the WWF One Planet Living Summit “One-Planet Security”‘, London, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, 27 March 2007

(8) Choking on growth, New York Times

(9) China and the West in the 21st Century, Will Hutton, Little Brown, 2007, p339

(10) ‘Dongtan and Greening China’, Alex Steffen, WorldChanging, 1 May 2006

(11) ‘The Myth Behind China’s Miracle’, George J. Gilboy, Foreign Affairs, July/August 2004

(12) ‘Lex: Chinese income disparity’, Financial Times, 19 February 2006

(13) Ethical Insight, Issue 33, 11 January 2006, p13

(14) ‘Learning from success: Understanding China’s (Uneven) Progress Against Poverty’, Martin Ravallion and Shaohua Chen, Finance & Development, December 2004

(15) ‘China’s (Uneven) Progress Against Poverty’, Martin Ravallion and Shaohua Chen, Development Research Group, World Bank, World Bank Policy Research Working Paper 3408, September 2004

(16) China Arises: How China’s Astonishing Growth Will Change the World, John Farndon, Virgin Books, 2007, p151

(17) ‘The Speed And The Friction, Shanghai Overview’, Deyan Sudjic, Urban Age

(18) Live Working or Die Fighting: How the Working Class Went Global, Paul Mason, Harvill Secker, 2007, p6

(19) ‘People’s Republic of China: Internal migrants: Discrimination and Abuse. The Human Cost of an Economic “Miracle”‘, Amnesty International, March 2007

(20) ‘The Urban Revolution’, David E Bloom and Tarun Khanna, F&D: Finance and Development Magazine, IMF, September 2007, Vol 44, No 3

(21) ‘The UN-Habitat Strategic Framework’, The United Nations Human Settlements Programme, Nairobi, Kenya, May 2003

(22) ‘China and Independent Working-Class Politics’, Workers’ Liberty, 30 September, 2001

(23) ‘More Chinese Taking Foreign Holidays’, Xinhua News Agency, 6 February, 2003

(24) ‘The Soul of London’, Ford Madox Ford, Everyman, 1995, p43

(25) Fuel Cell History, Part 2, George Wand, 19 January 2007

(26) WorldWatch Institute, Yongfeng Feng, 20 September 2007

(27) Nigel Lawson in ‘Watch out, Nigella: Dad’s Back in Town’, William Keegan, Observer, 13 May, 2007

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Books


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today