Has China had a green ‘Damascene conversion’?

The sight of President Hu almost apologising to the West for his country’s vast economic growth was a revealing snapshot of our times.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics World

There was something very peculiar about President Hu Jintao of China appearing before the United Nations in New York yesterday to declare his nation’s commitment to cutting its carbon emissions.

Hu is the leader of the most populous and most industrious nation on Earth. He oversees the world’s third largest economy (after the US and Japan) and the world’s largest exporting nation, which produces 60 per cent of the world’s mobile phones, 55 per cent of its DVDs, more than half of its digital cameras, and 75 per cent of its children’s toys. His country has a staggering two trillion dollars in foreign exchange (the largest reserves in the world), and as a result of the industrialisation that has taken place over the past 30 years it now has 655 cities (compared with 193 in 1978), a life expectancy of 73.4 years (compared with 36.5 years in 1949, when the People’s Republic of China was established), a population of 1.3billion (compared with 542million in 1949), and 20.2million students in higher education (compared with 117,000 in 1949).

Yet here was Hu speaking to the leaders of some far less productive nations, whose economies have been stagnating for many years and many of whom have become financially reliant on China, on their terms – in the language of lowering carbon emissions, achieving sustainability, and elevating the need to ‘clean up the planet’ over the naked pursuit of economic growth. Hu spoke, not in the language of a political leader of an industrious nation, but in the language of those Western-based international organisations and NGOs that problematise economic growth for having a dirty and allegedly devastating impact on the planet. ‘Global climate change has a profound impact on the survival and development of mankind’, he said. ‘It is a major challenge facing all countries.’ (1)

This curious event – which was tellingly welcomed by some greens as evidence of a ‘Damascene conversion’ amongst top Chinese officials to the climate-change cause – was revealing. It demonstrated that China is keen to be accepted into the international fold, and that it recognises – whether in a calculated or genuinely internalised fashion – that the best way to achieve that is to make a very public pledge to be true and devoted to tackling climate change, the only unifying cause and source of moral purpose amongst Western nations today. And it also revealed that, despite their relative economic weakness, Anglo-American societies’ new green-leaning politics and morality are the dominant forces in the international sphere, to the extent that one of the most powerful nations on Earth – whose economic growth over the past 30 years has lifted 235million people out of absolute poverty and thus has been responsible for 67 per cent of the recent total reduction in global poverty (2) – feels the need almost to apologise to Western leaders and NGOs for creating a ‘carbon footprint’ in the process of achieving such mammoth things.

Hu’s speech was the end product of months of diplomatic pressure and discussion between Western officials and Chinese officials. In the run-up to the UN Copenhagen Climate Summit in December – the event, hysterically described by some greens as the ‘last chance to save the planet’, at which international leaders will hammer out a new climate change treaty – Western observers have been putting pressure on China to make a statement on climate change. Like imperialism turned on its head, 20 British diplomats (for the record, Britain’s manufacturing has fallen from 21 per cent of economic activity in 1986 to 13 per cent of economic activity today) and at least twice as many American diplomats have moved to Beijing to ‘monitor and nudge’ the Chinese position on climate change ahead of Copenhagen (3). Where Western powers once carved up China into ‘spheres of influence’ in order to exploit its resources and labour, now Western officials intervene with a moral mission to encourage China to ‘respect its own natural resources’ (4).

The backdrop to this flurry of diplomatic activity, to what one journalist describes as the ‘cajoling and compromise’ in the Western-China debates about climate change, has been an increasing cultural demonisation of China’s economic growth. Amongst Anglo-American officials and observers, the mainstream view of modern China is that it is dirty, polluting and potentially even a poisonous threat to the relatively cleaner and calmer West (5). Industrialised China is described as a ‘rapidly advancing dystopia where rivers run black’; apparently it is putting the planet on ‘the fast track to irreversible disaster’; it is a den of ‘toxins and pollutants’ (6). It was this build-up of shrill assaults on Chinese growth, coupled with the diplomatic pressure and, most importantly, the global dominance of the green ethos, that encouraged Hu to make his much-applauded speech at the UN yesterday.

In one sense, Hu’s very public embrace of the climate change ethos – which follows on from China’s own development of various climate-change programmes in recent years – can be seen as a calculated diplomatic move. As Frank Furedi has argued, despite all the claims that China represents a threat to world stability, in truth it is ‘essentially a status quo power whose interests are best served by the maintenance of an open global economy’; China’s future is ‘closely linked to the continuation of the present world order’ (7). Thus it makes sense for China to seek to remove the one political and cultural barrier that was put in the way of it becoming a respected member of the ‘international community’ (despite its population of 1.3billion, its influence across Asia, and its flood of capital that helped fund the West’s credit boom): that is, its ‘dirtiness’, or more accurately, its seeming unwillingness to embrace the bible of sustainability. At a time when much of international diplomacy, in terms of trade, influence and political relationships, is carried out in enviro-speak, the Chinese clearly recognised the benefits of making a green public statement. They even hired the British PR firm Freuds to help them cultivate a new green image (8). Some have pointed out that Hu failed to deliver on various green demands, because he intends to plough on with economic growth while making conciliatory gestures to the green-leaning international community.

However, Hu’s speech also reveals that some layers of the Chinese bureaucracy have genuinely internalised the Anglo-American politics of environmentalism. It was not done entirely for show. Environmentalism offers to the Chinese authorities, so disconnected and aloof from their people, a semblance of moral purpose and legitimacy. When I visited Beijing with a group of Western journalists last week, the authorities were most keen to show us their green schemes: the air quality-measuring machines erected across the city; the factory that is leading the world in developing electric cars; the use of hi-tech vans to record the CO2 emissions of cars and motorbikes, which can be banned from the roads if their pollutant output is judged to be too high. Seemingly unable to justify their economic growth in terms of human interest, the Chinese authorities have instead created a system of excuse-making and apologia for their leaps forward. The environmentalist ethos also allows them to introduce new authoritarian measures: public smoking bans, driving restrictions and the sacking of workers have all been justified in the name of ‘protecting China’s environment’ (9).

Hu’s speech provided a striking snapshot of our topsy-turvy times – an era in which economically stagnant nations can lecture industrious nations about their moral responsibilities, and in which powerful leaders feel the need to prostrate themselves before UN officials, and effectively Greenpeace and the like, in order to win international acceptance. It also revealed the double standards at play in the contemporary debate about China. For those of us who believe in progress, and in liberating all of humanity from poverty, there is something nauseating about the leaders and commentators of nations that were built on industry and manufacturing now chastising the Chinese for ‘making the same mistakes’ (10). Having benefited from the gains of coal-fired industry, the development of modern industrial cities and the technological and nuclear revolutions, comfortable Western observers now attack China for using the ‘dirtiest fuel of all: coal’ to create a ‘polluted society’ that is ‘the world’s largest producer of greenhouse gases’ (11). Such accusations come across as shamelessly hypocritical.

This is not to argue that there are no problems with China’s industrialisation, or that the Chinese have to go through the Victorian-style industrialisation that a country like Britain experienced. As Leon Trotsky argued, it is often possible for late-developing countries to exploit the advances made by nations that developed earlier, with ‘the assimilation of [the] material and intellectual conquests of the advanced countries’. However, much of the attack on China’s dirty and frequently old-fashioned growth is based on a double-standards-driven assault on its temerity to grow at all, to be so big and populous in the first place, to aspire to become a wealthier, healthier and more advanced nation. Many observers who attack the means of Chinese growth – coal, manufacturing, the smog-producing creation of things – are really offended by the ends: the creation of a society of relatively wealthier people living more ‘impactful lives’.

The problem with the diplomatic and cultural ‘cajoling and compromise’ over China’s growth is that the question of what is fundamentally in the Chinese people’s interests gets elbowed off the agenda. An historic growth that has transformed the lives of millions and millions of people is discussed as creating a ‘new dystopia’; the transformation of a nation is measured not by how much it has benefited its people, but in terms of the levels of toxins and pollutants and by how much it has ‘impacted on Gaia’; a genuine discussion about how China might develop further, and how its economic and social transformation has benefited Western nations (in terms of the flow of Chinese capital and Beijing’s interest in stabilising the world order and economy), is sidelined in favour of the evasive and sometimes dishonest diplomo-speak of ‘climate targets’ and ‘low-carbon futures’ (12).

We should remember that a full fifth of humanity lives in China. And for all the labelling of China as the ‘world’s biggest producer of greenhouse gases’, these 1.3billion people still consume less than we do in the less-populated nations of America and Britain. Their living standards and ability to make choices are infinitely more important than the delicate sensibilities of Western observers who fantasise that Chinese growth is somehow polluting their local children’s playground.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. His satire on the green movement – Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas – is published by Hodder & Stoughton. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

(1) President Hu Jintao commits China to carbon-cutting deal, The Times, 23 September 2009

(2) Facts about poverty in China, Wall Street Journal, 13 April 2009

(3) Copenhagen begins in Beijing. The world waits, Guardian, 16 September 2009

(4) Copenhagen begins in Beijing. The world waits, Guardian, 16 September 2009

(5) See And the gold medal for China-bashing goes to…, by Brendan O’Neill

(6) See And the gold medal for China-bashing goes to…, by Brendan O’Neill

(7) See China: threat or opportunity?, by Frank Furedi

(8) Copenhagen begins in Beijing. The world waits, Guardian, 16 September 2009

(9) See Hypocrisy of Olympian proportions, by Nathalie Rothschild

(10) See And the gold medal for China-bashing goes to…, by Brendan O’Neill

(11) See And the gold medal for China-bashing goes to…, by Brendan O’Neill

(12) President Hu Jintao commits China to carbon-cutting deal, The Times, 23 September 2009

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

Topics World


Want to join the conversation?

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

Join today