From China’s Leaders, Intimations of Mortality

A typical scene along the banks of the Yangtze River as China's growth engine redlines. (Photo by eutrophication&hypoxia/Flickr)

Which prominent American government official said the following this week?

  • “The conflict between humankind and nature has never been as serious as it is today.”
  • “The depletion, deterioration and exhaustion of resources and the worsening environment have become grave impediments to the nation’s economic and social development.”
  • “We must not any longer sacrifice the environment for the sake of rapid growth and reckless roll-outs, as that would result in unsustainable growth featuring industrial overcapacity and intensive resource consumption.”

You are absolutely right: No American politician would dare say such things in public. Nothing would end a political career faster — short of sending shirtless pictures to a Craigslist honey. And so, unbelievably, it was left to the prime minister and the environment minister of China to make these dark statements in their official capacities.

I have written here often about China’s apparent death wish. Unfettered by opposition parties, a free press or environmental organizations, its totalitarian government has pursued its goal of rapid economic growth for decades without any regard at all for the human suffering inflicted by its destruction of natural resources. (And to say it, wearily, one more time: it is not “the environment” that needs protecting, it is human life.) Its power to do so unfettered has been the envy of the industrialists, but we must all be careful what we wish for lest we get it.

Now China’s poisoned waters, unbreathable air, disappearing farmland and increasingly restive population have brought the industrial dreamers face to face with the downside of their dream. This week the Chinese prime minister, Wen Jiabao (who uttered the third quote listed above) welcomed the national legislature to its annual deliberations by announcing he was going to lower the target rate for the growth of the national economy (to seven per cent annually, down from the wildfire 10.3 per cent realized last year), and signaled that he would no longer value economic gains more highly than sustaining natural resources.

Can you imagine a similar statement from President Obama? Glen Beck would gnaw off his own arm on live TV, and the tea party would, after begging the bus fare from the Koch Brothers, stage a Day of Rage demonstration in Washington that would bring the government to its tiptoes.

As for how long this resolve of China’s leaders to be responsible will last, and how effectively it will be translated into action, it all remains to be seen. Other pronouncements from the top of the Chinese food chain about things such as human rights, freedom of the press and tolerance of opposition, have often failed to thrive when their feet were set on the Chinese ground.

Yet if this change of policy is real, the Chinese government will enjoy in executing it the same advantages that it did when getting into this yellow peril; there is no pesky tea party demanding that government destroy itself, no choke hold on the legislature maintained by the dispensers of campaign cash (which is not, in China, the mothers’ milk of politics).

So it is conceivable that all these years of growth envy on the part of industrialists swooning over China’s power, will soon be replaced by decree envy on the part of “environmentalists” — which is what we call people who believe in the continuing survival of the human race — exulting in China’s ability to stop industry in its tracks when it chooses to do so. (It has already summarily closed thousands of factories, generating stations and the like simply because they were inefficient, or too dirty. Again, imagine if Obama tried that.)

However, given the speed and acceleration of climate change, the imminent oil crisis, the rising cost of food, the worsening drought in China and elsewhere, and the truly awful condition of China’s air and water, it is unlikely that even totalitarian resolve to mitigate the consequences can succeed. Even a seven per cent growth rate will be more than enough to eat the rest of the world’s lunch, and China’s as well.

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3 Responses to From China’s Leaders, Intimations of Mortality

  1. Someone in Asia says:

    For millennia the Chinese followed a way of life that did not overtax the limits of Nature (hey, they sustained it for millennia). It was the West (more specifically, the bloody BRITS) that forced them in the 19th Century to eventually abandon their traditional way of life for that of the modern West. Many if not most Chinese got brainwashed into thinking that their ancestors got it all wrong and it was the upstart West that figured out the right way to go. As the glaring defects of the Western way of life and thought now become clear, however, one wonders if the Chinese mind will go through yet another turnabout and welcome back the good old ways of Confucian agrarian society.