China: Falling Faster

Sunset in Shanghai. Except that’s not the horizon the sun is sinking behind, it’s the pollution layer. (Photo By Suicup via Wikimedia Commons)

Sunset in Shanghai. Except that’s not the horizon the sun is sinking behind, it’s the pollution layer. (Photo By Suicup via Wikimedia Commons)

It is increasingly likely that our ailing Western industrialized economy will be preceded in collapse by that of China, whose degradation of the natural web of life has been far faster and more profound than ours. Every six months or so I check on China’s disintegration, plowing through metric tons of punditry on its Miracle-Grow GDP, its rising military power, its imperial ambitions — to come upon a patient in ICU, nearly comatose. If America is Dead Man Walking with respect to food, water, air and soil quality, China is The Walking Dead. [Really? I have to explain that? One is about a man about to die, the other about a zombie, already dead.]

China’s warp-speed industrialization, which blasted off in the 1990s, has destroyed its natural infrastructure “on a scale and speed the world has never known,” says director Jennifer Turner of the China Environment Forum at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The intention was to follow our American model of progress to prosperity; the unintended consequence has been to become a model for us of how quickly the industrial age can crash.  

Life is still tenable in China, but only if the following rules are strenuously obeyed;

1. Don’t Breathe the Air. Air pollution in China has become legendary. Half the coal burned in the world is consumed by China’s generating plants and factories, and the resulting pollution regularly brings major cities to a standstill, making it impossible to drive or go outside, thus to open schools or businesses. A recent study by its own Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences ranked Beijing’s air as the second worst among the world’s major cities and labelled the city as barely habitable. Since then the government has begun a war on coal, vowing to shutter hundreds of coal-burning power plants. Turns out, though, it’s building bigger ones to replace them, and coal burning is expected to increase for the foreseeable future.

2. Don’t Touch the Water. Over half of China’s lakes and reservoirs are too polluted for human use; over half of China’s groundwater is too polluted for human use; and over half of China’s rural residents do not have safe drinking water. According to an editor of The Economist, which did a report on China’s water, “There are large parts of the urban water supply which are not only too dangerous to drink—they are too dangerous to touch.” 400 major cities are short of water, 110 of them seriously. More than half of the 50,000 rivers that existed 20 years ago are simply gone — used up.

3. Don’t Eat the Food. What may be the worst environmental threat of all — soil contamination — has just recently emerged from the fog of official denial and secrecy (or maybe it was just the air pollution). It has only recently come to light that the toxic emissions of thousands of hastily-built, unregulated chemical, ceramic and similar factories have so saturated their surrounding soils with carcinogens that China has an estimated 450 “cancer villages,” whose entire populations have been sickened by food grown in the toxic soil and laced with heavy metals such as mercury and cadmium.

But the problem of soil contamination is hardly limited to nearby villages. A recent government survey, dribbled into public view by a frightened and reticent government, indicates that nearly 20 per cent of China’s farmland is contaminated with heavy metals. As a result, the food supply is riddled with contaminated rice and other grains. According to one Greenpeace researcher in-country,”Every consumer in China is exposed to this kind of pollution.”

To review, then: a country whose capital city is barely habitable, half of whose water is unusable, 20 per cent of whose farmland is unusable, whose demand for ever more coal and oil to burn is insatiable, is being discussed as a rising global power and a threat to the American Empire.

Right up there with Bangladesh.


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12 Responses to China: Falling Faster

  1. davebee says:

    Good article. I can recall a similar story when I was younger, back in the late 70’s here in South Africa we were told that Japan was going to ‘rule the world’ via their fantastic work ethic and where I was employed, as a telephone technician we were actually sent on seminars to emulate Japanese ‘Quality circles’..well, looks like my trainers got that one wrong.
    Just like they have the ‘China Miracle’ wrong!
    Thanks for the well researched heads-up on the already, late great Middle Kingdom Tom.

    • SomeoneInAsia says:

      Good reply too, davebee. I can also recall when I was younger we here in Asia were all taught that the path of industrialization and endless growth charted out by the West was the way to go for all humanity… Well, looks like this was utterly wrong, too!

      Gloat while you can… cos’ you folks in the West are next in line. And not too far behind, either. :)

    • Quite Likely says:

      I have mixed feelings on this one. On the one hand, it is absolutely true that any time a country goes through a period of rapid growth, people in the US freak out and think they’re going to bury us. It happened with the Soviet Union in the 1950s and 60s, Japan in the 70s and 80s, and China today. The pattern is for these countries to eventually level off and get back to a more stable growth pattern after they’ve picked the low hanging fruit of economic gains based on urbanization and basic modernization of the country’s resources. This process sort of screws Americans up, because people start desperately trying to figure out what those dirty foreigners are doing that makes them grow so much faster – not considering that they’re just going through the same process the US did over a century ago when we really industrialized.

      On the other hand, while China does fit into this pattern, and will inevitably see its growth return to a more normal level eventually, that doesn’t mean that it’s not also on track to dominate the global economy. Japan is a small country with a population less than half the size of America’s. China is about the same size as the US geographically, and has four times the population. So Japan almost catching up to American GDP per capita makes them an important global economy, but not a dominant player. If China could do the same, or even just manage to get to a third of American GDP per capita, they would easily have the largest economy on Earth.

      • SomeoneInAsia says:

        I’m not sure what you mean by a ‘more normal level’ of growth. As far as I understand the mythology of modern economics, the faster growth is, the healthier, and the slower, the less healthy.

        And growth is basically coming to an end everywhere because of the exhaustion of cheap fossil fuel. China’s economic success story can only be short-lived.

  2. Karl North says:

    In my view this article plays too fast and loose with language like “collapse” and “disintegration”. What do these terms mean?

    The post makes a persuasive argument for early population collapse in China. But China could lose half of its population and still have enough manpower to run what the article calls its Miracle-Grow GDP. In fact the population collapse would diminish a lot of resource depletion and ecological damage that is occurring due to its present population overshoot. That might allow China to restructure its economy in a way that delays the total collapse of its industrial system for a while, maybe longer than some Western economies.

    For one thing, China is not (yet) saddled with the militarized go-for-broke imperial obsession whose ‘creative destruction’ of resources has been weakening the US economy as a whole for several decades, even while it artificially props up parts of it in the short term.

    Besides, many of China’s immense problems are due to the anything-goes capitalism it has adopted in imitation of the US. China’s era of central management is still recent enough to provide institutional structures to facilitate a return to a national investment strategy that is more in line with its national interest than the present one. A degree of macro-economic central management is no guarantee of success, but at least holds out that potential, which capitalism does not.

    The state of health of the US economy is misleading because it is a mature economy riding on its clout as a superpower while being undermined from within. Part of that clout is the reserve currency status of the dollar that is now eroding at an accelerating pace. I could point to many such weakening trends, which are not visible to the mass of US citizens, but have our elites extremely worried.

    • SomeoneInAsia says:

      I think in the event of an actual population collapse, the sheer amount of resources required to dispose of all the human remains and the sheer RAGE that would be unleashed among the survivors would bring the whole of China crashing down. No restructuring of the economy, dude.

      • SomeoneInAsia says:

        And don’t forget the disease likely to spread from all the decomposing human remains.

      • Quite Likely says:

        The ‘population collapse’ people are talking about here is about China’s declining birth rate, and the demographic shrinkage that will cause down the road. It’s not some apocalyptic scenario where it’s difficult to dispose of all the bodies.

        • SomeoneInAsia says:

          Even if that’s the sort of ‘population collapse’ that’s meant here, does anyone seriously think that there can be a restructuring of the economy with the population all graying away?

  3. SomeoneInAsia says:

    It’s tragic that more than 5,000 years of Chinese culture should be utterly destroyed by a skewed way of life and thought imported from the West.

    I love Western ‘civilization’. I sure do.

    • Bill in LA says:

      There are many relevant points from you in response to this excellent article. And yes, it is beyond tragic, not only for the Chinese but our lovely planet too. So it all comes crashing down just 36 years after Deng Xiaoping’s transformational visit to Singapore and modern China’s grandfather, Lee Kwan Yew in 1978. With 5000 years of advancement why on earth did China wish to emulate the west so much? In the end it appears that all of humanity, not just the west has managed to sink our earthly boat with a maniacal disregard for the biosphere. What a shame.

      • SomeoneInAsia says:

        ***With 5000 years of advancement why on earth did China wish to emulate the west so much? In the end it appears that all of humanity, not just the west has managed to sink our earthly boat with a maniacal disregard for the biosphere.***

        It really fascinates me how Westerners always seem never to understand why countries like China want to emulate the West. Seems there’s a big lacuna somewhere in modern Western educational systems.

        I can tell you this much: during the early 19th century the Chinese — and the Japanese, too, though perhaps a bit earlier — emphatically DIDN’T want to leave behind their traditional ways of life and adopt that of the West. Frankly, they would have considered it pure madness to do that. Serious.

        So why did they? Simple: because if they didn’t, then the bloody intruders from the West, whose way of life enabled them to make far better weapons and gunboats, would have continued making life extremely difficult for them. THAT’S why.


        So please don’t put the blame on ‘all of humanity’. Give credit where credit is due. Thank you. :)