China, the Paper Tiger

Is China a paper tiger or a pussycat? It depends on which numbers you look at.  (Photo by Jinzl’s Public Domain Photos/Flickr)

Is China a paper tiger or a pussycat? It depends on which numbers you look at.
(Photo by Jinzl’s Public Domain Photos/Flickr)

The punditocracy assembled yesterday, as they do every Sunday, to yelp their yin-yang talking points that pass, these days, for wisdom. Mostly they want to talk about who, a year and a half from now, might be chosen as the new captain of the Titanic — Hillary or anti-Hillary? Then, like the proverbial elephant terrorized by a mouse, they vent about the latest pimply-faced adolescent who, dreaming of celebrity and inspired by an ISIS website, takes the first giant step toward jihad: gets in touch with an FBI informant for his very own ACME bomb-making kit. Then before the pundits rest, they make their fervent nominations for our next war.

There are lots of candidates: resume Afghanistan, Iraq II, bomb-bomb-bomb-Iran, Russia Redux. But an emerging favorite is China. It seems a deliciously terrifying prospect — the world’s number one economy, most populous country, reinventing the Silk Road, dethroning the dollar as the world’s currency of choice, extending its hegemony over the South China Sea by building a sand castle. What a worthy opponent, bent on taking over the world. Truly, this could be our next good war.

One exhilarated panelist this weekend burst out: “We are already in a virtual state of war with China.” It was, he insisted, the Most Important Thing in the World.

The thing is, if you are determined to pick a fight with someone who is on life support, you must be quick. To believe that China is going to survive another decade, let alone rise to world domination, you must ignore the following stories, all published in the past few weeks:

  • China is running out of water. Its own environment ministry classifies 60% of its underground water and one third of its surface water as so polluted it is “unfit for human contact.” That does not mean “Don’t drink it.” It means “Don’t touch it.”
  • Air pollution in China kills half a million people a year. 90% of China’s 161 major cities failed to meet the national standard for clean air in 2014. Just breathing, in most major cities, is equivalent to smoking three packs of cigarettes a day. Lung cancer fatalities have quintupled in 30 years.
  • China’s population is increasingly old and sick. Half the population is estimated to be pre-diabetic. 115 million people have diabetes, 225 million suffer from mental illness, 160 million have high blood pressure. By 2040, China is expected to have more people suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease than the rest of the world combined. The costs of these afflictions to the Chinese economy is already astronomical, and growing fast.
  • China is running short of productive land. Pollution of soil from factory smokestacks, and from excessive fertilizer and pesticide application, is endangering China’s ability to feed itself.
  • China’s faltering economy is constraining government budgets and fostering instability. Now, talking about war is a time-honored way of getting your restive people to settle down and salute the flag. But actually going to war, when you’re short of money, your people are brandishing pitchforks at you, and you’re dependent on the rest of the world for coal and food? Not recommended.

What is it that Chairman Mao said of the West, all those years ago?  “In appearance it is very powerful but in reality it is nothing to be afraid of; it is a paper tiger. Outwardly a tiger, it is made of paper, unable to withstand the wind and the rain.”

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15 Responses to China, the Paper Tiger

  1. Tom says:

    They’re all so eager to start the next war, having learned nothing from the past three, have no actual (s)kin in the game and are the only profiteers [military/industrial/corporate/security complex] making money while the nations all get hollowed out [no money for badly needed infrastructure maintenance or investment in “the public good”]. It’s sick and sad and the people have no idea how to get their governments back. [As if]

    The American hegemonists are the actual perpetrators of most of the conflicts and often fight both sides of “the war” [example: ISIS]. It’s all about the money and resources. They fantasize that it’s going to keep them in power a little longer.


    off topic. i linked your last excellent post to a bunch of sites i frequent, but Robert Scribbler thinks that you the author are part of the problem for pointing it out. i know, i know and i tried to explain it to him, but he has a different take on it. Take a look if you’d like.

    scroll down til you see Tom June 5, 2015 RS warning label comment to view our exchange

    • Tom Lewis says:

      I appreciate your vigorous defense. I also appreciate that you read, and responded to, what I actually wrote and not what you assumed I was going to write.

  2. SomeoneInAsia says:

    Perhaps not so much a paper tiger as a fast-ageing one; the West was genuinely powerful during most of the 20th century, but now it’s on its last legs, courtesy of cheap fossil fuel depletion (among other things, chiefly the boundless greed of its elite). The Devil pays well in the short term, but the long term is now.

    China’s history from the 19th century onwards has been well nigh one of unrelieved tragedy. Prior to the intrusion of the (bloody) Brits, fatuous emperors engaged in far-flung military campaigns which drained the economy, and when the West came China was cursed with another fatuous ruler, an empress dowager who stubbornly opposed the efforts of (and mercilessly persecuted) intellectuals who saw the problems presented by the intruders and pushed for reforms. Eventually the old imperial order collapsed in the early 20th century; political opportunists arose amidst the chaos, among them the Communists who were eventually to seize power on the mainland, and ostensibly for the purpose of keeping the exploitative West at bay — though most probably just as likely to be for the purpose of loading the pockets of the party cadres, who have turned out to be as fatuous and power-hungry as their recent imperial predecessors — the Middle Kingdom was led to tread the same sorry path of industrial ‘progress’ charted out by the West (albeit under a different ideological guise), leading to the sorry state of affairs presented in the blog here.

    We’re all in the same sinking boat now. Thanks to what Buddhists call the Three Poisons of Greed, Malignity and Ignorance, which have been the wretched inheritance of the human race since time immemorial.

    Whither, humankind?

  3. Joe Clarkson says:

    But actually going to war, when you’re short of money, your people are brandishing pitchforks at you, and you’re dependent on the rest of the world for coal and food? Not recommended.

    Don’t forget that there can be a war that costs no additional money or other resources, is over in 45 minutes, and effortlessly destroys the adversary. Of course, one’s own country may also be destroyed, but there may come a time when a desperate ruler no longer has enough fear of MAD to prevent this ‘easy’ kind of war. Whatever the state of their economies, neither China nor the USA can ever be “paper tigers” when they have the fangs to destroy each other at any time.

    • SomeoneInAsia says:

      Are we talking here about (1) a straight nuclear exchange, or (2) the use of an electromagnetic pulse to fizzle out the enemy’s electrical/electronic hardware? (2) is much less immediate in its destruction and a whole lot cheaper to resort to, but can be no less destructive. The enemy might not even be able to tell who launched the attack. (And what’s so troubling here is that even countries much less endowed than either China or the US can carry out this kind of attack. Heck, it may well be possible now for a state-sponsored terrorist group to pull it off.)

      Our world grows more ‘interesting’ by the day. Of one thing we can be sure: if wars don’t take out large numbers of us, resource depletion will. Though of course, both wars and resource depletion come ultimately from the Three Poisons of Greed, Ill-Will and Delusional Thinking with which we’ve been cursed since the time of Gilgamesh.

      • Joe Clarkson says:

        I was talking about a straight nuclear exchange, hence the reference to Mutual Assured Destruction. I doubt that a high altitude electromagnetic pulse could be carried off without detecting who the culprit was, since it requires a nuclear device and a ballistic missile, both of which are limited to a few countries and are easy to track. Submerged missile carrying submarines are not subject to EMP, so any country that has them on duty retains the ability to respond with nuclear weapons to any kind of attack, conventional, EMP or nuclear.

        I agree that large numbers of us are destined for an early death, but the cause will be the desire for a better life for oneself and one’s progeny. The desire for a better life and more affluence is driving the growth of the global economy. Perhaps greed, ill-will and delusional thinking are part of the problem too, but they are minor players.

        Humans are living beings that, like all other species, use what resources are available to thrive and increase their population. Because we are so good at commandeering resources, we are having more and more of an impact on the earth. You are right that the end result will be ugly, but I doubt that we have ever had the capacity to restrain ourselves. Restraint in the presence of plenty is an ability not found in any other living thing, so why should we expect people to have it.

        • SomeoneInAsia says:

          You are right that the end result will be ugly, but I doubt that we have ever had the capacity to restrain ourselves. Restraint in the presence of plenty is an ability not found in any other living thing, so why should we expect people to have it.

          And you say that greed and delusional thinking are minor players?

          • Joe Clarkson says:

            I just don’t think that our innate tendency to want to maximize resource acquisition, something we have in common with all living things, can be described as ‘greed’. If so, everyone is greedy and the word loses descriptive/discriminative sense. My understanding of “greed” is that it is the desire to acquire things even though they cannot be used for any purpose, but only possessed, so that others who could use them, may not have them. By my definition, true greed is pretty rare.

            As for delusional thinking: Up until recently it was not delusional to think that more and more resource throughput by an economy would benefit the living standards of those participating. In the last few decades it has become more and more clear how much the cost/benefit ratio from economic growth has changed due to the increasing costs of that growth. Our failure to accept limits to growth is indeed delusional, but I still suggest that that mistake is minor compared with everyone’s inherent desire to improve their circumstances by acquiring a larger share of total economic output. The desire to be richer rather than poorer is almost universal. If it weren’t, we wouldn’t have to worry about whether we are deluded about the long term consequences of that desire.

          • Tom Lewis says:

            I don’t agree that the drive to “maximize resource acquisition” is either innate or common to “all living things.” To call it innate is, it seems to me, to confuse the way we’ve been for a few thousand years (since the invention of agriculture spawned hoarding and warfare) with three million years of human existence. During most of which our forebears, like the animals with whom they shared the earth, were generally satisfied with “enough.” I know many people, and I am one, for whom enough is, in fact, enough. And we think that people who want to maximize resource acquisition are greedy.

  4. SomeoneInAsia says:

    To Joe Clarkson:

    I think there’s all the difference in the world between (1) merely securing a livelihood for oneself and one’s family on the one hand, and on the other (2) hoarding way more than what one and one’s family can possibly ever need. (1) deals with our need, (2) with our greed. I believe it’s not wide off the mark to say that (2) is what large numbers of us are going for at present, not (1). Certainly the ‘top’ 1% of the human race control way more of the world’s resources than the remaining 99%, and if that doesn’t count as greed and doesn’t jeopardise our future, then I don’t know what does. People like the Amish don’t go for (2) but (1). And I don’t think you can consider them on the same footing as ‘everyone else’, such as those of us corrupted by modern industrial ‘civilization’. Granted that they also seek to be richer rather than poorer, would their way of life lead to the sorry state of affairs we find today?

    As for what you say on delusional thinking, throughout history wise people have repeatedly offered counsel against the unbridled pursuit of material wealth and warned of the undesirable consequences, so we can’t say we wouldn’t have known until now. To the extent that we act as if we don’t know — and we’ve been acting like that in a big way — that’s being delusional.

    Finally, as for the desire to be richer rather than poorer being something ‘universal’ and being the main culprit for what we now face, it would seem strange to me that premodern China (and ancient Egypt) could have lasted for millennia on the basis of such a desire, whereas by following the very same desire the heirs of modern industrial society now stand to send everything crashing down after a mere couple centuries. Also, if the said desire were really something that ‘universal’ (and were indeed the culprit), that would seem the end of it. Nothing can then ever be done about the human predicament; we’re doomed from the very start to tread this sorry path to oblivion. It’s hard-wired into our system. Fine, so all efforts to rectify ourselves are exercises in vanity, so let’s not bother, and just eat, drink and make merry. One might like to ask if this sort of thinking might not have partly contributed to our current plight.

    But after all is said and done, I see no point in arguing further with you, considering the precious little difference it’s going to make in view of the coming crash. Let’s therefore just agree to disagree, and go our separate ways.

    Have fun.

    • Joe Clarkson says:

      SomeoneInAsia: Your comment gets to the crux of why this discussion is important for us as individuals. I really do believe that there is nothing we can do collectively as a civilization to mitigate the coming crash. It will be no different in kind, but vastly different in scale, than previous crashes, the scale determined by the fantastic pulse of energy that fossil fuels has provided.

      So if nothing can be done by society, what should one do as an individual? My suggestion (perhaps prompted by the greedy genes that structured my brain) is to try to get out of the way of the crash and try to survive it along with as many family, friends and neighbors as can be managed. Some people will survive (though the odds are not good even for the prepared). Future generations from those who do survive will live in a low energy society much like the low energy societies of the pre-fossil-fuel era. I see my preparations for the coming crash as a more interesting and perhaps more valuable vocation than just partying like there’s no tomorrow or railing against the ongoing stupidity of our collective failures.

      It’s time to perform triage on the group of choices that make up our daily life. Weed out the activities that have no future and concentrate on those that are essential to survival in a low energy world. You may find it humorous that I take the time to make blog comments after a statement like that, but I’m far enough along in the triage process to have a little spare time. I feel very lucky to be in that position. I wish there were more who were equally fortunate.

      • SomeoneInAsia says:

        I do not happen to be blessed with the sort of indemnities you enjoy, so I consider it given to me to rail all I wish. And it just seems to me somewhat self-contradictory that you should speak of making more interesting and valuable choices while also asserting the vanity of all choices for society as a whole — as if the groups of survivors that emerge from the coming crash will finally learn and leave behind what you consider the inherent flaws in the human spirit that have previously repeatedly proven our undoing. If the survivors really can learn and change for the better (which I certainly hope would come to pass), then whence your claim on the inherent nature of the said flaws? But if the survivors don’t learn, then where does the ‘value’ in our valuable choices lie?

        My take is that some societies collapse, not (just) because of certain inherent flaws in the human psyche, but (also) because of external factors. Ancient Egypt could have continued worshipping Isis and Osiris but for the depredations of the Persians, Babylonians, Greeks, Romans and Muslims. Similarly, had it not been for the intrusion of the West, (premodern) China could well have continued on her original sociocultural trajectory for centuries more. There were plenty of Chinese in the past that acted in ways harmful to the weal of society, of course, but traditional Chinese society was able to counteract such elements through all sorts of cultural checks and balances. And last for five thousand years.

        Anyway, keep prepping… lucky devil.

        • Joe Clarkson says:

          The only difference between the nature of people living now and the nature of collapse survivors in the future is that the survivors won’t be dead. Survival is the summum bonum for any species, so that’s where the value lies.

  5. Denis Frith says:

    This discussion about how people behave and what decisions they can and will make is besides the point because it does not take into account the reality of what has happened physically. Industrialization has irreversibly used up limited natural resources to provide services, produce goods and construct, operate and maintain a vast, aging infrastructure while outputting material waste and degrading the environment. The physical problems the Chinese are having to deal with are common to varying degrees around the world. Irrational competition between countries will not contribute to the powering down that the global population will have to do to ease the powering down as the stark physical reality hits hard.

  6. Steve Ziemak says:

    I found this discussion very interesting as it taps into a book I’m currently reading, so I thought I’d offer up a few ideas.

    The book I’m reading (Web of LIfe by Fritjof Capra) basically suggests that the essential nature of life is an open system kept far from equilibrium, with a structure best identified as a network, both within the system and between other systems, allowing for multiple feedback loops. I think the argument that humans have an innate urge to grow and consume until the necessary resources are used up ignores the feedback loops that are/should be there to restrict over-consumption. Humans evolved in small tribes, where someone who acted in a way that was overly greedy would experience feedback in the form of shame and possibly being ostrasized from the group. Plus, the effect of any one group of humans was limited in terms of technology so the potential for wide-scale damage was small. I think, as humans “progressed” the effective size of our “tribes” and the extent of our effect have both grown, especially in the wake of agriculture, the industrial age and the discovery of fossil fuels. Therefore I think the feedback loops that should be there to restrict our consumption (say, before we destroy the environment that we depend on) are no longer functional.

    I guess you could say that it was inevitable that we would extend our reach as individuals and groups, and discover fossil fuels, and therefore inevitable that feedback loops would break down and we would be where we are today. So maybe the argument is moot.

    Of course, cancer cells are a perfect example of this. They no longer get feedback from the organism as to when to grow and when not to, and therefore threaten the whole organism with continuous growth.

    I suppose western culture (culminating in America) could then be seen as a form of cancer that knows no bounds, destroys feedback loops in other cultures, and ultimately threatens all human societies.