Why Can’t the Chinese Be More Like Us?

By David L. Brown

The current issue of The Economist has a cover story about China’s insatiable and growing thirst for natural resources. The cover itself bears the title “The New Colonialists,” and features this picture (which I have cropped to show only the main subject without all the text and masthead:

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The picture strikes me as particularly amusing and symbolic because of several facts. One, it shows the proud Chinese explorer hobnobbing with Arabs in a scene that could be out of the 18th Century. (Point: They’re not exactly up-to-date.) And, it shows the symbolic Chinaman heading out in a desert wasteland something like the one that China itself is in danger of becoming. But let’s get to the story.

In this week’s editorial, or “leader” as they call it, The Economist makes the following remarks about China’s emergence as the world’s biggest resource hog:

THERE is no exaggerating China’s hunger for commodities. The country accounts for about a fifth of the world’s population, yet it gobbles up more than half of the world’s pork, half of its cement, a third of its steel and over a quarter of its aluminium. It is spending 35 times as much on imports of soya beans and crude oil as it did in 1999, and 23 times as much importing copper—indeed, China has swallowed over four-fifths of the increase in the world’s copper supply since 2000.

Hmm, sounds like we have a real problem here. Just as the developed parts of the world are beginning to ease up on the remaining resources of our planet, the Chinese are trying to recreate the Industrial Revolution on a gargantuan scale. That can’t be good, can it? Well, no, but in fact the worst of the pain might be felt by China itself. As The Economist explains:

Still, China’s hunger for natural resources is creating plenty of problems. Most of them, though, are in China, not abroad.

China is hoovering up ever more commodities not just because its economy is growing so quickly, but also because that growth is concentrated in industries that use lots of resources. Over the past few years, there has been a marked shift from light manufacturing to heavy industry. So for each unit of output, China now consumes more raw materials.

That may sound like a minor change, but the implications are dramatic. For one thing, it has encouraged the sort of foreign entanglements that are now causing China such embarrassment. More worryingly, it is compounding China’s already grim pollution. Heavy industry requires huge amounts of power. Steelmaking, for example, uses 16% of China’s power, compared with 10% for all the country’s households combined. By far the most common fuel for power generation is coal. So more steel mills and chemical plants mean more acid rain and smog, not to mention global warming.

These are not just inconveniences, but also an enormous drag on society. Each year, they make millions sick, cause hundreds of thousands of premature deaths, sap agricultural yields and so on. Pan Yue, a deputy minister at the government’s environmental watchdog, believes that the costs inflicted by pollution each year amount to some 10% of GDP.

The Economist editorial also states that the Chinese government is facing massive complaints from its own citizens, with pollution as “the cause of ever more protests and demonstrations. There were some 60,000 in 2006 alone, by the authorities’ own count,” according to the leader. Imagine that, 60,000 admitted protests and demonstrations against pollution!

And that’s not all: leading international athletes are becoming convinced that the 2008 Olympic Games may turn disastrous because they “doubt the air will be fit to breathe.” The world’s top marathon runner is threatening to pull out over that issue and many others could follow suit. It would be a huge public relations disaster if this year’s Olympics should be best remembered by TV images of competitors gasping for breath, coughing and wheezing, even turning blue and dropping dead from pollution.

Meanwhile, just as the camel-riding Chinaman is proudly bearing the nation’s flag through a desert wasteland, northern China is quickly beginning to run out of water. The glaciers on the high mountains to the North that feed its rivers are rapidly melting and groundwater resources are being pumped dry. That makes the image appropriate since much of the Middle Kingdom may soon be reverting to desert itself. In the not too distant future the region may bear strong resemblance to Saudi Arabia, only without the oil of course. (Not that there will be much of the stuff left in the Arab lands by that time either.) And that is only one of many environmental problems that are looming over the Middle Kingdom.

China is making a hopeless and ill-fated attempt to become part of a world that has already passed it by. Its attempt to recreate itself in the image of America of the past century is doomed from the start. Just as the world is beginning to run out of surplus food (or turning it into fake gas and diesel fuel) the Chinese are hitching their wagon to a dead horse. Or camel, as the case may be.

Here’s a clue to that hapless Asian nation: As your population continues to soar toward the 1.5 billion mark, and your own land and water resources dwindle, how do you expect to feed your hungry masses when the world can no longer produce enough food to keep export markets filled? Answer: you can’t. Conclusion: you have enormous problems ahead and the path you are on is leading you to a disaster that will overwhelm your entire nation and crush it to ruin. (So sorry, but it’s the truth.)

Unfortunately, while their efforts are doomed to fail in a most spectacular way, they are causing grief to the rest of us. To paraphrase Henry Higgins, why can’t the Chinese be … more like us? The “us” of here and now, that is, not the “us” of the let-it-all-out 19th and 20th Centuries. The “us” that have moved beyond heavy industry and are slowly shifting to renewable energy and greater efficiency in every phase of our society.

The Economist also surmises that China’s incursions into Africa and Latin America in its aggressive effort to lay its hands on resources is shifting the international balance of power:

In its drive to secure reliable supplies of raw materials, it is said, China is coddling dictators, despoiling poor countries and undermining Western efforts to spread democracy and prosperity. America and Europe, the shrillest voices say, are “losing” Africa and Latin America.

Well, old cynical me asks those with the shrill voices the poignant question “So what?” If the Chinese want to become the new Colonialists as The Economist suggests, let them have a go at it in Africa and Latin America. They all deserve each other. Then we can wash our hands of the messes in those regions and let them all suffer together the eventual fate of being tied to a failed would-be Super Power. In fact, the chance to share in what I predict is going to be by far the biggest and most spectacular national meltdown of all time, a textbook case of human overshoot-and-collapse.

It will be interesting to watch. They can all go down together, perhaps led by a man riding a camel and waving a huge red and yellow flag. And, oh yes, it couldn’t happen to a nicer bunch.

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