Jun 29, 2007

Letter from China: One debate Beijing won’t be able to control

The Chinese state comes extremely well prepared for one of the key attributes of great-power status: controlling the terms of debate on issues of any consequence.

For decades, the Communist Party has told Chinese people in very direct terms what they can and cannot think. That tradition has softened during the current era of economic opening and fast growth, but the government still enjoys a striking amount of sway over the parameters of discussion of everything from world history to current affairs, defining for the public what is good, bad, right, wrong, true and untrue.

This great thought-orientation machine has been gearing up in recent weeks for a major new challenge, and one that won’t be going away anytime soon. According to a study by the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, China has just surpassed the United States as the world’s leading emitter of greenhouse gases, a year ahead of the earliest projections, putting this country in a position that its propaganda bosses have never been willing to countenance: the role of villain. It doesn’t help that the issue in question, global warming, is one that has the entire world’s attention right now.

According to well established rules of the propaganda game, China, as a nation, must never be at fault. But the ugly fundamentals of environmental degradation here are becoming increasingly obvious and increasingly grave, and for those who must spin the global warming issue, this has all the makings of an immense headache.

The country is becoming a world beater in many things, the less celebrated of which include dirty, high-energy-consuming industries - from steel, which it produces in immense quantities, often from antiquated plants, to cement, of which China produces 40 percent of the world’s output.

China is building one to two coal-fired power plants every week, with plans for more than 500 new ones currently on the books. Even now, the country consumes more of this dirtiest of fossil fuels than the United States, the European Union and Japan combined. Indeed, China consumes almost as much coal as the rest of the world.

The industrial side of the ledger looks bleak, but as important as it is, it is only one piece of a disturbing picture. The passenger vehicle is in its infancy in China, but it, like so many things here, is growing by leaps and bounds. Each year, seven million new cars hit the road in a country that is enthusiastically mimicking America’s wasteful experience, pushing toward a vision of a country blanketed with highways, with a car in every garage, and with an automobile industry second to none.

Urbanization is a related problem. New and bigger cities are being created at a speed never before seen in human history. The purpose, as in just about everything here, is to lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, and to create a shot at prosperity for all of the country’s citizens.

It is not hard to sympathize with Chinese planners in this, but that does nothing to suspend questions about the wisdom of their approach or to allay fears about the consequences. As Elizabeth Economy, a leading expert on China’s environmental problem, wrote recently: “With plans on the books to urbanize half the Chinese population by 2020, energy consumption will soar. City residents in China use 250 percent more power than their rural counterparts.”

So far, Beijing’s message to the world on all of this could be neatly summed up as “bug off.” One could hear this in the voice of Chen Feng, the chairman of Hainan Airlines, who told a panel at the recent World Economic Forum in Singapore that the West deserved the blame for environmental problems, adding pointedly that Westerners were “robbers and bandits before you became right-minded people.”

The substance of the Chinese argument is unassailable. Cumulatively, China, a newcomer to mass industrialization, has contributed far less to global warming than, say, the United States, and even today, on a per capita basis, produces only about a quarter of the carbon dioxide that the rich states in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development do.

This line is part of a game of hardball, still in its early innings, that pits China and a loose coalition of developing countries against the already rich and long-polluting West. This game consists of racing as far ahead with the current mode of development as possible and relying on the West to win a “better” deal for China within the framework of a new global agreement on greenhouse gases.
-Howard French

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