Welcome to European Tribune. It's gone a bit quiet around here these days, but it's still going.

China and the Event Horizon

by DeAnander Thu Jul 21st, 2005 at 09:26:54 PM EST

I think it's time to get some other perspectives on recent info about China that has been troubling me.

Here are a few data points...

China Study Group papers and news articles on labour conditions and issues in China.

Cosma Shalizi on "The Condition of the Working Class in China":  "This is the gross, chronic exploitation and oppression of tens of millions of our fellow human beings; the deliberate and profitable creation of situations making Manchester in 1844 seem like a worker's paradise. Industrialization has never, in any country, been pretty or painless, but this is intolerable."

Cosma is citing this highly disturbing article from Dissent magazine:  

Each year, millions of Chinese citizens travel from impoverished inland villages to take their first industrial jobs in China's export factories. Young and mostly female, they are sent by their parents in search of wages to supplement their families' income. They join an enormous submerged caste of temporary factory workers who are stripped of civil and political rights by China's system of internal passport controls.

They enter the factory system and often step into a nightmare of twelve-hour to eighteen-hour work days with no day of rest, earning meager wages that may be withheld or unpaid altogether. The factories are sweltering, dusty, and damp. Workers are fully exposed to chemical toxins and hazardous machines, and suffer sickness, disfiguration, and death at the highest rates in world history. They live in cramped cement-block dormitories, up to twenty to a room, without privacy. They face militaristic regimentation, surveillance, and physical abuse by supervisors during their long day of work and by private police forces during their short night of recuperation in the dormitories.

They can do little to relieve their misery. Their movements are controlled by the Public Security forces, who ruthlessly enforce the pass system. They are not permitted to seek better-paying jobs reserved for privileged urban residents. If they assert their rights, they are sent back to the countryside, or worse. Attempts to organize unions or to strike are met with summary detention, long-term imprisonment, and torture.

Enmeshed in bonded labor, they frequently cannot even leave their factory jobs, no matter how abusive. They have minimal access to China's legal system, which, in any event, is corrupted by the local Party officials, who extract personal wealth from factory revenue. Their impotence is reflected in their desperate acts of violence and their shocking rate of suicides intended to draw attention to their plight.

(Shanghai Journal) A City's Traffic Plans Are Snarled by China's Car Culture:  

As people in this richest of Chinese cities have grown more and more affluent, they have displayed an American-style passion for the automobile. But for Shanghai, as for much of China, getting rich and growing attached to cars have increasingly gone hand in hand, and have produced side effects familiar in cities that have long been addicted to automobiles - from filthy air and stressful, marathon commutes to sharply rising oil consumption.

China accounts for about 12 percent of the world's energy demand, but its consumption is growing at more than four times the global rate, sending Chinese oil company executives on an increasingly frantic search for overseas supplies. The country's top environmental officials have warned of ecological and economic doom if China continues to follow this pattern. But in cities like Shanghai, where automobiles account for 70 percent to 80 percent of air pollution, nothing seems capable ofstopping, or even slowing, the rapid rise of a car culture.

Nova recently ran a segment dedicated to China: "World in the Balance - China Revs Up":  

NOVA takes the pulse of China's hyperactive economy, the fastest- growing in the history of the world. During the last two decades, China clamped down on its population growth through its controversial one-child policy, but in recent years it has relaxed those rules, moving in the direction of more reproductive freedom. As the sprawling country develops from a poor nation, China's air, land and water are beginning to suffer. The prospect that all Chinese will strive to live like middle-class Americans is daunting, since it has been calculated that if all of the world's people had an American standard of living, two more planets the size of Earth would be needed to support them.

(SF Chron) The Good Life Means More Greenhouse Gas:

Pi Heyang gingerly closed the door of his first car-to-be. Then, he ran his hand slowly along the shiny hood, touching the Chinese-made Tianjin Weizi sedan as delicately as if it were made of gossamer.

"This will change our lives," the Beijing bus driver said solemnly while his wife and young son stood at his side in the dealer's showroom.

Several miles away through Beijing's smoggy streets, an exhibition hall was jammed with thousands of people perusing booths with displays for new homes in suburban subdivisions. Videos played, dancers gyrated, and neon signs in English touted developments with names such as "Rich Garden" and "Canal Side Upper Strata Life."

"We want space, greenery, freedom," said Han Yu, a mobile phone salesman, after he and his wife signed papers to buy a three-bedroom condominium on Beijing's eastern outskirts for $105,000. "This is it."

This is the new Chinese Dream: cars and suburbs. Like the American counterpart, it is good news for many people -- but perhaps bad news for Planet Earth. The same economic boom that is catapulting millions of Chinese each year into the middle class has made their country the world's fastest- growing source of the greenhouse gases linked to global warming.


"China wants to do its part against global warming, and we have taken many actions," said Zhou Dadi, director general of the Energy Research Institute, the central government's main policy agency on the subject. He cited several key steps in recent years [...]

Yet Zhou admitted that these moves were counteracted by broader economic forces.

"In the media there are lots of ads trying to convince people to adopt some kind of American life, a fancy car, a very big house," he said. "This is what everyone wants now. It is part of development; it is a historical process. Energy efficiency is a function of this."

Because of the nation's red-hot economic growth, which is averaging about 9 percent annually, even working-class Chinese such as Pi, the bus driver, are able to buy a car. Pi said he and his wife, Feng Xiaoe, an accountant, had saved for years, and with some help from his brother and parents, they were able to pay the new car's entire $9,000 sticker price.

"We can go out of the city on weekends," he said, smiling. "We can go fishing, go fly kites."

China's New Consumers Get a Taste For Luxury Goods:

"Yang Jing, a pastry chef with a sweet tooth, grins as he pops into his mouth one of his most sumptuous creations: a ball of luxury French chocolate, mixed with cream, vodka and ginger and decorated with flakes of real gold.

The 32-year-old could hardly have imagined such luxury while he was growing up in a Beijing of ration coupons and food kiosks. Yang had to wait until he was eight - just after China opened up its economy - to get his first taste of chocolate.

Now his corpulent figure is hard to equate with the scrawny boy he once was, a transformation that embodies the remarkable consumption habits of the world's most populous nation.

From luxury confectionery and designer clothes to imported beers and expensive cars, Chinese shoppers are buying as they have never bought before.

Sales at restaurants and retail outlets are growing even faster than the spectacular 9% annual expansion of the economy. In the past six years, 400 giant shopping centres, many more than double the size of anything in Britain, have opened throughout the country.

China has overtaken the US in sales of televisions and mobile phones. In the next few years, it will become the biggest market for computers. And a double digit rise in urban incomes has drawn Cartier, Prada and Armani to expand here faster than anywhere else in the world.

The rise in consumption has alarmed dieticians, who say that obesity rates have doubled in 10 years, and environmentalists, who say the planet will be doomed if China's 1.3bn population starts to eat and shop like Americans or Europeans.

Rural Chinese Riot Over Water, Air Pollution:

"Our fields won't produce grain anymore," said a 46-year-old woman who lives near the plant. "We don't dare to eat food grown from anywhere near here."

    Her husband, a former machine operator, said he had to quit working recently because of persistent weakness and nausea. When local officials posted a notice saying they would reopen the plant a few days after the fatal explosion there, he had been one of the first demonstrators to arrive on the scene, charging the gates and bursting into the factory with a small crowd of fellow protesters.

    "They are making poisonous chemicals for foreigners that the foreigners don't dare produce in their own countries," the man said. Explaining why he had been willing to rush into the plant, despite signs warning of toxic chemicals all about, he said, "It is better to die now, forcing them out, than to die of a slow suicide."

OK, here are my half-baked, relatively ignorant thoughts as I watch these random ripples in the river of international news go by.

  1. it doesn't strike me as coincidental that the sudden boom of affluence for urban "middle class" and managerial Chinese is being built on the back of worse-than-Dickensian superexploitation of expropriated peasants.  This is the Enclosures all over again, remade and being played on Fast Forward.  Question:  has capitalism ever delivered a boom of prosperity for any major demographic without the systematic immiseration of another, larger demographic from whose hides the profit was squeezed to fuel the boom?  Historical examples:  the N Euro mercantile revolution and boom of the 1600s, fuelled by mass murder, slavery, and theft of millions of tonnes of silver and gold from S America, also by raw materials from plantations on forcibly expropriated land in N and S America, therefore indirectly by slave trade with Africa, etc.  People in urban N Europe had a sudden boost in lifestyle.  It came out of someone else's hide.  The conditions that made "democracy" and Enlightenment ideas possible, it seems to me increasingly clear as I mull it over, were themselves created by criminal, undemocratic, and despotic activities at a convenient moral distance (colonies).  Is this an inherent contradiction of Western-style mercantile "democracy"?  That it did not so much replace feudalism, as change the scale (radius, reach) on which feudal-type relations of expropriation and control were enforced?

  2. China, opening its doors to capitalism including advertising, now finds (as does every other country) that corporate propaganda competes with and can drown out government propaganda and educational materials.  Seductive commercials for suburbs and cars eclipse sober government warnings about air pollution, congestion, and fuel shortages.  Junk food merchandisers with their colourful, carefully-crafted ad campaigns and marketing techniques easily distract the consumer from sober, boring government information about nutrition and child health.  And so on.

  3. China's consumption curve is terrifying, not because it is any worse or more appalling or more foolish than hyperconsumption in the West (it's often modest by comparison) but because of the sheer numbers of people involved.  How long before the steeply rising "prosperity" of China crashes into a global bankruptcy of resources?  (this is a question often asked, but I see very few actual projections).

  4. what happens when China's government, which has staked its all on promising an approximation of the American lifestyle to its privileged urban classes, comes up against open class war (in a so-called Communist country too) as the rural people become more and more angry and restive?  what happens when China's already strained agricultural resources are sacrificed to US-style carburb development and poisoned by ever-increasing, sprawling dirty industry?  How long can the Chinese government keep up a pretence of being "Communist" when it has recreated and is enforcing sub-Dickensian class relations?

  5. where is China going, and what will it look like in -- say -- 10 years?

I am not a full-time China-watcher, I don't speak Chinese, I only know one native-born Chinese person.  I just keep an eye on the environmental and consumer news.  I'm also aware that the Anglo press has a long ignoble history of painting China as the Yellow Peril, a vast seething cauldron of excess humanity just panting to Come Over Here and Take Our Stuff.  So I take the alarmist tone of US-press articles on China with at least a grain of salt.

But even stripping away the tone and looking at the numbers, what it looks like is that China is recapitulating the industrial history of the West on FFWD, and (this is crucial) at a time when global resources are already tight;  they were relatively abundant when Euroland and the US and Japan made their "great leaps forward".  Euroland and the US (and to a lesser extent Japan) made their fortunes largely by stealing from other poorer, less well-armed countries;  from whom is China stealing, or will it steal, to pull off the same hat trick?  And to what extent does China's decision to emulate the C19-C20 development model of the West accelerate us all, globally, towards the resource event horizon?

One more data point:
"Leading botanist Peter Raven calculates that species crucial to the survival of the human race are in steep decline."

Peter Raven is a botanist. He knows about photosynthesis, primary productivity and sustainable growth. He knows that all flesh is grass; that the richest humans and the hungriest alike depend ultimately on plants for food, fuel, clothing, medicines and shelter, and that all of these come from the kiss of the sun on warm moist soils, to quicken growth and ripen grain.

    So botanists such as Raven begin with the big picture of sustainable growth and can calculate to the nearest planet how much land and sea it would take to sustain the population of the world if everybody lived as comfortably as the Americans, British or French. The answer is three planets.

    The global population is about to soar from 6 billion to 9 billion in less than a lifetime. Around 800 million humans are starving, and maybe 2 billion are malnourished, while 3 billion survive on two dollars a day.

    Valuable agricultural land is being poisoned or parched or covered in concrete, soils eroded, rivers emptied and aquifers drained to feed the swelling numbers. Something has got to give, and the first things to go are many of the plants and animals.

    By many, Raven means perhaps half to two thirds of all the other species on the planet in the next 100 years. There could be 10m different kinds of fern, fungus, flowering plant, arthropod, amphibian, reptile, bird, fish and mammal on Earth. Nobody knows. People such as Raven, director of the Missouri Botanic Gardens in St Louis, are doing their best to count and preserve them.

    But the human population is growing at the rate of about 10,000 an hour, and each human depends on a hectare or two of land and water for what economists now call "ecosystem services" - the organisms that ultimately recycle waste and deliver new wealth to provide oxygen, fresh food, clean water, fuel, new clothes, safe shelter and disposable income.

    Some of these organisms are now being chased to oblivion by human population growth at levels that ecosystems cannot sustain.

This article is somewhat disingenuous in that it mentions population growth in isolation from consumption habits.  But the "boom" in China, and its simultaneous relaxation of family size limits, remind us that the two are intimately connected.   As the authors finally allow botanist Raven to remind us near the end:

As he keeps pointing out, the human species is living as if it had more than one planet to occupy. Forty years ago, at Stanford, he and colleagues tried to calculate the economic cost of exporting humans to a star system likely to be orbited by habitable planets. They worked out that it would cost the entire gross economic product of the planet to ship just 12 people a year to Proxima Centauri or beyond. His message for the planet is, "Think, look at the big picture, and think again".

    "If both the population and standards increase, then obviously you come up with an impossible picture, which is a clear signal that we must [change]. It is not a matter of choice, it is not a matter of social justice alone, it is not a matter of morality, it is not a matter of creating a sustainable world so that industrialised countries can benefit from it.

    "We must reach a sustainable population level, sustainable levels of affluence or consumption, and we must find technologies that replace the ones we are using now."

Final question:  the conventional Western (whether Chicago School neolib or earlier more Keynesian orthodoxy) viewpoint is that "development is good, formal employment is good," and that what is happening in China is therefore Good.  Wealth (the ability to spend money on designer chocolates and polluting, energy-wasting cars) is being "created" and that is Good.  Are the misery of the new Chinese working class (very comparable to the pre-Revolutionary misery of their peasant ancestors under the iron rule of the Imperial Court and its network of mandarins and enforcers), the destruction of Chinese environmental wealth, and the acceleration of planetary bankruptcy that China's "boom" represents, finally sufficient evidence to undermine that orthodoxy?

If not, what the hell will be?  And with what shall we replace that orthodoxy?

What happens in ten years?
. No problem: avian flu epidemic, mass reduction in population, breathing space 0%
. No problem: gross climate instability, superstorms, floods, mass reduction in population, etc. 18%
. No problem: friendly aliens come and give us miracle technologies in the nick of time 6%
. China and the US go to war, destroying yet more arable land in the process. Grim future. 0%
. China takes over the US and distributes its population over the relatively less dense colony. 0%
. A second Chinese revolution replaces its insatiable capitalist model with a Cuban-style agrarian/sustainable reform 6%
. China suffers internal class war and breaks down like the FSU (population decline, balkanisation) leaving the US triumphant 6%
. The US breaks down like the FSU leaving China/India triumphant 0%
. The US and China both implode leaving wind-powered, social-democratic EU as last superpower standing 18%
. God only knows, and I don't know as how I'm all that keen on finding out 43%

Votes: 16
Results | Other Polls
This is a pithy article...a lot to digest...I just skimmed it now, and will have to return for more in-depth reading. But, I have a friend who does investment banking, who travels and does business in Hong Kong and China frequently, and he has mentioned to me the underlying instability of China. Basically, he says no one hears of the unrest that is going on in the countryside, due to press restrictions, and though China has a "strong economy" on paper, he feels that structurally their system is quite weak, because of social problems (based on the rank inequality and appalling conditions you speak of here). He does not recommend his customers to invest too heavily in China, for these reasons...which is telling.

"Once in awhile we get shown the light, in the strangest of places, if we look at it right" - Hunter/Garcia
by whataboutbob on Fri Jul 22nd, 2005 at 03:00:48 AM EST
Another great diary on China, like the first poster said, I'll have to come back to it tomorrow. Out of time now tonight.

But I did just mentioned in another post I do believe China will have a great impact on the US, particularly, and those of us living here ought to be paying more attention to what's happening with the citizens of the country of our "bankers".

NVA, a viable option when the political process fails.

by NorthDakotaDemocrat (NorthDakotaDemocrat at gmail dot com) on Fri Jul 22nd, 2005 at 03:45:13 AM EST
Only two comments.

Regarding the poll, my "most likely" scenario is even gloomier than all your choices: First the US implodes and turns into a combination of still affluent mini-states and a giant failed state with super-warlords, and China is glorious (whether post-revolution or pre); then China implodes and turns into the same as the USA, meanwhile the EU tries to close off, turns into an isolationist entity ruled by phobias and nationalism, and declines too; in the end there is massive environmental destruction, population reduction, but the further destruction of the environment by both the last affluent states and the desperate masses outside doesn't stop.

(If Europe is to achieve the future in your before-last choice, it shouldn't be one led by the Merkels, Kochs, Chiracs, Sarkozys, Bliars, Berlusconis, and all the Center-Left leaders who won't do much to stop the former, not to speak of bold action in the other direction. At present, only Zapatero seems to be truly committed to changing the energy sector, but even his government builds roads - tough along with railroads - at an even accelerated pace.)

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Fri Jul 22nd, 2005 at 05:29:06 AM EST
I forgot the second comment...

It's basically a link, to the Blood & Treasure blog, where (beyond fine leftist commentary from a British viewpoint) you find non-headline stories about China. (The author was IIRC in Hong Kong, and at present still writes for a mainland Chinese paper.)

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Fri Jul 22nd, 2005 at 05:33:55 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Who is China planning to exploit?  Well, they're looking for oil in Africa, Canada, and Latin America.

When the oil gets tight, the question is which economy will implode first, and will there be a resource war.  Hint: Iraq.  They're both charging down the same road the Soviet Union took.  I have strongly encouraged my sons (17 and 20) to keep an open mind about emigrating to Canada or Europe, as I am not sanguine about prospects for the US (or China) in the next few decades.

The only hope is solar, wind, and other technologies coming to the rescue, but you still have the overpopulation and environmental exploitation issues to be addressed.  And if they're not addressed, nature will address them for us in the "traditional manner:" war, famine, disease, and death.

Overall, I expect the 21st Century to be a very bad time, but I am guardedly optimistic that the fraction of the population that makes it through to 2100 will build a better, more sustainable world.  Not a pretty picture, but that's how I see it.

What is the use of a house if you haven't got a tolerable planet to put it on? - Thoreau

by Dem in Knoxville (green_planet_2000 (at) yahoo (dot) com) on Fri Jul 22nd, 2005 at 01:27:32 PM EST
Having been to China in the last six weeks and previously in 1999, I can attest to the dizzying speed of growth, consumption, and pollution, as well as the simmering anger of the labor force. I was in a store when workers blocked the entrance because they had not been paid. The next night, over a dozen police cleared the entryway, and police were there for several days.

Severe birth defects in children of factory workers in these unsafe conditions means more orphanages are filled with children whose chance of adoption is slight.As these children come of age and fill the streets, they will add to China's social problems.

I am not Chinese, but my son, adopted as a baby, is, so my link to the country is a deeply emotional one. I try to be hopeful and keep positive connections to China. Still, I worry that their need to maintain economic growth and order will lead to increasing conflict with the rest of the world.

It is tired wisdom but China successfully managing its problems is in the interest of the whole world. The positive signs I see are that the techonology is there with solutions, like the solar panels on many buildings, that were not available in western countries as they moved through their industrialization.

In the mean time, my family is learning Chinese and putting solar panels on our own home.

by chun (taichunyang@yahoo.com) on Sat Jul 23rd, 2005 at 09:48:02 AM EST
exemplary diary! 5 for content, 5 for exposition, 5 for topicality etc.

thankyou and please keep writing. this is the most coherent grouping of salient, in-your-face facts i can imagine in one document right now.

the biggest bump in the road ahead.

'if-only's are not my bag, but.....why can't we set a better example?

we have taught them to dine with the devil, but the spoon is just never going to be long enough again.

this is the dirty little denied secret in the everyday banality of soccer mom and nascar dad, and every latte drinking liberal too, we contribute to enabling whenever we pop down to the mall and buy sneakers for junior, or a new dvd writer for $59.99.

this unspoken-because-it's-too-horrific truth is the real reason for so much suicide in teens, so much aberrant behaviour, and so much cognitive dissonance in 'modern man'.

i guess the only thing worse would be if we told junior upfront: 'look, you got lucky, you're born into the gang of pirates now in power. things could shift, so it's pretty much 'get it while you can while you can'. don't worry about trampling on people, in fact if you don't trample, you will be trampled on, so wake early, jack up with some caffeine and and go carve turf and sequester booty with every breath you have until you drop, because that's really what life's about.'

the finer things you can buy later with the swag, right?

but noooo, we fill their heads with 'nobility', delusions of grandeur, megalomaniac worship and derring-do, yapping about 'freedom', barking about 'liberty', prattling on about 'civic duty', human rights, caring for others...all the mealymouthed platitudes we all grew up on.

the rage of the betrayed.... i was conned! super-hyper-mega bamboozled....for my own protection! it wouldn't have been right to initiate you too early!

when you grow out of the tooth fairy and santa claus, we'll give you a taste....for now here's some cotton-wool for your conscience....eat your dinner, they're starving in china...buy your plastic asian goodies, you're helping some peasant grovel in the city instead of the country, and fattening a slew of middlemen, all drooling at the idea of cloning donald trump's lifestyle and throwing up bigger malls and superstores and you thought the usa had the baddest case of gigantism around?

the human mind has evolved over millennia, forming some basic presuppositions along the way, like trust in....man's better nature?

some of these presuppositions are starting to look like presumptions right about now.

yes it's fucking over-the-top scary comic book level bizzarro.

the image of the plane flying into the wtc sliced through the umbilical cord to my naivete.

it. changed. everything.

each day survived is such a perversely beautiful, albeit temporary refutation of the laws of probability.

how long can a second shoe take to drop?

or is this new one-legged dance tattoo what we'll be getting on our collective ceiling till (or through) 'the end of history'?

can we unchoose doing this to ourselves as a species?

my faith says 'yes' and will till my last breath here and way on beyond, and my reason says that once we really, really wake up to the consequences of greed, and how deep and wide they go, then we will have a common, global, human code that will involve deep nurture to children so they grow up psychologically sound, and a shaming of greed until one would no more allow oneself to think or act out of greed than one would shit on one's sitting-room carpet.

it's this naked fetishisation of the corporate shark-mentality (sorry sharks!), this golden calf worship taken to las vegas and now beyond, that is taught sideways to children, with a little religion on the side, (all fair and balanced-like), as appropriate adult behaviour.

ashes, ashes, all fall down.


'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Sat Jul 23rd, 2005 at 04:18:13 PM EST
Awesome rant, melo! We are front row witnessess to the decline and fall of a way of life that has it's basis in ideas that generate separation and inequity. I believe that as much as we strive to find practical solutions to the situations we face, we must equally strive to find a new viewpoint from which to build and live our lives, individually and collectively. No doubt, and through technological irony, the Internets provide a means by which a new view seems to be emerging. I pray that this is one of the means by which it comes about, or we're clearly f*cked.

The future's here, we are it, we are on our own...

by US Blues on Sat Jul 23rd, 2005 at 04:42:22 PM EST
[ Parent ]
How about: Things stay pretty much as they are. America continues to develop technology which is incorporated into appliances made in China. Chinese manufacturers run in to shortage of labor and their economy levels out. Ten years from now, everything is just about like it is now.
by asdf on Sun Jul 24th, 2005 at 08:37:48 PM EST
er, i think the chinese may run out of a lot of things, like clean air and water for example, before they ever run out of labourers!

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty
by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Mon Jul 25th, 2005 at 12:52:01 AM EST

Go to: [ European Tribune Homepage : Top of page : Top of comments ]