The China syndrome

Everything I have written so far in this chapter applies to rich countries. However, we must also consider, if only briefly, the growth of consumption in developing countries, especially China. This is not an exercise in blame-shifting, for rich countries are responsible for around 75 per cent of the increased greenhouse gases in the atmosphere now.50 Although China's annual greenhouse gas emissions have recently surpassed those of the United States (each now accounts for nearly 20 per cent of global emissions), it will be some decades before developing countries account for half of the increased concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Moreover, it is true that the largest part of emissions from rich countries are luxury emissions because they are associated with producing and consuming goods and services that are not necessary to live a comfortable life.

While the profligate lifestyles of affluent nations must be the first target of emission-reduction policies, the gains of those policies will be more than offset over the next decades unless large developing nations—China, India, Brazil and a few others—begin soon to rein in their emissions. So it is worth considering the forces in play in those nations, and particularly in China, whose 1.3 billion people comprise a fifth of the world's population.

The growth of China's economy since the early 1980s has been extraordinary, averaging 9.5 per cent and accelerating to 11 per cent in 2006 before slowing to around 8 per cent in 2008.51 We saw in Chapter 1 that China's fossil fuel emissions grew at 11—12 per cent each year in the first years of this century.52 Typically, growth rates like these slow considerably after two decades or so once the country makes the industrial transition. Even so China's carbon dioxide emissions are expected to more than double by 2030, from a little over 5 billion metric tonnes in 2005 to just under 12 billion in 2030.53 Its greenhouse gas emissions are expected to account for one third of global emissions by that time.54

It is sometimes said that much of the growth in China's emissions is really the responsibility of Western consumers because they have provided the demand for much of China's output. This is true up to a point; in 2005 around one third of China's carbon dioxide emissions were attributable to production of exports,55 although these should be offset against the carbon emissions in other countries due to China's imports. However, as the economy matures this share due to exports is likely to decline. The corollary is that a larger and larger share of output in China will be consumed at home so that efforts to constrain emissions will have to focus on Chinese consumers, particularly urban households. Population growth will contribute a very small amount and energy efficiency and renewables will offset the impacts of consumption growth to a significant degree; but that will still leave a huge increase in China's carbon emissions driven mainly by domestic consumption.56 Perhaps most worryingly, there seems to be nothing that can prevent a massive increase in China's emissions. According to one study, if we make the extremely optimistic assumption that from now on all new coal-fired power plants include carbon capture and storage technology, cutting their emissions by 85 per cent, the nation's carbon emissions would still increase by about 80 per cent by 2030.57

When the Communist Party decided to open up China's economy in 1979 official concern about the flow of Western cultural influences was met, in the early 1980s, with the Socialist Spiritual Civilization campaign, aimed at cultivating frugal living and rejection of materialism and the idea that consumption is the path to happiness.58 The campaign was bolstered by a rehabilitation of Chinese history, previously condemned as the root of the evils that made the revolution necessary. Chinese civilisation became a source of national pride. Confucius, once the subject of mass criticism and a target of the Cultural Revolution, was rehabilitated as a means of resisting Western decadence and providing a focus for national cohesion threatened by political turbulence. Unsurprisingly, the essentially ecological sensibility of Confucian thought59 was not allowed to stand in the way of a rapacious industrialisation drive.

However, a manufactured official ideology cannot counter the lure of consumption among deprived people, and through the 1980s the socialist preoccupation with production gave way to an emphasis on consumption. Elisabeth Croll argues that the government turned increasingly to consumption for its legitimacy, particularly to overcome the unpopularity of the one-child policy and unrest as expressed in events like Tiananmen.60 One China expert has wondered: 'Will the fruits of a growing economy and the passion for consumption be the distraction, the narcotic that postpones the day of political reckoning for the still dominant Communist party?'61

The transition 'from comrades to consumers' telescoped into one decade a process that in the West took several, sparking a period of 'consumer madness' perhaps best encapsulated in the department store maxim 'the consumer is god'.62 Although the volume of consumer spending fell short of expectations, shopping became a favourite form of recreation, in the process transforming the desires and life goals of ordinary Chinese city-dwellers. China now has a vast class of middle-class consumers with a seemingly unquenchable taste for Western-style consumer goods. In 2005 they accounted for 12 per cent of global luxury goods purchases, not far behind US consumers, who bought 17 per cent.63 For a period, blue jeans came to signify for young people the mood of

'difference and defiance' that was the antithesis of the Mao suits that symbolised the dull conformity of their parents' generation. Western brands came to represent aspirations of modernity, sophistication and cosmopolitanism. They filled the gap left by the vanishing legitimacy of the socialist program of revolution. Croll writes of a study she undertook to investigate children's perceptions in which she asked kindergarten children to draw pictures of their families: 64

Many not only featured televisions and fashionably bright-green refrigerators prominently placed. Life-sized but also lifelike, these goods were given their own faces and legs, suggesting that, perhaps, in the absence of siblings, significant things vied with significant persons in defining the single-child's sense of self or family.

Many middle-class Chinese saw the ability to consume as liberation from Maoist uniformity. At the same time, they confess that their purchasing is driven in part by competitiveness, its own variety of social compliance. According to Fu Hongchun, a business professor at Shanghai's East China Normal University, 'If one resident in a community buys a new TV, all residents in the same community will update their TVs'.65 While there is no gainsaying the material benefits of escaping poverty, the 'Mao-inspired conformity' of earlier generations has been replaced by the consumer-style conformity and brand worship of the present one.

The cultural dangers of a rush to embrace consumer capitalism—materialism, selfishness, money worship and moral decay—were recognised early by Chinese intellectuals, authors and artists, as well as the government. The Communist Party's 'capitalism with Chinese characteristics' was a bold slogan, but the desire for a distinct type of capitalism could hardly withstand the force of Western brand culture. Chinese people often say they want to become 'modern' rather than Westernised, but the distinction is a fine one. Thus one Western advertising company that markets Nike sportswear in China 'puts a Confucian spin' on its ads, stressing Western individualism while maintaining 'it's never outside the group'.66 In truth, the only Chinese characteristic in the Nike brand is the location of the factories.

Curiously, in China consumerist values spread more rapidly than consumption itself. Except among the wealthiest, the people did not abandon financial caution in the way Western consumers did in the 1990s. They spent more but they also continued to save. The reluctance to abandon frugality altogether became a source of frustration in the United States. In October 2005 US Treasury Secretary John W. Snow travelled to a village in Sichuan to promote 'financial modernisation'. According to the New York Times correspondent accompanying him, Mr Snow 'urged China . . . to take lessons from the United States on how to spend more, borrow more and save less'.67 He told his hosts that they badly needed to emulate the sophistication of American banks and financial institutions. At the time China's leaders were more alert to the mounting dangers of sub-prime loans in the United States than the Bush Administration or its Treasury secretary and were wary of importing America's deregulated financial system with the alacrity they had imported its retail malls. Their caution could not have been vindicated in more spectacular fashion three years later.

The point of this brief commentary on the rise of Chinese consumerism is to emphasise the rapidity and irreversibility of the transition to a consumer culture in that vast nation. The fact that a large part of the country remains impoverished while another large part has come to define itself by its access to Western consumer goods vitiates any attempt to reduce carbon emissions that may jeopardise growth. Despite the government's recognition of the dangers of global warming, it would sacrifice its political legitimacy if it pushed through the sorts of measures required by the science. The only way out is for rich countries to make large financial transfers to China, India, Brazil and a handful of other developing nations. The history of foreign aid in the West does not augur well.

Chapter 4

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