Thursday, May 16, 2013

The price of China

I have been travelling so, as usual, blogging is light.

In fact I am currently in Hong Kong- my first trip out of Europe for some years, and my first back to this region in over 16 years. The ant hill of Hong Kong is a contrast to the calming silence of unpolluted Estonia. In fact it is what Estonia does not have that makes it a richer place than this city, where money making is the only imperative. Estonia does not have grey skies and pollution, it has crystal clear blue skies and Tallinn has the cleanest air of any capital city in the world. Estonia does not have people, it has silence and unspoiled nature. Estonia does not have congestion but it does have the first complete network of electric car charging points. 

A few days ago I went over the border to Shenzhen- and whatever Hong Kong is, Shenzhen is now more: more people- over ten million- more pollution, more industry. Shenzhen is not even the biggest city in Guangdong Province, that dubious honour goes to the capital, Guangzhou. It is banal to say that China is large and Estonia is small, and even if true it does not get to the root of the issue. China has adopted the mores of Hong Kong and they are now working to a model of economic growth that glorifies excess. Wealth and power are worshiped, and moral values trade at a discount. The result is the complete degradation of the environment. You can taste the pollution on your lips in Shenzhen, and this, compared to the industrial cities inland, is not a notably poisoned place.

It is a commonplace to say that if China achieves the same GDP per capita as the United States, the resources consumed will require six more planet Earths. Yet, of course, no such outcome is possible.  It is clear then that something else will happen. Either China changes its pattern of development or it will face environmental changes that will ultimately cap its level of growth. Humans are notably foolish, so I expect that the Chinese regime- like those elsewhere- will not wish to change unless it is forced to do so.

Perhaps that day may be closer than we think. Although life is better than ever for most Chinese- and an unthinkable distance from the catastrophes of the "Great Leap Forward" and the Cultural revolution- I wonder whether the Chinese Communist Party, which seems to be perfectly entrenched, can make the changes that it needs to in order to create a sustainable economic model. 

Although democracies are by no means perfect, there are ways and means to effect change- even profound change- if the political will is there. As so many Chinese wake up to the reality of a degraded environment and diminishing resources, the culture of excess must give way to a new social contract which is more respectful of the natural world. In Eastern Europe, one of the first challenges to the political status quo of Soviet power emerged when it became clear that the extractive values of Soviet system were destroying the natural world. In China now, the blatantly fabricated air quality numbers are a source of growing cynicism. Even though the numbers routinely show safe limits breached by five or even ten times, the whole of China knows that the real numbers are many multiples worse. The Chinese leadership must know that pollution and environmental degradation are huge and growing problems, yet they lack the will to take the bitter decisions that will improve the situation.

GDP growth is everything; for growth creates wealth and wealth creates power. 

Yet in Estonia the forests grow silently, and I know that living in a country with clean space, clean water, clean air and an unspoiled natural environment already makes me far richer than the tai-pans of Hong Kong or Shenzhen.   

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