Is China a window to our own future?

China shows us the best and the worst of unfettered development. It’s keeping us afloat for now, but there are big headaches ahead. [29 May 2012 | Peter Boyer]

In just 20 years, Shanghai has transformed farmland in Pudong, across Huangpu River from the city’s famous Bund, into its newest commercial hub.

In just 20 years, Shanghai has transformed farmland in Pudong, across Huangpu River from the city’s famous Bund, into its newest commercial hub.

It used to be said that to see the future we should look to America. In this 21st century, China may turn out to be our new bellwether.

For over 30 years, successive Chinese leaders have encouraged private enterprise — so long as it doesn’t question state authority. Today, Marx would struggle to make sense of the paradox that while it continues to call itself communist, China has become a capitalist superpower.

Results are spectacular. China’s unleashed human resources, big in both numbers and enterprise, have kept a foundering global economy, if not afloat, then at least above rock bottom. Our own bottom line continues to look good mainly because of Chinese demand for Australian minerals.

I make no claims to know more about this hugely complex country than you or anyone. But a recent visit there has opened my eyes to aspects of China’s phenomenal economic growth that can inform our own ideas as to where we in Australia should be headed.

First, my reading of that redoubtable English-language government mouthpiece, China Daily, tells me that Chinese authorities are at least as aware as any Western counterparts of the environmental consequences of rampant development, including its potential impact on climate.

The people on China’s supreme governing body, the Politburo, aren’t exactly environmentalists. But I read many apparently well-informed China Daily articles on climate and energy which made it plain that they want to be seen to show concern about natural resources, and to create policies to manage them properly.

Weather and environmental issues loomed large, whether it was food wastage and contamination, spreading cities threatening wetlands, alien species damaging crops, forest fires in Yunnan, death and mass evacuations after Jianxi storms, or fish disappearing from the lower Yangtze River.

Energy use was another focus. Driven by China’s rising dependence on imported oil, in early May the government announced plans to cap the use of non-renewable energy by 2015. The means to be adopted aren’t clear; options would presumably include emissions trading, but China’s communist heritage would suggest that regulation is more likely.

China Daily articles made plain that this country faces the same resource issues that we do — water availability, food production, changing weather and climate, energy constraints — but on a vastly bigger scale, involving huge numbers of people and huge sums invested in infrastructure.

All of which adds up to some equally huge headaches for the Politburo.

In 2010 veteran BBC Beijing correspondent and avowed China-lover Jonathan Watts published a study of the state of the Chinese environment which underlined the mind-boggling challenges facing China’s leaders not just to conserve natural resources but also to ensure the country remains integrated and governable.

The success of Chinese-style capitalism in this vast national experiment has unleashed forces that have done great things for ordinary Chinese, and the evidence is everywhere you look in the vibrancy of city life, the varied and sophisticated food and shopping choices, the transport and commercial infrastructures that have sprung up everywhere.

But as Watts pointed out, there’s always a price to be paid for commercial success. Rising social inequality is one (the authorities no longer provide data on this); another is widespread corruption.

Damage done to natural resources is another. Travelling the length and breadth of China, Watts catalogued reactions of ordinary people to what was happening around them. It’s often not a pretty story: unacknowledged deaths in coal mines, wholesale forest, wetland and fishery destruction, in city after city unprecedented levels of air pollution — the list goes on and on.

Most telling are experiments with water on a massive scale, a result of chronic and growing water shortages across northern China, taking in Beijing’s 20 million people.

Many at the top of government, which is made up largely of engineers, are attracted by the idea of big technical solutions. These include the diversion of waters northward a thousand kilometres from the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers, at a scale which would dramatically change natural ecosystems in the lower reaches of these mighty waterways.

I enjoyed visiting China and found much to admire in the people I met. Their friendly, open optimism suggested that this is a country going places. May good fortune smile on its leaders, and wisdom guide their labyrinthine deliberations. We’re all counting on it.

• ON THE SUBJECT of water resources, wisdom isn’t guiding the thinking of Western Australian premier Colin Barnett, who seems to have gotten a little tipsy from the heady amounts of mining royalties flooding into his state’s coffers.

Conveniently ignoring the fact that for half of its history Western Australia has been a claimant state, Barnett has been complaining for months about his minerals-rich state having to support Tasmania through Grants Commission funding. He should be focusing his attention elsewhere.

Rainfall modelling for southwestern Australia since the 1990s has consistently shown steady drying, which the CSIRO predicts will lead to significant shortages by 2020. CSIRO’s concern is borne out by Perth’s abysmal rainfall since 2000, over 150 mm a year below the long-term average.

Mineral wealth comes and goes, but we always need water. Barnett should invest his wealth in building and conserving water resources and keep quiet about having to prop up other states. Western Australia’s turn to hold out its hand may come round again sooner than he thinks.

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