China, the Prosperity Trap, and the Seeds of Climate Crisis

Note: this is a heavily rewritten version of a paper I wrote for a Yale class called “The Rise of China”. Information is pulled heavily from Chapter 5 of the book The China Challenge by Thomas Christiansen and from the class itself.

While collective action is hard, collective action in China is way harder. China is the startup unicorn of the modern international order, the very manifestation of the globalized, consumption-obsessed economic policies which helped shape the twenty-first century. It is also an authoritarian regime whose power and legitimacy have been predicated on massive investments in the industries that rely most heavily on fossil fuels. It is an uncomfortable feature of China’s fairytale story that its emergence as a global economic powerhouse came directly at the expense of the global environment.

While that causative relationship does direct blame at China, the truth such a story belies is the simple fact that the western world, and particularly the United States, were built on the same self-destructive relationship between fossil-fuel based capital and economic growth. The problem is not a failing of the system — it is the system incarnate, which is why the problem of climate action will have to come down to more than simple unilateral international agreements or free market self-regulation. While the United States’ approach to climate change is one of the most abysmal failures of modern times, looking to the peripheral at what is, in many ways, gearing up to become the largest player in this game offers interesting insights on the ways this problem might be solved. It will be one of the greatest challenges of the twenty-first century — but it is the cost of China’s astronomical rise that it must take its seat at the global discussion now. This is the big leagues.

Often following any mention of China’s responsibility in addressing the issue of climate change comes the idea that the onus should fall on the western nations, and particularly the United States, who reaped the benefits of fossil fuels and then villainized developing nations trying to do the same. Although China and the United States are the two largest contributors to the problem globally, timeline and scale differ immensely between the two. To place commensurate blame on China for its contributions ignores the several-hundred-year headstart the United States had in being an industrialized economy. The ascension of the United States as a global superpower was achieved in large part as a direct result of its indiscriminate burning of fossil fuels — a goal which, furthermore, was pursued largely through violent and destabilizing foreign policy in the Middle East and elsewhere.

However, the idea that China should be allowed to grow through the same destructive policies as its more developed counterparts is illogical at best and insidious at worst. Climate change is an objective, although abstract, threat to everyone on the planet collectively. In the same way that every developing country did not have to repeat the extremely profitable American system of, for example, slavery (which undeniably contributed to the ascension of the United States as a global industrial power by lowering the cost of cotton in textile making) so too do they not have to repeat the other objective bads that contributed to American economic domination. While the effects of climate change are perhaps more abstract than those of slavery, the field of climate science and the threat of climate change were already in consensus by the time China began industrializing. The claim to anachronism is valid, but the claim to inevitably is not. This line of thinking, however, is almost irrelevant because history unfolded as it did and fossil fuels did become inextricably linked to the Chinese economy. China, no matter what path it followed to get there, is quickly catching up to the United States in its level of emissions. Therefore, any discussion surrounding the “unfairness” of making China address its emissions problem is completely inconsequential given the urgency and importance of the imminent climactic collapse of our entire planet. The fact that this is not overwhelming obvious and comedically ridiculous to everyone who has ever had this discussion indicates a drastic misunderstanding of the scale and importance of the issue.

Perhaps the more legitimate and immovable obstacle in the way of comprehensive climate action is China is simply and directly that economic prosperity is a required element of a successful authoritarian government. Mao Zedong faced difficulty post-Cultural Revolution in China because the promised prosperity of a socialist utopia had not been realized. The great project of Deng Xiaoping as Chairman following Mao’s death was specifically aiming to enter China into the global economy as a method of bringing economic prosperity to the people — and in the process giving legitimacy to the strained Chinese Communist Party (CCP). It is the maintenance of that economic prosperity and the explosion of China into the global economy that enables The Party to remain in control even when other Communist regimes in the USSR and Eastern Europe fell. Xi Jinping today bases so much of his policy on maintaining economic prosperity because it is exactly that economic growth, that promise of prosperity for the people, that forms the backbone and ethos of the CCP.

That alone offers a compelling reason why the current system will be very hard to replace. The rapid industrialization that China underwent was instrumental in legitimizing the authoritarian rule of the CCP. If the party wishes to maintain that control, they must also maintain the level of economic growth that they have experienced over the past few decades. Authoritarianism breeds a sort of opaque distrust among the people. Discontent is bred in silence until it bubbles up in often violent and explosive movements (see: the now infamous final speech of Nicolae Ceausescu in Bucharest). While the issue of climate change offers a perhaps ironic instance where the people are being given the promise of prosperity by being given the promise of eventual demise, jobs and a livelihood are way easier to swallow than the lack of those things.

Moreover, the CCP is one of the few examples of true meritocracy is modern governance. To join you not only need to submit an application, but you also have to be vetted by your peers, evaluated by party members, and pass exams about the history and function of the party — and that’s only to get in the door. Once there, the CCP is a rigorous and dynamic organization in which evaluation by higher-ups are unending, and promotion is a long, step-by-step process that requires consistent and measurable performance. Xi Jinping, for example, in his path to Chairmanship was a Party Secretary at the County Level, Deputy Mayor of a Town, Party Secretary of a Prefecture, Party Secretary of a Town, Deputy Party Secretary and Governor of a Province, Party Secretary of Province, Party Secretary of Shanghai, and Vice President of China before he was able to become Chairman. Compare this to any American politician and you can understand the meticulous process one must go through in order to become a prominent politician in China. At each level, he had to prove himself an adept and effective leader.

As mentioned before, a huge focus of the CCP is maintaining economic growth and prosperity for the Chinese. It follows, therefore, that any upward-looking politician sensitive to the hyper performance-based scrutiny of his or her (mostly his) peers, would place getting constituents jobs at factories and bring in industry over other, more abstract causes, like climate change. While the Party does take into account environmental health when evaluating politicians, that mostly involves immediate things like air or water pollution, which have different causes and solutions than greenhouse gas emissions (and cleaning up air pollution in China might actually make the problem of climate change worse). This will be the greatest threat in getting China to catch up with a lot of western countries (in this case, I’m referring more to Western European countries as opposed to the United States) which are able to legitimize themselves on the grounds of democratic representation as opposed to tangible benefits. In a choice between economic growth and the economy, the immediate benefits of growth inarguably outweigh the benefits of environmental action. Couple this with inaction on the part of the other large polluter, the United States, and the free-rider problem is taken to an extreme where the onus to change falls on nobody (because if they aren’t changing, why should we?). The possible solutions to this issue are either democratization in China, which might offer other methods of legitimization but which is also extremely unlikely or to find other methods of maintaining economic growth that aren’t based around fossil fuels.

The problem with generating collective action on climate change in China is exactly the problem with generating action everywhere. When the United States “won” the Cold War it ushered in an era where the American (at the risk of sounding grandiose) version of globalized consumerism gained almost hegemonic power around the globe. Growth became the only thing that mattered, and manufacturing began to snake itself around the developing world. Because that is the reality of the modern day, I don’t think change can possibly come from lamentations about the societal cost of CO2 emissions. In fact, I think it is uniquely its counterpoint— that there is actually an economic benefit to clean energy — is likely going to be the better solution. The difficulty this presents is simply that this isn’t fully the reality at this point in time and time is running out — but there is reason for optimism. As we move towards more and more energy-consuming technologies (things like automation that necessarily must run constantly or larger, more powerful computers), having renewable energy sources like solar that can be collected effectively for little to no cost will simply be more economically beneficial than coal and oil.

While I have been addressing China throughout this piece, I hope that it is evident that the observations I’ve been making (with the exception of meritocracy, perhaps) apply to all developed and developing economies that have a role to play in the global market. China is simply one cog in a massive engine of international trade that mixes foreign investment with cheap imports and increased exports. At its core, the problem is that our obsession with the low-cost consumer goods that globalization brought forces countries (and particularly developing economies without the financial capacity to even invest in clean energy) to base their economic policy on dirty industries. If climate-focused governments began actually acting politically through the treaties they sign, namely things like the Paris Accords and Kyoto Protocol, and began leveraging sanctions on companies or even governments that produce high emissions, then there could be real pressure put on these manufacturers to clean up their act. While I’m sure such an idea ignores the immense complexity of global trade and diplomacy, the idea that climate action is a cosmopolitan and progressive global policy as opposed to an existential need by all governments has to change. Until both of these factors are satisfied — economic benefit and aggressive global action — nothing short of something radical or catastrophic seems to have the power to curb the global obsession with fossil fuels — in China, in the United States, and elsewhere.

The problem of fossil fuel is not a problem of malevolent oil companies favoring their bottom lines over the health of the planet. It’s not an issue of growth-hungry governments maintaining unsustainable status quos for political gain. It’s not the issue of large and small manufacturers needing to make products to satisfy the needs of an insatiable global economy. The problem of climate change is, at its core, an integral and inescapable feature of the brand of capitalism on which the modern world was built. Industrialization introduced the idea to the world of growth — and with that introduction, we became caught in an inescapable and all-consuming loop whereby governments and societies became built upon the idea. Consumption became key, consumerism became sacred. Globalization opened up the world to new, cheaper markets where more and more goods could be produced. The modern Chinese state was built deep within this system — it was the golden opportunity Deng Xiaoping saw as a way out of turbulence.

The challenge of the twenty-first century will be adjusting from this system that we are currently in towards one that either maintains the status quo in a way that is more sustainable or changes the status quo to something less destructive. The onus for change can’t fall exclusively on China. More than anything, they are a big winner in a global economy which they did not have significant agency in creating. That is the big difference this century brings — China is now a global player who actually has agency in creating a new global model of production and trade that does necessarily lead to its own destruction.