Single-minded obsession


THE governors of the country with the largest population, longest wall, largest dam, biggest Buddha, longest sea-crossing bridge, highest railway, largest airport terminal and soon to be tallest tower (the Shanghai World Financial Centre) tend to take a single idea just a bit too far.

We’re all familiar with some of the schoolbook examples of Chinese single-mindedness. The Great Wall was a 2000-year-long obsession that cost millions of lives and made a better courier path than barricade. Then there was the Cultural Revolution from 1969 to 1976, when the entire population became possessed with the urge to modernise. Students tore about the country trashing temples, tearing up ancient texts and tormenting the elderly.

But few people know that this organised insanity also extends to the environment.

The madness started in ancient times, when Chinese farmers became so fixated with one particular planting method they employed it again and again until it transformed their paddies into piles of sand. The practice was to remove all biomass – pluck up every weed and flower – before sowing in order to reap higher yields. This worked in the fertile East, but in the arid West farmers found that ripping up every last shrub and bush caused desertification.

The Chinese might not yet have the longest tunnel, but their tunnel vision spans five millennia. Single-mindedness carried over into Communist times, when French academic Gilbert Etienne described the uniquely Chinese trait of focussing on a single idea or method as ‘the unreasonable application of reasonable principles’. The Four Pests campaign of the fifties best exemplifies Etienne’s lawyerly phrase. The Communist Party told farmers that flies, rats, mosquitoes and sparrows were responsible for poor harvests. Now, many farmers would have taken this information, thought about it, then devised a measured, considered approach to tackling the problem. Not the Chinese. ‘Pots and pans were beaten continually for days until the sparrows fell dead with exhaustion,’ write Ian G Cook and Geoffrey Murray in their book Green China. In some areas, sparrows were completely wiped out, resulting in insect plagues. No doubt the Chinese farmers took to eradicating the locusts with equal enthusiasm.

However, the Four Pests campaign was a minor calamity compared to other Communist Party policies towards the environment. After the formation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, many Chinese abandoned Taoist beliefs of living in harmony with nature and embraced Marxist materialism, the doctrine that Socialist Man dominates his world. Environmental concerns took a backseat to boosting production. The Government was predictably narrow-minded in its approach to development, focussing all efforts on a single sector: heavy industry. The economy improved and the environment deteriorated with brutal symmetry.

The Communist Party of this time was a hierarchy of fanaticism. The higher up the chain, the more acute the revolutionary zeal. The lower level cadres were unhinged, the senior committee members were crazy, and the chairman was frothing at the mouth with ideological fervour. So while the Party thought it could transform China by focussing on a single sector, the chairman, Mao Zedong, thought he could do it by focussing on a single substance: metal.

In 1958, Mao launched his ‘Great Leap Forward’, and China entered the full bloom of madness. In one campaign he ordered sixty million peasants to produce a prodigious amount of steel and iron in makeshift backyard furnaces. Mao’s loyal minions went to work with unquestioning devotion, becoming so consumed with their task they left crops to wither in the field. Famine’s bony fingers raked the length of the land and over twenty-five million starved.

Meanwhile, Mao’s voracious backyard furnaces were gobbling up everything in sight. ‘The Yangtze Valley used to be pretty much covered by forests, but since the massive “make steel movement” in the 1950s, much of it was cut down,’ said Zhuang Guotai from the State Environmental Protection Agency in a South China Morning Post 1998 report.

After Mao’s death, Deng Xiaoping took the helm. A pragmatist yin to Mao’s idealist yang, Deng was especially fond of reforms. He introduced a freer market, legalised private ownership and lifted restrictions on the movement of citizens. Loved a good reform, did Deng. And for a while there, it seemed moderation and restraint were the hallmarks of his legacy. But now that his hour has passed, his single-mindedness is as perceptible to the senses as Shanghai’s smog. And largely responsible for it. You see, Deng was too busy adding up abacus beads to care about the environmental costs of all the coal plants and chemical factories he was rubber-stamping. Sure, business boomed. But in the process pollution levels shot up, soaring to the surreal heights of today.

Basic facts conjure up a quick sketch of current conditions: China is the world’s largest emitter of CO2, the country opens a coal-fired power station every week to ten days, only one percent of the country’s 560 million urban residents breathes air considered safe by the EU, and each year, at least 300 000 people die from airborne pollution. In major cities traffic cops, who are constantly exposed to outdoor fumes, have a life expectancy of only forty-nine years.

But to really register the devastation, you have to look past the numbers and listen to the stories. Geoffrey Murray, co-author of Green China, writes that in Chongqing, one of China’s largest cities, the authorities chose a particular species of tree not for its pretty foliage or historical importance, because it was the only one that ‘would not die from the constant battering of acid rain’. He adds that the city’s air is so polluted ‘one year, all the examinees from Chongqing flunked tests to join the air force because of nasal problems’.

These anecdotes are so far-fetched they’re laughable. In fact, China’s entire environmental policy is one long string of jokes, and the best gag is this: what do you get when you cross a country of compulsive wall-builders, a river prone to flooding and an energy crisis? The Three Gorges Dam. Although only recent fodder for Western naysayers, the idea to build a trillion-beaver dam on the Yangtze River has been scoffed since it was first proposed in 1919. Despite knowing that the dam will submerge archaeological sites, displace millions of people, cause massive silt build up and kill off endangered species, such as the Yangtze dolphin, already ‘functionally extinct’, the Chinese are forging ahead with their carefully planned catastrophe. Tunnel vision has become dam vision.

China’s willingness to sacrifice anything to meet energy demands implies that the country’s new single-minded obsession is with economic growth. In 2007, Ross Garnaut and Ligang Song, writing for the Australian National University, stated that a country’s energy needs increase dramatically when per capita GDP is between US$3000 and US$5000. China’s per capita GDP is currently nudging US$2500. This cold reality has prompted the International Energy Agency to predict that ‘China will – from now until 2030 – account for forty percent of the growth of global annual carbon dioxide emissions’, a statement possibly to blame for a polar bear mauling at Beijing Zoo a few years back.

But contrary to populist opinion, China isn’t solely concerned with cooking the atmosphere, Cantonese-style. Yes, the country is currently smitten with economic success. But that infatuation will soon merge with environmental interests. Come again? Why would the world’s largest emitter suddenly become the guardian of green? For selfish reasons, of course.

At the turn of the millennium, the Chinese Government pledged to quadruple the economy by 2020. Natural resource shortages now threaten to stymie those plans. China does not have enough resources of its own to continue its current growth trajectory and will have to rely on imports. The international market for raw materials will soon act like a giant crutch propping up the country’s hulking excrescence. The Chinese hate being dependent on other nations. For five thousand years they have viewed their motherland as self-sufficient. Even international aid is accepted with an ungrateful pout. So to remain proudly independent while still showing off at economic conventions, China will need to ration its resources. The Government is now working on legislation for a ‘circular economy’, where waste will be turned into raw materials for reuse.

Green innovations such as this are fast becoming China’s forte. The country, home to a billion potential nerds, is cashing in on eco-technology. Wired magazine recently named China as the world’s number one producer of photovoltaics (geekese for solar cells). Online green energy hub claims that the owner of Chinese solar cell start-up Suntech is the country’s richest man. Even foreign devils like General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt are hyping up China’s push for clean power. Wired quoted him as saying, ‘Solar energy, carbon sequestration – we’re going to be blown away by China’s progress over the next couple of decades.’

Particularly when ambitious projects such as the world’s most sustainable skyscraper to date, the Pearl River Tower in Guangzhou, are completed. The architects’ zero-energy intentions didn’t escape the red tape unscathed, and the finished structure will be only 60 percent more climate-chummy than its standard equivalent, but that’s a start. Another hope is an island settlement off Shanghai called Dongtan, slated to be the first true eco-city. That could be propaganda, but in a world where Dubai businessmen build indoor ski slopes in the desert, it’s nice to see that Chinese developers have their hearts in the right place. Even if their heads are off in the (smog) clouds.

China is single-mindedly obsessed with being the best, and the Government will soon add cleanest energy and greenest city to its ever-unfurling scroll of superlatives. But fear not, fellow patriots! Australia still boasts some championship belts of its own. Biggest coal exporter, that’s ours. And most carbon-intensive power sector per capita, we’ve got that too.

And with our leaders continuing to invest in Old World energy rather than genuine renewables, we’re only a few decades away from clinching a title China has held for thousands of years: most backward nation. Won’t that be a proud moment for us all.