Postcard from a Recovering China

This blog post first appeared on the Mail & Guardian’s Thought Leader website

Preparing to leave Beijing last week after a splendid fortnight’s rail tour of the two neighbouring (and confusingly named) provinces of Shaanxi and Shanxi, I was startled to find evidence of a very different China to the one that is often portrayed in mainstream English-language media – “never mind the quality, feel the growth!”  What’s more, I found it in the most unexpected of places: the gentleman’s convenience in the departure lounge of Beijing’s magnificent Capital International Airport.

As is depressingly normal in many places these days, marketers have identified the unavoidable minute or so we all spend answering nature’s call as a terrific opportunity to sell us something.  However, what grabbed my attention was not an eye-catching advert for over-the-counter performance enhancement medication.  In front of me on the wall above the ablution facilities a series of posters followed a common theme, selling not a product or a brand but a concept: sustainability.

In one, an hourglass depicted a melting glacier in the top half, beneath rising CO2 bubbles, with a partially submerged globe in the bottom.  The Chinese caption was endearingly translated into English as “Save the Earth Not allowed to wait”.  On another, whose slogan was not translated but says something like “Please treasure the resources, protect our Earth”, the globe was portrayed as an apple with its skin being peeled away.  Given the location, I admit to feeling rather self-conscious as I furtively rummaged in my pocket and withdrew my camera to record the moment!

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This toilet-related anecdote echoes an episode I experienced soon after moving to South Africa from Europe last year.  On visiting various big company headquarters in Johannesburg, I immediately noticed the free condom dispensers in the men’s room, which I took to be a quite appropriate and sensible response to the country’s struggle to curtail the spread of HIV/Aids.  This contrasts sharply with my native UK, where I’m more likely to be sold a personalised car registration plate while nature takes its course.  The consumer is king, to be pandered to even when prone.

(Slightly tangential but indicative of the same trend: I remember fondly those televised public service announcements of my childhood, which my generation would instantly associate with a cartoon ginger tomcat and the catchphrase “Charley says …“.  Sadly, Charley no longer speaks to the UK’s children about the dangers of talking to strangers or playing next to canals, because that would waste valuable media space in which to sell plastic toys.)

I’ve written before about the rational and emotional conflicts that I wrestle with internally each time I return from China.  On this occasion, I left with a clearer-than-ever conviction that China’s future is also the world’s future – which is not to say that I’m entirely comfortable with that realisation.  In disclosing this, I don’t intend to issue a free pass to citizens of every other country on Earth regarding their environmental responsibilities.  The argument that “it doesn’t matter what we do to curb our resource use or greenhouse gas emissions because we’re a rounding error next to China’s national accounts” is morally bankrupt.  Our consumption choices are to a large extent serviced by Chinese coal-fired power plants and manufacturing processes with lax environmental oversight.  We are comfortable purchasing cheap goods, provided we don’t have to confront the devastation they cause in someone else’s back yard.

I recall my business trip some years ago to the massive Volkswagen plant in Wolfsburg, when I was struck by a sense that I was standing inside the throbbing engine room of the German economy (though VW’s rivals in Munich and Stuttgart may beg to differ).  For Wolfsburg read China; for Germany read The World.  Similarly, it has been said that the forests of Amazonia represent the lungs of Planet Earth.  In that case, perhaps China is its beating heart – at least in economic terms – powering a cardiovascular system that keeps other organs of commerce from breaking down.  It isn’t called the Middle Kingdom for nothing.

On the flight home to Cape Town, I read in the China Daily newspaper that officials and analysts inside the People’s Republic believe the economic slowdown “may have bottomed out” at 7.4% – down from an average of roughly 10% over the last decade – and the country is now in recovery.  To express this in meaningful terms, at a sustained 7.4% rate of growth the Chinese economy would double in size only every 9.5 years, rather than every seven years under the 10% scenario.  Does this represent breathing space for our attempts to engineer a sustainable future?  And remember: the economy is “in recovery” with the implication being that it is starting to accelerate once again.

Yet, over the course of my travels overland from Beijing through Xi’an and Pingyao to Datong, I noticed several weak signals – in addition to those lavatory wall posters – pointing to a different possible future: millions of electric scooters silently and efficiently plying the urban streets (often carrying more than one passenger); a new bicycle share scheme up and running in Beijing (not the preserve of high-minded commuters in London, Paris or Washington DC); gigantic wind farms dotting the countryside; solar-powered street lighting systems and ubiquitous roof-mounted solar geysers; the steadily lengthening choice of high-speed inter-city rail options available on the China Railways ticketing system.  Want to travel from Beijing in the north to Guangzhou in the south?  By the end of this year, a journey of some 2 200km that currently takes more than twenty hours will be cut to less than eight.  Given this option, why bother subjecting oneself to the ordeal of airport transfers, heavy-handed security checks, cramped seating and baggage delays that characterise air travel?

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Back in South Africa and having had a week to soak on my experiences, I find myself quite taken aback by my renewed sense of hope (admittedly, more hope than expectation).  While many macro trends and the sheer weight of numbers appear unpromising, China’s development trajectory is not guaranteed to tip the world over the ecological cliff.  And if it does, who among us gets to cast the first stone?  It’s extremely difficult for anyone unfamiliar with the country to find solid grounds from which to criticise its development choices.  The challenges that China’s incoming leadership (coincidentally, likely to be announced the same day as American voters go to the polls) will soon be grappling with – improving the quality of life of more than a billion people within severe and hardening environmental limits – are as daunting as they are unprecedented in human history.  In this respect I wish them well, as I think we all should.  Our collective future largely depends on their success.

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