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.

Dear Fossil Fuel, I want a divorce!

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

Dear Fossil Fuel,

There is no easy way to do this, so I’ll just say it: I want a divorce!

Writing this letter is very painful for me, but the contents will not come as a great surprise to you. Our relationship has been wondrous at times, with ups and downs like every marriage. But you’ve been abusive for too long and pushed me to the limit. It’s taken decades of counselling to build up the courage to leave you, but after 300 years together I’ve decided it is time I grew up and faced the future as a responsible adult.

Let me start by saying: I don’t think you ever had evil intentions at heart. Your character flaws are in your basic chemistry, and that’s not your fault. You’ve had a difficult life, unloved by all except me. Your parents – Sun and Earth – were ashamed of you. Having conceived and given birth to you by accident millions of years ago, they locked you away in the cupboard under the stairs, out of sight and out of mind. So full you were of harmful chemicals, they probably felt they had no choice, to give their other offspring the best possible chance to thrive.

But once I released you from your geological tomb, how you made up for lost time with your fiery character! We achieved things together that I could not have imagined before we met. Side by side, we reshaped the landscape; we built great cities and connected them with infrastructure that spanned continents; we fought and won epic wars (admit it, you were often the cause of them!); we created a vast empire that left no corner of the globe untouched. Put simply, we lived tens of thousands of lifetimes in three short centuries. I owe virtually all of my success to you, which is why I write these words with such a heavy heart.

My parents were uneasy about our union from the early days. Oh, they could see how much fun we were having together – how your intensity captivated me! – but they worried that our relationship was growing at the expense of everything else in my life. It’s easy to see it now: I was becoming dependent on you, even addicted, blind to the damages we wrought, losing sight of what was important. Because of you I lost all respect for my mother, Nature.

With you egging me on, I became lazy and conceited. I didn’t stop to worry how I was growing, only that I grew. And I grew! As time passed, I hardly noticed how overweight I had become. No, morbidly obese! I’d developed this habit of consuming unnecessary stuff in vast quantities, more wants than needs. So wasteful of mother’s inheritance – much of it gone, forever – such regret … gradually I lost all interest in my appearance, as together we created such waste! I’ll admit, at the time it was childishly good fun, but I realise now, as I spend more and more of my energy cleaning up your mess, it must stop!

Frequently – and this is my greatest shame – I also lost sight of my duty to take care of my father, Society, who has long struggled with episodes of ill-health. On the surface he appeared OK, but underneath the neglect was evident, as his recent violent outbursts testify. (In fact, I would be surprised if our relationship were not the direct cause of much his sickness, though I know you will protest your innocence!) Of course, I would not even exist were it not for mother and father. I’m determined to make up for lost time and place their needs first and foremost from now on.

I know what you’re going to say: “I can change!” I’ve heard it so many times. Yes, I know you’ve become more efficient over the years, and tried to clean up your act. But everything is relative – you too have grown so much larger (OK, it’s partly my fault) that all your efforts to improve yourself have been trumped! And you’ve become so risky lately. You used to be dependable, easy-going – I liked the sense of security that you gave me. But over the last 30 or 40 years you’ve become so volatile and unreliable. I can see the writing on the wall: you probably are going to change, but not for the better! It’s only a matter of time before you blow up again, and set me back another few years. I just can’t take it any more.

And now for my confession: I’ve met someone else. He’s not as powerful as you – not at the moment – but he’s got some really interesting ideas how we can develop together in totally different ways. He’s very smart, not all brute force like you – he thinks you’re incredibly primitive, and I’m coming to realise he’s probably right! He doesn’t smell (oh, your awful smells!), never leaves any mess lying around, refuses to draw us into debt (he doesn’t know the meaning of the word!) and he gets the job done so much more efficiently than you ever did. Granted, he’s not always there by my side (he travels the world), but he has a wonderful network of like-minded friends that are always hugely supportive.

I know this will come as a bombshell for you: he’s your younger sibling, Solar Flux. Sun and Earth are so proud! My parents love him, too – he’s got big plans how we can attend to their needs and make up for all my past misdemeanours. Mother wonders why I left him in the first place for you all those years ago. But as I keep reminding her, our marriage was not all bad. Some of the amazing things we accomplished have made me what I am today – without that, I couldn’t begin to imagine a successful future with Solar Flux. Thanks to you, I’ve learned so much. But I was a child when we met. I’ve grown up, come through a tricky adolescence, and now I’m ready to move on.

I realise this divorce is probably going to cost me, in the short-term financial sense. But in the long-term, I know that I will grow even stronger in this new relationship and lead a much more vibrant and meaningful life without you. No doubt, this will be one of the biggest challenges I’ve ever faced, but it is one I can no longer postpone. If I avoid this decision now, I may harm my relationship with my parents beyond repair, and I’ll regret that for the rest of my life.

Yours no longer,

The Economy