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China’s industrial expansion: making the same mistakes we did, only faster

June 19, 2013

There was a picture in the Guardian this morning showing traffic barely visible through a haze of pollution (China launches new measures to tackle air pollution). Air quality in the major cities and industrial centres has become a major embarrassment to the Chinese government, and this morning’s story describes new initiatives the Chinese are proposing to combat the self-inflicted wounds of industrial development done at reckless speed.

The Chinese love a good proverb. Maybe they should consider this one: More haste equals less speed.

Looking at the smog-tainted picture, I had a strange sense akin to deja vu . When I was a kid, I spent several weeks wading through vile yellow smog on my way to and from school. As I remember it, the smog never lifted at all for days, or perhaps weeks, at a time.

Everything I read about China’s headlong development seems at odds with their (relatively) enlightened approach to climate change. It’s another paradox of economic development based on servicing consumerism; the Chinese are lifting themselves out of poverty at an astonishing rate, but in order to do so they are making all the same mistakes made in the west, but at a speed orders of magnitude greater than the rate we did it.

The trouble with going being hasty is this: the rush contributes to mistakes, over and under-reactions, and you have far less time to address the problems before they become chronic. It’s pointless to suggest China slows down, because I suspect their haste is driven in part by their concerns that climate change will, in the near future (e.g. the next 50 years) destroy, or severely impact, the export markets of the developed world which are currently funding much of their ‘progress’, while also enduring economic crisis after crisis – and with no realistic end in sight.

This kind of analysis, coupled with putative agricultural failures, shortages of water (already a problem in China), and the competition for energy made inevitable by a burgeoning global population, may be just some of the drivers pushing China to ignore all the mistakes we made, and make them all over again.

Ultimately, I believe the Chinese want to develop their domestic market to the extent that they are no longer so dependant on exports, but until they reach that goal, they will continue to expand their industrial development, pollute their country, seed social unrest and grossly uneven distribution of wealth and benefits, and pay the same price we did for all of the above – except the bill will arrive far quicker, and be a damn sight larger. It’s all very well rushing their development, but if the result is a lot of money in few hands, social unrest in both the urban and agrarian populations, and all the concomitant ills and illnesses that have plagued the west since the mill owners first put up their chimneys, perhaps it would be better to slow down just a little (as they’ve admitted themselves). The difference between speed and haste is this: speed gets you to your destination quickly; haste gets you someplace fast, but not necessarily where you really wanted to go.

Seems odd to offer advice to a country so far away, and so different from my own, but here goes; China – learn from history instead of repeating ours.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. John Russell (Twitter@JohnRussell40) permalink
    June 19, 2013 7:43 pm

    This is a good summary of China’s air pollution issues:

    Note the comment (also seen elsewhere) that many young Chinese professionals emigrate to escape the smog. I don’t blame them when particulate levels often rise to more than twice those in American airports’ smokers’ lounges.

  2. Graham Wayne permalink*
    June 20, 2013 6:14 am

    Thanks John – nice of you to pop by…

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