Crouching tiger hidden dragon is an old Chinese proverb aptly describing the awe and fear that China inspires in the world at large. They call it the China syndrome: the double-figure annual economical growth sustained over the past two decades thats about to launch the nation as a superpower.
But this has come at a price. Chinas carbon emissions jumped 33 percent between 1992 and 2002 to become the worlds No. 2 emitter after the US. Some 20 percent of the population live in severely polluted areas, and 70 percent of the countrys rivers and lakes are in dire shape.
The economic growth has been fuelled by a rapid expansion of its industrial base, creating a corresponding surge in demand on the worlds falling oil and gas supplies. Oil price hit US$70 a barrel at the end of August 2005. In 2004, when global energy consumption rose by 4.3 percent - the highest in two decades - Chinas consumption shot up by 15 percent.
China is the most populous nation in the world at more than 1.3 billion and still expanding at 0.6 percent per annum, despite the official one-child family policy. As the country grows in wealth, so too, its draw on the worlds grains, meat and luxury goods such as motor vehicles. And it is capable of buying a lot.
Chinas Gross Domestic Product more than quadrupled from 1984 to 2004 to put it No. 4 in the world after US, Japan and Germany; but its Purchasing
Power Parity (PPP) at 8.6 trillion international dollars is a close second to USs 12.4 trillion. PPP takes into account differences in the relative prices of goods and services, and provides a better measure of a countrys real output and buying power.
Chinas total grain consumption in the fiscal year 2005-2006 was projected to hit a record high of 500 million tonnes with imports at 5.1 percent of total, i.e., more than 25 million tonnes. If per-capita grain consumption were to double to European levels, China would require nearly 40 percent of todays global grain harvest.
US Washington-based Worldwatch Institute commented in its State of the World 2006 report: Rising demand for energy, food and raw materials by 2.5 billion Chinese and Indians is already having ripple effects worldwide. Meanwhile, record-shattering consumption levels in the US and Europe leave little room for this projected Asian growth.
The resulting squeeze on global resources is taking its toll: riots over rising oil prices in Indonesia, escalating pressure on Brazils forests and fisheries and loss of manufacturing jobs in Central America.
Statistics dont tell the whole story. We visited China this summer in connection with our Dream Farm 2 project (Dream Farm 2 - Story So Far, SiS 31). Driving from the airport into the city of Guangzhou in Guangdong Province felt like anywhere in Europe on a good day. The motorways are well built and meticulously manicured: landscaping on both sides and down the middle divide. Momentarily as we were approaching the city of Yantai in Shandong Province a week later, it felt like Italy. Yantais mayor has decreed for aesthetic reasons that all the houses must have slanting roofs covered with red tiles.
There have been massive investments in infrastructure. People simply took it for granted that things like the power supply and the transport system would work, which they did. The main city boulevards have been elaborately face-lifted; though old, dilapidated enclaves remain, some scarcely hidden behind the big billboards. In Guangzhou, we managed to visit the site of Mae-Wans family home, which used to occupy what is now a block of disintegrating multi-storey flats with the big Chinese ideogram demolish written on the walls.
Good food is cheap, abundant, diverse and exquisitely prepared, and wine flows freely. Chinese hosts are hospitable to a fault. There is no sign that people will ever give up their rich and varied cuisine for the European beef-dominated fare. On more than one occasion, our hosts regaled us with stories of being always hungry as children as recently as the 1960s, and constantly dreaming up more cunning ploys to steal food from the family ration only to be foiled by their clever mother or the family dog; obviously confident that those days are gone for good.
Chinas leaders and opinion formers are well aware that the dominant economical model of infinite growth is unsustainable. Circular and eco-economy are in mainstream discourse, and it is not just talk. Eco-city and socialist village projects abound. China accounts for 80 percent of the worlds thermal photovoltaic market and 65 million square metres of solar panels have been installed on rooftops. The central government is actively promoting and supporting widespread use of biogas digesters to address environmental pollution and energy shortage.
Theres a general air of contentment and good humour amid much open criticism of inept or corrupt government officials at the provincial or more local levels. China could well leapfrog the West in sustainable development. And there are other factors in its favour.
Thomas Friedman, author of The World is Flat, warns that economic globalisation and the internet doesnt just mean that cheap, unskilled labour is outsourced to the developing world, but also that the countries with the best educated and smartest people are going to take the highest paying jobs as well.
Some 60 percent of Chinas university students graduate with degrees in science and engineering compared to 31 percent in the United States. Chinese high school kids have been winning the international Mathematics Olympiad for most of the past ten years.
The public park along the coast of Yantai is a favourite hangout for the inhabitants and Chinese tourists: indulgent young parents with their precious single child strolling along the concrete paths, beach-bagging on the pebbled shore, or flying kites. But you have to watch out not to be run over by the blade roller-skaters. The Chinese appear to have taken to the sport with consummate passion, and the city has built a full-size racecourse in the park.
On our last evening in China, we came upon groups of skaters in full regalia rehearsing on the racecourse. We strained our eyes to infants that must have barely learned to walk. They kept whizzing by in a blaze of colours, their unsmiling faces seriously set as though impatient for the future that belongs to them.
Article first published 17/02/16
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