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Expert's View
UPDATED: January 24, 2008 NO.5 JAN.31, 2008
'The West Is Polluting China'
China is under increasingly severe criticism from the West for its environmental problems, but recently there are varying voices in the international community about the reasons surrounding this issue

According to Britain's New Economics Foundation, Western countries rely heavily on Chinese commodities, meaning in the process of manufacturing they are transferring pollution to China. This London-based think tank also puts forward that the discussion should shift its focus from commodity producers to consumers.

Writing in the Economic Observer, Professor Hou Dongmin from the Center for Population and Development Studies under the Renmin University of China says that the international community has to face up to the truth. He believes one of the reasons for environmental pollution in China is, as the world's factory, the country is undertaking a high proportion of manufacturing, which naturally brings environmental pressure to China. Excerpts of Hou's thoughts follow:

In some sense, China is responsible for environmental problems and its environmental protection mechanism needs to be improved. But the saying that "the West is polluting China" is not a prejudice, so further understanding of what this saying means is needed by both developed and developing countries, including China.

Against the backdrop of economic globalization, the phenomenon of pollution transfer is an inevitable result of industrialized countries' ailing development mode.

After the end of World War II until the early 1970s, Western consumerism began to rise and soon developed into the mode of "high-speed production growth, high energy consumption and high pollution," which came in for severe criticism. Since 1972, great achievements have been made in the global environment movement, but almost all of the achievements are in developed countries, while environmental deterioration remains in developing countries.

After the 1970s, while economies and consumption continued to rise, the environment was also greatly improved. It seems that high-speed production growth and high energy consumption will not necessarily lead to environmental degradation. The result is a goal of developed countries and also a world consensus to achieve sustainable development while increasing consumption. The environment awareness during this period and also the method of dealing with the relationship between economic development and environmental protection are also applauded by many developing countries. Since the 1970s, although the theory of sustainable development is contrary to the Western consumption model, economists and the public seem to have paid more attention to the so-called positive effects of the latter. Declining expenditure by the Americans is always read as the most sensitive negative signal to the world economy. It seems that the whole world is pleased to see the Americans forever boost their rising consumption levels.

As a matter of fact, efforts to improve the environment since the 1970s are largely made to solve some "urgent" environmental problems in Western countries, especially those that are detrimental to local development, such as air and water pollution. In terms of "chronic problems" like resource overexploitation and greenhouse gas emission, which will exert a global impact, the international community has failed to take effective countermeasures. In the meantime, ever rising Western economic and consumption growth is imposing heavier pressure on the global environment.

First of all, economic growth and rising consumption demand lead to a sharp increase in resource consumption. For example, Only One Earth, a famous Western environmental report, used to indicate that if every two Americans possess an automobile and their average age is 65 years old, then 10 tons of steel is consumed during their lifetime. In the mid-1970s, Americans had 120 million autos, but by 2004, although the population was less than 300 million, Americans owned 240 million autos, while the average life expectancy had reached over 75 years old. Currently, the per-capita annual crude steel consumption in the United States is about 330 kg. Therefore, there is no fundamental decrease in the developed countries' excessive resource consumption.

For Western countries, to improve the consumption level while cutting pollution, the inevitable choice is to move businesses with a high pollution rate to the developing world and then import increasingly cheap daily consumables there. The fact that the American market is inundated with China-made commodities is an inevitable result of this trend at a time when China's export-oriented economy has developed rapidly. In this sense, Western countries' efforts to relieve environmental pollution since the 1970s is only relatively effective within their own borders, but by transferring heavy polluters to developing countries and increasing import of daily consumables, they are increasing the negative impact on the environment in the developing world.

According to the New Economics Foundation, if the world population begins to consume resources in the way Americans do, 5.3 earths are needed to sustain the human race's consumption; French and the British consumption, 3.1 earths; Spanish consumption, 3; German consumption, 2.5; Japanese consumption, 2.4 and Chinese consumption, only 0.9.

By saying the West is polluting China, it also means that the Western consumption model is exerting a subtle influence on China. China is being polluted by the West not only by accepting polluting enterprises from the West and providing the latter with more and more consumables, but at the same time, the energy-consuming production and consumption model is also subtly influencing China.

It turns out that after the end of World War II, the soaring production efficiency and expanding production scale make companies depend more and more on people's consumption, featured by throwing the old stuff and taking new ones. That is why Western production and consumption models are having such a terrible impact on resources and the environment. It was pointed out by Western scholars some time ago that, if there were no immediate renewed demand for durable consumables like autos within a short period of time (compared to the normal guarantee of the product), the auto industry would find it hard to survive. This is a common phenomenon in the process of consumable production. To some extent, the Western development mode is getting integrated with high consumption and overuse of resources.

Unfortunately, with a rising economic growth and purchasing power in China, the Western lifestyle begins to influence China's development mode and dominate Chinese consumers. Today, the Chinese economy is increasingly becoming part of the world economy, and particularly, it is developing an increasingly close relationship with developed countries. China's textile industry and the production of household appliances, computers, cell phones, automobiles and so on all depend on consumers' quickly refreshed demand for new commodities. If the demand suddenly disappears, the impact on all the industries and employment will be unimaginable both for China and the world economy. If when billions of people have been lifted out of poverty and begin to demand more for consumption, the earth environment, on which human survival depends, will be put under huge threat. At present, China is producing so much cotton cloth that there is actually 7 meters for every one of the world's 6.5 billion population and one pair of shoes for each person on earth.

By the evidence above, China consumes fewer resources that the major developed countries. However, this is a result calculated on the basis that China's 900 million farmers are living in a very frugal way and there is a large number of people living with low- and moderate-level incomes. But with the growth of population and the rise of people's incomes and consumption level, it's an urgent question how to build up a sustainable method of consumption and development in China.

The saying that the West is polluting China is a more profound understanding of sustainable development.

This saying actually reflects the sustainable development problem that the whole world is now faced with. As the United Nations Environment Program said when drawing a conclusion of the global environment movement in the 20th century, sustainable development remains far from a reality. The establishment of a new growth mode demands profound understanding and also action.

As far as China is concerned, on one hand, it should keep resisting the Western consumption model, from the standing point of sustainable development, and play an active role in the campaign to change the Western development mode of "high-speed production growth, high energy consumption and high pollution." In face of the increasingly difficult international negotiations on global climate change, China should pay more attention to implement the suggestion put forward by the New Economics Foundation, that the focus should be shifted from commodity producers to commodity consumers. While making a commitment to carbon dioxide emission reduction, Western countries should by no means increase the emission in other ways like import and export trade. This is not only in the interest of China, but lives up to the requirement of global sustainable development.

On the other hand, domestically, it's necessary for China to enhance the whole nation's awareness of environmental protection. In this regard, the country does need to learn from the West and upgrade its industrial structure. It's also necessary to find out an energy efficient development that encourages moderate consumption, but of course, this is by no means an easy job.

[blurb] Against the backdrop of economic globalization, the phenomenon of pollution transfer is an inevitable result of industrialized countries' ailing development mode

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