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China's race with growth


My understanding is that it's pretty much a rule that if you visit China you have to do some smog-blogging, and I'm happy to comply: The smog is really, really bad. Bad enough, actually, that it totally transforms the look of all the cities I've been to. The smog is as much as part of, say, Yiwu, as the sunshine in a part of Southern California, or the rain is a part of Seattle. It's the dominant atmospheric characteristic, and it puts a really odd spin on the American obsession with China's mega-investment in renewable energy. China may be putting a lot of money into developing green technologies, but it's going to take a long time to fully pay off -- and even to fully understand -- what's happened to the environment here, and what the ultimate consequences are.

A lot of Americans seem to leave China whistling to themselves and thinking deeply about American decline. I've had, if not an opposite reaction, then certainly a very different one: What China is trying to do here is really, really hard. Unimaginably hard. Never-been-done-before hard. Generating this much growth, this fast, in this large a country, without seeing the whole project swallowed up by one of the many, many, many catastrophes (be it environmental or political or economic) that lie in plain sight? It's possible that China will pull it off. I sure hope they do, given the billion-plus people who're counting on them. But no one has done anything like it ever before. The race to remain a couple of steps beyond the consequences of this growth is going to be a hard one, and no one really knows what happens if they stumble, even for a moment.

By Ezra Klein  |  May 26, 2010; 7:53 PM ET
Categories:  China  
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Next: Pictures from China


the air in china looks almost unbreathable in your photograph.
and moments before, i was looking at anderson cooper in a marsh, covered with what looked like opague melted chocolate and caramel....strangely silent. no birds. no crickets. no frogs....withering sea grasses.
while our corrective measures are referred to as "topkill," "killing the well."

i keep wondering if the path our civilization has taken, is just unsustainable.
maybe we have been relying on technology to take us beyond the limits of what the planet can sustain.
there is a saying, "dont run faster than your angel can fly."
maybe we have outrun the planet, plain and simple.
i fear that it is starting to look that way.

a very sad evening, indeed.

Posted by: jkaren | May 26, 2010 8:24 PM | Report abuse

The air does look unbreathable. I recall a few mornings like that in the urban Memphis area as a kid. I'm told that was pretty much Los Angeles all the time in the 70s, though I never witnessed that. Every time I've been to L.A. (a big twice in my 41 years) it's been gorgeous.

I think China can clean up their environment, but they have to want to. Everything that's producing that smog can be done in a cleaner, less-polluting way, from coal plants to factory smoke stacks to what have you.

"i keep wondering if the path our civilization has taken, is just unsustainable."

Depends by what you mean by unsustainable. Nothing is going to be automatic, or easy, or without setbacks. But it's pretty clear that humanity is compelled to pursue progress, to pursue energy, to pursue industry and create, often at high costs.

We're going to keep pushing the limits of everything, like it or not. Because, collectively, at some point, this decade or the next, this century or the next, that's what we do. We push the limits. It'd be nice to do it smarter than we often do it, but . . . act first and think later tends to be the generalized human approach, no matter our ideological viewpoint.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | May 26, 2010 9:20 PM | Report abuse

I grew up in a suburb of Los Angeles during in the 1960's. Yes, the photo looks like a typical summer day in LA back then, and I well remember the "smog alerts" issued frequently in those days, when a child could not play outdoors for an hour without experiencing pain from simply breathing.

Lucky thing that kids in LA no longer have that problem, thanks to nanny state liberals and do gooder tree huggers who tie up the world with their red tape.

"i keep wondering if the path our civilization has taken, is just unsustainable."

Kevin_Wills says "depends" and then tells us that "humanity is compelled to pursue progress." Keep your "depends," Kevin.

The correct answer is that our current path is obviously not sustainable, and we continue to ignore the obvious truth that it is not "progress" (and it is not intelligent) to pursue profit by poisoning our most precious and essential resource, our environment.

It is self-destructive, and it is all driven by greed.

Posted by: Patrick_M | May 26, 2010 10:05 PM | Report abuse

"Lucky thing that kids in LA no longer have that problem, thanks to nanny state liberals and do gooder tree huggers who tie up the world with their red tape."

Yes, because I'm a conservative, I oppose clean water and clean air, because I hate goodness. Yawn.

What is gonna clean up China? Enforced standards. Bottom line.

"The correct answer is that our current path is obviously not sustainable"

Then we're probably going to keep driving until we run out of gas. And then maybe we'll have to walk for a while. Until somebody comes up with a better bicycle.

Obviously, it's not a good idea to poison the environment. But if the solution offered is to stop "progressing" and stop "creating", then chances are that's not an answer that humanity, collectively, is going to accept over the long term.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | May 26, 2010 10:13 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, when you get back, I think you'd very much like to see the film 24 City, by Jia Zhangke (available via Netflix). It's a really beautifully contemplative take on the rapidly changing economy/landscape in China. In a lyrical mix of documentary and fiction (you can never really tell which is which--until you see Joan Chen!), it follows the dismantling of a Korean-War era munitions/missile factory that employed thousands of people to make way for a new high-rise condo complex. It's gorgeous (in a dilapidated sort of way), poignant, disturbing, and at times amusing. And yes, there's smog, if I recall correctly. Highly recommended.

Posted by: JJenkins2 | May 26, 2010 11:33 PM | Report abuse

I think the play book of the Standing Committee of Chinese Communist Party is very simple - as long as 'growth opium' is produced in sufficient quantity, why bother for anything else? All this noise about Democratization can wait as long as the trade mill of 'growth' runs. When it stops, invariably whichever way one looks at; 'decentralization and democratization' of power is going to happen anyways.

China will drink 'democratization' opium at that time - meaning elected folks will be in charge of cleaning the mess of pollution achieved under the Party rule. (Something akin to what Barack Hussain Obama claims that he has to clean the mess of George Bush II.)

You see, never try to read 'complicated things' when things are so straight forward.

Posted by: umesh409 | May 26, 2010 11:39 PM | Report abuse

"But if the solution offered is to stop "progressing" and stop "creating", then chances are that's not an answer that humanity, collectively, is going to accept over the long term."

Yes, because I'm a liberal, I oppose progress and creativity, because I hate goodness. Yawn.

What is gonna clean up the planet? Defining progress as taking the time and investment needed to develop energy and technology that exists in a balance with nature, rather than embracing destruction of our environment as a worthwhile trade-off for the fastest possible path to the biggest pile of coins laying atop scorched earth. Bottom line.

Ezra's basic point about the fact that China is trying to come so far, so fast, is kind of the point jkaren and I are making here. The USA also rushed as fast as we could through industrial development. Thanks to our own pioneering history of pollute first and figure out the clean up later, the human race has learned how to avoid the kind of smog that China has today, thanks to the history of belated air quality standards and pollution controlling technology in the USA and Europe. But China is purposely repeating our history of pollution first, in order to maximize the un-natural rate of their industrial growth.

It is all about greed and power versus intelligence and prudent concern. But yeah, you can keep on driving until you run out of gas, Kevin, and drill, baby, drill. That's the creative way to make progress, and the gospel according to BP and St. Sarah Palin (who is Kevin's self-professed dream come true).

Posted by: Patrick_M | May 27, 2010 12:09 AM | Report abuse

" . . act first and think later tends to be the generalized human approach, no matter our ideological viewpoint."

Yeah, why learn?,0,4604887.story

Posted by: Patrick_M | May 27, 2010 3:11 AM | Report abuse

There are a lot more than a billion people depending on China winning its race against growth. We're all sharing that atmosphere, even if China's breathing the worst of it right now.

Posted by: eostrom | May 27, 2010 3:18 AM | Report abuse

And again, why learn anything at all (if learning diminishes the earning power of corporations that we all serve)?

Posted by: Patrick_M | May 27, 2010 3:30 AM | Report abuse

You can see the mountains! That's a pretty good day, then.

Posted by: chitownwonk | May 27, 2010 8:35 AM | Report abuse

Wait, you mean if we pass energy legislation that harms our economy and places extra cost burdens on the middle class, there will still be the problem of other nations emitting excessive greenhouse gasses?? Who knew? But maybe they will be inspired to follow our good example, as our present leadership states. Yes, that sounds like it will be the answer.

Posted by: truck1 | May 27, 2010 9:14 AM | Report abuse

I guess we could give up all of our modern conviences and go back to nature. No more I Phones, or I Pads or tweeting or blogging or face book etc. Of course billions would starve to death because modern farming requires modern technology. We'd also have to knock down all the forests to provide fuel to keep warm since modern power plants would have to go. There wouldn't be jobs since we'd have to ban all those evil corporations. What a great world that would be.

The fact is that China has a vast population most of who still live in abject poverty so I don't think they have the luxury, unlike modern industrial countries, to worry about pollution. They are just trying to keep their people from starving to death. Once they catch up to the first world then they'll start worrying about pollution. First things first.

Posted by: RobT1 | May 27, 2010 10:15 AM | Report abuse

My reaction when I visited was almost identical to yours.

My biggest fear is that China will fail in a spectacular way that endangers themselves or the world as a whole. They came close to doing that during the Cultural Revolution, after all.

My second biggest fear is that they will succeed but retain their authoritarian government and corrupt institutions, which would be failure by another name.

For what it's worth, not all of China is as polluted as Beijing or Yiwu. We went to Lijiang, which had beautiful clear skies.

Posted by: Vizcacha | May 27, 2010 10:41 AM | Report abuse

The cultural revolution was not a "failure". It was a cataclysm that could ONLY happen because of communism. It was planned and set in motion by Mao.

Posted by: truck1 | May 27, 2010 11:08 AM | Report abuse

Whoa! Pres. Obama just cited China as the country that we have to compete with in developing renewable, clean sources of energy. China is ahead of us! Get that picture on this post off, and quick! It doesn't look like a place that is ahead of us in clean energy.

Posted by: truck1 | May 27, 2010 1:02 PM | Report abuse

truck1, Are you able to understand that there is a difference between developing new technologies like wind-driven turbines that you sell to other countries, and not controlling air pollution at home?

Also note that China's carbon emissions per capita are still much lower than America's. Total emission there is somewhat higher than here, but when you adjust for the size of the populations, Americans emit the most carbon - by far.

Posted by: Patrick_M | May 27, 2010 7:44 PM | Report abuse

That's because the peasants in the countryside have nothing. They live under a regime of forced abortions, the possibility of losing your land and home for a state project (several villages have a year or so left to survive because they will be flooded in the construction of dams) and grinding poverty. Total emission there SOMEWHAT higher than here? I doubt that.

Posted by: truck1 | May 27, 2010 9:24 PM | Report abuse


Nice speech about the abortions and all, although I don't think that abortions have much impact on carbon in the atmosphere.

Let me ease your doubt with some simple facts:

China accounts for 21.5% of the world's carbon emissions. The USA accounts for 20.2%

Metric tons per capita for the Chinese are 4.62. Metric tons per capita for the Americans are 18.99.

Measured as per capita output, Americans are 76.8% higher than the global average, China is just 4.8% higher.

Posted by: Patrick_M | May 27, 2010 9:47 PM | Report abuse

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