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China & USA - The Flip Side

By ananthu at July 26, 2005 9:51 PM

I - China

India and China have had much in common – a special relationship that has spanned over 20 centuries. China's ambassador to the USA once made a reference to this special relationship in the following words:

" For twenty centuries, India conquered and dominated China without ever having to send a single soldier…."

He went on to describe the voluntary searching for spiritual enlightenment, for learning and pilgrimage of a higher order, that formed the core of this relationship. It is only now, in the very recent past, that the Himalayas have become a battleground between these two giant civilizations.

India and China share a lot in common – in terms of the variety and extent of population and cultures, of land mass, and of spiritual heritage. Therefore, we can learn a lot from their successes – AND their failures.

Recently, China has stunned the whole world by its spectacular growth rate, which we in India tend to envy. But what we do not generally realize is the tremendous price that China is paying in terms of its environment. Both India and China are specially gifted by Mother Nature, and so if China is frittering away that precious gift, should we really be emulating her?

Freedom of speech in today's China is definitely far more limited than in India, and this constraint specially applies to the ruling elite. Therefore, it is very rare to find a Minister in her government speak with a dissenting voice, warning that:

"This miracle [of China's growth] will end soon because the environment can no longer keep pace. Acid rain is falling on one third of the Chinese territory, half of the water in our seven largest rivers is completely useless, while one fourth of our citizens does not have access to clean drinking water. One third of the urban population is breathing polluted air, and less than 20 percent of the trash in cities is treated and processed in an environmentally sustainable manner".

He pictures what is about to happen there through the following chilling scenario:

"In the future, we will need to resettle 186 million residents from 22 provinces and cities. However, the other provinces and cities can only absorb some 33 million people. That means China will have more than 150 million ecological migrants, or, if you like, environmental refugees."

For those who dismiss environmental issues as of less concern than economic prosperity and political achievements, he has the following warning:

"We are also making another mistake: We are convinced that a prospering economy automatically goes hand in hand with political stability. And I think that's a major blunder. The faster the economy grows, the more quickly we will run the risk of a political crisis if the political reforms cannot keep pace. If the gap between the poor and the rich widens, then regions within China and the society as a whole will become unstable."

All this is of great importance to us here in India. We should learn from the mistakes that China is making, and take a conscious decision to avoid them, rather than blindly emulate them. Therefore, in the belief that members of our Study Circle will find it meaningful, we are reproducing herewith the full text of the interview that this very brave and insightful Chinese Minister gave to the well-known German magazine:

March 7, 2005

SPIEGEL INTERVIEW WITH CHINA 'S DEPUTY MINISTER OF THE ENVIRONMENT

SPIEGEL: China is dazzling the world with its booming economy, which grew by 9.5 percent. Aren't you pleased with this speed of growth?

Pan: Of course I am pleased with the success of China's economy. But at the same time I am worried. We are using too many raw materials to sustain this growth. To produce goods worth $10,000, for example, we need seven times more resources than Japan, nearly six times more than the United States and, perhaps most embarrassing, nearly three times more than India. Things can't, nor should they be allowed to go on like that.

SPIEGEL: Such a viewpoint is not exactly widespread in your country.

Pan: Many factors are coming together here: Our raw materials are scarce, we don't have enough land, and our population is constantly growing. Currently, there are 1.3 billion people living in China, that's twice as many as 50 years ago. In 2020, there will be 1.5 billion people in China. Cities are growing but desert areas are expanding at the same time; habitable and usable land has been halved over the past 50 years.

SPIEGEL: Still, each year China is strengthening its reputation as an economic Wunderland.

Pan: This miracle will end soon because the environment can no longer keep pace. Acid rain is falling on one third of the Chinese territory, half of the water in our seven largest rivers is completely useless, while one fourth of our citizens does not have access to clean drinking water. One third of the urban population is breathing polluted air, and less than 20 percent of the trash in cities is treated and processed in an environmentally sustainable manner. Finally, five of the ten most polluted cities worldwide are in China.

SPIEGEL: How great are the effects of this environmental degradation on the economy?

Pan: It's massive. Because air and water are polluted, we are losing between 8 and 15 percent of our gross domestic product. And that doesn't include the costs for health. Then there's the human suffering: In Bejing alone, 70 to 80 percent of all deadly cancer cases are related to the environment. Lung cancer has emerged as the No. 1 cause of death.

SPIEGEL: How is the population reacting to these health problems? Are people moving to healthier parts of the country?

Pan: Even now, the western regions of China and the country's ecologically stressed regions can no longer support the people already living there. In the future, we will need to resettle 186 million residents from 22 provinces and cities. However, the other provinces and cities can only absorb some 33 million people. That means China will have more than 150 million ecological migrants, or, if you like, environmental refugees.

SPIEGEL: Hasn't your government tried to get pollution under control?

Pan: Yes it has, and in some cities such as Beijing the air quality has, in fact, improved. Also, the water in some rivers and lakes is now cleaner than it's been in the past. There are more conservation areas now and some model cities that focus specifically on environmental protection. We are replanting forests. We have passed additional laws and regulations that are stricter than in the past and they are being more rigorously enforced.

SPIEGEL: But the economic growth fanatics in Beijing will still likely carry on just as before.

Pan: They're still playing the lead role -- for now. For them, the gross domestic product is the only yardstick by which to gauge the government's performance. But we are also making another mistake: We are convinced that a prospering economy automatically goes hand in hand with political stability. And I think that's a major blunder. The faster the economy grows, the more quickly we will run the risk of a political crisis if the political reforms cannot keep pace. If the gap between the poor and the rich widens, then regions within China and the society as a whole will become unstable. If our democracy and our legal system lag behind the overall economic development, various groups in the population won't be able to protect their own interests. And there's yet another mistake in this thinking.....

SPIEGEL: Which one?

Pan: It's the assumption that the economic growth will give us the financial resources to cope with the crises surrounding the environment, raw materials, and population growth.

SPIEGEL: Why can't that work?

Pan: There won't be enough money, and we are simply running out of time. Developed countries with a per capita gross national product of $8,000 to $10,000 can afford that, but we cannot. Before we reach $4,000 per person, different crises in all shapes and forms will hit us. Economically we won't be strong enough to overcome them.

SPIEGEL: You have advocated the introduction of the so-called "green gross domestic product." What does that entail?

Pan: It is a model that also takes into account the costs of growth, like environmental pollution for example, and is a topic we are discussing with German experts. We want the performance of functionaries to not only be measured in terms of economic growth but also in terms of how they solve environmental problems and social issues.

SPIEGEL: Does your agency even have the ability to clamp down on environmental criminals?

Pan: We recently shut down 30 projects, including several power plants -- one of those at the Three Gorges Dam. The companies involved failed -- as required by law -- to review what effect their new investments would have on the environment.

SPIEGEL: But 26 other projects were allowed to carry on. They only had to pay small fines -- peanuts compared to the billions that were invested.

Pan: Unfortunately, that's true. Which is why our laws and regulations need to be reformed. Even though we have little power, we will close down illegal projects, including economically powerful steel, cement, aluminium, and paper factories. And we will ignore the agendas followed by influential officials and companies.

SPIEGEL: Many environmental offenders have fistfuls of cash or are taking advantage of their political connections....

Pan: My agency has always gone against the grain. In the process, there have always been conflicts with the powerful lobbyist groups and strong local governments. But the people, the media, and science are behind us. In fact, the pressure is a motivator for me. Nobody is going to push me off my current course.

SPIEGEL: China lacks a grassroots, environmental movement. So far, the citizens have very little opportunity to stand up against questionable projects. Courts sometimes don't even accept the suits that the people are filing, and voicing opposition is not allowed.

Pan: Political co-determination should be part of any socialist democracy. I want more discussions with the people affected. However, I am not one to put on a show just to look democratic to the outside. We need a law that enables and guarantees public participation, especially when it comes to environmental projects. If it's safe politically to get involved and help the environment, then all sides will benefit. We must try to convince the central leadership of that.

Interview conducted by Andreas Lorenz

Translated from the German by Patrick Kessler

II - USA

While China (and, many of us like to believe, India too) is viewed as a world superpower in the century to come, there is no doubt that today the world has only one superpower – the USA.

How did it come to occupy this unique position? Less than two decades back, the world was viewed with 'bi-polar' eyes – the Soviet Union being the other superpower. How come the other superpower has disappeared from the scene so completely that many in our younger generation hardly know it ever existed?

Many in the USA fondly give the credit to Ronald Reagan, but the fact of the matter is that neither Reagan nor any member of his CIA had the faintest inkling of the oncoming collapse and disbanding of the Soviet Union until Yeltsin had already accomplished the impossible at a meeting in Kazhakistan and then phoned the US Secretary of State to give him the 'good news'.

It was left to the then Soviet Foreign Minister (who later became the President of the newly-revived Georgia), Eduardo Schevardnadze, to pinpoint the exact cause of the collapse of the Soviet empire: ecological disaster in the form of extremely reduced farm output due to soil degradation as a result of farm policies pursued since the days of Stalin. In other words, a nation that cannot feed itself can never cling on to the status of a superpower.

The USA's claim to superpower status is based not just on its technological achievements and military power, but on its massive agricultural output. It can not only feed itself well, but supply enormous amounts of food to any part of the world it desires. Those who have seen the massive farmlands of Iowa or Kentucky can vouch for the efficiency of its agriculture.

But something is happening to this state of affairs which is generally ignored as it does not create news headlines – and yet, it could have massive repercussions on all of us, especially Americans, in the days to come. The perceptive American commentator, George Pyle, has recently sounded this warning:

STALIN'S REVENGE: American agriculture increasingly resembles a Soviet failure

When they decide to build a Cold War Memorial in Washington, D.C., leave a spot for the American farmer. No political ideology or economic system can succeed if it cannot feed its people. And one of the largest contrasts between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War was the success of American farming and the failure of Soviet agriculture.

Our independent farmers thrived during this period, while the Soviet farm-workers were little better off than czarist serfs, with no ability to make planting decisions, no motivation to improvise or even succeed. Indeed, in 1972, in tacit acknowledgement of their agricultural system's failure, the Russian sought to buy wheat from American farmers.

If Stalin could see American agriculture today, he'd assume his forced collectivization had caught on. Like its Soviet predecessor, modern American farming is characterized by centralization: an absence of open markets, decision-making by distant officials, and growing techniques that poison and exhaust the land.

Take the example of the modern chicken farmer. This year, 42.5 billion pounds of chicken will be raised in America by contract growers, using a system that starts with the chicken and not the egg. The only eggs a chicken farmer sees are in the supermarket. What he does see are truckloads of baby chicks that pull up to his built-to-corporate-specifications barn, the one he went half-million dollars into debt to buy. Ninety days later, more trucks come to take the slaughter-weight broilers away for processing.

Because the processing firm owns the birds – as many as 90,000 of them in one barn – they impose myriad rules. The chickens, for example, can only be fed a particular kind of feed, one usually purchased from the processing firm. If disease or a heat wave wipes out the flock, there's no pay for the grower. He has little to gain and everything to lose.

Ninety-five percent of the chickens Americans eat are raised this way, by growers under contract. Many economists argue that a four-firm concentration of even 40 per cent of a market effectively gives those four the power to set a commodity's price. And 50 per cent of those chickens belong, from egg to supermarket, to one of four food giants. For the contract grower, it means all the processing firms pay almost exactly the same price. There's no incentive to improvise or raise healthier chickens to fetch a higher price – indeed, there are no penalties. The market is locked up and these farmers are locked in. In the beef and pork business it's worse, with four firms controlling 84 per cent and 64 percent, respectively, of those two markets.

Like Soviet collectivism, American agricultural monopolism is justified by one word: efficiency. And like loyal Communist Party members, we sit still while corporate agriculture justifies its control of food production by promising a quality product at the lowest possible cost.

Lowest cost to the corporations, yes. But what isn't factored in is the $200 million Americans spend yearly to treat water pollution by runoff from animal wastes and crop fertilizer. Or, annual obesity-related healthcare costs the Centers for Disease Control estimates at $117 billion, thanks, in part, to corn-fed, fatty food. Or what happens when rural communities, newly devoid of independent farsm, die off.

Stalin is reputed to have said that the death of one man is a tragedy, while the death of millions is a statistic. The loss of one independent farmer is a statistic. The loss of millions of them is an ecological, social and economic disaster.

- George Pyle

Even though George Pyle has taken as examples only the chicken and meat farmer, what he says is equally true of ALL farmers in almost all parts of the world, including India. There is no incentive for a farmer to innovate, the market is locked and the farmers are locked in, they are little cogs in a huge wheel which dictates everything to them, including techniques by which they poison and eventually exhaust their land. And once they exhaust their land's soil capabilities, they have no choice but to move from their traditional farming occupations to the slums of the cities in search of elusive job opportunities.

If for a country like the USA 'the loss of one independent farmer is a statistic, the loss of millions is an ecological, social and economic disaster', we can imagine what the effect would be on a country like India 70% of whose people are farmers, compared to 2% of the USA!

But it is also worth examining a deeper question: how come US agriculture is moving inexorably towards the fate of its Soviet counterpart, when the ideologies adopted by the two regimes were diametrically opposite?

Here is where Gandhi's insights are really useful to us. While the American and Soviet models SEEMED to be at odds with each other, they shared something very basic in common – a materialistic notion of life and the world in which we live. It has been called, mistakenly, a 'scientific' view of the world, notwithstanding the fact that both Relativity Theory and Quantum Mechanics point to a diametrically opposite viewpoint. But in the name of science, both capitalism and communism shared a definition of progress, development and success that is exclusively based on the material – income levels in the case of individuals and corporate entities, GNP in the case of societies. It is this vision that is at the root of all modern development and progress, and also forms the driving force behind the globalization phenomena we are currently witnessing.

Gandhi had the foresight to predict, as early as a century ago, that if our world-view is totally materialistic, we will end up with the same kind of seemingly democratic but actually totalitarian structures that George Pyle is bemoaning in the American agricultural sector, no matter what our dedication to democracy and free enterprise may be. To him, a civilization based on materialism was no civilization at all, for the greed it forces us to cultivate prevents us from becoming civilized in the deepest sense of the term (When asked, "What do you think of Western civilization?", he had answered ,"I think it would be a good idea"!).

Therefore, the following five trends are INEVITABLE accompaniments of any development effort based purely on materialistic considerations, whether the political model adopted is communism or capitalism:

- Unchecked urbanization, including mushrooming metropolises and a disappearing farming community.

- Massive heavy industrialization, especially of the capital-intensive variety

- Total centralization, especially of power and decision-making, with the ordinary citizen, whether farmer or worker or voter, a helpless spectator to the horrors he is witnessing.

- Complete monetization, not only of all goods and services but even of the earth's eco-systems and basic human values.

- Rampant militarization, both at government and non-government (including terrorist) levels.

The United States today represents the above trends in action. Should we really be emulating them?