“Climate Change is Depressing and Horrible.” This was the first line of an article my dad sent me the other day. The article explains that one reason the climate change discussion is so depressing is that it gets political. This is true, and not just within the US borders among presidential candidates, but internationally—ESPECIALLY when the blame game is being played. Oh how we love to play that blame game.
China has been the focus of many class lectures at the LSE. The country is like a specimen being picked apart by critical academics and policymakers for scapegoating purposes. One day last week our professor talked about China’s mineral extraction in African countries and stated that sometimes the Chinese firms compensate local residents with infrastructure projects. A Chinese classmate interjected that she disagreed, and China was just participating in the global market—simply supply and demand. I think she was objecting to his use of the word “compensate,” suggesting that China was doing something unsavory—that it was being imperialistic. A European classmate shouted that you can’t separate politics from the economy, and China was being imperialistic, no doubts about it. I could see my Chinese classmate getting increasingly agitated, and the final stab came from a Ghanaian classmate. “I am from Ghana, there are TONS of illegal mining projects by the Chinese in my town.” The classroom erupted into laughter and other African students nodded and chuckled in agreement.
While I personally felt that China’s practices did seem imperialistic, I was also annoyed that we kept using China in class as the example country with bad environmental practices. Surely there are other places we could talk about, or at least other ways we can talk about them! We in the West call China a developing country when we want to pity it, infantilize it, or use it as an example of failure. But then we call China a developed country when we want it to take up more responsibly in global climate negotiations. Of course China’s track record is not pristine, but shoving it in the corner with a dunce cap isn’t helpful either.
While the country is still developing, it has taken on leadership roles in the global environment and development arena that may give reasons for removal of the dunce cap. The creation of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the US-China Climate Agreement, and the recent China-France joint statement about the upcoming Paris conference show the nation’s leadership promise. And the release of the 13th 5-year plan video further showed China’s attempts to be more transparent with the world. (Don’t get me wrong, that was some bizarre propaganda, but it was still an attempted connection of some sort.) It looks like China is trying to make the world a better place and set aside its national developmental interests.
Yet, as I was writing this post, I received a news alert that China has been burning more coal than initially predicted—around 17% more. My heart sank. I worried that this would initiate a whole new round of the blame game towards the country. (Obviously China should not be let off the hook, but constructive policy advice may be better than scolding.) Then, after watching a New York Times video of booming Chinese coal towns raising the income of the rural poor, I felt the country might forever be trapped in the conundrum between exploitative development and conservation. I remembered one of my upper middle class Beijing interviewees for my thesis last year matter-of-factly saying, “You cannot explain the importance of conservation to a peasant when they don’t even have shoes.” It seems like the Chinese government will always be the “bad guy.” If it preserves the environment but slows economic growth, the poor will be unhappy; if it continues to grow and pollute, we Westerners will point fingers (or more likely veil passive aggressive media with cute titles like “Airpocalypse”).
China contains areas that seem like developing countries (like the ones it is extracting minerals from in Africa) and areas that seem more luxurious than New York’s Upper East Side. How is a country with such polarized communities supposed to act in a similarly polarized world?
China can’t be described as simply “developing” or “developed.” It is both. Sometimes, looking at healthcare and income inequalities, I think even the US is both. The global climate change discussion has pressured us to clarify these boundaries among nations so that responsibilities can be designated and compensations distributed. But if we choose to have these groups, the challenge will be addressing them without a patronizing, divisive attitude. The climate change issue needs leadership, but more importantly—teamwork!
This is a shot from the 13th 5-year Plan video. Doesn’t it look like Xi’s leading a little UN contingent towards a climate change negotiations disco?!