Is transition possible?

China and the Prospects for a Global Ecological Civilization

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As the world leader in renewable energy capacity and production, China has the potential to open up a path for global ecosocialist transition, if …

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As the world leader in renewable energy capacity and production, China has the potential to open up a path for global ecosocialist transition, if …

David Schwartzman is Professor Emeritus of Biology, Howard University, Washington DC. This is a revised version of a paper he gave at the 2nd World Congress on Marxism, Peking University, May 5-6, 2018.

by David Schwartzman

Abstract: While the emergence of a global ecological civilization (GEC) in this century is still possible in spite of the ongoing conflicts we now witness, an ever-narrowing window of opportunity exists to prevent the onset of catastrophic climate change (C3) which would make such an outcome virtually disappear. The military industrial complex and its imperial agenda are the main obstacles to freeing up the necessary resources and creating a regime of global cooperation essential for C3 prevention program. As the world leader in renewable energy capacity and production, China has the potential to open up a path for global ecosocialist transition, creating a GEC, but is contingent on class struggle of sufficient power growing out of both the huge negative impacts of its industrial infrastructure and the paradox of its capitalist development with remnants of 20th century socialism still in place.


We now hear daily the news about the tariff conflict with the U.S. and the ongoing protests in Hong Kong. But there is a critically important question regarding China’s current and future global impact, that of its potential leadership towards a post capitalist future while confronting the climate crisis.

In December 2016, President Xi Jinping called for the “building of socialist ecological civilization” for China, and “policies [that] contribute more to a greener China and global ecological security” (Xinhua, 2016). This commitment is very welcome, especially since the U.S. and global environment are currently under assault by the Trump administration as a result of withdrawal from the Paris Agreement and the undermining of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

I highly recommend Gare’s (2012) paper for its thorough discussion of the prospect of an ecological civilization and the necessary changes in China’s political economy to make this transition possible.

Ecosocialist writers have invoked a similar goal for global civilization, “Creating an Ecological Society” (Magdoff and Williams, 2017), Foster (2017) and “solar communism” (Schwartzman, 2013a, 2016; Schwartzman and Schwartzman, 2019).

However, there is a huge threat facing humanity which will potentially block achievement of this goal for many generations in the future, the ever growing threat of catastrophic climate change (C3), recognizing as well as the continuing threat of nuclear war. Tipping points to C3 grow ever closer, with a narrowing window of opportunity to keep warming below 1.5 deg C, by the end this century, the goal of the Paris Agreement, promoted by several most vulnerable countries in the global South.

In October 2018, in an historic report, the IPCC (2018) strongly backed this goal, recognizing that meeting a 1.5 deg C target is still possible, requiring deep and early carbon emissions reductions and obviously far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society. In their model pathways with no or limited overshoot of 1.5°C, global net anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions decline by about 45% from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching net zero around 2050. Further, this report recognized that negative carbon emissions are imperative, coupled with radical and early reductions in carbon emissions.

Only a robust global commitment to achieving this goal will effectively confront the threat of C3, requiring a strong decline in GHG emissions starting in the near future, rapidly phasing out fossil fuels, combined with even stronger growth of renewable energy supplies and sequestration of carbon from the atmosphere to the soil and crust to bring the atmospheric carbon dioxide level below 350 ppm.

In addition, the agricultural sector must be addressed with a shift from industrial and GMO modes to agroecologies (organic agriculture), including the termination of factory farming of meat production and massive beef production from cattle. We have a full discussion of this C3 prevention program in Schwartzman and Schwartzman (2019).

In summary, I submit there are three critical requirements for achieving the goal of a global ecological civilization in this century; demilitarization (current global military expenditures are close to $2 trillion a year, with the U.S. responsible for roughly one-half), solarization of the global energy infrastructure (fossil fuels now constitute 85%), and a transition to organic agriculture (agroecologies, permaculture, e.g., see FAO, 2015). See Schwartzman and Schwartzman (2019) for an in-depth discussion of these requirements.

China can lead the world

In view of the fact that China has the largest renewable energy capacity and leads the world as a producer of renewable energy technology (Renewables, Global Status Report, 2018), she has the historic potential of leading a global ecosocialist transition. However, a thorough assessment of the contradictions in Chinese political economy and energy/environmental policy is needed to inform an analysis of how this potential could be realized. Smith (2015) provides a very critical account of China’s environmental record.

Coal has long been a major energy source for China. Its combustion has driven very unhealthful levels of air pollution, especially in Chinese cities. An estimated 1.6 million deaths/year or nearly 20% of all deaths were found to be caused by air pollution (Rohde and Muller, 2015). A recent growth in coal power plants (McGrath, 2018) has apparently led to a significant increase in carbon emissions, the fastest growth in seven years (Hornsby and Hook, 2018). Especially unwelcome is China’s climate-killing investment in coal extraction (such as in Africa, see Garzon and Salazar-Lopez, 2017; Shukman, 2018).

Nevertheless, there was been some progress in recent years. Air pollution levels in Beijing have been significantly reduced (Shih, 2019b; Editorial, 2019). However, “Despite the improvement in Beijing, however, other regions in China appeared to be moving backward as local authorities sought to stoke growth amid an economic slowdown, said Lauri Myllyvirta of Greenpeace.” (Shih, 2019b). And despite its improvement, Beijing’s air quality ranked the 10th worst among major cities, as of September 15, 2019 (IQAir Air Visual, 2019).

On the other hand the plan to create a next-generation transmission grid (Temple, 2018) is a positive step to a sufficient infrastructure for expansion of China’s renewable energy capacity, meeting and going beyond her commitments in the Paris Agreement. It should be noted that a transition to subsidy-free renewables is planned by 2021 apparently because wind and solar will no longer need subsidies to compete with existing coal and gas (Parkinson, 2019).

Another welcome step is China’s apparent speedup of its commitment to peak carbon dioxide emissions:

“China’s emissions of climate-warming greenhouse gases are likely to peak by 2022 even without the introduction of tougher policies, well ahead of an original target of “around” 2030” (Stanway, 2019).

According to one source (Fairley, 2018), China is retreating from its ambitious commitment to build nuclear power plants. We have critiqued the claim that nuclear power is a good choice for carbon-free energy, particularly because of the massive investments and long time to have it feed electricity into the grid compared to wind and solar power of equal or even greater capacity (Schwartzman and Schwartzman, 2019).

Climate science is telling us that the replacement of fossil fuels must come as soon as possible to have a chance to keep warming below 1.5 °C. For the same reason, China’s investment in uranium mining in Namibia, her largest investment in Africa to date, is unwelcome (Deboom, 2018). Rather, investment should be encouraged for renewable energy supplies, e.g., concentrated solar power in the Namibian desert.

David Harvey made a presentation on the Circuit of Capital summarized from Marx’s Capital, volumes 1 and 2 to a plenary of the 2nd World Congress on Marxism in May 2018. On a powerpoint image of this Circuit he pointed to a potential source of danger for China’s economic stability and growth. Capital reproduction inherent in capitalism is by many observers a reality in China today. While some socialists prefer to characterize Chinese political economy as “market socialism” (e.g., Losurdo, 2017), or as the Chinese leadership say “socialism with Chinese characteristics” (Wikipedia, 2019), others have a different analysis, emphasizing the dominant role of capital reproduction (e.g., Gare, 2012; 2017).

A leading Marxist scholar, Robinson (2018) argues that a large part of Chinese capital is really a component of transnational capital, recognizing the contradictions within nation states which impact on the transnational capitalist class. An example is how China is intervening in the global financial sector (Rabouin, 2019).

The achievements of the last decades of economic growth in China are undeniable. What stands out is the remarkable increase in life expectancy. “Chinese average life expectancy increases by 8.6 years in 35 years… The development in the field of health services has brought concrete benefits to the Chinese people,” said the document titled “Development of China’s Public Health as an Essential Element of Human Rights.”

Maternal mortality dropped from 88.9 per 100,000 persons in 1990 to 19.9 per 100,000 persons in 2016; and infant mortality declined from 34.7 per 1,000 in 1981 to 7.5 per 1,000 in 2016” (Xinhua, 2017). Even more striking is the fact that China has now overtaken the U.S. for healthy lifespan, according to WHO data (Miles, 2018). If the impact of air pollution on mortality were eliminated the life expectancy gains would be even more spectacular.

Nevertheless, there remain very problematic features in Chinese political economy. Gare (2012) argues, consistent with Robinson’s more recent analysis (2018):

“China is best understood as a capitalist economy going through the stage of primitive accumulation with the state serving the interests of the bourgeoisie, with its pre-eminent concern to assure high profitability of business enterprises by dispossessing the peasantry of means of production to create a pliable proletariat in the cities. It is more complicated than this, however. Transnational corporations have been the greatest beneficiaries of the cheap labor and lax environmental regulation. The local bourgeoisie use everything at their disposal to increase their share of profits.… but often work on very low margins and are very susceptible to changes in the global economy. The central government also makes some effort to ameliorate the conditions of employees, but decentralization of government with local government performance defined mainly in terms of growth of GDP and therefore primarily oriented to attracting and maintaining foreign investment, along with a corrupt and ineffective legal system, means that the government effectively sides with capitalists against employees and local populations. And it is becoming evident that many officials and Communist Party members are leading capitalists, and are aligned with international capital rather than local capital.” (p.13-14)

Returning to the potential of China becoming a world leader in ecosocialist transition, I argued in Schwartzman (2016):

“As in the industrial revolution, capitalist growth in China was driven by the consumption of several billion tons of coal, and as a result China now has the highest carbon emissions in the world (Andreas Malm, Fossil Capital, London: Verso, 2016, pp. 327-66). But China is also the biggest investor in wind/solar technologies. Could China actually emerge as the leader of an ecosocialist path for the rest of the world? Could this be the outcome of class struggle of sufficient power growing out of both the huge negative impacts of its industrial infrastructure on its population, and the paradox of its capitalist development under the banner of ‘communist’ ideology, with remnants of twenty-first-century socialism still in place?”
Note 28, p.158.

As Gare (2012, 2017) observed, there is real and growing documented interest among Chinese intellectuals in ecosocialism. The late Joel Kovel, former Editor-in-Chief of leading ecosocialist journal Capitalism Nature Socialism, gave several lectures in Chinese universities, likewise the present Editor-in-Chief Salvatore Engel Di Mauro.

But what is even more significant is the ongoing vigorous resistance of Chinese workers and citizens to the present mode of economic growth (Li et al., 2016) as well as dissent even from Chinese intellectuals living in China (Ma and Xu, 2017). We should take note that there are Chinese students who take their Marxism seriously, acting in solidarity with striking workers, with government repression of their efforts (Shih, 2019a).


Call me a dreamer, but I have confidence that the people of China will realize their potential to lead the world in ecosocialist transition from this world now dominated by militarized fossil capital, towards a future for our children and grandchildren in the 21st Century, the realization of a Global Ecological Civilization.


Deboom, Meredith J. 2018. Developmental Fusion: Chinese Investment, Resource Nationalism, and the Distributive Politics of Uranium Mining in Namibia. PhD Dissertation, University of Colorado, Department of Geography, 362 pp.

Editorial. 2019. “Cleaner air for China.” Nature Geoscience 12: 497.

FAO. 2015. Agroecology for Food Security and Nutrition: Proceedings of the FAO International Symposium. Rome, Italy.

Fairley, Peter. 2018. “China’s losing its taste for nuclear power. That’s bad news.” Technology Review. December 12.

Foster, John Bellamy. 2017. “The Earth-System Crisis and Ecological Civilization: A Marxian View.” International Critical Thought 7(4), 439–458.

Gare, Arran. 2012. “China and the Struggle for Ecological Civilization.” Capitalism Nature Socialism 23 (4): 10-26.

Gare, Arran. 2017. “From ‘Sustainable Development’ to ‘Ecological Civilization’: Winning the War for Survival.” Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy 13 (3):130-153.

Garzon, Paulina. and Leila Salazar-Lopez. 2017. “China’s Other Big Export: Pollution.” New York Times, July 21. https://www.nytimes. com/2017/07/21/opinion/china-climate-pollution-global-warming.html.

Hornby, Lucy and Leslie Hook. 2018. “China’s carbon emissions set for fastest growth in 7 years.“ Financial Times. May 29.

IPCC. 2018. Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5ºC (Report). Incheon, South Korea: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

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Li, Z., Friedman, E. and Ren, H. (eds.), 2016. China on Strike: Narratives of Workers’ Resistance, Haymarket Books, Chicago.

Losurdo, Domenico. 2017. “Has China Turned to Capitalism? – Reflections on the Transition from Capitalism to Socialism.” International Critical Thought 7 (1), 15-31.

Ma, J. and Xu, J. 2017. “China’s energy rush harming ecosystem.” Nature, 541: 30.

Magdoff, Fred and Chris Williams. 2017. Creating an Ecological Society: Toward a revolutionary transformation. New York: Monthly Review Press.

McGrath, Matt. 2018. “China coal power building boom sparks climate warning,” BBC News, September 26.

Miles, Tom. 2018. “China overtakes U.S. for healthy lifespan: WHO data.” Reuters. May 30.

Parkinson, Giles. 2019. “China prepares transition to subsidy-free solar and wind by 2021.” Renew Economy. April 12.

Rabouin, Dion. 2019. “How China is shaking up the global financial order.” Axios. April 11.

Renewables, Global Status Report. (2018). REN21 Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century.

Robinson, William. I. 2018. Into the Tempest: Essays on the New Global Capitalism. Chicago: Haymarket Press.

Rohde, Robert A. and Richard A. Muller. 2015. “Air Pollution in China: Mapping of Concentrations and Sources.” PLOS ONE, 10(8), e0135749, DOI: 10.1371/journal. pone.0135749.

Schwartzman, David. 2013a. “The great bifurcation and prospects for solar communism in the twenty-first century.” International Critical Thought 3(4), 480–495.

Schwartzman, David. 2016. “Beyond eco-catastrophism: the conditions for solar communism.” in Socialist Register 2017. edited by L. Panitch, and G. Albo, 143–160. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Schwartzman, Peter and David Schwartzman. 2019. The Earth is Not for Sale: A Path Out of Fossil Capitalism to the Other World That is Still Possible. Singapore: World Scientific.

Shih, Gerry. 2019a. “In China, voices from the vanished.”, May 26, The Washington Post, A1, 17.

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Stanway, David, 2019. “China CO2 emissions to peak in 2022, ahead of schedule: government researcher.” September 5, Reuters,

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Xinhua. 2016. “China: CCP calls for an Ecological Civilization.” December 2.

Xinhua. 2017. “Chinese average life expectancy increases by 8.6 years in 35 years.” September 29.



  • I thought it was a fairly good survey of the contradictions ecologically speaking of Chinese political economy. China is a country, on the energy front, that is “doing everything” including continuing to build more coal plants (as they shutter older ones), expanding their coal transportation to include maritime hauling from North of China to the South where it’s burned, building High Voltage DC *and* AC lines north and south as well as a massive expansion of hydro power (with it’s own bad ecological footprint).

    I think David Schwartzman’s known anti-nuclear bias is getting the better of him. He quote a single article about a ‘retreat’ on Chinese nuclear and loses the forest for the trees. Most studies and articles on Chinese energy, even the most recent ones, see an onging expansion in several directions (fast reactors, GenIV reactors two of which are being built now). The just cut a deal for 4 more Russian made VVER reactors.

    It’s important for anti-nuclear activists (of which I’m not one) to understand China a lot better with regards to nuclear than they do or want to believe. Touting renewables is quite understandable from that perspective but to think this “is where China is heading” wold be a gross disservice to their own community.

    Chinese targets *have* adjusted downward in light of the *delay* that was started immediately after the 2011 Fukushima incident. But these numbers fluctuate constantly. The article David linked to from MIT mentions the Huolong 1 Reactor…indeed…they are *rapidly* developing plans to expand this reactor deployment, both demostestcially and internationally. The Westinghous and EPR reactors, already built and online, plans for which were once quite extensive…are now being replaced with Chinese versions of this. This is low carbon energy that is being used to replace coal on a GW per GW basis. China might have slowed down a bit in projections but they could quite easily go up again, as they demonstrated in the past. Next year the new goals for all energy systems will be published. AT that point we can make much better projections than the wishful thinking I’m afraid permeantes the one paragraph David werote on this issue. Not much of a retreat….date/locations/reactor type:

    China’s projected reactor builds connections to the grid:
    China is construction 23 Gen-III+ and 2 Gen-IV Reactors. Operational start date:
    2019 Fangchenggang Unit 3 Gen-III+ HPR1000
    2019 Hongyanhe Unit 5 Gen-III+ ACPR-1000
    2019 Yangjiang Unit 6 Gen-III+ ACPR-1000
    2019 Fuqing Unit 5 Gen-III+ HPR1000
    2019 Taishan Unit 2 Gen-III+ EPR
    2019 Shandong Unit 1 Gen-IV 210 MWe HTR-PM Reactor
    2020 Hongyanhe Unit 6 Gen-III+ ACPR-1000
    2020 Fangchenggang Unit 4 Gen-III+ HPR1000
    2020 Tianwan Unit 5 Gen-III+ ACPR-1000
    2020 Fuqing Unit 6 Gen-III+ HPR1000
    2020 Bohai shipyard Unit 1 Gen-III ACPR50S
    2021 Tianwan Unit 6 Gen-III+ ACPR-1000
    2021 Shidaowan Unit 1 Gen-III+ CAP-1400
    2021 Karachi Unit 2 Gen-III+ HPR1000
    2022 Shidaowan Unit 2 Gen-III+ CAP-1400
    2021 Karachi Unit 3 Gen-III+ HPR1000
    2023 Xiapu Unit 1 Gen-IV CFR600
    2025 Zhangzhou Unit 1 Gen-III+ HPR1000
    2025 Huizhou Unit 3 Gen-III+ HPR1000
    2025 Zhangzhou Unit 2 Gen-III+ HPR1000
    2025 Huizhou Unit 3 Gen-III+ HPR1000
    2025 Tianwan Unit 7 Gen-III+ VVER-1200
    2025 Xudabao Unit 3 Gen-III+ VVER-1200
    2025 Tianwan Unit 8 Gen-III+ VVER-1200
    2025 Xudabao Unit 4 Gen-III+ VVER-1200

    • Comrade Walters may be right about China’s continuing commitment to nuclear power, but I hope this changes soon. He says I am anti-nuclear. Au contraire, I am a vigorous supporter of nuclear power! Except the nuclear power I champion is not fission on the Earth’s surface, rather it is at safe distance, 93 million miles from Earth, the fusion reactor in the core of our Sun, which supplies abundant low entropy solar radiation to our planetary surface.
      Now more than ever, the vulnerability of nuclear reactors to climate change-induced flooding, fires and sea level rise must be confronted. But aside the debate about catastrophic accidents from nuclear fission power, disposal of radioactive wastes, how low carbon it really is, and other concerns, C3 prevention requires an aggressive and rapid reduction of greenhouse gas emission with the termination and replacement of fossil fuels. Solar technologies are already here for this replacement, faster and at lower cost than current and as yet unproven new generations of nuclear fission power. Funding nuclear power plants and R&D for the latter diverts resources which should go to building wind/solar infrastructure.

  • Commenting on my own article, we should recognize China’s positive role in helping to check the U.S./NATO imperial agenda. Standing out has been China’s (and Russia’s) material support for the people of Venezuela under murderous attack from economic warfare led by the Trump regime. Solidarity with the Bolivarian Revolution is imperative to make Venezuela’s self-declared ecosocialist choice a reality. See our article at