Reading matter

Review: ‘China’s Engine of Environmental Collapse’

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China’s reckless mode of development has savaged its environment and ecology. Is a new revolution the only way to prevent disaster?

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Richard Smith, a founding member of System Change Not Climate Change. is also the author of Green Capitalism: The God that Failed.

Richard Smith
Pluto Press, 2020

reviewed by Chris Slee

In China’s Engine of Environmental Collapse, author Richard Smith discusses the pollution of China’s air, water and soil, its waste of resources and its contribution to climate change.

The Chinese economy has grown very rapidly over the past 40 years. “In 1979, China’s economy accounted for just 1.8% of global GDP, as against 26% for the United States. Today, China accounts for 15.5% of global GDP while the US share has dropped to 23.6%.”

But this growth has come at a huge environmental cost. Smith writes:

“China’s reckless cheap-and-dirty mode of development has savaged its environment and ecology. Uncontrolled dumping has defiled rivers, lakes and aquifers. Long stretches of China’s rivers are officially classed as ‘too toxic to touch’. In 2016, the government reported that 80% of tested water wells across the North China Plain (home to 400 million people) were ‘so badly contaminated with industrial and other pollutants as to be unsafe for drinking or home use’, but urban residents and farmers have little choice but to drink those waters and irrigate crops with them. In 2013, the Ministry of Land and Resources conceded that three million hectares of farmland, an area the size of Belgium, was ‘too toxic to farm’ because of the overapplication of fertilizers and pesticides, irrigation with toxic industrial wastewater, and the dumping of toxic waste on fields.”

There has also been huge resource waste, as well as a terrible human cost.

“Builders and manufacturers have built shiny new cities and infrastructure at ‘China speed’, as People’s Daily likes to brag.  But in their haste to build and overbuild, they’ve wasted staggering quantities of natural resources and racked up the worst industrial health and safety record of any nation on earth, with more than 100,000 workplace deaths per year in recent decades.”

This wasteful development affects the world environment. “In its race to ‘catch up and overtake the US’, soaring carbon dioxide emissions have made China by far the leading driver of global climate collapse. In 2018, China’s CO2 emissions were nearly as much as those of the next five next-largest emitters (the US, India, Russia, Japan and Germany) combined.”

Smith documents these problems in detail. He also analyses the economic system that has produced them.

In Smith’s view, China’s social system is a hybrid of two systems: capitalism and “bureaucratic collectivism.” He does not explicitly define the latter term, but it seems to refer to a system in which the state plays a major role in the economy, and the state is controlled by a privileged bureaucracy. Smith shows that both the private sector of the economy (including transnational corporations, or TNCs) and the state sector contribute to the environmental disaster.

Capitalism in China

Beginning in the 1980s and accelerating in the 1990s, TNCs based in the US, Europe and Japan shifted much of their production to China. Their reasons included China’s low pay rates and lack of environmental protection, as well as the relative efficiency of the Chinese state in providing infrastructure. “Over the past four decades,” Smith writes, “China’s comparative advantage in the world economy has lain in three crucial factors”

  • “Dramatic cost reductions made possible by the provision of vast numbers of semi-coerced ultra-cheap workers to power light manufacturing for export ‒ kept cheap, at least up to the mid-2000s, by the police state-led militarization of employment in the export zones, including the suppression of worker resistance and unionization efforts;
  • “Further dramatic cost reductions have been made possible by contempt for, and lack of spending on, environmental protection; and
  • “The capacity of China’s developmental state to work closely with foreign and domestic investors to build the physical infrastructure, the schools and universities, and teach English to millions of young people.”

In recent years, workers have made some gains:

“Chinese workers have nevertheless fought back, in waves of illegal strikes and protests in the early 1990s and the early 2000s; and from 2010 they succeeded in winning wage increases, improvements in working conditions, reductions in employer abuse, legal limits on overtime, and other gains. But [Xi Jinping’s] government has taken an increasingly hard line against labor unrest in recent years, closing down labor-focused NGOs and arresting strikers en masse.

And while workers have made some economic gains, the environment has continued to deteriorate:

“[T]he combination of ultra-cheap labor and minimal environmental restrictions attracted many of the world’s dirtiest and least sustainable industries. Steel, coke, aluminum, cement, chemicals and petrochemicals, metal plating, leather tanning, plastics, paints and finishes, synthetic fibers and textile production, fabric dyeing, paper production ‒ facing increasingly tough environmental restrictions at home in the US and Europe ‒ relocated to China after 1980.”

The transnational corporations try to maximize sales by promoting disposable products, designed to be thrown away and replaced by new ones after a short period of use. Examples include new fashions in clothing and new models of electronic goods. This increases the pollution and waste of resources in China.

State sector

China privatized or shut down many small and medium state-owned enterprises (SOEs), causing 30 million workers to lose their jobs in the late 1990s and early 2000s. But some key industries were kept under state ownership. Smith characterizes the state-owned section of the economy as characterized by “overproduction and waste … Beijing’s central planners launched wave after wave of gargantuan development projects, beginning in the 1990s.”

These included huge dams, new cities, ports and airports, and national high-speed rail and highway systems.

“But China’s state-owned producers don’t stop when they have produced and built enough. Beijing regularly complains that local officials squander resources in building superfluous housing, redundant infrastructure, and useless vanity projects that the country simply does not need. From the start, this investment boom has been characterized by overproduction, profligate waste of resources and energy, and needless pollution”.

One of the drivers for waste is the “hyper-nationalist ambition” promoted by Xi “to make China rich and powerful, to restore its ‘greatness’, to ‘catch up and overtake the United States’ and become the world’s leading superpower.”

Another motivation for government bodies and SOEs to launch big construction projects, many of which are wasteful, is to minimize popular discontent by providing jobs for workers. Big projects create jobs, not only in the state-owned enterprise themselves, but also in private companies that have contracts with SOEs.

But in addition, officials at all levels see big construction projects as an opportunity for them to benefit from corruption, for example by taking bribes in return for the allocation of contracts. Local governments and SOEs fund big projects by borrowing from state-owned banks, which are willing to lend to projects that will supposedly help make China “great.”

What is to be done?

Smith argues that China, like other countries, needs to take drastic action to cut pollution and waste. “China is going to have to shut down, phase out, or downsize thousands of fossil fuel-based, unsustainable industries across the economy. The same goes for the US, the European Union countries, Japan, India, and the other nations that presently account for the bulk of CO2 emissions.” This will require the creation of new, environmentally-friendly jobs for the hundreds of millions of workers who are displaced.

Smith argues that both the “normal” capitalist system, exemplified by the United States, and China’s hybrid system are “unsustainable and suicidal.”

“I contend that given the state of the planet today, the only way to prevent runaway global warming is to slam the brakes on economic growth in both China and the US, shut down entire swathes of useless, superfluous, harmful and destructive industries, and replace these political-economic systems with an ecosocialist world economy based on public ownership of most means of production, democratically planned production for need, and democratic management of the economy and society.

“Capitalism, democratic capitalism, or even ‘green capitalism’, is no solution for China’s environmental crisis…. No amount of tinkering with the market can brake the drive to global environmental and ecological collapse … we need a wholesale system change, especially in China and the United States.”

There has been a rise in strikes and protests in China in recent years. “Labor strife has increased decade after decade, along with growing protests over land grabs, pollution, the siting of chemical plants, incinerators and coal-fired power plants. Environmental protests frequently involve thousands of people and are often violent. China Labor Bulletin counted 1700 industrial strikes in 2018, up from 1200 the year before.” In Smith’s opinion, these outbreaks of rebellion indicate the potential for a new Chinese revolution.

Some disagreements

Smith’s critique of China’s environmental policies is valid and very important. But some of his other comments are wrong in my opinion.

He complains that China is stealing “intellectual property” from Western companies. But the fact that TNCs control a large part of the world’s “intellectual property” is a big problem. It means, for example, that poor people can’t afford life-saving drugs because the pharmaceutical companies that hold the patents charge high prices. Ownership of “intellectual property” also enables TNCs to exploit Chinese workers, such as those who make iPhones for Apple.

The whole concept of intellectual property (IP) should be questioned. The scientific achievements of humanity should be used for the benefit of the world’s people, not for the profits of corporations.

Smith claims that Xi’s “Stalinist state-owned sector is a poor innovator and without domestic IP protection his private sector isn’t much better. Since Xi’s economy has been unable, so far, to invent the advanced technology it needs, the government has been critically dependent upon importing that from the West since Reform and Opening in 1978, largely by forced transfer, and tech and IP theft.”

But there is nothing unusual in the fact that a later-developing capitalist country begins by importing technology from earlier-developing ones, before developing the skills to carry out its own technological innovation. Japan is an example.

Smith claims that Xi’s “sociopathic behavior” is “turning the world against China.” This is a gross exaggeration. The picture is mixed. Certainly, there is resentment towards China in some countries ‒ for example, China’s attempt to monopolize the South China Sea has antagonized countries such as Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia. But in some parts of the world, China’s prestige has been rising, due to its funding of development projects through its Belt and Road Initiative. Of course, these projects bring environmental problems like those in China itself.

Smith writes that “with China’s own citizens too terrified to openly oppose the government, some are whispering that ‘Only [US President Donald] Trump can save China’.” I doubt that many Chinese, even those most critical of the government, would look to Trump for salvation. There have always been some people in China with illusions in the West, but even many of them would have been shocked by Trump’s disastrous response to COVID-19.

Despite these criticisms, the book is well worth reading. It is very informative, and Smith is right to point to the need for system change, both in China and in countries such as the US.

Republished with permission, and with minor stylistic changes, from Green Left, October 14, 2020


  • The US industrial revolution was built on theft of european tech. It’s pretty mainstream knowledge:

    The US had to play Britain’s ‘game’ until it gained economic dominance. China in a generalized sense is in no different position. It has to play along with the ‘legal fiction’ of property. For now….

    In a sense, the US is becoming what Britain became in slow motion (loosing it’s economic position bit by bit). The difference is China is transitioning at a much faster pace. I’m not making excuses for China but it’s using western technology processes while developing their own.

    On a particular IP issue, I will say, in regards to the processor ‘wars’ where x86 CISC (controlled by Intel and AMD) and ARM (acquired by Nvidia) that sanctions is not necessarily the ‘squeeze’ it may be advertised as. China (Europe and Russia even) have been working for years to ‘break out’ of US and British control and develop their own. Note: Intel grabbed up Vladimir Pentkovski as one of their lead architects led the development of the Pentium III in the late 20th century (for star trek fans… the US is the ‘borg’)

    I am guardedly optimistic that as countries like China can break free and develop their own dominant tech, change becomes more possible in those nations. That can have a implications on breaking the Wests pace towards extinction. Sanctions actually are accelerating emancipation from Western IP (at least with processors). Ever heard of RISC-V? As opposed to the ‘closed’ crazy x86 instruction set, it’s an ‘open hardware instruction set’…. and they’re building them. That org just moved to Switzerland (to sanction proof it). You won’t find it in the new but it’s the revolution folks don’t know is happening right now.

    People like to say China is ‘so far behind’. Not as much as you think.

    A lot of this is ‘filtered’ and blocked (so you don’t hear about it). Anybody remember that ‘Linux’ thing? (aka: open source OS). No surprise most nations have been embracing it and it’s undermining IP big time.

  • I am astounded that a “left” person like Smith could write a book like this. The imperialist western powers have contributed almost all of the environmental pollution. Developing countries are trying their best to catch up so they do not continue to beholden to western imperialism. Yes, there are impacts on climate change from their activity, but what is the implication of third world countries following your advice::
    1. Developing nations continued dependence and control by developed western imperial powers, who will continue to pollute the environment regardless.
    2. Pointing the finger at China as the worst offender by-pass the centuries of pollution by western countries, and worst of all feeds into the cold war rhetoric.
    So, while you pretend to be concerned with the environment, you end up siding with your imperialists, indicating to me that you are a racist and supremacist.

    This becomes clear when someone like you do not see the whole picture. In the so-called interest of protecting our environment, and using facts and “data” to prove your point, you are really doing a disservice to the Third World. You are serving the interest of western powers and siding with your own imperialist nation in actuality.

    China is a poor country with 90% of its population peasantry at the time of liberation. If they do not develop, they will become like India or Africa. China has made environmental concerns one of the 5 points in its policies. of alleviating poverty.

    And yes, China has a lot of problems internally. Which country does not? To sit in your armchair and point fingers because China does not meet your standards of “pure” socialist development is nothing short of hypocrisy.

    You should learn a thing or two from other 3rd world socialist like Vijay Prashad, or even folks like Max Bluementhal at the Gray Zone.

    Shame on YOU

  • 1. I am not against individual writers, artists etc having intellectual property in the work they create. But this is different from TNCs having ownership of the technologies created by the collective labor of their workers. Control of IP is part of the process of accumulating wealth in the hands of giant capitalist corporations.

    2. I did not deny that Xi’s behaviour is “sociopathic”. What I criticised was the sweeping statement that “the world” is turning against China. I pointed out that attitudes around the world are mixed, not
    uniformly hostile.

    But I don’t think the term “sociopathic” is very useful. It could apply to many governments around the world. If concentration camps are sociopathic, then the Australian government is sociopathic, because it locks refugees in detention centres.

  • Le me to respond to See’s criticisms. First, Slee is correct that “the whole concept of intellectual property should be questioned.” IF we lived in a socialist society then of course everyone in the world would find it in their interest not merely to share intellectual innovations but to abolish the entire concept of intellectual property. But we don’t. Given capitalism, I defend intellectual property when it’s legally acquired, not stolen.

    Last January, I listened to David Harvey say that he supported the Chinese theft of intellectual property — as he was sitting at a table in the Verso Books loft in Brooklyn. Verso’s business model, obviously, is based on intellectual property, and Harvey himself makes not a few bucks selling his books. Would the professor be willing to give up his intellectual property and give away his books for free? I asked him that. He would not give me a straight answer. Hypocrite. We don’t live in socialism, we live in capitalism, and the Chinese gangster-commmunist-capitalists are the world’s leading tech and IP thieves.

    Stalinist bureaucratic collectivist ruling classes are poor innovators. The Chinese have been trying to build a simple car to compete with the likes of GM or VW or Toyota or Mercedes for three decades, without success. They’ve been trying for two decades to catch up and overtake the West in microchips. They’re still decades behind. In a totalitarian system where critical thought has been formally outlawed (see my book), where independent-thinking professors are regularly fired, where there’s no IP such that inventions are regularly ripped off, even before they get produced, in that kind of system, neither China’s state nor even its private companies are very good innovators.

    I quoted a Chinese engineer who said, “there’s no such thing as an honest business in China. Who would invest millions of dollars in a new invention when it could all be ripped off tomorrow and you would be bankrupt?” He’s right. And that’s why they’ve been dependent of forced tech transfer, outright tech and IP theft, and buying foreign companies when they could (Volvo, Syngenta, etc.) to acquire the tech they want — though the latter has been mostly cut off with the trade war, which means that they’re more dependent than ever on tech theft (read my book).

    Quishi, the Party theoretical organ, justifies tech theft from the West. Huawei, as the sources I cited show, has been based on tech theft since it started. Indeed, it openly pays employees of Western partner companies bonuses to steal their tech. And btw it does not lead the world in telecom tech, it leads because its the lowest price producer, same with China’s photovoltaic panel producers. But Huawei then goes to US courts to sue for copyright infringement to protect its own IP.

    So the Chinese ruling class wants it both ways: They want to be free to steal Western tech but stop Western companies from stealing their own tech. Well, that’s what courts are for. China’s phony “socialists” do not wish to abolish the idea of IP. They want to steal it like the gangsters they are, instead of paying to license it because if they paid to license it they would lose their competitive advantage in the world market. Yet at the same time they hypocritically go to US courts to sue when they feel their own IP is threatened.

    Second: Saying that China’s rulers are “sociopaths.” Concentration camps are not sociopathic? Really?