Will China Save the World, Or Destroy It?

China’s greenhouse gas emissions now surpass the combined total of the United Sates and the European Union. When measured on a per person basis, the average Chinese is responsible for more damage to the climate than the average European. The gaps will become wider. Unless China soon stops and reverses the rampant growth of its carbon emissions there will be no chance of preventing the descent into an unliveable planet.

So global hopes for preventing climatic catastrophe, or at least avoiding the worst, now depend, more than on any other factor, on how China’s political and economic system responds to the deafening alarm bells being rung by the world’s climate scientists. In practical terms this means rapidly weaning the booming Chinese economy off fossil fuels, and first and foremost coal. The West can hardly complain that its citizens’ future now lies in the hands of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, for it was our refusal to accept responsibility when we had the chance that ceded it to them.

To think about this question it might help to pose it in a more historical form: “Can communism succeed where capitalism failed?” Some in-principle answers may help with the messier question posed by the peculiar communist-capitalist hybrid of modern China.

On the face of it, communism has one great advantage over capitalism if the future is to be saved – state power. It is hard to see techno-industrialism, a force that has acquired an independent momentum and now reigns over us, ever being constrained by the free market. It must be reined in by the exercise of social discipline, something China’s leaders have shown they are still willing to do.

Free market capitalism has neither the capacity nor the will to take control both because of the power of corporations and because of consumerism’s ability to blind its devotees to the future. If myopia is the natural enemy of utopia then it also excludes acting to prevent dystopia. Hans Jonas in his 1984 treatise on The Imperative of Responsibility put it this way: “only a maximum of politically imposed social discipline can ensure the subordination of present advantages to the long-term exigencies of the future”. Even Japan’s future-oriented corporate planning, hyped in the 1980s, has succumbed to capitalism’s structural short-termism.

So if social discipline cannot be found where the free market rules the preeminent question for this century becomes: From where will the power come to control the momentum of techno-industrial progress? It must be a power against the free market, a power with the resolve to impose sacrifices in the present in the interests of the future.

Bacon’s legacy

If China were an ideal communist nation organised on Marxist principles, and therefore had the capacity to temper rampant industrialism, would it have the will to do so? A number of thinkers, including Hans Jonas, have located the original source of the looming catastrophe in Francis Bacon’s audacious plan, advanced at the dawn of modernity, to use knowledge to gain power over nature and shape it to improve the human lot.

Socialism was as much a child of the machine age as capitalism; indeed, from the outset it declared itself to be industrialism’s truest expression. Revolution was aimed at seizing control of the means of productions, and wherever socialism came to power its first priority was industrialization, often abridged to “electrification”. So Marxism was more Baconian than capitalism, because it would unselfconsciously use man’s power over nature to create a Utopia.

The revolutionaries who found themselves in power did not doubt that, after the first task of supressing reactionaries, their second task was to subdue nature in the interests of industrial expansion.* If modern Marxist exegetes (like John Bellamy Foster) have discovered in the master’s writings a “revolutionary ecological view” then the founders of the Soviet Union and Communist China must have skipped those passages of the canon.

The extraordinary stress on rapid industrialisation using the latest technology went hand-in-hand with the goal of “humanizing nature”. The Romantic view of nature was a bourgeois indulgence, explaining both the ruthlessness of Stalin’s and Mao’s “war on nature” and the contempt for environmentalism of the traditional left in the West.

China today

So can China save the world? Comparing the ideal of communism to its manifestation in China today, we must come to grips with three great forces – state power over the market, the Baconian legacy, and the willingness to make sacrifices.

First, state control over the market is in decline but remains much stronger than in the capitalist West, especially the United States. Although operating as a market economy, state-owned companies still account for around 40 per cent of GDP. For all of its willingness to let business thrive, China retains a system of centralized planning whose official objective is to satisfy the needs of the people. Planning is severely constrained by the demands of profit-making, but where a political objective is supreme the Government is quite capable of imposing its will on the market. In this respect, China provides more hope that the United States.

Secondly, the legacy of Baconian mastery of nature in China is a complex question, but the answer to it could go either way. On the one hand, in 2007 Hu Jintao, then secretary-general of the Communist Party, seemed to signal a break from socialist Baconianism when he called for the development of an “ecological civilization”. The China Daily described it as “a future-oriented guiding principle based on the perception of the extremely high price we have paid for our economic miracle”.

Many experts are now pushing for it, social unrest over air and water pollution is a genuine threat to the state, and recent intimations that the Government is to set a peak year for its emissions (backed by heavy investment of non-fossil energy) augur well. Yet deciding to pursue an ecological civilization would be a more fundamental shift in Marxist ideology than the decision to allow people to become rich through private property and market exchange.

On the other hand, President Xi Jinping is now promoting the “China Dream” of exerting hegemony over much of Asia by pushing out the Americans. That kind of expansionist thinking, riding the back of a sometimes-fierce nationalism, demands redoubled emphasis on economic supremacy. If China sets itself that goal then Beijing’s answer to a warming globe may not be to step back from nature but to attempt total control. That means pursuing Plan B – geoengineering.

If China were the first to send up the planes to spray sulphate aerosols into the stratosphere it would represent the final triumph of Bacon’s plan for nature. Whether nature would cooperate is the great imponderable. At present this kind of techno-utopianism is more prevalent in the United States than in China. Yet opposition to the techno-fix is also more entrenched in the United States, and would likely be rallied to defeat the Prometheans if geoengineering proposals became serious, leaving China the most likely power to assume the role of global climate regulator.

Where’s the passion?

Thirdly, in China the utopian ideals of revolution and the spirit of sacrifice have collapsed. There is little sign of an environmental consciousness emerging, other than popular anxiety caused by immediate threats to health. When China’s leaders ditched socialization in favour of privatization they also changed the culture. The fervour needed to avoid the looming dystopia is more likely to be found in western environmentalism.

While western governments at times call for (and impose) short-lived austerity measures, it is impossible to imagine them actively promoting asceticism as a social principle. The Chinese government retains the capacity to launch moral campaigns, albeit an attenuated one compared with the ideological campaigns of the Mao era. A campaign for an ecological civilisation would gain less traction after Mao’s systematic trashing of Confucianism and Taoism that, for all of their differences, both celebrated selflessness. Taoism also had a strong nature ethic. With the genie of materialism out of the bottle, recent attempts to rehabilitate Confucius look quixotic.

So has China’s communism been so corrupted that, like western capitalism, it could no longer call upon its citizens to make sacrifices without bringing the system to its knees? The amassing of fortunes by the ruling families and their cronies gives no cause for optimism, and among the middle classes the urge to grow rich seems even more crude and intense than in the West.

The shift from communist to capitalist industrialism meant the writing of a new social contract, one in which state and people are not allies (if they ever were) but adversaries. China is held together by an informal agreement in which the ruling elite promises to improve the citizens’ living standards and the citizens agree to abjure any move to take power away from the elite. If saving the world demands China slow its growth rate as it slashes its emissions, can the social contract survive?

If it could, so that China led the world in responding to climate change, would the West follow? To pose the question this way shows just how dramatically the tectonic plates of global power have shifted. As late as 2009, in Copenhagen, China was still insisting that it would follow only when the West showed the way. Yet those of us alert to the peril can only hope that the burden of saving the world will indeed be shouldered by this new and enigmatic superpower.


* Set out in detail by Paul Josephson et al. in The Environmental History of Russia (Cambridge University Press, 2013) and Judith Shapiro in Mao’s War Against Nature (Cambridge University Press, 2001).

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© Copyright Clive Hamilton