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State Capitalism and the Toxification of China's Environment

The Blob Hits China

by ROBERT HUNZIKER

“Indescribable… Indestructible! Nothing Can Stop It!”

The Blob, staring Steve McQueen (Paramount Pictures, Sept. 1958.)

In a small rural Pennsylvania town an alien creature, The Blob, a jelly-like creature, grows every time it consumes something, and its appetite is all-encompassing. That was 1958 when, according to Jeff Sharlet, the author of The Family, The Blob film was all about  the world’s fear of the creeping horrors of communism, metaphorically, The Blob.

Ironically, communist China is experiencing its own modern day version of The Blob. It is smog, and like The Blob, it is all-encompassing, and it grows the more China’s economy grows, seemingly, indescribable, indestructible and nothing can stop it.

In fact, China’s Blob has become so pervasive, “Parts of China are grinding to a halt due to a recent bout of smog,” Lawrence Lewitinn, How China’s Economy is Choking on Smog, Talking Numbers/Yahoo Finance, Dec. 9, 2013.

Well, as a consequence, here’s the rub: China’s state capitalism is giving capitalism an “eastern black eye” by burning so much coal that it’s even affecting the stock market, according to Bloomberg News (Stock News), Belinda Cao, Shanghai Smog Sinks Yanzhou as NQ Jumps: China Overnight, Dec. 9, 2013: “Chinese equities fell in New York as Yanzhou Coal Mining Co. (YZC) fell to a three-week low on concern China’s increasing air pollution may push the government to curb the use of the fuel.”

Thus, and remarkably, capitalism becomes a shadow environmentalist as the dictates of the market punish environmental Blutos.  As such, the invisible hand of the market may save humanity from itself.

China’s Soupy Environment

For a thousand years China was quiet, pastoral, insular, self-sufficient, ignoring the outside world, but ever since the world’s largest population discovered state capitalism 30-40 years ago, the Chinese economy has been hell-bent on rapidity of development, cornering the world market for basic goods like chemicals, steel, cement, and glass. The resultant economic growth story has been remarkable from $303 billion GDP in 1980 up to $8.2 trillion in 2012, whilst growing by $1 trillion+ per year over the past few years, as China has surged up the ranks to its present position as the world’s second largest economy, which has been an historic meteoric rise.

However, the environmental costs are staggering, and the world is watching and judging China’s vast experiment, in part, via stock market quotations. In the final analysis, what may occur is the strangest bedfellow juxtaposition of all time as environmentalism and capitalism harmonize to overcome humankind’s worst nightmare, stopping China’s version of The Blob from terrorizing the world.

In January 2013, Beijing’s smog was so bad it could be cut with a knife. The US-Beijing Embassy readings of air quality went off the charts @ 886 PM2.5 measurement. Anything over 301 is hazardous to health. According to Time Magazine’s Jan. 14, 2013 coverage of the soupy affair: “Beijing Chokes on Record Pollution, and Even the Government Admits There’s a Problem.” As it goes, Beijing experienced a run on surgeon’s masks.

Here’s why: China consumes as much coal as the U.S., the European Union, and Japan combined. And, that’s only for starters, consider this: According to David Mohler, Duke Power’s chief technology officer: “… China is preparing, by 2025, for 350 million people to live in cities that don’t exist now… They have to build the equivalent of the U.S. electrical system— that is, almost as much added capacity as the entire U.S. grid—by 2025. It took us 120 years.” James Fallows, Dirty Coal, Clean Future, The Atlantic, Dec. 2010.

And, it’s not only the air that stinks in China, Singapore Strait Times reported that only 3% of China’s cities have clean groundwater. The groundwater of 64% of China’s cities is severely polluted and 33% is mildly polluted. So, before planning your next family trip to China, consider the following:An official from the Beijing Public Environmental Research Center summed up the full significance of this: The sources of drinking water in China’s cities have been polluted, and especially so with what he described as heavy metal contamination containing organic matter pollution that is extremely difficult for traditional water treatment methods to process,” Barry van Wyk, The Groundwater of 90% of Chinese Cities is Polluted, Danwei, Feb. 18, 2013.

And, China’s unbridled pollution knows no boundaries. Its special version of The Blob fiercely attacks all institutions as well as historic rituals. Chinese medicine/herbs have been used for thousands of years to cure ailments, an iconic part of Chinese heritage. In 2012, twelve of eighteen herbal tea products from China tested positive, containing at least one banned pesticide (Source: Sue-Lin Wong, Study Asks if Tainted Chinese Herbs are Harming, Not Healing, International Herald Tribune, June 25, 2013.)

And, the raging pollution is spreading, Blob-like, all across the land. According to China’s State Forestry Administration, 1/4th of the country suffers from desertification, or more than one million square miles, equivalent to approximately 1/4th of the continental U.S., negatively impacting 400 million people, or equivalent to the entire population of North America. Some China-watchers believe this problem alone may hinder China’s unrivaled capitalistic growth story. (Source: Choke Point / Eye On: ‘At the Desert’s Edge’ Gives a Glimpse of China’s Massive Desertification Challenge, NewSecurityBeat (Environmental Change and Security Program), June 17, 2013.

As well, China’s flourishing Blobiness knows no international boundaries. According to an article by Martin Facker, Scientist Says Pollution from China is Killing a Japanese Island’s Trees, Yakushima Journal, April 24, 2013. An environmental engineer, Osamu Nagafuchi, has determined that airborne pollutants from China are killing the island’s primeval forests, which are riddled with bleached, skeletal remains of dead trees. As well, the snow on the mountaintops is blackened. An analysis of the snow found silicon, aluminum and other byproducts of burned coal. Wind calculations and maps were used to determine the pollutants crossed the East China Sea from Beijing and Tianjin, two Chinese cities 900 miles to the northwest.

In the final analysis: “The dangers of China’s environmental degradation go well beyond the country’s borders, as pollution threatens global heath more than ever. Chinese leaders have argued that their country has the right to pollute, claiming that, as a developing nation, it cannot sacrifice economic growth for the sake of the environment. In reality, however, China is holding the rest of the world hostage – and undermining its own prosperity,” Thomas N. Thompson, Choking on China, Foreign Affairs, April 8, 2013.

The Truth About Rampant Capitalism

China’s three-decade-old conversion to state capitalism has radically transformed the country. As a result, more than one-half of China’s population now lives in an urban setting versus 26% in 1990, and China has 19 mega cities each with over 10 million population. This vast undertaking has become a way forward for a population of 1.4 billion people (a population larger than the United States, the European Union, and South America combined) to conduct business on the world stage, and the ramifications are felt all across the planet.

China’s CO2 emissions are equivalent to the U.S. and the European Union combined, and increasing at a rate of 12% per annum, or four times faster than a decade ago. So, the harsh truth is China’s polluting plants are working harder than ever, four times the rate of CO2 emissions of only 10 years ago.

“Over the last decade, China’s annual emissions of climate-destabilizing CO2 jumped by 5 billion tons per year, according to Shakeb Afsah, President and CEO of Co2scorecard.org, that’s ‘the highest [increase in annual CO2 output] for a single country in recorded history, representing an average annual emissions increase of almost 12%–more than four times the rate observed [for China] the previous decade’… To put this unprecedented 5 billion ton increase in annual CO2 emissions in context, Mr. Afsah… notes that during the 14-year-long post-war boom period of America, annual output of CO2 jumped by only 2 billion tons from 1959-1973….” (Source: Jesse Jenkins, MIT- Production in the Innovation Economy Project, March 2011.)

And, China’s emissions are destined to ramp up even more, feeding a potential monstrosity of ecological damage. According to the World Resources Institute, Ailun Yang and Yiyun Cui, Global Coal Risk Assessment, November 2012: Twelve hundred new coal-fired plants are proposed globally. China and India account for 76% of the proposed new coal power capacities.

The aftershock of China’s breakneck speed experiment with capitalism threatens the very existence of its State apparatus. How long will the people put up with conditions like this: In Harbin, a city of 10 million 780 miles northeast of Beijing, city buses got lost while on regular routes because of the thick smog (Source: Simon Denyer, Choking Smog Paralyzes Cities in Northeast China, Closing Schools, Airports, Washington Post, Oct. 22, 2013.) As well, pedestrians experience eye pain and coughing and cannot read traffic lights before crossing the street because of thick smog.

As it goes, “Even as China’s citizens get richer, air pollution will ensure that they get sicker too,” Bryan Walsh, In China’s Polluted Cities, the Smog May Be Here to Stay, Time, Oct. 21, 2013.

Communist China’s capitalistic experiment is demonstrating the inherent fallacy of one of capitalism’s primary tenets, i.e. laissez faire economics, literally meaning “let than do as they will.” Contrary to this inimitable Freidmanesque tenet, over time, the chaos of The Blob may turn heads back to the simplicity of another economic era.

Robert Hunziker earned an MA in economic history at DePaul University. He lives in Los Angeles. He can be reached at: roberthunziker@icloud.com