China is changing. Gone are the days of double digit growth (largely an illusion – it easy to grow at 10% when your economy is small; harder to sustain it when you are working from a bigger base). China is now the world’s second largest economy and largest producer of greenhouse gases.
Not long ago the term ‘made in China’ had the same pejorative meaning that ‘made in Japan’ had in the 1950s. Just as the Japanese economy matured (and eventually stagnated) so has China begun to shift from the land of cheap labour and questionable environmental standards to one of the leaders in innovation. While stories of lead in children’s toys (and even packaged food) continue to emerge, China is also becoming a major producer of quality products.
A just released study shows that China is now the leading spender on alternative energy technologies – solar, wind, biomass and others – as they move away from the cheap coal that drove their economic growth and choked their cities. Chinese leadership has realized that a workforce plagued with respiratory illness is not a productive workforce. The growing middle class is demanding greater luxuries – like cars and cell phones and flat screen TVs – while insisting that their children be protected from pollution.
China is also investing in nuclear and natural gas technologies. Having no natural gas of their own is a bit of a conundrum and recent pauses in Chinese gas plans have had a significant impact on western projects to build LNG export facilities. As Canadians well know, decisions made by economic giants have major impacts on the economies of smaller countries. It is the thirst for their own sources of fuel that are also driving China’s potentially dangerous adventures in the South China Sea where fights over resources could well lead to conflicts with neighbours like Indonesia, Vietnam, Korea and Japan – and therefore inevitably the United States.
Meanwhile, China is becoming a major player in the international exploration for and exploitation of natural resources, especially in Africa. Nearly one million Chinese now live on the African continent exploiting everything from rare earths to copper to hydrocarbons. The Chinese are facing increasing international scrutiny over some of their erstwhile partners in these ventures – African dictators and warlords who favour working with the Chinese because they know that the worrisome issue of human rights will never be raised. Meanwhile, the rising cost of Chinese labour are resulting in Chinese companies building factories in other Asian and African countries – not entirely a bad thing.
Those who worry about China should perhaps remember that the course they are currently charting is not much different from that of 19th Century England – whose ruthless industrialization and colonial activities spurred social reform at home and freedom fighters abroad. Oh, yes, and World War I.
In China – still a dictatorship of surprising resilience and determinations – greater attention is being paid to corruption with regular announcements of this or that industrialist/party leader being arrested for criminal activities. Is it all for show or is China maturing in other ways than economically and environmentally? The answer to that question will affect us all.
And that’s ten minutes.