China vs. the American Consumer – The Environmental Cause

Nuclear Plant In ChinaThe New York Times recently commenced a series called “Choking on Growth,” which highlights the unintended but astronomical environmental consequences of China’s economic development. For foreigners living in Beijing and other parts of China it is a grim reminder of how dirty the air that we breathe every day is and for the rest of the world, it is an effort to force them to confront the fact that behind the double digit GDP growth is a frightening environmental crisis that is now a critical global issue. It will likely be a very interesting series that will hit on many of the key issues, but for the sake of this post, there are two sentences in the first article (written by Joseph Kahn and Jim Yardley) that deserve discussion:

Chinese leaders argue that the outside world is a partner in degrading the country’s environment. Chinese manufacturers that dump waste into rivers or pump smoke into the sky make the cheap products that fill stores in the United States and Europe.

As previous posts have touched on, two of China’s most daunting challenges today are one, product safety and maintaining strong demand overseas for Chinese made goods and two, making real progress in curbing environmental degradation. The above quote concisely illustrates where these two issues overlap.

The cheaper Chinese goods that foreign consumers rely on are cheap partially because the manufacturers do not have to treat hazardous waste to the level that Western manufacturers do. This keeps costs lower but it also results in situations like the one in Lanzhou, Gansu Province where it is believed that 10% of the Yellow River flowing through the city is human and industrial waste. As the world comes face to face with the impact that China’s economy is having on the global environment there will be calls from all corners of the world to take action. If one makes the connection between cheap Chinese goods and environmental degradation, then one of the most salient ways for an individual to take action is to stop buying Chinese goods until the Chinese government cracks down on pollution.

This would be a consumer-based protest to an environmental crisis that puts western consumers in a bit of a moral bind – are we willing to spend significantly more in our everyday shopping for non-Chinese goods if we know that somewhere down the supply chain we may impacting the behavior of Chinese manufacturers? Perhaps the connection between the cheap toys on the store shelves and the pollution streaming into China’s rivers is too convoluted to gain momentum, but this environmental reason to avoid Chinese goods only adds to the anti -“Made in China” fire smoldering overseas.

5 Responses to “China vs. the American Consumer – The Environmental Cause”

  1. ManagingtheAmericanVulture September 2, 2007 at 6:17 am

    You know, America shedding crocodile tears about environmental issues in China is comical, given the USA’s less-than-exemplary record on environmentalism (i.e., the Exxon Valdez accident and oil exploitation at the ANWR arctic refuge).

    Like the USA’s recent jingoistic hysteria about tainted dog food and other “Made in China” items, this phony concern for environmentalism in China is really about one thing: DISGUISED AMERICAN TRADE WARS.

    The American game is to manipulate a variety of pretext issues ranging from product safety to environmentalism so as to put economic pressure on China, which is increasingly depicted in the Western mind as an economic competitor that must controlled.

    Even the title of this blog, “Managing the Dragon,” betrays the underlying Yellow Peril mentality that Americans instinctively devolve to when confronted by Asia (see America’s orgy of Japan-Bashing in the 1980s). The more things change, the more they stay the same.

    Thus, your proposed “solution” calling for a boycott of goods in “made in China” is a thinly concealed form of US economic protectionism. Indeed, since when did (American or other) Capitalist hacks ever give a sincere damn about the environment?

    If the USA were more honest, it would drop all these pathetic pretext issues and simply place tariffs on Chinese goods, if it doesn’t want to purchase Chinese products. Of course, this would then contradict America’s propaganda about “open markets” and “free trade,” and it would justify Chinese tariffs on American goods in response. ;)

    Another minor little issue that Americans bury is the reality that many of these goods “Made in China” are NOT even made by indigenous Chinese manufacturers. Instead, they are produced by Western-owned corporations or their local subsidiaries that have set up factories in China to exploit Chinese labor under conditions that are detrimental to both workers and the environment. The Nike Corporation’s numerous sweatshops throughout Asia are but one example.

    And those “cheap toys” that Western consumers buy may have been physically “made in China,” but they were frequently made by and for Western or American corporations that reap the profits from this exploitation. In fact, if American consumers were to start boycotting goods “Made in China,” they ironically would be boycotting many of their OWN American corporations.

    This selective focus on primarily Chinese manufacturers (as opposed to Western and American corporations operating in China) by these Corporate Suits-turned-Tree Hugging Environmentalists suggests that their newly found “Green” concerns are a fraud.

    Ultimately, the best way for China to address its environmental problems–which are certainly severe–is to reject the Capitalist development model itself. Capitalism is a system that values only profit and private property over anything else; there can be no fundamental solution to environmental issues from pollution to global warming.

    But if China were to reject Capitalism and return to its Socialist past, America and its corporate media mouthpieces like the NY Times (or this blog) would be enraged. That is the last thing they want to have happen, whether in China or the developing world in general.

    What America and the West ultimately want is to enforce the spread of Capitalism around the world–provided that it’s on their terms and serves their interests.

    For the West, the rise of any independent capitalist nation from the developing world that could be an economic competitor is something that must be prevented through a variety of cynical tactics. And, any developmental model that opposes Capitalism itself (like Socialism) must be destroyed by any means necessary.

  2. Before making the statement that China should return more to its socialist roots I encourage you to look more closely into China’s history between 1949 and 1976.

    As for your other points, I have a few comments.

    1. I agree that the US government is ill equipped to pressure other countries on environmental issues.

    2. This post was not about the government’s response to China’s environment or to low quality Chinese goods – it is about the consumer’s. See the previous China vs. the American Consumer post for my thoughts on the government’s response. You’ll find that we actually agree on the fact some politicians are using these recent scares to push their own trade-related political agends.

    3. The hypothetical boycott that i refer to would not be specifically aimed at CHinese or Western companies, but rather at all products that are made in China. As mentioned, supply chains are so convoluted with so many different players (domestic and international) that this type of boycott is extremely unlikely, but the even the possibility of it occuring is very intriguing.

    4. You mention that in a capitalist system there is no incentive to address enviromental issues. It is believed that if China were to adjust its GDP to reflect the costs of the environmental damage that is occuring, that it would indicate dramatically lower economic growth. What about when environmental issues are getting in the way of the capitalist drive to make more money?

    5. I get the impression that you are convinced that China’s economic reforms in the early 1980s have resulted in nothing but bad things for the country (please tell me if this is wrong), but I still think you’d be better equipped to argue this point if you had a full understanding of where China is today. One great article that that interestingly portrays CHina’s manufacturing relationship with the West is “China Makes, the World Takes,” which was written by James Fallows and can be found in the July/August 2007 issue of The Atlantic.

    Thanks for taking the time to comment. We do have fundamental disagreements about China today and her relationship with the West, but your perspective is interesting and important.

  3. For further information on “what about when environmental issues are getting in the way of the capitalist drive to make more money?” research the Green GDP which integrates the cost of environmental damage as a contra account on the GDP annual growth rate. While the Green GDP project, initiated in China, never came to fruition as a result of its unfortunate numbers (the project was apparently canceled when so much of the proudly touted GDP growth was found to be affected so significantly by the quantifying of environmental damages.) its legacy is one that addresses the negative externalities associated with break neck growth. And yes, my nation (USA) suffered the same growing pains. I don’t think any American worth their mettle will deny the foolhardiness that is shaking a finger at China without considering our own blighted past. Of course, this isn’t about that, its about digging out the elements behind the growth of the world’s most watched behemoth. Because it affects all of us.

  4. ManagingtheAmericanVulture September 6, 2007 at 12:49 am

    I don’t believe that the capitalist “economic reforms” that China has adopted since the early 1980s generation are beneficial OVERALL. Yes, there has been increase in living standards for some people and much hype about a “Chinese middle class.”

    But this wealth has not been evenly distributed, and the costs in terms of unemployment in China due to privatization of state-owned enterprises as well as environmental problems are simply not worth it.

    Since the restoration of Capitalism, China has moved from being a country with an equitable distribution of income and a social welfare system (the Iron Rice Bowl) to USA levels of income inequality. Doesn’t the so-called Green GDP concept mentioned here suggest as much–that China’s real GDP is actually much lower if one figures in all the costs associated with environmental degradation?

    Most of the solutions offered by the capitalist system to environmental problems–like the idea of “Green Capitalism”–are band-aid reforms, and not much more.

    And this current episode of “trade fiction” between the US and China at base reflects deeper American/Western paranoia over the rise of another Asian economic competitor that must be “managed”–as with the case of Japan in the 1980s,

    The concerns of US consumers over issues like product safety and environmentalism–whatever their sincerity–are informed by this broader dynamic, beyond the merits of the surface issues involved. The US corporate media (Lou Dobbs et al.) has fanned these anti-China sentiments, as it did with respect to Japan a generation before.

    Thus, American rhetoric about product safety (and apparently environmentalism) is mostly a pretext used for US trade wars and economic protectionism. This is not unlike how the issue of Mad Cow Disease a few years ago was used by many nations to place restrictions on beef imports from their competitors.

    The USA and West want to remain the Big Dogs, and these “issues” are a reflection of this.

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