Editor’s note: This article is based off a talk first delivered at the Eco-Socialism Conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
The corporate-owned media reports frequently about environmental problems in China, from air pollution in Beijing to toxins in the soil and the water. These stories ultimately function as propaganda in order to present China as a unique environmental calamity–part of a multi-pronged effort to demonize the country and especially the Chinese Communist Party (CPC).
As socialists, we know that the great environmental perils we face today are generated by the capitalist system. That’s why we organize to create a world based on meeting the needs of the Earth and all of its inhabitants.
There are serious environmental problems in China, yet questions about their origins and nature, as well as China’s efforts to acknowledge and confront them are rarely, if ever, explored in the U.S. media. It’s important that we answer these questions not only to defend China from the growing threat of U.S. imperialism, but also because those answers can help provide real world solutions and models for addressing the catastrophe of climate change globally.
There’s a lot of complexity to this, and so we have to grasp the different historical, political, and economic factors that have been at play since the People’s Republic of China was established in 1949.
The guiding role of the Party
When the Communist Party and the Red Army came to power, they faced some very profound challenges. They had to not only address the devastation wrought by colonialism, but also to develop an economy that would be more capable of meeting people’s needs.
Emerging from a broader national liberation movement, the socialist revolution was led by a communist party, and so they set about the task of building socialism. Within the context of China there was a lot of debate and conflict—within the Party, the state, and society as a whole—about exactly how to do that.
One of the primary struggles that played out over 30 years was the “two-line struggle.” One line promoted a vision of economic development based on socialist methods, including nationalized public property in the core industries and banking, centralized planning, collectivized agriculture, mobilization of the workers and peasants, and a monopoly of foreign trade. The other line promoted a vision of development that was bureaucratic and “pragmatic” rather than Marxist in approach, emphasizing a reliance on “expertise” and professionalism, utilizing material incentives, capitalist-style accounting methods and elements of the capitalist market—all while professing allegiance to the goal of building socialism.
In the end, after 1978-79, it was the “pragmatic” orientation that prevailed for a variety of reasons. Since that time, China has set itself on an economic development path which those leading factions within the Communist Party felt would do the best job of developing the technical and productive capacity of a modern Chinese economy.
The key to that process was using the mechanisms of the market to promote and develop their productive forces. As this approach was implemented, many believed it amounted to an embrace of capitalism. This remains a contentious issue, and the PSL has previously written about it here.
The development of the Chinese economy over the last 40 years has been dramatic and has resulted in some very problematic contradictions, including greater wealth disparities, capitalist encroachments and abuses, and some privatization of social services. From the perspective of the environment, it’s also resulted in serious environmental stresses: pollution of the air, water, and soil. Building a modern industrial economy is obviously an energy-intensive endeavor.
When the CPC made the decision to use market mechanisms to develop the productive economy, there was a very important corollary or caveat, which was not to simply throw the country open, domestically or internationally, to the operations of capital. They didn’t simply say, “We are just going to build capitalism.” China is not a capitalist country, or a capitalist economy, or a capitalist society. It is a society within which, very self-consciously and very straightforwardly, very openly and honestly, the Communist Party retains its leading role politically, socially, and economically.
The CPC’s guiding role followed from the decision to use the mechanisms of the market to develop the economy, with the understanding that as that development took place, as the problems associated with markets began to assert themselves in a Chinese context, that some political force would be necessary to ensure that that process didn’t simply run out of control and lead to the restoration of capitalist political rule—a counterrevolution. Those political forces dedicated to defining a successful transition to socialism and then communism were understood to be located within the Communist Party, which now has 92 million members.
That is essentially a theoretical proposition: you can use markets to develop the economy, and the Party is going to oversee that process and try to moderate the worst effects of it. Now, how does that work in practice, specifically when it comes to the environment?
We can begin answering this question by looking at the last 40 years of China and especially the contemporary period under the leadership of Xi Xinping, who has been the principal leader since 2012.
Beyond the propaganda: Acknowledging and addressing environmental problems
First, the environmental problems associated with China’s industrialization process are the same historically associated with industrialization in any modern economy using the technologies, methods of production and fuel sources most widely available. In China, however, the problems have not gone unrecognized and, more importantly, they haven’t gone unaddressed.
Even with the population planning policies of China, which reduced the number of births by about 400 to 500 million (nearly one and a half times the population of the United States) the population has grown since 1980, and will continue to grow slowly through the middle of this century, probably peaking around 1.45 billion just before 2050. This growth has been far exceeded by the growth of the overall economy, which has allowed material standards of living for the vast majority of Chinese to rise significantly.
China has lifted over 500 million people out of poverty and created a “middle class” of some 300 to 400 million people, though there are still some areas in rural China where low incomes and poor material circumstances remain to be addressed.
This process of development, driven by the use of markets to increase the power of the productive economy, has also yielded serious environmental stresses. By the early 21st century air quality in many Chinese cities was often terrible, and soil and water pollution made farm products in some areas dangerous to consume. These were profound negative effects of market-driven development.
Because the CPC’s leadership has been maintained and not replaced by the organized political rule of the Chinese bourgeoisie (which is backed by the transnational corporations functioning within China), the Party retains the ability to address environmental issues in a way that is often unimaginable in societies ruled exclusively in the interests of capital.
Reducing coal use
At the heart of China’s most visible environmental problems is the question of energy. China has vast reserves of coal, and this fuel is cheap and easy to use.
In the early stages of development, coal was essential to the take-off of the economy. But as the economy developed, state and Party leaders have promoted policies to address the harsh effects of coal consumption. Ordinary people play a critical role in this process as well, protesting against environmentally destructive projects and activities, demanding cleaner air and water, and holding the leadership responsible for the results of their economic and environmental policies. Over the last decade popular movements and political leadership have combined to make great achievements in fighting environmental deterioration.
First and foremost are the efforts to reduce coal use. Coal remains the largest source of energy in China, but its role has decreased from nearly 80 percent of energy use in 1990 to 60 percent in 2017. The use of coal for cooking and heating in homes, which was a major source of poor air in China’s great cities, has been drastically reduced. These efforts, and others, have yielded a 30 percent drop in PM2.5 particulate pollution in Beijing and other big cities between 2014 and 2018. Much remains to be done in this area, but China has demonstrated a strong commitment to reducing coal usage and mitigating the negative impacts of the coal it does consume.
Investing in, developing, and distributing alternative energy sources
China has also taken the lead globally in the development and use of alternative energy sources. Overall, even though China is still a developing country with a per-capita income below the world’s average, China represented 32 percent of global investment in alternative energy in 2018 and matched this with 32 percent of installed capacity. Thirty-eight percent of all photovoltaic capacity worldwide is in China, and almost half of the world’s electric cars are in the country.
China is also leading in wind power, which accounts for four percent of national energy production. In addition, China is steadily enhancing its use of hydro-electric power, and now accounts for 25 percent of hydro power in the world. In China itself, as of 2015, wind and hydro together accounted for between 25 and 30 percent of energy production as a whole, and those rates are only rising.
China is the largest investor in alternative energy research. They produce more energy leaders, more scientists, more research facilities, and simply spend more money than any of the world’s “advanced” economies. They spend three times more on research into alternative fuels than the United States. In 2017, this amounted to $126 billion spent by China, compared with $40.5 billion by the United States.
China not only invests and produces more for itself, but it distributes these technologies throughout the world. For example, solar panels produced in China—many around Shanghai—are both state of the art and low cost.
Another important Chinese initiative has been reforestation. Deforestation in China is nothing new; it’s a problem dating back thousands of years. But only now, with the CPC able to counterbalance the environmental costs of market-oriented economic development, is it being effectively addressed. China has the most aggressive program of reforestation of any country in the world.
Reforestation is not only a matter of trying to control erosion and desertification. That is one dimension of it. Reforestation in China is also about bringing back huge tracts of oxygen producing forests, rehabilitating the lungs of the world and reducing air pollution, because they are pumping out clean oxygen into the atmosphere all the time. And most importantly reforestation aids in carbon capture, pulling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and storing it in the soil. Forests also create their own micro climates that increase humidity and water tables and lower air temperatures, with the capacity to cool the overall climate.
Decreasing coal usage, investing in the research and development of alternative energy systems, and reforestation all work together. China’s response to environmental challenges demonstrates that the Chinese Communist Party retains some important ability to orient and plan the economy. And that’s the most important thing that we need to understand, because that’s exactly what is going on.
The Chinese socialists that wanted to use market mechanisms to develop the economy understood at the time that there were dangers involved, that there were contradictions involved. Deng Xiaoping famously said that “some people are going to get rich first” and that, “if you open the windows, the flies come in.” They knew that there were going to be problems, they knew that there would be contradictions, that there would be increased inequality, that there would be environmental stresses. But they didn’t abandon ship and turn the country over to the forces of capital.
Developing a modern economy in a country with the world’s largest population after a century of colonialism is not a simple process, but rather one filled with challenges and contradictions. The leadership and guidance of a socialist, communist party has been essential to the course of development in China. China remains a “work in progress,” and the question of political leadership and the class nature of the system will be critical to the success of this great venture.
That’s the possibility that we can see in China today on a scale unlike any other on our planet.
We need socialism. We can look at the experience that China has and see a living reality that is vehemently attacked by the interests of capital and the corporate media precisely because it is an real and substantive alternative to monopoly capitalism, one that can provide an instructive example when socialism comes to the most technologically advanced economies of the world. China provides an example—imperfect, of course—but one that we can learn from nonetheless.