China Syndrome

We should stop recycling the old “Yellow Peril” myth. The people most hostile to action on climate change are American and British, not Chinese.

By George Monbiot, published on the Guardian’s website, 12th June 2015

China is the world’s excuse for cruelty and barbarism. If we don’t behave atrociously, politicians and columnists assure us, China will, so we had better do it first, before we are outcompeted.

You want holidays, collective bargaining rights and fair conditions in the workplace? Forget it. When Chinese workers have none, such fripperies would “hamper British/US/Australian/Canadian industry”, making it uncompetitive. Columnists like Thomas Friedman at the New York Times, gleefully regaling us with tales of Chinese workers being turfed out of their dormitories at midnight, marched to a workstation and obliged to perform a 12-hour shift to meet a last-minute order from Apple, insist that we either compete on these terms or perish. France, he once claimed, is doomed if it seeks to preserve a 35-hour week, while people in Asia “are ready to work a 35-hour day.”

In fact French workers are doing fine: it turns out that European countries with shorter working hours (France, the Netherlands and Denmark for example) have higher productivity per hour than those whose workers have to spend longer at their desks (such as Germany and Britain). And a country whose people have both decent wages and time to relax can support millions of jobs – in leisure and pleasure – that don’t exist where workers are treated as little more than slaves.

You want your rivers, air and wildlife protected? What planet are you on? China, we are told, doesn’t give a damn for such luxuries, with the result that if we don’t abandon our own regulations, it will take over the world.

On no topic are these claims made more often than on climate change. What is the point of limiting our greenhouse gas emissions, a thousand bloggers (and a fair few politicians) insist, if China is building a new power station every two weeks (or days or minutes or whatever the latest hyperbole suggests)? Taking action on climate change is useless and stupid in the face of the Chinese threat.

China is not just a country. It is whatever powerful interests want us to be. It is, they suggest, a remorseless, faceless, insuperable threat to civilisation, to which the only rational response is to abandon civilisation. So often is the threat invoked to justify the latest round of inhumane proposals that it needs a name. Perhaps we could hijack one: China Syndrome.

China Syndrome is the 21st century extension of the Yellow Peril myth. First formulated by Kaiser Wilhelm II, whose extreme militarism, racism and anti-Semitism prefigured the rise of Nazism in Germany, the term reflects a long-standing apprehension about the people of Asia, dating back perhaps to the Mongol invasions of Eastern Europe. It invokes an uncaring, undifferentiated horde of philistines, possessed perhaps with supernatural powers, but without moral limits or human qualities like empathy, pity, love or self-restraint. Unless we took extreme measures to defend ourselves against this threat, Wilhelm and other such testerics insisted, this human swarm would outbreed and overrun the nations of the West.

The myth became a staple of schlock literature and films, spawning such characters as Fu Manchu and Ming the Merciless. The idea that the people of China might “steal our jobs” is also deep-rooted. It triggered a number of pogroms in the United States during the later decades of the 19th century, during which many Chinese immigrant workers were murdered.

It is, of course, true that China contributes substantially to the threat of climate breakdown: it is now the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases. It is also true that its diplomats often prove to be a hindrance during international negotiations on the subject. That was certainly the case at the UN climate conference in Bonn that ended on Thursday, where they refused even to discuss the crucial issue: how much global warming the policies adopted by each nation will cause.

This stands in apparent contrast to the agreement struck this week, as a result of Angela Merkel’s diplomacy, at the G7 meeting, calling for “a decarbonisation of the global economy over the course of this century”.

But to suggest that China is an inherent and insuperable threat, as many of my correspondents do (mostly those who alternate between insisting that man-made climate change isn’t happening and insisting that we can’t do anything about it anyway), is grievously to misrepresent the people of that nation.

First, of course, much of its energy use is commissioned by other nations. As manufacturing has declined in countries like the US and Britain, and the workforce is mostly engaged in other activities, the fossil fuel burning caused by our consumption of stuff has shifted overseas, along with the blame. Even so, when China’s total greenhouse gas production is divided by its population, you discover that it is still producing much less per head than we are.

Partly as a result of a massive investment in renewables, the Chinese demand for coal dropped for the first time last year, and is likely to drop again this year. Perhaps because of the bureaucratic chaos of China’s centralised, unwieldy government, there is a gulf between the energy transition rapidly taking place within China and its negotiating positions in international meetings, which are “in the hands of completely different sets of bureaucrats.”

But perhaps the biggest surprise for those who unwittingly invoke the old Yellow Peril tropes is that the Chinese people care more about climate change than we do. A survey released on Monday reveals that 26% of respondents in the UK and 32% in the US believe that climate change is “not a serious problem”, while in China the figure is only 4%. In the UK, 7% don’t want their government to endorse any international agreement addressing climate change. In the US the proportion rises to 17%. But in China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand, only 1% want no action taken.

Of course, the question that arises in undemocratic countries like China is the extent to which public desires can shape government policy. But what’s clear is that China’s failure to act decisively on climate change does not arise from any national characteristic.

The paternalistic assumption that only the rich nations can afford to care is also based on myth: a myth that – like the Yellow Peril story – dates back to the colonial era. As the Greendex survey of consumer attitudes shows, people in poorer countries tend to feel much guiltier about their impacts on the natural world than people in rich countries, even though those impacts might be far smaller. Of the nations surveyed, the people of Germany, the US, Australia and Britain felt the least consumer guilt; while the people of India, China, Mexico and Brazil felt the most. The more we consume, the less we feel.

There is no scope for moral superiority in the climate talks, least of all a moral superiority based on unfounded national stereotypes. Collectively, we are wrecking the delicate atmospheric balance that has allowed human civilisation to flourish. Collectively, we have to sort this out. And it will happen only by taking responsibility for our impacts, rather than by blaming other nations for what we don’t want to do.