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China’s Drivers and Planetary Ecological Collapse

Kamran Nayeri

The following is a new essay by Richard Smith that appeared in the Real-World Economics Review issue, 82. The essay summarizes the main argument in his forthcoming book (Verso, 2018). Here is the Abstract of the essay

Abstract: Can China lead the fight against climate change? If not, why not? Richard Smith, drawing on his forthcoming book China’s Engine of Ecological Apocalypse (Verso, 2018) argues that the built-in drivers and barriers of China’s hybrid bureaucratic- collectivist capitalism severely limit President Xi Jinping’s options, rendering his ambitions impossible and reinforcing China’s role as the world’s leading driver of global warming and thus planetary ecological collapse.


Kamran Nayeri

Dear Richard:

Thank you very much for this very illuminating discussion of the Chinese economy, society, and state and why it is an illusion by many bourgeois liberals and the bulk of the mainstream climate justice movement to hold China as leading the fight against climate change while the Trump administration is openly embracing fossil fuels.

As you know and said elsewhere, the sources for research of the Chinese reality are highly unreliable. Yet, you do cite statistics and predications borrowed from the same sources. It raised the question of how you actually tease out facts from fiction. There is no methodology section in your paper (perhaps it would be in the book on which this article is based). At any rate, it would be very helpful to have access to your methodological discussion.

Second, in your essay more than once you express confidence in President Xi Jinping's aspiration to make good on his promise to fight climate change but then argue that he cannot as the real power is distributed in the more regional organization of the Communist Party, etc. Why do you make such an assertion? We never made the same assumption that President Obama was sincere in his repeated claim that he wants to stop the climate crisis noting the contradiction between his words and deeds. Shouldn't the same rule apply to President Xi and the Chinese Communist Party leadership? After all, it is very clear that you do not hold a high opinion of them.

Finally, you conclude the paper (and probably the book) by drawing the readers attention to social forces in China who could potentially challenge the 80 million-strong Communist Party and forge a way towards an ecological socialist society. In my opinion, that is where ecosocialist must focus their attention. Unlike you, I know very little about China. But as you correctly point out, that is where we must have a strong ecological socialist movement if we are to avert the existential crisis. Could you perhaps consider writing another essay (or a book) to educate the rest of us about our sisters and brothers in China with whom we can collaborate and fight the beast of anthropocentric capitalist civilization?

Thank you.


Kamran Nayeri

Dear Richard,

This morning The New York Times carried an Upshot column, usually, a short report of some scholarly research, by Michael Greenstone, Milton Friedman Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago that is well worth reading. He has researched China's anti-pollution campaign (focused on particulate matter and smog) and found impressive results in the past four years. He describes how authoritarian methods have been used including by forcing some of the population to go without heat in winter. At the same time, his findings which are based on the Chinese official data as well as the U.S. embassy data, shows the value of centralized unified policy decisions and actions.

If true, this runs counter to an important aspect of your recent essay that correctly, in my view, concludes that the Chinese climate change mitigation policy has been resisted by the local and regional authorities undermining President Xi's proclaimed goals.

I would appreciate your considered response.



Kamran Nayeri

I posted a similar message on the internal System Change not Climate Change listserv. Below is Richard Smith's reponse.


Thanks Kamran,

I can’t take time to rebut this in detail right now. What I would say, as I said in my article, is that the central government can suppress emissions (or enforce other enviro cleanups like its 2008 campaign to clean up Lake Tai, a campaign that failed) temporarily and/or in priority areas but it cannot suppress emissions permanently or other pollutions or everywhere and permanently because a) lower level officials have an overriding priority to maintain production, profits and employment and b) the central government, for all its talk, has the same overriding priority.

So what happened last year is that as of October and November when I was in Beijing and north China, the smog was horrible and all the headlines were that emissions were up till then (Oct. 20th when I left ) worse than the year before (I cited some headlines to that effect in my article that I published in early December when I came back to NYC). But in December and January the Beijing gov really came down hard and in their usual ham-handed way, forcing people to go with out heating and freeze, forcing steel, cement and other plants to shut down (they’d been ordered to shut down from Oct-March), this cutting GDP. That had some effect. But what really happened was the weather changed. Beijing was washed by unprecedented arctic winds that drove the smog away for most of a few weeks. I experienced that directly: in the first two days I was in Beijing on the 16th and 17th the smog was what we thought was awful. Visability was limited, you could taste the air, etc. But the readings were “only” in the 2.5ppm 280s. (Recall, the NIH recommends exposure to 2.5ppm to no more than 10ppm). Then the arctic wind came, blew the smog away, and the skies were suddenly blue for the last two days we were there.

But when the wind stopped blowing the smog has come back. January and February had some bad days. Here below are the readings from yesterday and today. Personally I can’t imagine being in Beijing when the smog count is in the 380s — and I’m used to smog: I lived in LA in the worst of it in the 1960s before catalytic converters were added to cars. But Beijing’s coal smog is far worse than that, which is why lung cancer is the leading cause of death in north China and why living in north China knocks 5 years off average lifespans, according to the government.

Look particularly at Shijiazhuang yesterday and today where the readings are over 500. That’s an industrial city south of Beijing. Look on the second chart at the area to the east of Shijiazhuang. There you can see a mass of meter readings at “999” which means they're off the charts, over a thousand. That is just insane. So I wrote a brief comment on that article and asked what meters was he reading? Greenpeace says, for all the cutbacks, smog was reduced in the Beijing region but increased many other places and overall, decreased by barely 2% even with all the wind. I guess that’s progress of a sorts, but 32%. No way.

Btw, the foregoing not withstanding, I would not say that China can never suppress coal emissions. The government is trying desperately to convert heating to natural gas. That will help. After all, the coal smog used to be awful in New York City up to the 1960s when coal burning was forbidden and heating was converted to oil. But a few points:

1) Natural gas or oil is “cleaner” because it has less SO2 and other particularates than coal. But given inevitable fracking leaks (which one can imagine will be even worse in China with its horrendous industrial safety record) scientists are not certain it produces less CO2. Either way, oil and gas are fossil fuels so visibility can increase as in my old home town of Los Angeles, but CO2 and other pollutants still grow.

2) China will have an especially difficult time getting off coal because China has almost no oil, it has the biggest car population in the world, and still growing, the government does not want to be dependent on the capitalist world market to import all its gas and oil, so it is pushing mega coal-to-gas projects that will, scientists tell us, “doom the planet.”

3) Renewables in China are trivial (under 4% of actual generation), so for all the investment in capacity, they’re not going to solve the smog or CO2 problem any time soon.

4) The only real solution to the pollution problem is revolution (but you all knew that anyway :)

P.S. Just to follow up on my comments this morning, here are the readings for Beijing and Shijiazhuang tonight, 6:30PM EST:

As you can see, Beijing which had a PM2.5 count of 381 “hazardous” yesterday has a count of just 34 or “good” tonight. And Shijiazhuang which had thick smog cover at 504 “Hazardous” (the most extreme rating) yesterday, is down to a mere 268 or “Very Unhealthy” today. What happened? Did Xi Jinping’s impressive “authoritarian methods” effect a huge improvement, demonstrating the “value of centralized unified policy decisions" in 24 hours?

Not really. What happened is that the wind came in and blew the smog away from Beijing and also blew about half of it away from Shijiazhuang.

What lesson can we draw from this pattern? The lesson is that the state cannot clean up coal smog no matter what they do. The only solution is to shut down the coal-fired power plants and deal with the consequences.


Kamran, to your two questions: First as to China's data. China specialists know that Chinese data are not reliable yet for the most part, that's what we have to work with. Greenpeace and others do their own research as far as they can. Western specialiststry to correct what they can, but as we're not privy to the primary internal sources we can't really know and so can only do the best we can, read everything with a critical eyes, check such alternative sources as exist, and so on. Second, the main point of my work has been to show why China's enviro crisis is so much worse than elsewhere, in "normal" countries, explain the drivers of this system and show how they differ from regular capitalism elsewhere. As to your second question, what about eco socialists in China? I am afraid I don't know any. The only Marxists I met in China are Maoists. Plus it's difficult to have open conversations with people today in China. It's a real totalitarian state. Foreigners are suspect. People are afraid to talk openly with strangers like me. The police are everywhere. As one of my drivers said "We can't talk about that anymore." No doubt there are eco socialist-minded people in China, lots of them. I met some at Greenpeace in Beijing. But they can't organize, can't meet, can't really do much until the system breaks open, hopefully before it's too late.

Ted F

i'm very much looking forward to Richard's book on China. We're fortunate that a System Change activist is also a keen observer of developments there. Thanks for posting this to the forum where I could run across it months later. We are struggling with unhealthy levels of PM2.5 in Oakland, California. Although these levels are far lower than those Richard cites from China, we've got health data that are alarming enough.
Yesterday, Greenpeace published a study entitled "Is it time to panic? Dramatic surge in China's carbon emissions signals climate danger." Dramatic surge in China carbon emissions signals climate danger. This report, unfortunately, buttresses the arguments I made in this paper to the effect that 1) China is at every point subordinating the environment to growth, regardless of government claims to be "leading the world on environmental goals" and 2) China's emissions and pollution of all sorts are massively disproportionate to its population implying that there is something about China's unique economic drivers that make China's economy even more dangerous than normal capitalism elsewhere.

David J

The question I would ask Greenpeace, and everyone, is: What would "panic" even look like? Could it be that the current state of mass disavowal /dissociation is in fact a sub-conscious expression of panic and there is no number (450 ppm) or hockey stick chart that will cause a sudden, immediate disruption. If such appeals to rationality or logics ( ie. capitalist economic growth + human desire = catastrophe) were actually effective, I suspect we wouldn't be racing quite as fast towards the precipice.
It is why we must demand the impossible.

Ted F

I think you're on to something, David. The popularity of films depicting apocalyptic dystopia is another sign that mass panic has already arrived, albeit in a subconscious channel. I am ambivalent about a strategy based on "demanding the impossible" because I dwell, reflexively as a longtime organizer, on the need to develop a message that will resonate as achievable with the people we are trying to organize. I work from the premise that what we are demanding is possible, no matter how difficult it may be to turn the wrench.


I agree. I think we need to keep returning to Gramsci's pessimism "because of intelligence", but optimism "because of will". We get nowhere telling people that what we want is impossible.

But we have to be realistic about the path. Do we really believe that we can make "demands" of any sort? Let's take seriously the class analysis most eco-socialists would agree on. A small class controls the economy and the political system that is subordinate to it. If we keep expecting the change we seek through an enlightened public that changes its consumption patterns or "demands" reforms without changing the basic class relations, then we are abandoning everything we should have learned from Marx and other revolutionaries. Maybe it's no longer fashionable to talk about "seizing" power or "overthrowing" our rulers, or maybe we've succumbed to the liberal view that it can all happen peacefully as we change our lifestyles and win elections.

No, we will stop using SUVs because we will stop making them (and all other private vehicles), and that will only happen when somebody else is in charge. We will stop flying as much as we do when the number of flights and reasons for flying are severely restricted, and that will only happen when somebody else is in charge. We'll stop eating unhealthy food made from ingredients produced on factory farms and shipped to us from all over the world when industrial agriculture is abolished, and that will only happen when somebody else is in charge.

If I'm still around (unlikely), my own privileged lifestyle will have to change too. In the time I have left, I hope I can help organize the forces that are required to take power from our current rulers, but it won't be my class or my country that leads in the coming fight. The process won't be pretty (revolution never is!), and, as Arundhati Roy often says, people like her (and me) will be lucky to survive it. But I believe it's the only way.

(This will be the last time I say this stuff on a public forum, though.)

Ted F

I am in a similar place, but I think I will be saying this stuff on public forums unless and until they drag us away in chains or shut down our public forums. Ecosocialism is about an overturning of power relationships and, if we want any of our policy prescriptions to be fulfilled, we need to be able to face the sticky questions of how to organize for a system change in our own time and place, how to build a socialist society, how to demilitarize and denuclearize and degentrify and democratize with the social forces that are capable of doing that. We went around the room at one meeting of Bay Area SCNCC and asked whether we conceived of ecosocialism as socialism with a heightened awareness of ecological issues or a new socialism with a deeper understanding of our place in the world (to borrow Kamran's phrase). I spoke up for the latter, but I see the point of the first view: we still have to address all the various and sundry conundra that faced our forebears in the socialist movement while recognizing the ecological catastrophe that could be capitalism's final act. On the other hand, we truly need to be willing to start over, understanding, for example, the messages that indigenous revolutionaries tried to share with us several decades ago. We are living in an amazing moment in human history when the whole future of the planet is in play. So, I hope the public forum is a good place for this discussion and I always appreciate Michael's thoughtful contributions.