Can China save the world?

Jun 14, 2024
Industrial World. China and East Asia. Metallic globe with a focus on China and East Asia region

As the climate crisis accelerates and intensifies, it’s easy to despair about the possibility of any country taking the lead in ‘saving the planet’. And yet Xi Jinping at least says encouraging things. Should we take China seriously?

A decade or so ago I wrote a paper with the, not entirely serious, title: can Australia save the world? Even though Australian policymakers were always banging on about ‘creative middle power diplomacy’, nothing came of it. Any remaining hopes about Australia ever playing a constructive, independent role in the international system were extinguished when the Albanese government signed on to Morrison’s monumentally misconceived AUKUS agreement.

Talk is famously cheap, but the Chinese version is at least worth listening to because it’s unambiguously progressive and in keeping with the looming climate catastrophe we all face. And because they have the capacity to make a difference, of course. The fact that China is already the world’s biggest investor by far in renewable energy is remarkable. The key question for our collective future is whether Xi Jinping in particular can promote some of his big ideas on the global stage and save us all from destruction.

Spoiler alert: the answer to this question, in what I hope is my unjustifiably pessimistic view, is: almost certainly not. I simply cannot imagine the circumstances in which the United States (and its trusty allies) takes policy advice from China or agrees to cooperate on plans that have vaguely Chinese characteristics – especially when they threaten the US’s international dominance and the self-absorbed materialism that is such a feature of the ‘America way of life’.

Nevertheless, desperate times call for desperate measures. At least China’s leaders seem to recognise the imminent danger unmediated climate change presents and have ideas about what might be done to prevent it. It’s hard to imagine people within China taking them as seriously as we might like though, especially in the all-to-likely event that no one outside the PRC does.

The centre piece of Xi’s vision for a more sustainable society is developing an ‘ecological civilisation’. Despite being routinely mentioned in government reports, a clear definition of this concept has never emerged, other than suggesting that people should build on the traditional ideas and build a civilisation that ‘succeeds industrial civilisation and is characterised by a harmonious relationship between humans and nature’. A bit bland, perhaps, but the idea that contemporary China might move toward a post-industrial economic order is pretty remarkable, especially given its status as the world’s largest centre of manufacturing.

But there are even more potentially revolutionary ideas emerging from China. Xi’s suggestion that China is only planning to build a ‘a moderately prosperous society’ is equally remarkable but at odds with many of the realities of life in China at the moment. While this goal may represent precisely what the world needs at this historical juncture, and one that would represent a major achievement in the unlikely event it could be realised at a global scale, it’s not clear it would be readily accepted even within the PRC.

After all, China has more billionaires than the US, and growing levels of economic inequality to match. Equally problematically, the unelected Chinese Communist Party derives its legitimacy largely from its proven ability to deliver economic development on an epic, historically unprecedented scale. Giving up on that model and making sacrifices to save the environment while other countries – like Australia – refuse to act, would be a bit of a stretch, to say the least.

Even if China’s leaders were serious about trying to create a sustainable ecological civilisation, it would also have to be based on genuinely socialist principles. This would involve a process that the renowned Marxist ecologist, John Bellamy Foster, describes as finding ‘a “prosperous way down” from our current extractivist, wasteful, ecologically unsustainable, maldeveloped, exploitive, and unequal, class hierarchical world.’ Good luck with that.

Indeed, making the transition to a genuinely socialist society might be more difficult – even for China – than making the transition to a sustainable economic model. And yet the reality would seem to be that if humanity is to survive at all, let alone in something like a ‘moderately prosperous’ fashion, revolutionary changes in the way societies and especially economies are organised would seem unavoidable. Capitalism is definitely part of the problem, not the solution.

But don’t look for a revolution from below in China to provide the revolutionary vanguard. While many of China’s youth may be disillusioned about their prospects, ‘lying flat’ at home is unlikely to trouble the regime. Even social unrest and protest is remarkably orderly in China’s authoritarian surveillance state.

And yet it has also produced unimaginable material benefits, too: intercity train travel Australians can only dream of, and literally more apartments than the state knows what to do with, for example. There are worse problems to have; just ask the people living on the streets of our major cities.

As a species, we’ve never had a truly planetary emergency to deal with before; it’s not surprising our response is not going well. Individual nation-states have been a profoundly important feature of modernity, but they did not evolve to solve collective action problems. At a time when the US continues to make catastrophic errors of judgement in foreign policy and may be incapable of action anyway given its all-consuming domestic problems, we’re in desperate need of leadership, preferably by example.

In this regard, it is painfully obvious that the ‘international community’ is notable principally for its absence rather than its effectiveness. In such circumstances even flimsy straws are worth clutching at. Could Chinese ideas, even leadership, be any worse than the sort that has got us to where we are today?

The ‘Green BRI’ offers one potential mechanism with which the Chinese government might demonstrate their environmental credentials by pressuring recipients of investment and assistance to prioritise sustainability in their own domestic policies. It’s not much, but it’s not nothing either. What’s the alternative given the ‘developed world’s’ reluctance to give up their ‘imperial mode of living’ or their continued dominance of what passes for the institutions of global governance?

Perhaps the Albanese government really could do something independent and constructive by suggesting the Chinese government puts its money (and its startlingly effective state capacity) where its mouth is and adopt this approach in collaboration with likeminded countries – in the nicest possible way, of course.

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