Archive for the ‘Environment’ Category

The long-running debate as to whether China will dethrone the U.S. as the world’s top superpower or buckle like Japan or the Soviet Union is heating up again. Slowing growth and a slew of ominous data has people talking about just how serious this crunch will turn out. You can check out two great discussions about this at ChinaFile and New York Times (or to simplify, just read the opposing viewpoints of Michael Pettis and Justin Lin).

Whether there will be a crash and what that says about China’s economic model is certainly very significant, but I think when looking at the big picture of China’s future, it’s hardly THE most significant issue. I don’t fear a Chinese hard landing nearly as much as I fear the hard long slog unfolding much more quietly.

Right now China is barrelling down the economic rapids trying to avoid crashing, but there’s already a hole in the bottom of the raft. Even if it avoids a crash, there are much worse things in store. And China doesn’t have just one big hole in its raft, it has (at least) four.

1.  The Aging Population
In 2010, about 13 percent of China’s population was over 60-years-old. Or in other words, there were five working age people for every retiree, and even that’s already causing problems. With China’s enormous “floating population” of migrant workers, about half of all elderly live by themselves or with just an elderly spouse. This leaves many migrants the choice of essentially straddling their hometown and work-destination in order to care for ailing parents, or paying to put them up in the city. Both options can cause huge financial strains, which is made worse by the fact that the one-child policy has left plenty of couples to solely support four parents. But as tough as it is now, we ain’t seen nothing yet:

population aging chart

That 5-to-1 ratio of workers-to-retirees will fall to 3-to-1 just by 2020 and continue to get worse from there until the over 60 crowd goes above and beyond a third of China’s population. Some may point out that this is very similar to what Japan and several other countries are going through, but there’s one very important thing to keep in mind:

 japan china gdp2

Thanks to the one child policy wreaking havoc on demographics, China is facing a first world problem while it still only has third world resources to cope with it. Japan may be able to afford it, but in all likelihood, China won’t. The facilities and the trained personnel to care for these elderly just aren’t there, and putting them there will be incredibly difficult with the meager means China has at its disposal. It will put unmanageable strains on families, pensions and China’s healthcare system…not to mention the economic dividends China’s large population of workers have been supplying over the past two decades.

2.  The Pollution
I don’t even know where to begin on China’s pollution problems. For starters, an estimated 750,000 Chinese die prematurely each year from air pollution-related respiratory diseases. Hundreds of “cancer villages” dot the countryside. And the country’s carbon emissions, which are already the highest in the world, aren’t expected to peak for at least another two decades.

But the most frightening implication of China’s pollution is what it’s doing to the food and water supply. Wall Street Journal reported last week that “anywhere between 8% and 20% of China’s arable land, some 25 to 60 million acres, may now be contaminated with heavy metals. A loss of even 5% could be disastrous, taking China below the ‘red line’ of 296 million acres of arable land that are currently needed, according to the government, to feed the country’s 1.35 billion people.”

Many farmers that used to produce healthy food are now growing food they know can’t be sold just so they can qualify for compensation from the government or polluting factories. Or worse, they’re growing food they know isn’t safe to sell, but they’re sellling it anyways. On top of this, desertification resulting from global warming and deforestation is claiming arable land the size of Rhode Island every year.

After decades of growth policies that used the “grow GDP first and clean up later” principle, China is realizing that it all may be too expensive to clean up. A researcher from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences has estimated that if you factor in environmental costs, China’s real annual GDP growth would be nearly halved. However, no matter how much money is thrown at the problem, there are some resources that may never be recovered…which leads to the next big problem.

3.  The Water Shortage
Demand for water in China is skyrocketing, while at the same time supply is dwindling and being contaminated.  The Tibetan glaciers, which supply the water for all three of China’s major rivers – The Yangtze, Mekong and Yellow – are disappearing by as much as 7% per year. About half of the rivers that existed in China in 1990 have already dried up, and of those rivers and lakes that remain, about 75% are severely polluted. 28% are so polluted that their water can’t even be used for agriculture.

The water shortage will also have severe effects on industry. As much as 17 percent of China’s water is now used by the coal industry and other power stations. And as you can see, China’s coal use has been shooting upward for the past decade with no promise of slowing any time soon.

 coal chart
Chart via U.S. Energy Information Administration

Over the next two decades, this water crisis is poised to come to a head with demand far outstripping supply by nearly 200 billion cubic meters. What this will mean for China’s economy and the everyday lives of its citizens is scary to think about, to put it mildly.

Chart via Business Insider and China Water Risk

4. The Gender Imbalance
The one-child policy, a patriarchal culture and sex selective abortions and have come together in what will eventually create a population of surplus men that rivals the overall populations of many large countries. According to a Chinese population researcher from Xi’an Jiaotong University, the number of these “bare branches” aged 20 to 49 in China will reach 20 million by 2015 and continue to grow to around 44 million by 2040. At current birthrates, eventually one in five Chinese men will be hopelessly single. These numbers are unprecedented in human history, and experts are expecting very little good to come from it.

Times and places in history with large male surpluses – from the American Wild West to mid-19th century Northern China – have been marked by lawlessness and exploitation of women. Rises in violent crime rates have been attributed to the imbalance that already exists in contemporary China. And since those left without wives tend to be the very poorest men – who are increasingly finding themselves clustered in “bachelor villages” – other grievances could easily consolidate them into a violent force. This is exactly what scholars Valerie Hudson and Andrea Den Boer have argued preceded historical Chinese conflicts like the Nien Rebellion, the Black Flag Army, the Boxers and the Eight Trigrams Rebellion.

Furthermore, if the Chinese government gets worried about the social upheaval bare branches could cause, they may try to channel that angst into the Chinese army. In that case, it could result in ultra-nationalism and a foreign policy that’s “swaggering, belligerent, provocative,” as Hudson and Den Boer put it.

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I try to be an optimist. I have confidence that new technologies and targeted policies can mitigate some of these problems before they become catastrophic. But the fact that these four things are happening in concert is downright terrifying and presents the probable scenario that they’ll exacerbate one-another. The worsening health effects from pollution could make it more expensive to care for the elderly. The water shortage and soil degradation could cause food and utility prices to rise, making it harder to eke out a living and keep the bare branches content. You get the idea.

So by all means keep an eye on the present economic hurdle. It will certainly have enormous implications on the quality of life in China and the extent to which the country is able to address other issues. But don’t forget that even if China gets over this hurdle, there are much bigger ones on the road ahead. Keep a very close eye on these hurdles, because they won’t become apparent in any abrupt crash. But they have the potential to be much more crippling to the country’s sustained growth.

Today Global Times ran an editorial called “Human rights award misses point of China’s social progress.” It was about Chinese lawyer Ni Yulan being given the Human Rights Defenders Tulip by the Dutch government for her role in fighting forced demolitions. Following standard GT editorial protocol, it opted to forgo any use of objective figures or examples to substantiate its claims. Instead it chose the basic approach of “fuck you Western media for calling attention to China’s problems rather than playing cheerleader to the overall progress it’s made.”

A few months ago I vowed not to rebut every dumb GT editorial that I came across. After all, I have to eat and sleep some time. So rather than rebutting, I’ve decided to help GT out with a little copy-editing. I’m in journalism school currently and one of the key principles we’re taught again and again is “show, don’t tell.” I know it’s been a long time since journalism school for Editor-in-Chief Hu Xijin, who usually writes these editorials, so I’ve taken the liberty of re-writing it so that it has a chance of actually influencing some people toward GT’s viewpoint. It can even keep the same title and lead:

Human rights award misses point of China’s social progress 

Ni Yulan has been awarded the Human Rights Defenders Tulip 2011 by the Dutch government after her actions against forced demolition in Beijing, becoming the latest recipient of a foreign human rights prize. An unverified report said that Wednesday, Ni’s daughter Dong Xuan was not allowed to fly to the Netherlands to accept the award on behalf of her mother, who is still awaiting trial.

Ni has served a positive role in helping those who’ve been wrongfully, and often violently, dispossessed of their homes gain awareness of their rights and seek redress. She indeed deserves recognition for the hardships and debilitating physical harm she’s endured in her crusade to help the underclass.

However, coverage on cases like Ni Yulan tend to leave a somewhat unbalanced impression of forced evictions in China. In the focus on individual stories of suffering, it’s easy to miss the greater good that many demolitions are achieving.

There are essentially two types of land seizures now happening on a wide scale in China. The kind Ni has fought against are illegal and often the result of corrupt real estate deals. These unjustly throw commoners out of their homes with inadequate compensation and often feed a speculative bubble that threatens serious harm to the economy. The central government is indeed aware of this troubling trend and should continue to take proactive measures to mitigate it.

The second kind of demolition, however, gets less attention and is actually very good for China. Currently, roughly half of China’s population lives in rural areas. These areas usually consist of single-unit houses which use coal directly for cooking and heating. The houses also often have paper windows or other deficiencies that make them very energy inefficient. This contributes to high levels of both carbon emissions and local pollutants like sulfur.

Moving these people to the cities will put them in more efficient homes and on China’s electric grid, which is quickly cleaning up its energy production. Even when coal is the energy source, plants are becoming 25-50% more efficient and are retrofitting with devices that cut 95% of sulfur emissions.

Once these people are moved from their rural homes, the land is freed up for an even more pressing concern: food. China is about the same size as the US, but has 82% the arable farmland with 420% the population. To make matters worse, desertification is claiming this land at a rate comparable to the size of Rhode Island each year. It’s no wonder 150 million Chinese still don’t get enough to eat.

If we look at a developed country like the United States, a hundred years ago farmers made up 30% of its population. In 1945, on average, it took 14 labor-hours to produce 100 bushels of corn on two acres of land. By 1987, thanks to technological development, it took under 3 labor-hours and just over one acre of land to get the same result. Today, only about 2% of Americans are farmers and they produce much more food than the 30% did a hundred years ago.

China is going through the same process now with its current 35% farming population. Moving farmers from the countryside to cities moves them up the value chain and frees up land for more efficient mechanized farming. According to Geographical Society of China President Lu Dadao, China took only 22 years to increase its urban population from 17.9% to 39.1%. It took Britain 120 years and the US 80 years to accomplish this. So it can be said that China’s development is much more impressive.

It’s estimated that China’s urban population will surpass 70% by 2035, bringing it closer to developed status. It is regrettable that the power entrusted to local officials in order to reach this goal is sometimes abused. The recent resolution of the Wukan situation showed the government’s progress in dealing with these situations, but of course, there remains work to be done.

In this long march forward, it’s inevitable that many toes will get stepped on. Many will be uprooted amidst this progress. However, we shouldn’t let the setbacks completely overshadow the critical overarching goal. After all, keeping people fed is the most important human right of all.

See, I’ll bet you came a lot closer to sympathizing with GT’s main point here than in the original piece. It’s still bullshit, but I think you’ll agree it’s much less rank bullshit. 

At the risk of sounding alarmist, China is in trouble. China watchers from all kinds of backgrounds would probably agree with this statement to some extent. It’s “trouble” in the abstract sense, since we don’t know exactly how it will play out. But it’s hard to look at political, social, economic and environmental trends without getting the feeling that a perfect storm of sorts is brewing. I’ve put together this infographic to try and bring together some ominous signals from several different fields. What it all means, I can’t say for sure, but it’s apparent that in the very near future China will meet challenges unprecedented in the history of mankind. For the sake of China, and realistically, the rest of the world, let’s hope the 5th generation of leaders knows what they’re doing.

Feel free to use this image, please just link back to this site.

Last week China launched the Shenzhou 8 rocket, marking the first step toward its space station. The world’s population also rolled over 7 billion. Both things got me thinking about the future of mankind and how China could either rescue it or destroy it completely.

Fair Warning: From here this article gets very far-forward looking, theoretical and weird.

If you’ve never heard of the Kardashev scale, I highly recommend you watch this video, or read this excerpt from Dr. Michio Kaku’s book. It’ll be a few minutes very well spent. Basically, it’s a theoretical scale that rates civilizations (Earthly or otherwise) as Type I, II or III based on how much energy they consume.

According to Kaku, “A Type I civilization is one that controls the energy resources of an entire planet. This civilization can control the weather, prevent earthquakes, mine deep in the earth’s crust, and harvest the oceans. This civilization has already completed the exploration of its solar system.”

Type II controls the energy of their sun and is beginning travel between star systems (think Star Trek).  Type III controls the energy of a galaxy (think Star Wars). Of course, this is all highly theoretical, but, unlike most future predictions, this is based on the laws of physics and realistic requirements for attaining the needed energy. In fact, many films and tv shows like 2001: A Space Odyssey have been based on this scale.

At this point, we’re Type 0. We get energy mostly from dead plants (coal and gas).We haven’t achieved Type I, but we’re well on our way and might get there in the next century or two.

Some probable pre-requisites for a Type I civilization are an international language, culture and political system. We can already guess that the language will be English, and, in all likelihood, the culture will be largely Western influenced. But we have little idea what the political system will look like and if it will even be possible. Blocs like NAFTA and the European Union are forming, but eventually, we’ll probably need some kind of authoritative international governing body that essentially tears down physical political borders.

This is important chiefly because, under the current international system, protectionism runs rampant (of jobs, currencies, resources, etc). If I’m an American leader, I care only for my American constituents and will do what benefits them…even if it’s at the expense of other nations. Every country is the same and it makes most everyone worse off than if every leader were internationally-minded. This is most obvious with climate change action. No country wants to be the first to seriously address it and put itself at an immediate competitive disadvantage. So everyone is looking toward other countries to take their baby steps first.

There are quasi-regulatory bodies like the WTO and UN, but they don’t have the teeth to enforce real political action.

The other important reason for an international authority is simple efficiency of people and resources. Developed countries are headed toward major demographic imbalances that will see labor shortages and an aging population while most developing countries will see population explosions leaving a whole lot of able-bodied adults without jobs. If borders were torn down and free movement was easy, migration would benefit just about everyone. Then there’s China ,which fiercely regulates childbirth while underpopulated Russia is paying people to have babies. This current inefficiency may not yet be critical, but it sure as hell will be in a world of 12-15 billion – which is where it’s predicted to be by century’s end.

The worrying thing for scientists is that they see no evidence of any type of civilization when they look into space. This could be because there’s no other intelligent life in the universe, but it’s much more likely that other civilizations have been wiped out by routine extinction events or destroyed themselves before they ever made it to Type I – where they’re basically safe from extinction (until their sun explodes or they make it to Type II).

So why the hell am I talking about this on a China blog? Because China could largely determine whether we make it to Type I or kill ourselves on the way.

How China might save the world

Controlling the weather – In the (nearly 100%) likely scenario that we fail to get a hold on run away carbon emissions, we’ll have to come up with another way to stop Earth from turning into Venus through the greenhouse effect. Research is already underway on a host of measures in the geo-engineering field, which uses science and artificial means to alter the planet’s weather. Measures include things like using steam-emitting boats to enhance cloud cover (and reduce sunlight), sprinkling iron in the ocean to boost carbon-eating plankton growth, sending up space-based reflectors to deflect sunlight and several other measures.

A cloud maker

None of these have been attempted yet as they’re all very controversial. Unforeseen side-effects and irreversibility are the main worries. However, China has already shown a ready willingness to tinker with the weather. For years cloud seeding has been routinely used in China to induce rain for fighting droughts and pollution. With its massive population and scarce resources, China is already feeling a lot of the effects of climate change, from drying rivers to the Gobi desert slowly advancing on Beijing.

You can bet that while western governments are debating the ethics and side-effects of mass geo-engineering, China will already be in the process of implementing it. This could be catastrophic, but if they get it right, the Chinese might just come up with a way to get the weather control part of a Type I civilization down and save the planet from Venus’ fate.

Making use of outer space – While the American space program has no real goal and is quickly losing support, China’s is just getting warmed up. China hopes to finish its space station by 2020, land men on the moon by 2025 and travel out to Mars thereafter. To be sure, nationalism plays a large role in all of this, but China also sees space as a long-term solution to its resource needs. They’re even considering trying to mine the moon for minerals.

Left: Part of the solar energy is lost on its way through the atmosphere by the effects of reflection and absorption. Right: Space-based solar power systems convert sunlight to microwaves outside the atmosphere, avoiding these losses, and the downtime (and cosine losses, for fixed flat-plate collectors) due to the Earth's rotation. (From Wikipedia)

However, the real prize in space is energy. To meet the energy needs of a Type I civilization, we need to give up our dependence on dead plants in favor of the ultimate energy source: the sun. But solar energy in its present form isn’t going to cut it. Ground-based solar collection is horribly inefficient. To get real energy returns, we need to put our solar panels in space where they’re unimpeded by clouds and ozone.

But getting panels into space with rockets at the scale needed would be horribly expensive and bad for the environment. This is where a space elevator comes in. Using an ultra-thin carbon nanotube ribbon attached to a counterweight in space, a climber powered by a ground-based laser pulls the “elevator” into space for less than 1% the cost per pound of using a rocket.

This system could get the solar panels into space and beam the energy back. It could also build spacecraft in space, preventing the need for them to waste fuel on breaking Earth’s gravity. This would enable the inter-stellar travel of a Type I civilization and China’s desire to mine the moon.

Here’s the kicker of the space elevator: If someone threw any kind of significant research funding at it, it could probably be started relatively soon. One problem is that the nerds backing this idea haven’t managed to get anyone excited about building it. But China can only exploit its own resources (and Africa’s) for so long before needing a new solution to its energy needs – which are growing right off the chart. Necessity is the mother of invention and China will have the necessity and resources (not to mention the penchant for over-the top, literally earth-shaking, engineering projects) to get it done.

But just because China could do these things doesn’t mean they’ll do them in time. There are plenty of…

Ways China might destroy the world before it can save it

Pollution –  China already has the highest carbon emissions in the world, which are still growing in pretty much a straight vertical line if you look at that graph. The situation is already dire, but those emissions from China aren’t expected to peak for at least 20 years. The ways China could save the world could get drowned out in the pollution before they can ever have a chance to make a difference. The whole world is in a race with the clock on global warming and China’s attitude that it has a free ticket as a developing country is making that clock turn a lot faster. And it’s not likely to stop because…

The Communist Party will do anything to hold its power- Remember that part earlier about a Type I civilization being under a single international political system? The Communist Party will  never sign on for that. They snap at the slightest hint of interference with China’s sovereignty. The government and the people alike are extremely unlikely to do anything that actually weakens their political authority – especially on the verge of their re-emergence as the world’s superpower. It pushes too many sensitive historical buttons.

And the CCP puts holding its power over the country ahead of all else anyways. While it may be possible to get resources from space, they’re just as willing to find them at the expense of the rest of the world if it means keeping “social stability” (Aka “their power safe a bit longer”). That geo-engineering idea can be abused. It can melt glaciers, steal rain from other countries or divert rivers. A Chinese scientist once even proposed using 200 nuclear bombs to punch a hole in the Himalayas in order to get some sweet air circulation from India.

There will be plenty of problems with an international political body outside of China and certainly plenty of other countries pollute much more per capita. However, the world’s most populous, energy consuming and carbon-spewing nation has been educated to be nationalists hyper-sensitive to sovereignty threats under a Party of crony-capitalists perpetually holding on to their absolute power just a little longer at any expense. Getting them to go in the needed direction will be a challenge to say the least.


So those are a few ways China could sway the future of mankind. Again, this is very theoretical. If you look for holes in this admittedly very strange and sci-fi-ish article, there are plenty. Any number of unforeseen wrenches could be thrown in for better or worse. Like there’s the fairly plausible idea of technological singularity, where artificial computer intelligence surpasses that of humans and figures out the whole mess for us (or takes us out Terminator style). So it could turn out ok, but I’m personally trying to make the most of my time right now and be thankful I was born in this generation rather than the next. Let’s just hope China gets its ducks in a row before it’s too late.