Throughout the post-Mao period, China's Communist government has tried as hard as it could to take credit for the country's head-spinning rates of development. In 1983, years after savvy peasants had smashed Mao's huge, lazy collectives into small, profit-hungry family plots, it acclaimed the virtues of household farming, which generated agricultural surpluses to finance industrialisation and imports. In 1988, the party announced that China's mass of new private businesses--which had been making brisk money all decade manufacturing basic commodities such as fertiliser, bricks, cement and washing powder for flush consumers--were a good thing. In the 1994 Selected Works of Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese leader modestly asserted that, while ordinary farmers had had some decent ideas, it was the government that had "processed" and universalised them.
Thus, the official version of China's economic miracle is tidy and centrally managed: a neat succession of excellent plans dropped providentially on the heads of the masses by party sages. The reality was far more chaotic, as hardworking entrepreneurs exploited the small windows of liberalisation that opened after Mao's death in 1976. A fanatical economic meddler, Mao had condemned any kind of saleable sideline--keeping pigs, growing vegetables, catching fish--as counterrevolutionary. After he died, farmers, tired of this nonsense, set about growing and raising whatever they profitably could on privatised plots of land. In a few years, meat consumption had doubled, and so had fruit and sugar production.
Socialism gets dumped
So, from its beginnings, post-Mao China's development was driven by ordinary individuals, seizing opportunities where they could. For much of the 1980s, the party followed rather than led grassroots economic reforms, until in 1992 it finally shed its ideological misgivings about preaching unbridled capitalism. "Slow growth is not socialism," said Deng in 1992; "better, faster, deeper" development was needed.
By 1999, businessmen were being welcomed into the bosom of the party, as representatives of society's most advanced productive forces. Through the 1990s, many urbanites seemed to have at least two jobs: an undemanding, badly paid, state-funded one, and another in the speculative market economy. Waiters shifted cheap cooking oil on the side; steelworkers diversified into venture capital and massage parlours; novelists churned out soap operas. One short story starred a tractor-builder hiring out a derelict bus as a love nest for trysting adulterers.
The results have been, on the face of it, spectacular. With annual growth averaging close on 10 per cent since 1976 and perhaps 500 million people dragged out of poverty, China officially overtook Germany at the start of this year to become the world's third-largest economy. The privatisation of state-allocated housing in the 1990s helped fuel a huge construction boom, underpinned by armies of unskilled, mistreated rural labourers, who flooded the cities in search of better incomes. Every time [return to China, since my first visit at the end of the 1990s, the song of the angle-grinder is never far away. Once, while studying at a southeastern university, I barely slept for weeks as 24-hour building works roared outside my window. (If the noise outside died down, the silence was filled by bemused questions from my Chinese room-mate on whether I genuinely had doubts about the Marxist theory of socio-economic change.) Building jobs that would take months, even years, in the west--encumbered with prohibitive labour costs and regulations--shot up in weeks. In the construction frenzy that preceded the Olympics, flimsily harnessed workers were to be seen scrambling up and down the wind-buffeted roofs of 24-storey buildings all around the capital.
Leaving behind the material austerity of the Mao years--during which the average couple counted themselves lucky if they could distribute a few handfuls of boiled sweets to wedding guests--China has become the factory of the world since 1997, and its moneyed citizens have looked eagerly around for things to do with their cash. Back in 1980, consumer ambitions remained modest: a bicycle, perhaps, or a sewing machine. Over the next five or so years, sales of wristwatches and television sets took off; by 1990, electric fans, washing machines and fridges had become must-haves. By the end of the 1990s, China's wealthiest consumers were thinking altogether bigger: cars, apartments, foreign holidays.
When I returned to Beijing in 2007, the traffic was barely moving because of all the private vehicles. At the start of the new millennium, Chinese television was awash with aspirational images: perfect Ikea interiors and chrome kitchens, peopled by middle-class creatures with pearly-white smiles. In 30 years, the capital has been transformed from drab monochrome to 24-hour Technicolor, with almost every available public space given over to salesmanship: pirated books and handbags on station platforms, oranges on pavements, bread rolls out of wheelbarrows, socks and medicinal fungi on flyovers. As underground trains accelerate through tunnels, digitised adverts flash past your window--generally too fast to make much sense of them, but at least the opportunity isn't being wasted.
Cancer villages mushroom
But this economic free-for-all has come at a heavy cost for an environment already pummelled by Mao's crazy Utopian schemes for transforming industry and farming. Since 1976, industrial growth has been fuelled by sulphur-dioxide-rich coal, a cheap, ready source of energy and respiratory disease. Back in 2007, the World Bank estimated that only 1 per cent of China's urban population enjoyed air defined as safe by EU standards. Pollution is now thought to cause about 750,000 premature deaths a year, while rivers are choked with unsavoury mixes of industrial by-products, sewage, pesticides and slaughterhouse waste.
Health officials hardly need maps to locate China's cancer villages-their rivers, orange with carcinogens, point them up clearly enough. The country's new luxury apartment blocks run down in a handful of years, their facades quickly streaked with ambient filth. For well over a decade, environmental problems have threatened the Communist Party's Potemkin displays (to mark big party meetings and anniversaries) with thick grey curtains of smog. Chinese urbanites tut-tut conversationally about air quality in much the same way as the British discuss the weather. The pollution is sometimes so bad that the local news advises civilians to stay at home, and certainly not to do anything as rash as walking outdoors or cycling.
Quick fixes are enough to patch up Beijing cosmetically. In preparation for President Clinton's 1998 visit, gangs of workers were despatched to staple plastic leaves on to trees. And swaths of grass were sprayed green before the International Olympic Committee's final 2001 inspection to brighten a capital sallowed by deforestation and water shortages.
In the run-up to last year's Olympics, and in accordance with long-established practice, the government's Weather Modification Office openly stated that it would seed the clouds to guarantee rainless days. Unprecedented quantities of silver iodide were pumped into the sky at the end of September this year to ensure that the party's Leni Riefenstahl-style review of the troops on the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic would take place under a flawless blue sky.
But other environmental problems refuse to be cracked so easily, even though Beijing has often talked up its proposed solution, promising a "Green GDP" calculation to monitor environmental damage, a renewable energy drive and clean water regulations. Just last month, President Hu Jintao pledged a "notable" reduction in China's carbon emissions (while artfully avoiding a hard figure). But as central government has dined out domestically and internationally on boom-time statistics, it has devolved new powers over taxation and land use to local governments, on condition that these deliver rapid growth. At the provincial level, the feverish quest for better, faster, deeper development, coupled with official corruption, has sidelined conservation. Local officials shut their eyes to heavy pollution or land-grabs, often in return for appropriately generous bribes.
Now development threatens to undo the party's one credible source of legitimacy: prosperity and stability. "The economic miracle will end soon," predicted Pan Yue, the plain-speaking deputy minister of environmental protection, back in 2005, "because the environment can no longer keep pace." It is the country's very poorest who have so far suffered most from climate change, and industry's destruction of rivers, forests and farmland has for years been driving angry protest against local governments. Back in 1996--before China's environmental problems began making international headlines--furious villagers in the north-west were bombarding a fertiliser factory with the river water it had contaminated and demanding that local officials and their families try to drink it themselves. The year 2005 was punctuated by violent altercations between civilians and officials in south and east China over land requisition and contamination.
China-watchers began to speculate whether environmental degradation could bring down the Communist Party.
As ecological awareness has increased over the past ten years or so, it has been tricky for developed western nations to dictate a green imperative to Beijing. You made your carbon mess back in the 19th century, China can always retort, and it made you rich enough to clean up in the 21st; it's our turn to go through the same process. And it is clear that, in the run-up to December's climate conference in Copenhagen, China will continue to put pressure on the world's richest to do their bit. On 5 October, the Chinese ambassador for climate change confrontationally accused the US of sabotaging the Kyoto Protocol. But now that environmental devastation threatens China's rise, perhaps its rulers will, over the coming months, take a more committed approach to Copenhagen's basic goals--setting targets for limiting emissions and developing renewable sources of energy. In return, they will be hoping for settlements over aid and technology transfer from developed nations.
If real progress is made, this could end up sending out a message about China's ambitions to become a world leader far nobler than the triumphal displays of military hardware on 1 October.
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Sources: World Bank, World Steel Association, International Energy Agency
Julia Lovell is a lecturer in modern Chinese history at the University of London. Her next book, "The Opium War and Its Afterlives", will be published by Picador in 2011…