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The China Card

China’s needs for oil - and soon, water – are propelling the world’s most populous country on a collision course with the United States and its neighbors, while threatening civil unrest at home. But China’s economic war with America has already begun.

When this gweilo came ashore alone in Swatow in 1983, the second “round-eyed white devil” to visit this old south China city since it was closed to outsider in 1945 was immediately agog at the crush and energy of seemingly endless humanity, shouting, jostling, gesticulating, building, bicycling - and above all buying and selling from every shop and stoop as Beijing’s new private enterprise reforms unleashed the same uniquely Chinese exuberance I’d experienced living in Hong Kong.

Outside my upper floor hotel room window, I idly itemized the bamboo-scaffolding surrounding a skeletal skyscraper rising from a nearby hill. But I sat bolt upright when I realized that a continuous line of wheelbarrow-pushing laborers was building the hill rising like the back of an awakening dragon from Swatow’s flat coastal plan.

Later, leaving a wake of loud Cantonese music and red dust across vast stretches of deforested countryside en route to fabled Canton, I looked out from a jam-packed minibus to see an endless line of women snaking for miles from distant mountains carrying heavy buckets suspended from wooden yokes - each emptied with a splash into an irrigation channel beside the road before its bearer wheeled without missing a step back toward those hazy hills.

My God, I thought, not for the first time during my unsupervised wanderings through this great southern land. If the government’s new economic policies encouraging private profit and initiative can harness all that energy…

Guess what?

According to the web’s new Agora, an updated online marketplace of news and ideas: “Three years ago, China didn't manufacture a single laptop. Today they make 40% of all laptops sold worldwide. They're also ranked as the world's biggest maker of computer hardware, consumer electronics, even steel. China cranks out 38% of the world's cell phones. And half of the world's shoes. Plus most of the wooden furniture, video games, and televisions in the United States.”

And they are just getting started.

According to William Bonner, publisher of investment and offshore newsletters and founder of, Chinese workers earn 61¢ an hour. A US worker - at least anyone who can still find work - earns more in two weeks than most Chinese laborers make in an entire year.

”Nobody outside of China can compete with that,” Bonner bemoans. “China gets an endless supply of labor for just pennies - while nearly 2,500 manufacturing jobs are disappearing in the Unites States, every day.”

Meanwhile, cheap Chinese products made by prison, child and slave-labor are being snapped up at Wal-Mart and other big chains by Americans spending much more on Chinese products than American goods bought by the Chinese. As shop-till-you-drop American consumers buy a million dollars worth of Chinese products every minute, you can be sure that the folks doing the backseat driving in Washington have mostly unpronounceable names.

According to the Wall Street Journal, some Asian countries are starting to dump America’s bad debt as a bad bet. If China even threatens to refuse renewing expired T-Bills, and asks for cash instead of fresh IOUs - you can bet your last buck that Washington will continue transferring even the most sensitive strategic technologies to Beijing, while acceding to policy directives from bilingual mandarins - anything, so sorry, to keep all those trade deficit dollars rolling over into new Chinese loans.

So next time you reach for a karmically-compromised cheap Chinese consumer item – think twice. Think first of the weary worker - most likely a state prisoner or young woman burning herself into early disability to get that $20 item into your eager hands. Then, if you happen to be a truly patriotic American, reflect on how you are destroying American jobs - and your own country - by buying Chinese.

Beijing, meanwhile, must figure out what to do with more than $310 billion in the US dollars it currently holds…The greenback has lost more than 50% of its real value since October 2000.

Fasten your seatbelts…

Private car sales in the world’s biggest nation have made a Great Lunge Forward - up from those nearly “carless” bicycle-jammed boulevards I navigated in Swatow 20 years ago, to China’s car-clogged roadways today.

This year, nearly two million cars were purchased. At this rate, Newsday natters, “China could have nearly 30 million automobiles by 2010. By 2030, China is expected to have more cars than the United States, and import as much oil as the U.S. does today.”

Already, China has overtaken Japan as the world's second biggest importer of oil, after the USA. And the already huge appetites of its industries and population are growing fast. China has already deployed 4,000 troops to Sudan.

But in emerging economies like Brazil, India “and especially China,” Paul Roberts warns, energy demand may double by 2020.

If all this doesn’t make you nervous the next time you start your car, it should. By the time we figure out that onboard a spaceship hurtling through deep space we will all prosper or suck vacuum together - and make the necessary adjustments our attitudes and assumptions - it could be far too late. Don’t take my word for it. Read Paul Roberts, author of The End of Oil: On the Edge of a Perilous New World.

But not before bedtime.
And remember, China’s boom will not be sustainable for very long…

China is running out of water. By 2025, fully 40 percent of the world's people - more than 3 billion in all - may be living in countries experiencing chronic water scarcity, At the same times, says a Worldwatch Institute study on “The New Politics of Scarcity”, the amount of fresh water that can sustainable be supplied to farmers is nearing its limits - even as 87 million more people are added to the planet each year.

As precious irrigation water continues to be diverted from rice fields to cities like Shanghai, water tables are falling a meter or more each year beneath large expanses irrigated farmland in north China. The lower reaches of China's Yellow River have gone dry for an average of 70 days a year in each of the last 10 years. But in 1995, the river went dry for 122 days. [Worldwatch Press Release Sept14/96]

"The situation is desperate,” George Bush's Energy Adviser, Matthew Simmons summed up in an August 2003 interview. He was speaking about oil, but he could have been referring to Spaceship Earth’s onboard water supplies. Regarding petroleum prospects, the only solution in sight, Simmons said, “is to pray. Under the best of circumstances, if all prayers are answered, there will be no crisis for maybe two years. After that it’s a certainty."

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