China: first target consumption to improve environment
China is committed to improving its environment, of that there is no doubt. There is simply no alternative, as Mother Earth has already proved in certain regions with numerous disasters, great and small.
But some officials, mainly local ones, still sacrifice the environment out of their eagerness to achieve economic growth.
So far, our line of thinking in this area has been concentrated on the production side. The government takes pain in reducing pollution and improving energy and resource efficiency through legislation, environmental impact assessment for major projects, strict law enforcement and hefty penalties.
These the government can do easily, and they can quantitatively measure results. Judging from past records, these results can be spectacular too.
A case in point regards soil erosion. Before, we lost valuable farmland to the tune of over 2,000 square kilometres a year, but during the last decade we actually gained fertile land from desert areas and increased forestry coverage through years of persistent tree planting. This is a feat very few countries, both rich and poor, have achieved.
But this is still not good enough for China.
Our environment is in such a pitiful state that over 60 per cent of the country is environmentally fragile. Some small achievements simply cannot help reverse the general trend.
We have so far attained a per capita GDP of just US$1,000, and still have to continue developing our economy at a rapid pace. This will lead to further environment degradation and resources depletion.
If we want to achieve a peaceful rise, we will have to allay international fears that China will soon literally fight for her insatiable demand for natural resources worldwide.
Modern capitalist development is characterized by mass production fuelled by mass consumption. The problem lies in consumption being misguided by corporations for profit maximization.
Take the US for example, where households have on average more than three cars, and every individual purchases seven pairs of shoes a year. Americans on the whole consume 6.5 times the global average of resources.
Our population is four times that of the US. Multiply their ecological footprint by four and you will begin to grasp the reality that this is a consumption pattern to which China simply cannot aspire.
Even for the US, this consumption leads to a private and public debt burden of over US$145,000 per head, negative savings and trillions of US dollars of fiscal and foreign exchange deficits.
Currently this country has to suck in US$2 billion per day from all over the world to satisfy its spending habits. This is clearly unsustainable, even for the US.
Moreover, the US is totally unable to get rid of its expensive addiction, whilst other countries do not seriously want them to do so. If they should halve that number of consumer goods, many factories will be in great trouble.
However, in China's cities we are consuming more like the Americans now. We consume a lot more protein in our diet, leading to a general rise in obesity among the population, and a subsequent increase in diabetes, hypertension and coronary diseases. Even the US government is beginning to promote the "food pyramid", urging its citizens to eat more grains, fruits and vegetables in their meals.
We Chinese have never developed an eating habit like this before, and we should quit it right now before it is too late. Reverting to our traditional eating habit will conserve countless farmland and reduce a lot of imports.
We also emulate the Americans in promoting private car ownership. This is of course good news to the automotive industry, but the result is terrible traffic jams in the cities, air pollution, and rising oil imports even in the face of skyrocketing prices. Hong Kong does not have the car industry interest to serve. Its car ownership is among the lowest in comparable income level cities, and it has very few traffic jams. People can travel to most destinations in the territory by rail and other public transport, and the suburbs are linked with bicycle lanes for commuting.
If Hong Kong, which is known for its fabulous efficiency, can get along with this mode of transportation, so can all cities in the country.
And what is the point of promoting low-density houses for the newly rich in our cities when land is such a scarce resource? We can save a lot of fuel and electricity if we design our high-rise apartments with better insulation, better airflow and more sunlight.
The rooftops can be covered with grass and scrubs to create more greenery, together with solar panels and mini-windmills to further save electricity bills.
We should take measures to cut down cigarette and alcohol consumption in our country. Together with a more traditional low protein diet and regular exercise, we can better support our aged population, which will soon be bigger than the overall population of the US.
Learning from the lessons of developed countries, we should switch over to this new and healthier mode of consumption early. Because once we get addicted to the current mode, it will be extremely painful to shake it off.
Developing along this alternative consumption route, our industries will have to develop in a different direction in order to serve the new demand.
Our country can then continue to grow in a more self-reliant manner and without further damage to the environment. We will be offering products and services that are quite unique, and are better geared to serving the needs of the world's future.
The market for these environmentally friendly products and services will go beyond the imagination once they are marketed to the mainstream population and are no longer niche products. By then, China's peaceful rise will be utterly credible, and it will be wholeheartedly welcomed by the world.
The author is a member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference National Committee from Hong Kong