C H I N A
China’s green colonialism
The climate crisis brings out superpower rivalry
KATE BROWN CHINA GOES GREEN Coercive environmentalism for a troubled planet YIFEI LI AND JUDITH SHAPIRO
240pp. Polity. £15.99.
THE NEW MAP Energy, climate, and the clash of nations
DANIEL YERGIN 512pp. Allen Lane. £25.
TWO NEW BOOKS reflect on how the cartographies of power are being redrafted in the twenty-first century. As Yifei Li and Judith Shapiro demonstrate in China Goes Green, the emergent map is being dominated by an increasingly confident China, which is using an environmental plat-
form to help to justify authoritarian rule at home and abroad. Meanwhile, Daniel Yergin delineates his own structures in The New Map by following the contours of geo-physical power: oil, gas, coal and solar.
Li and Shapiro seek to make an intervention. Many people, they write, are seduced by China’s ambition to lead the world in sustainable growth. As liberal democracies have appeared to go comatose in addressing the climate crisis, they argue, the flexibility and reach of centralized Chinese authority have come to seem increasingly attractive. The Covid-19 emergency has demonstrated this. China controlled the pandemic in a few months with strict measures and the surveillance of its citizens. Chinese leaders apply a similar no-nonsense approach to the climate. They rule by fiat, disbursing research funding, guiding media, censoring peddlers of bad science, and coaching all parties – business and bureaucracies – into compliance to lower greenhouse gas emissions. And they do it on a scale never seen before. Over the past four decades, for example, 400 million Chinese people have planted 70.5 billion trees. Imagine, as those tree roots spread and leaves grow, the plumes of carbon being pulled from the atmosphere.
Not so fast, argue Li and Shapiro. The authors remind us that China remains a major polluter and exporter of coal and dirty technologies. The country is brimming with toxic soil, contaminated water, sooty air, “cancer villages” and vast mine tailings visible from space. Many of the trees were planted on grass savannas. Drinking up scarce water, they have caused erosion, and the majority of the poplars and evergreens have died.
Li and Shapiro are tough on China in a manner reminiscent of certain Cold War reportage: almost everything Chinese leaders do is deemed authoritarian. But China did not invent the models for economic development that are geared for ecological disaster. China’s “green” programmes bear the marks of many colonial projects of yore, including dam building, the enclosure of commons and the transplantation of ethnic majorities in borderlands as a “civilizational” force (see the Han Chinese in Xinjiang). And, like the colonial powers of previous centuries, China is exporting its bad environmentalism abroad in the cause of development, selling it as soft power.
China’s $60 billion Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) mimics many features of the postwar Marshall Plan. American planners billed the plan as aid, while
Pripyat Marshland seen out of a train window, Ukraine, 2017
Kate Brown is Professor of Science, Technology and Society at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her most recent book is Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl guide to the future, 2019
building markets and military power in Europe. The Chinese “belt” is a reconnection of the old Silk Road with offshoots girding the globe. It involves maritime routes linking South Asia, Africa and the Middle East. In exchange for allegiance, China funds education and poverty reduction while promising not to impose “universal values” and “regime change”.
Li and Shapiro judge the BRI to be an authoritarian China’s counterbalance to a West-centric world. The project has metastasized to incorporate onefourth of the global economy (131 countries), plus the Arctic and the Moon. They point out that Chinese planners actually use the so-called “Green Silk Road” to drop off dirty technologies, especially coal plants, which the World Bank will not fund. The “greenwashing” of the BRI, they argue, is a highly effective means of China to spread into global markets in the guise of promoting sustainable growth. In fact, BRI projects are set to bulldoze through dozens of critical habitats. One is Europe’s last swamp, the Pripyat Marshes, situated in Poland, Ukraine and Belarus. A planned shipping canal, the E-40 – billed as far more environmentally friendly than a road – will run through these marshes, destroying important habitat for migrating birds. It might also churn up radioactive contaminants from Chernobyl.
Li and Shapiro make an important point. China does invest in renewable energy and industry, but mostly at home to deal with a devastating smog problem. Meanwhile, it simply exports its dirtier operations abroad. In The New Map Daniel Yergin describes one such frontier for Chinese business in the US. In 2015 the Chinese company Yuhang Shadong (more recently named and shamed by China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection for its domestic polluting practices) purchased sugar cane fields in the south of Louisiana and built a chemical processing plant there. Like many other companies, it was drawn to cheap US oil, low taxes and the relaxed attitude on environmental regulations in a region known as “cancer alley”.
Yergin, the US’s most influential energy pundit, stresses that the largest BRI impacts are underground. Pipelines carrying oil and gas from Central Asia feed insatiable Chinese industries. China is, the author argues, using the BRI to extend its borders into the South China Sea. Contractors piling rocks on underwater reefs have built 3,200 artificial islands, and China now claims these insta-islands as sovereign territory and uses them for jet runways and missile batteries. The country also finances deep water ports along BRI maritime routes. When countries such as Sri Lanka default on loans, Chinese firms gain control. This debt trap helps China to make good on longstanding strategic claims to the South China Sea (see Isabel Hilton, TLS, April 24, 2020).
Yergin’s The New Map vaults between China, Russia, North America, Europe and the Middle East as he considers how the shifting production of fossil fuels determines who rules which parts of the planet. In the final analysis, Yergin writes, the contest for power lies between the poles of the G2 – China and the US. For most developing countries, Yergin argues, empire-building China is the best offer in town. This became even more apparent during the Trump years, when the US stepped back and China strode in.
But, Yergen points out, the US still has a grip on considerable power in the form of oil and gas. For years, pundits worried about reaching “peak oil”. Then, in 1998, the businessman George P. Mitchell spotted the potential in sending massive quantities of water, sand and chemicals through networks of subterranean pipes to squeeze gas from shale. Soon engineers were using the same technique to pull oil from abandoned fields in Texas, Pennsylvania and the Great Plains. Yergin shows how the US shale revolution tore up the existing map of oil powers. As US shale oil flooded markets, prices fell. Saudi Arabia and Russia tripped up in price wars. Prices dropped yet more, which was good for manufactur-
FEBRUARY 26, 2021
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