Clothesline in Winter

Clothesline in Winter

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Learning From the Comrades: What the Chinese can Teach America

We had some pretty strong preconceptions before coming to China a few weeks ago.  Scenes of brave but hopeless students staring down tanks on Tiananmen Square; reports of house churches huddled in secret worship; images of thousands of factory workers slaving over electronic boards -- Our views were a mix of fact, fiction, and history.
Not all of those notions have been debunked, though some have.  It still is undeniable that the Chinese Communist Party holds onto power with an iron fist.  The state still controls the internet and the press as they wish.  The one-child policy often results in terrible consequences. And local people can’t do much about corrupt city officials who profit from business interests that contaminate the drinking water.
But that doesn’t mean that the state gets everything wrong.  As we say back home:  “Even a blind squirrel finds an acorn.” And this squirrel is by no means blind.
So I shouldn’t have been all that surprised to find much to like in China’s “12th Five-Year Plan for National Economic and Social Development.”  For communist leaders from Ho Chi Minh to Fidel Castro, the Five Year Plan (FYP) is the cornerstone of national policy.  In China, the plan is a broad blueprint: it sets overall objectives and goals related to social and economic growth and industrial planning in key sectors. And while the blueprint may or may not be carried out fully in practice, it tells you where the country wants to go, and what it’s willing to do to get there.
So what is China’s blueprint for the next five years?
Well, the catch-phrase is “inclusive growth” -- generally, restructuring China’s plans so that more people participate in its growing wealth.  And while it has its skeptics, it also has some impressive details.  For us, it’s notable that China has placed “protecting the environment” among its top three priorities. And what might that mean in specifics?  Well, here’s what we see:

The Plan:  Less coal, and increases in cleaner forms of energy
  1. Among the seven “strategic emerging industries” that Beijing will specifically support, four are vital to creation care: sustainable energy, energy conservation, environmental protection and clean-energy vehicles.  The Chinese government will invest US$700 billion in these industries, and the private sector will add a lot more.
  2. Reducing reliance on coal:  The plan calls for capping domestic coal production, and tripling wind, hydro and nuclear power generation.
  3. Cutting CO2 emissions per unit of GDP by 40-45%: Specific plans involve electric car battery technology, resulting in annual production of one million electric cars by 2015.
  4. Imposing a carbon tax on fossil fuels and developing a carbon trading system:  Until the “external costs” of fossil fuels – health costs, military costs to protect supply lines, costs of flooding and drought, costs of pollution cleanup – are included in the market price of fossil fuels, all other clean-energy efforts are hampered.  Someone pays them today, and the Chinese are handing the tab to the polluters.
  5. Measuring urban air pollution, and achieving “blue-sky-day” targets. Chinese city air is notoriously bad.  And they’re only now starting to use meaningful measurement devices.  People need to know what they’re breathing.
  6. 15% of energy from non-fossil fuels by 2020:  Beijing plans to invest heavily in new solar, wind, and nuclear technologies.
  7. Smart electric grid:  30% of China’s wind farms aren’t yet grid-connected because of an antiquated grid, much like the U.S. 
  8. Ten-fold return on energy-efficiency investments:  During the 11th FYP, China claims it enjoyed $10 of GDP for every $1 of government investment in the sector. During the 12th FYP, Beijing will invest another US$500 billion in energy efficiency.
Now, the Clothesline is no China expert.  Much may be lost, they say, between the cup and the lip.  But what if our own country had an effective policy to do half of those things?  Check that: What if we did one or two of them?
There’s a serious chance that we’ll find ourselves in 2016 – when we’re reading about the 13th Five-Year Plan – hopelessly behind these global competitors in matters that concern caring for God’s good earth. But it doesn’t have to be that way.  And it starts with people like us breaking our timid silence, and talking honestly about the demands of justice on the environmental policies of our country.
Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.

J. Elwood


  1. It's interesting that a country we so often see as backward in this area has laid out such progressive goals. Of course, it remains to be seen if they will be met, but it's more than we have done.
    It is also interesting to think that, just because we may differ ideologically from a government, party, country, or culture, it doesn't mean that they cannot have good ideas. It would be easy to say that, since this is a product of the Chinese Communist Party (of whom I tend to be pretty critical), it is inherently bad, dangerous, wrong, and should be ignored. But that would be reactionary, and not intellectually honest. This seems especially poignant in the current political climate - we, and our politicians, should be able to acknowledge that people of differing political persuasion have good and valid ideas without being attacked. As you say here, we can learn from each other, even if we disagree in important ways.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

  2. Good points. We must not dishonor the victims of Tiananmen Square, or their forbears who perished in the Cultural Revolution or the Great Leap Forward, by acting like the Chinese regime has clean hands. But our own history is also marked by shameful episodes,including some that are ongoing, and may be again in the future.

    A good idea is good regardless of its source.