Ecological Transition in China

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* Richard Smith, “China’s drivers and planetary ecological collapse”, real-world economics review, issue no. 82, 13 December 2017, pp. 2-28,


In this crucial essay, the author explains why it can't happen in the present social and economic conditions.


Richard Smith:

"Since taking office in 2012, President Xi Jinping has increasingly stressed his government’s commitment to building an “ecological society”, to cleaning up pollution, building “beautiful cities”, most of which have been rebuilt over the past two decades with new housing, schools, hospitals, public parks, impressive new subway systems, and more. In addition, most of China’s cities are now connected via the country’s incomparable network of ultra-smooth high-speed trains. Xi’s government has promised to reduce China’s dependence on coal and declared its intention to phase out all fossil-fuel-powered cars in the next decades. It has already invested more money in renewable energy and electric vehicles than the rest of the world combined. And it has now banned the import of electronic and other toxic waste that poisoned Chinese recycling communities for decades.

In his address to the Nineteenth Congress of the Communist Party in October 2017, Xi spoke like an eco-socialist:

“Man and nature form a community of life; we, as human beings, must respect nature, follow its ways, and protect it. Only by observing the laws of nature can mankind avoid costly blunders in its exploitation. Any harm we inflict on nature will eventually return to haunt us. This is a reality we have to face...

We must realise that lucid waters and lush mountains are invaluable assets and act on this understanding, implement our fundamental national policy of conserving resources and protecting the environment, and cherish the environment as we cherish our own lives. We will adopt a holistic approach to conserving our mountains, rivers, forests, farmlands, lakes, and grasslands, implement the strictest possible systems for environmental protection, and develop eco-friendly growth models and ways of life. We must pursue a model of sustainable development featuring increased production, higher living standards, and healthy ecosystems. We must continue the Beautiful China initiative to create good working and living environments for our people and play our part in ensuring global ecological security...

The modernization that we pursue is one characterised by harmonious coexistence between man and nature. In addition to creating more material and cultural wealth to meet people’s ever-increasing needs for a better life, we need also to provide more quality ecological goods to meet people’s ever growing demands for a beautiful environment. We should, acting on the principles of prioritising resource conservation and environmental protection and letting nature restore itself, develop spatial layouts, industrial structures, and ways of work and life that help conserve resources and protect the environment. With this, we can restore the serenity, harmony, and beauty of nature.”

To give force to his policy initiatives, Xi elevated China’s State Environmental Protection Agency to ministerial rank: it’s now the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP), with powers equal, in theory, to the big industrial ministries. At the Congress, he announced, “We will establish regulatory agencies to manage state-owned natural resource assets and monitor natural ecosystems, and improve environmental management systems. These agencies will, in a unified way, perform the duties of the owner of public-owned natural resource assets, the duties of regulating the use of all territorial space and protecting and restoring ecosystems, and the duties of monitoring the discharge of all pollutants in urban and rural areas and conducting administrative law enforcement.”

He further pledged that his government,

“will complete work on drawing redlines for protecting the ecosystems, designating permanent basic cropland, and delineating boundaries for urban development... we will promote afforestation, take comprehensive steps to control desertification... and soil erosion, strengthen wetland conservation and restoration... We will improve the system for protecting natural forests... rigorously protect farmland”, and more ...

Not only that but Xi’s government has also pledged to wipe out the last vestiges of poverty in China by 2030 and turn China into a “moderately prosperous society” where the basic needs of all including jobs, housing, and healthcare, are met."

Why it's not going to happen

Richard Smith:

"Alas, that is not going to happen. I don’t doubt Xi’s earnest intentions. But for all of that, I’m going to argue here that Xi Jinping cannot lead the fight against global warming because he runs a political-economic system characterised by systemic growth drivers – the need to maximise growth beyond any market rationality, the need to maximise employment, and the need to maximise consumerism – which are, if anything, even more powerful and even more eco-suicidal than those of “normal” capitalism in the West, but which Xi is powerless to alter.

These drivers are responsible for China’s irrational “blind growth”, “blind production” and outof-control pollution, what Xi himself describes as “meaningless development at the cost of the environment”.

But Xi cannot systematically compel his subordinate officials to stop squandering resources in useless overproduction and overconstruction, and stop polluting the country and the planet because for all of his nominal authority as head of the most powerful and ferocious police state in history, in reality, power is widely shared throughout the 88- million-member ruling party. This means that most of the time, he cannot force officials to give up their ruinous practices when to do so would undermine their economic interests.

Furthermore, I contend that for all his eco-socialist rhetoric, Xi does not try very hard to suppress these destructive practices because Xi Jinping himself is the leading driver of “meaningless growth at the expense of the environment.” Xi’s priority is not to build an “ecological society.” His overriding priority, like Mao and Deng before him is to make China rich and powerful, to achieve superpower status equal to if not superior to the United States, to “Make China Great Again” and reclaim its role as the centre of the world economy.

These achievements are the sine qua non of ruling-class reproduction and guarantor of the communist party’s grip on power. The problem with Xi’s vainglorious ambition is that the hyper industrialization required to realize this China Dream of great power status compels him to break the “harmonious coexistence between man and nature”, to let the polluters pollute, pump China’s CO2 emissions off the chart, and thereby bring on the ecological collapse not just of China but the whole planet. Why is that?

Here’s why: In capitalism, competition is the motor that drives growth like a perpetual motion machine. It’s automatic: Competition forces producers to cut costs systematically, find cheaper inputs, wider markets, bring in new technology – in short, to constantly revolutionise the instruments and processes of production on pain of failure and extinction in the marketplace. Growth is built in and cannot be exorcised. All efforts to date to “green capitalism” – cap-and-trade, carbon taxes, the dematerialisation of production, and so on – have foundered on the brutal reality that no government or industrialised economy will accept binding limits on greenhouse-gas emissions because no one has yet found a way to staunch emissions without staunching economic growth.

Yet in capitalism there is a one built-in, if temporary, limit to growth: profits. If companies can’t make a profit, they will cease production and lay off workers, sometimes masses of workers. Now and again, economic recession or collapse brings growth to a halt, at least temporarily, until sufficient value has been destroyed such that the cycle can begin all over again on an enlarged scale. Hence the business cycle. Further, in capitalist democracies, there is still some freedom to organise, so environmental organisations have been able to impose some restraint on pollution – gains which, as we know, are now under unprecedented assault. But most of this does not apply in China state-sector economy because China’s rulers are not private capitalists ...

China’s rulers are bureaucratic collectivists who run a hybrid bureaucratic-collectivist capitalist economy, a system largely – though, of course, not entirely – exempted from the laws of capitalism. It’s difficult to make generalisations about the “Chinese economy” because what’s true of the state-owned sector (about half the economy) is not necessarily true of the foreign-invested joint-venture sector (about a third of the industrial economy) or the domestic private-capitalist sector. Here I’m mainly concerned with the state-owned, state-controlled, state-planned economy because this is the main engine of the economy and because it over-determines the rest as well. China’s State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs) do not live and die by the rules of the market. For all the market reforms since 1978, the government has not allowed a single major SOE to fail and go bankrupt, no matter how inefficient, no matter how indebted, because those industries serve a different purpose. They do not exist just to make money. They exist to fulfil the wishes of China’s Communist Party rulers, especially as they contribute to import substitution and national industrialisation. China’s statist economy thus abides by different laws of motion." (

In Conclusion

Richard Smith:

"Xi Jinping has no chance of leading a global fight against global warming. It means that, instead, China’s economy is likely to continue leading the drive towards planetary ecological collapse. Short of nuclear war, China’s economic engine poses the greatest threat to life on Earth. While the US, Europe, and Japan limp along at 1 to 3 percent annual GDP growth, China’s supercharged communist-capitalist economy is still barrelling along at just under 7 percent GDP increase per year. To be sure, this is down from its rate of 10 percent or more during the two decades leading up to 2011. But it’s still double and triple the growth rates in capitalist countries. China’s breakneck growth is driving global planetary collapse and yet for all his police-state powers and ecological ambitions, Xi Jinping is unable or at least unwilling to try to reverse those priorities.


Given the foregoing, it’s very difficult to see how China’s drive to ecological collapse can be averted. One thing is for sure: the Communist Party cannot save China, let alone the world. The CCP is locked in a death spiral it can’t pull out of: Xi can’t cut industrial production enough to drastically suppress emissions without inviting mass strikes, the rise of a Chinese Solidarność, and perhaps even revolt. So he can’t slam on the brakes and has every incentive to keep the engines of destruction at full throttle.

What can be done? It goes without saying that the Chinese have every right to modernise, industrialise, and improve their material standard of living. But they don’t need a higher standard of living based on ever-growing consumerism, like that of Americans. That’s one more thing they don’t need to copy. They need a better mode of living: clean unpolluted air, water, and soil; safe, nutritious, untainted, unadulterated food instead of toxic water, polluted adulterated foods, junk foods, and cancer villages – the “lucid waters and lush mountains,’ the “healthy ecosystems” and “beautiful environment” Xi promised them. They need safe, quality housing that doesn’t fall down. They need a public transportation system centred on urban bicycles and public transit instead of private cars and ring roads. They need good public schools and universities that encourage free intellectual inquiry and critical thinking so they don’t have to send their children abroad to get a decent education and access Google and Facebook and Twitter and so on like the rest of the world. They need socialised medicine – free public healthcare like they used to have, but better, instead of the massively corrupt, bribery-driven pay-for-service system they’ve had to endure since medical care was privatised in the 1990s.

But Xi Jinping and the Communist Party can’t give them that better mode of living, that better life, because the industrial retrenchment necessary to maintain “a harmonious coexistence between man and nature” would undermine the CCP’s dreams of economic supremacy.


When all is said and done, the irreducible fact is that, in the absence of some miracle deus ex machina, there’s just no way to radically suppress China’s CO2 emissions that’s compatible with continuing economic growth. Xi Jinping can create an ecological civilization or he can build a rich superpower. He can’t do both. As I’ve argued elsewhere, the only way to effectively meet the climate emergency we face is with an emergency shutdown of useless, superfluous, unnecessary and harmful industrial production around the world, but most particularly in China and the United States, the biggest polluters. The only way the Chinese can suppress greenhouse gas emissions by anything like what they need to do to would be to impose a drastic across-the-board economic contraction, including radical retrenchments and shutdowns of most of the industries that have been built up in the last four decades of market mania. That sounds extreme, no doubt. But the 4 to 6° rise in temperatures that’s coming our way unless this growth is halted will be a lot more extreme. What’s more, if China were to retrench and shut down its unsustainable industries, then it would have to find or create new jobs for all those displaced workers. That’s a problem too. But unbreathable air, undrinkable water, toxic food, polluted farmland, the cancer epidemic, soaring temperatures, melting glaciers, collapsing agriculture and sinking coastal cities are bigger problems. The heat and drought and melting are already coming in China.95 If the Chinese don’t organise a rationally managed retrenchment and shutdown of unsustainable industries, Mother Nature is going to shut those industries down for them and in a much less pleasant manner. There’s just no way around this very inconvenient truth: Making too much stuff has to stop.

Can the Chinese find a way to grab hold of the brakes and wrench their locomotive of destruction to a halt before it’s too late? Can China’s suppressed but incredibly brave human rights activists, labour unionists, democrats, lawyers, environmentalists, and authentic socialists come up with a viable, ecologically sustainable, socially fair, and democratic ecosocialist alternative to Xi’s state-capitalist drive to ecological apocalypse?

At the moment there’s certainly no hint of any revolutionary threat from below in the consumerist delirium of urban China. But appearances can be deceiving in China as in all dictatorships and radical upsurges can appear out of nowhere without warning, as the communists are very well aware from their experience in 1989. That’s why Xi Jinping finds it increasingly necessary to shut his internet off from the rest of the world, and to arrest and imprison democrats, feminists, trade unionists, book sellers, and even Hong Kong hi)gh-school students and force confessions out of them in Stalinist-revival show trials. But Xi’s intensifying repression is less a manifestation of his strength than of his fear: The relentless worsening of China’s ecological crisis and the growing tensions and contradictions in Chinese society are setting the stage of history for a radical shock: the next Chinese revolution." ((


  • Xinhua, State Council of the CPC Central Committee, ‘Overall Plan for the Reform of Ecological

Civilization System’ (Zhonggong zhongyang guowuyuan yinfa ‘shengtai wenming tizhi gaige zongti fang’an’), Central Government Portal, 21 September 2015, 09/21/content_2936327.htm; Li Liafang and Huang Yan, ‘Xinhua Insight: President Xi Sets the Pace on


  • Michael Standaert, ‘China’s Notorious E-waste Village Disappears Almost Overnight’, Bloomberg, 17

December 2015,; Zhuang Pinhui, ‘China’s Most Notorious E-waste Dumping Ground Now Cleaner but Poorer’, South China Morning Post, 22 September 2017,

  • Xinhua, ‘Full Text of Xi Jinping’s Report at the 19th CPC National Congress’,

  • People’s Daily, ‘President Highlights Importance of Protecting the Environment’, 21 April 2017,

More information

  • Richard Smith. ‘China’s Communist-Capitalist Ecological Apocalypse’, Real-World Economics Review 71

(May 2015): 19–63.

  • Richard Smith: I explored the persistence of bureaucratic economic

irrationality in the face of market reforms during the first decade of market reform in my dissertation, Class Structure and Economic Development: The Contradictions of Market Socialism in China (Los Angeles: UCLA History Department, 1989), chapters 3 through 5,

  • On the transformation of the CCP during the course of the revolution, see my ‘Mao Zedong and the

First Party-Army Revolution’, Against the Current 1, no. 1 (Summer 1981),