China’s Capitalistic Pranayama

According to many cultures, breathing is the essence of being. It is the only bodily function that we do both voluntarily and involuntarily. In yoga, the breath is known as prana or a universal energy that can be utilized to find balance between body and mind. Pranayama is the yoga practice that means control of life or energy, and it is used to change energies within the body for health purposes… unless… you live in Beijing, where regular breathing is hazardous to your health, as such, the balance between body and mind is a real challenge.

For a thousand years China was quiet, pastoral, insular, self-sufficient, ignoring the outside world, but ever since the world’s largest population discovered state capitalism 30-40 years ago, the Chinese economy has been hell-bent on rapidity of development, cornering the world market for basic goods like chemicals, steel, cement, and glass. The resultant economic growth story has been remarkable (from $303 billion GDP in 1980 up to $8.2 trillion in 2012, whilst growing by $1 trillion+ per year over the past few years) as China has surged up the ranks to its present position as the world’s second largest economy, which itself is historic.

But, this remarkable growth story has come at staggering costs. China’s economic growth has rocked the health of the planet, burning so much coal that it alone contributes 30%+ of worldwide CO2 emissions, poisoning the world’s atmosphere, and if you are ever in Beijing, don’t practice Pranayama out-of-doors, you’ll likely pass-out.

It was only a few months ago when the smog in Beijing could be cut with a knife. In January 2013, even the government admitted to the problem, as the US-Beijing Embassy readings of air quality went off the charts @ 886 for PM2.5 measurement. Anything over 301 is considered hazardous to health. According to Time magazine’s coverage of the soupy affair.1 As it goes, Beijing experienced a run on surgeon’s masks.

What’s behind this soupy, toxic story? According to Reuters: “Environmentalists and analysts suggest a complex mix of causes, from an over-reliance on heavy industry and an addiction to dirty coal, to poor enforcement of pollution laws, hundreds of thousands of new cars on the roads and incentives for local officials to promote economic growth at all costs,”2 or, in a nutshell, 19th century-style rampant capitalism, i.e., who gives a damn if the air is repulsively rancid, you’ve gotta grow the economy!

China embodies capitalism at its purest, and at its raunchiest, bundled up in one state-run capitalistic, ummm… communistic country (By the way, the richest 70 members of China’s legislature, the National People’s Congress, added more to their wealth in 2011, in one year, than the combined net worth of all 545 members of Congress, the president, his cabinet, and the Supreme Court. How’s that for Communism?)

The Horrid Results of Dirty Air

The U.S. National Academy of Sciences recently concluded that, since 1990, the average person living in Southern China lives 5.5 years longer than his/her counterpart in Northern China because the country’s pollution is so much worse in the north.

China consumes as much coal as the U.S., the European Union, and Japan combined. And, consider this: According to David Mohler, Duke Power’s chief technology officer, “… China is preparing, by 2025, for 350 million people to live in cities that don’t exist now… They have to build the equivalent of the U.S. electrical system— that is, almost as much added capacity as the entire U.S. grid—by 2025. It took us 120 years.”3

The good news: China is focused on cleaning up its coal as it expands sources of power to another 350 million urban dwellers, who use much more energy than do the 350 million peasants who’ll be moving to these cities. In this regard, a benefit China has over the U.S. is building new plants from the ground up whereas the U.S. has to retrofit plants to achieve “clean coal,” a very costly affair. But — wait a moment — China, which has been building new coal plants every couple of weeks, is now claiming “clean coal.” Yes, of course, this is an oxymoron. But, they are trying and posturing and saying the right things.

James Fallows’ excellent article in The Atlantic about China’s energy situation explains the problem of getting out from underneath coal as the mainstay of power, and his logic is compelling, including the enormous infrastructure costs and competitive costs vis a vis renewables. In the final analysis, and according to his article, on a practical basis, there is little hope of getting around coal for decades. So, clean coal it must be, but one has to wonder whether there really is such a thing as clean coal… maybe “quasi-clean” would be a better description, or would it?

As Fallows says, “Now come the parts of the background that are somewhat less familiar but bear on the argument that the only real salvation must involve coal.”3 The ‘salvation’ he references is access to power for industry and households. The basic math implies there is no answer for decades other than coal, and according to Dr. S. Ming Sung (Chief Representative, Asia/Pacific-Clean Air Task Force), a geologist and energy expert on China: “But will you turn off your refrigerator for 30 years while we work on renewables? Turn off the computer? Or ask people in China to do that? Unless you will, you can’t get rid of coal for decades. As [U.S. Energy Secretary] Steven Chu has said, we have to face the nightmare of coal for a while.”3 But, can the planet handle it?

Coal is only one part of the Chinese experiment with capitalism, which often times spins completely out of control. For example, according to China Daily,4 “Officials in Southern China shut 112 illegal mines after polluted runoff entered the local water supply, killing fish and making the water unusable for about 30,000 people.” Heavy rains led to flooding, and the mines were closed July 6th.

Or, consider China’s drinking water: Strait Times recently reported that only 3% of China’s cities have clean groundwater (only 3%?) The groundwater of 64% of China’s cities is severely polluted and 33% is mildly polluted. Oh, hooray for that 33%, and before planning your next family trip to China, consider this fact: “An official from the Beijing Public Environmental Research Center summed up the full significance of this: the sources of drinking water in China’s cities have been polluted, and especially so with what he described as heavy metal contamination containing organic matter pollution that is extremely difficult for traditional water treatment methods to process.”5

China’s Vast Experiment with Capitalism

The capitalist’s commentators of the world are fascinated with China’s unprecedented growth, and in fact, the stock markets of the world catch cold as soon as China sneezes; that’s when its growth is seen to moderate from strong double-digits to weaker single-digits (formerly, this worldwide stock market reaction to a ‘sneeze’ was the role of the U.S.)

The upshot of this cozy relationship between Chinese growth and world stock markets implies a quasi-hegemonic position for China within the capitalistic world, and according to neoconservative intellectual Francis Fukuyama, Beijing has done a far more effective job than Washington of managing its economy to meet future challenges, “…many Chinese see their weathering of the financial crisis as a vindication of their own system, and the beginning of an era in which U.S.-style liberal ideas will no longer be dominant… State-owned enterprises are back in vogue, and were the chosen mechanism through which Beijing administered its massive stimulus.”6

So far, China’s capitalism has flourished within the no-rules/regulations of 19th century-variety rampant, no-holds-barred, capitalistic growth. Summarily, all considerations other than growth and profits are damned. This is why, similar to 19th century London, China’s skies have blackened.

“However, various economic, social, and ecological contradictions have accumulated in recent years and China’s current model of capitalism is unlikely to remain viable beyond the medium term,” said Dr. Minqi Li, associate professor, Dept. of Economics, University of Utah.7

Chinese Capitalism – Pitfalls

According to Dr. Li, China’s “New Left” also known as “Maoists” because of their sympathies for China’s Maoist socialist past, argue that China needs to reconsider its free market-orientation as income and wealth need to be redistributed to enhance social stability, which is the understatement of the decade.

Historically, as experienced in Brazil, South Korea, and Poland, when a country’s non-agricultural labor force exceeds 70%, the working class achieves political and social recognition, which implies higher wages, social welfare, and more democracy. Thus, the forces of incipient-to-expansionary capitalism, when successful, eventually conflict with its own success as the people wise up.

China’s current non-agricultural workforce is 60% and should exceed 70% by 2020. So, if China’s current system does not accommodate more people, other than uber-rich tycoons and their underlings (communist party members or “CPC,” Communist Party of China, which, for proper descriptive purposes, should be changed to “Capitalist Party of China”), like it has these past few decades, a general economic and political crisis is likely, but maybe not because China’s ‘state control’ (totalitarian apparatus, fostering state capitalism) appears to be mired in place.

Also, and of more importance to the world community, “Chinese capitalist development has taken place at the cost of massive environmental degradation… China has some of the world’s most polluted cities and about 40 percent of China’s land has already been degraded. According to a report prepared by the 2030 Water Resources Group, China could face a water deficit that amounts to 25 percent of China’s projected water demand by 2030.”7

And, the air of the world has become China’s oyster to do as it pleases… or to sell. For example, Chen Guangbiao, a Chinese multimillionaire, sells canned fresh air for eighty cents/can categorized as: (1) “Pristine Tibet,” (2) “Post-Industrial Taiwan,” or (3) “Yan’an.” Customers inhale fresh air from the pop-top cans. Actually, in a humorous vein, Chen’s canned fresh air was initially a stunt to highlight the dangers of air pollution in the country. Nevertheless, he easily sold 8 million cans within 10 days. As well, he was spotted in the streets of Beijing giving away two cans to each taker. After all, Chen is China’s self-declared No. 1 environmentalist. Selling 8 million cans of fresh air in 10 days is all that needs to be said about the environment in China in order to understand the gravity of the problem; however, the story is deeper than that.

Chinese medicine/herbs have been used for thousands of years to cure ailments, an iconic part of Chinese heritage. In 2012, 12 of 18 herbal tea products from China tested positive, containing at least one banned pesticide.8 Maybe Chen should consider canning herbs as well as fresh air!

In point of fact, as China’s economy burst forth, the world pays a big price: According to an article by Martin Facker: An environmental engineer, Osamu Nagafuchi, has determined that airborne pollutants from China are killing the island’s primeval forests, which are riddled with bleached, skeletal remains of dead trees.9 As well, the snow on the mountaintops is blackened. An analysis of the snow found silicon, aluminum and other byproducts of burned coal. Wind calculations and maps were used to determine the pollutants crossed the East China Sea from Beijing and Tianjin, two Chinese cities 900 miles to the northwest.

Elsewhere on the planet, and according to Craig Simons, Knight Science Journalism Fellow/MIT, “… unlike for Europe or the United States, China’s growth curve is rising at a time when the world’s environments already are severely degraded.”10 “[A]ir pollutants from China (as from other nations) are now reaching around the world. Dust, ozone, carbon monoxide and mercury polluted into the atmosphere in China are now regularly settling back to Earth in North American and other continents.”11 As such, China reaches out and touches each of us in its own special way.

Not to mention, Beijing’s PM2.5 levels as of March 2012 averaged 469 micrograms per cubic meter, which compares miserably with the highest reading in Los Angeles in 2012 of 43. And, according to the World Bank, only 1% of China’s 560 million urban dwellers breathe safe air… wait’ll they add another 350 million! Meaning, essentially every city dweller breathes unsafe air. What a great testimony to China’s successful capitalism!

“The dangers of China’s environmental degradation go well beyond the country’s borders, as pollution threatens global heath more than ever. Chinese leaders have argued that their country has the right to pollute, claiming that, as a developing nation, it cannot sacrifice economic growth for the sake of the environment. In reality, however, China is holding the rest of the world hostage – and undermining its own prosperity.”12

The Naked Truth about Chinese Capitalism

China’s CO2 emissions are equivalent to the U.S. and the European Union combined, and increasing at a rate of 12% per annum, or four times faster than a decade ago. So, the harsh truth is China’s polluting plants are working harder than ever, four times the rate of CO2 emissions of only 10 years ago. And… actually, it is not worth writing any more words about this horrendous travesty because it is so-o-o obvious.

Except for this: Ever since the country discovered state capitalism, worldwide emissions of GHGs have skyrocketed, and no surprise here since China is hell-bent on growth at any, and all, costs, appeasing a population almost equal to North America, South America, and the European Union combined. This murky, toxic formula of growth at any, and all, costs and appeasing an enormous population is a death knell for the planet. Meanwhile, the country builds new coal burning plants on a regular scheduled basis, but now they’re planning to use “clean coal.” Sure!

Waxing poetic for a moment: Once upon a time, China was a splendid nation when bicycles ruled the streets (not that long ago) and with a bucolic lifestyle spent in the fields, churning rich soil, ankle-deep in the calm waters of rice paddies, an inward-looking nation that frowned upon the outside world of capitalism. Visitors to China talked about its beauty, serenity, and amiable, peaceful people.

When my mother toured the countryside 40 years ago, the people would come stand around her, and she marveled at how content they appeared, wearing similar clothing, performing work in unison and singing. Mostly, the raw beauty of the countryside dazzled her.

Forty years later, as of today, and according to China’s State Forestry Administration, 1/4th of the country suffers from desertification, or more than one million square miles, equivalent to approximately 1/4th of the continental U.S., negatively impacting 400 million people, or equivalent to the entire population of North America. Some China-watchers believe this problem alone may hinder China’s unrivaled capitalistic growth story.

Imagine if the United States of America had 25% of its land degraded by desertification… would the U.S. Congress take a pro-active approach to climate change? And/or, would the American public stand for it? Fortunately, the U.S. has not endured a four-year drought of its arable lands, like China, and hopefully, the 2012 U.S. drought (the worst since 1950) is not a forerunner of more to come.

But, harsh droughts have become commonplace all across the Northern Hemisphere, just within the past few years, Russia hit hard twice (halting grain shipments), India hit hard twice, Syria hit hard for five straight years, China clobbered for four years, Southern Europe hit hard, and the list goes on, and on.

As it goes, one of the major causes of desertification is drought, which is spreading all across the Northern Hemisphere as a warming Arctic (2-3 times faster than the planet overall) alters the upper atmospheric jet streams, in turn, prolonging extreme weather events, like droughts. And, China’s spewing CO2 into the atmosphere, like there is no tomorrow, instigates an increasingly rapid warming Arctic, in turn, stimulating more sustained droughts and ultra-extreme weather patterns…

… Like historic floods, just asks the UK (2013- historic flooding), Central Europe (2013- worst floods in 500 years), Calgary (2013- worst flood in Alberta history), Toronto (July 2013- all-time record-breaking flash floods), Western China (July 2013- worst flooding in 50 years), Athens (February 2013- worst flood in 50 years) and the list goes on, and on.

Mother Earth has an uncanny way of striking back at anomalous climatic conditions, especially the anthropogenic kind, which is so foreign to nature’s normal course.

As follows, what goes around comes around, and one wonders for how long Chen will be able to continue sourcing fresh air into cans… and continue selling it for only $0.80/can.

  1. “Beijing Chokes on Record Pollution, and Even the Government Admits There’s a Problem,” Jan. 14, 2013. []
  2. Beijing’s Toxic Smog was Years in the Making, had Many Sources, Reuters, Jan. 16, 2013. []
  3. James Fallows, Dirty Coal, Clean Future, The Atlantic, Dec. 2010. [] [] []
  4. July 8, 2013. []
  5. Barry van Wyk, The Groundwater of 90% of Chinese Cities is Polluted, Danwei, Feb. 18, 2013. []
  6. Tony Daron, Why China Does Capitalism Better than the U.S., Time, Jan. 20, 2011. []
  7. Minqi Li, A Dying Model: Chinese Capitalism, The Diplomat, Nov. 6, 2012. [] []
  8. Source: Sue-Lin Wong, Study Asks if Tainted Chinese Herbs are Harming, Not Healing, International Herald Tribune, June 25, 2013. []
  9. “Scientist Says Pollution from China is Killing a Japanese Island’s Trees,” Yakushima Journal, April 24, 2013 []
  10. Craig Simons, The Devouring Dragon: How China’s Rise Threatens Our Natural World, St. Martin’s Press, March 2013. []
  11. Edward Wong, ARTSBEAT: China Pollutes, the World Coughs, The New York Times Book Review, March 14, 2013, []
  12. Thomas N. Thompson, Choking on China, Foreign Affairs, April 8, 2013. []

Robert Hunziker (MA, economic history, DePaul University) is a freelance writer and environmental journalist whose articles have been translated into foreign languages and appeared in over 50 journals, magazines, and sites worldwide, like Z magazine, European Project on Ocean Acidification, Ecosocialism Canada, Climate Himalaya, Counterpunch, Dissident Voice, Comite Valmy, and UK Progressive. He has been interviewed about climate change on Pacifica Radio, KPFK, FM90.7, Indymedia On Air and World View Show/UK. He can be contacted at: rlhunziker@gmail.com. Read other articles by Robert.