China speeds toward environmental catastrophe (part 1)

Joseph Green

China speeds toward environmental catastrophe (part 1):
Notes on Chapters 1 and 2 of Richard Smith’s "China’s Engine of Environmental Collapse"

by Joseph Green, Detroit/Seattle Workers' Voice list, Dec. 15, 2021
(full text of D/SWV Dec.15 at

The following are rough notes based on the discussion held in a Communist Voice Organization study group which was reading Richard Smith’s book. They are not a polished summary, but may, however, help encourage others to examine the book. The study group not only considered what was going on in China, but made repeated comparisons to other countries, especially the US; the problems in China are but one example of the environmental practices that may be found among all the imperialist countries. China isn’t an example of an alternative to present-day monopoly capitalism; instead, it has become a record-breaking polluter because it is growing in capitalist style at record-breaking speed.

Chapter 1: The ‘China Price’: Police-state capitalism and the great acceleration of global consumption

Chapter 2: ‘Blind Growth’: Scenes of planetary destruction from the Twelfth Five-Year Plan

From the discussion of February 4, 2021 of the Detroit Marxist-Leninist Study Group.

The book documents the astonishing extent of pollution in China. China has environmental laws and agencies, but it doesn't matter -- the rapid growth of pollution as industries expand proceeds anyway. The many solar panels in China are often cited as proof of China’s environmental concern, but many of these panels have been produced in a very polluting way.

The book has some astonishing pictures, such as the  Foxconn factory in Guangdong province which has nets outside the windows to catch desperate workers who might jump out of the windows in despair. (Page 5, Figure 1.2) This is reminiscent of the nets that would be hung outside slave ships traversing the Middle Passage.

The book documents the vast extent of overproduction in China, where things are built that aren't needed or aren't used. The large network of rapid trains are often cited as an example of China’s environmentalism, but a lot of the trains don't have many passengers. There are also entire cities, such as Ordos Kangbashi, Yujiapu, Binhai New Area, Caofeidian, and Lanzhou New Area, that have been built rapidly but don’t have many residents. It is doubtful that some of these will ever fill up, or even that there are many people who can afford to live in such areas. Capitalists and state-capitalists in China just want to build things, but it doesn’t matter whether the things will be used or not. They just want to make a profit on the construction itself.  It is reminiscent of what goes on in the US too, where local bureaucrats have projects that are built without much use, such as the famous Bridge to Nowhere in Alaska. These projects may not be on the colossal scale that we see in China, but the motives for building such white elephants are the same.

This is truly capitalism being built in at incredible speed, at what the Chinese regime calls "China speed". As it does this, China is imitating the US, but without even making provision for conditions that differ from the US. For example, land is wasted or paved over in both the US and China, but there is much less farmland to begin with in China, much less land to waste.

Among the gargantuan development projects are many dams, some of the world’s largest, and they are going to be a problem. This includes the fact that key rivers affecting China, Southeast Asia, and India are being dammed without proper consideration.

It was noted that part of the reported reductions in carbon emissions in Europe and the US is because European and American capitalists have moved a number of polluting factories to China. Their stand is, don’t fix the production process, instead let China be polluted, while we won't do various dirty things here. Something similar happened in Detroit, where one comrade recounted how polluted the city used to be, and it’s somewhat better now. Some of the  improvement is the effect of legislation from the 1970s, but part is due to production having been moved out of Detroit, so there is less pollution, but also fewer jobs.

The book compares China to India. On one hand, China has built up more infrastructure and more industrial parks, schools, research centers and all sorts of things than India has. On the other hand, the leaders of both countries have the same disregard for the environment. One comrade noted that, when he was reading about the worker suicides at Foxconn in China, it brought to mind the suicides that have occurred for years in India among farmers in the countryside. India and China have different versions of capitalism, but both end up with the same disregard of the environment.

Smith writes about the accelerated production of useless things for the world market, and of things that are designed to have to be replaced soon. Products may be produced in a way that doesn’t allow them to be repaired or upgraded, or so that it costs too much to repair them, so new things have to be bought. A few of Smith’s examples were questioned. There was a discussion about how far, in the present economy,  newer things wear out too fast, whether certain products are durable, and whether certain examples were overplayed.  For example, contrary to the book, some shoes seem to be quite durable. On the other hand, shoe repair shops are gone, and most shoes are made in a way that the soles can't be replaced. Historical examples were noted, such as the planned obsolescence of cars in the US. And of course, fashion drives constant changes. It was noted that, if products are to be upgradeable -- or, for that matter, capable of being junked in an environmental way — they need to be designed that way from the start. For example, in the European Union, the End-of-Life Vehicles Directive takes a step in that direction with regard to cars, but how far is it really followed? Meanwhile Smith raises the issue of when quick change in products may be desirable, as when a new type of product is just being developed, and when it isn't.

Smith raised the issue that China is going to have a major problem when the vast amount of concrete it uses for construction wears out. This is especially so given that much of the concrete is of substandard quality, and this is a particular danger to dams. It was noted that the US has similar problems with obsolete infrastructure, including that  its nuclear reactors have been reaching the end of their planned lifespan. <>
Picture: Nets placed outside windows at a Foxconn plant in China to catch workers attempting suicide. Destruction of the environment goes hand-in-hand with oppression of the workers. <>