Since Reform and Opening in 1978, and especially in the last decade, China’s economic growth has been remarkable. With annual growth rates around 10%, analysts have marveled at the success of the country’s export-led model of development. Today, it’s unclear how long China can sustain such rapid growth, and to what extent exports should be balanced with domestic consumption. At the same time, pursuit of a robust economy is one of the primary avenues through which central and local governments claim legitimacy and justify certain sacrifices. So while researchers and policy makers try to figure out the most appropriate growth rate for continuing the headlong march towards ideas and goals of development and social stability, increasing incidents of protest — whether around degrading environments, working conditions, or political freedoms — suggest the challenges that lie ahead.
In the wake of economic growth and transition we need to also assess how the processes of modernization, industrialization, and development have been, and are being, experienced differently by different groups of people in China. We need to critically examine the environmental and human health implications of China’s export-led development model. We need to frame the idea of development itself as a contested process, and not simply a imminent, unidirectional, one-size-fits-all model the inevitably leads to improved living and working conditions for all. Furthermore, we need to understand the challenges and opportunities of ecologically sustainable and socially inclusive development in China in particular, and in the world in general.
These are some of the themes and issues we examine in my class, China in Transition. First-year students read and learn about the politics and practices of labor, environmental, agrarian, and dietary transitions in post-reform China, analyzing the actors, mechanisms, and consequences of these changes. We consider development in China from a sociological perspective that goes beyond economic measures of growth to ask questions about equity and sustainability.
Throughout the course students write about the costs and benefits of economic development as it is practiced in China today. This term, I assigned a “Writing for the Real World” essay in preparation for students’ final research projects. I asked them to find an article from the popular press that relates to themes we’ve been working on in the course, and that might be a topic for their research papers. I then asked them to write a short, cogent essay that includes a call to action for addressing the challenges they raise in the piece. With student permission, I’m sharing some of their work here, in the “real world” of Pig Penning.
Please have a look at the essays posted in the guest blogs tab. You’ll find commentary on China’s push for green energy, challenges associated with e-waste processing, the obesity epidemic, and the relationships between consumerism and environmental degradation. If you care to comment, please do so; the authors will have access to respond.