By Wang FangTong
Walking on the streets of Beijing, it is understandable why China is Apple’s second-biggest market Apple products are ubiquitous. China’s headlong pursuit of economic growth has given rise to the world’s largest middle class. Estimated at 300 million, China’s middle class is larger than the entire population of United States and is set to exceed more than 60% its population. Thomas Friedman remarked that if the Chinese leadership’s vision for its people is to pursue the “American Dream”, i.e. the rampant consumption pattern espoused in United States, it will be so unsustainable for our humanity that “we will need another planet”.
I share Friedman’ sentiment as China’s unfettered consumption pattern is not only environmentally unsustainable, but it will also threaten its economy in the long run. Annually, environmental degradation is costing China 9% of its GDP. China is also the world’s largest energy consumer and the world’s biggest producer of carbon. Many Chinese die prematurely from pollution yearly and cities are often covered with a thick belt of black smog, creating many lung and cardiovascular diseases. Also, foreign retails are expanding their establishments in China to sate the voracious appetite of the rising Chinese middle class. This consumption rate is causing many landfill sites to exceed their capacity and much farmland has been resized for housing. On top of economic issues, pollution is also becoming a major driving force behind protests, which undermines China’s social fabric.
The crux of the issues lies in the entrenched historical link between income growth and rising consumption. While the West could afford to get “dirty” during their economic expansion, China must not follow this path. China’s context is unique as it involves a huge number of low-income earners becoming rich in a short span of time. These individuals often equate consumption with attaining prosperity and spare no thoughts about the impacts of their consumption. Friedman’s article argues that breaking the historical link and creating a new consumer identity can be readily achieved through government effort. I disagree with this because breaking the historical link is a very slow process and may take a few generations to achieve, partly because in China, as elsewhere, consumption is recognized as a form of success. To create this new consumer identity, a fundamental shift in mindset has to take place, which is determined by a confluence of factors such as education and prevalent social values.
China’s leadership is growing aware of the unsustainable consumption of the middle class and is taking actions to redress it. China is now the world’s leading investor in green energy and in its latest five year plan, it commits itself to cut its water and energy intensity per unit of GDP. From various protests on environmental degradation, to campaigns in universities promulgating sustainable growth, it can be seen that China is gearing towards a cleaner growth pattern. Increasingly, China’s rising middle class is cognizant that their wealth is unable to buy them health and a clean environment.
The Chinese dream should be one that intertwines prosperity with sustainability. On an individual level, the rising middle class should redefine their idea of personal prosperity. The government can assist in this process by promoting sharing instead of ownership. By improving the accessibility to products and amenities, individuals will be disincentivized to overconsume and in a long run, consumption and wastage will be reduced. Firms and industries should also invest and research into clean technologies to wean their dependence on dirty fuels such as coal. It is only through such a concerted effort that a newfound Chinese dream will be achieved.