Thomas Friedman: Chinese Capitalism

From the unlinkable Times Select.

Living Hand to Mouth
October 26, 2005
The New York Times


You don’t see this every day: A columnist for The China Daily wrote an essay last week proposing that the Chinese consider eating with their hands and abandon chopsticks. Why?

Because, Zou Hanru wrote, “we no longer have abundant forest cover, our land is no longer that green, our water tables are depleting and our numbers are expanding faster than ever. … China itself uses 45 billion pairs of disposable chopsticks a year, or 1.66 million cubic meters of timber, or 25 million full-grown trees.” The more affluent the Chinese become, he added, “the more the demand for bigger homes

and a wide range of furniture. Newspapers get thicker in their bid to grab a bigger share of the advertising market.”

In the face of rising environmental pressures, he said, China must abandon disposable wooden chopsticks and move to reusable steel, “or, better still, we can use our hands.”

Mr. Zou’s column underscores that while year after year of 9 percent growth may be economically sustainable for China, it is reaching its environmental limits. That pressure hits you the minute you land in Shanghai.

As you wait for 90 minutes to get your visa stamped at the airport, crushed between traveling Chinese and visiting investors, you can feel that you are in a country engaged in extreme capitalism. Every other person around me in the visa line was already on a cellphone or P.D.A. – as if people could not wait to get through passport control to start doing deals.

Not only is China not a communist country anymore, but it may also now be the world’s most capitalist country in terms of raw energy. Indeed, I believe history will record that it was Chinese capitalism that put an end to European socialism. Europe can no longer sustain its 35-hour workweeks and lavish welfare states because of the rising competition from low-wage, high-aspiration China, as well as from India and Eastern Europe.

But can anything stop Chinese capitalism? Yes, Chinese capitalism. Other than political breakdown, the biggest threat to China’s growth is now the environment. One Sam’s Club, part of Wal-Mart, in the Chinese city of Shenzhen sold 1,100 air-conditioners in one hot weekend last year. There is a limit to how long you can do that. China’s leaders know this and have been taking steps to reverse deforestation and find alternatives to the coal-powered electricity plants that have turned cities like Shenzhen into just one big gray cloud.

One thing the Chinese government is doing is changing how local, state and national officials are judged. G.D.P. growth is not the only metric anymore.

“During the transition period from planned economy to a market economy, there was a period when the economic indicators were the only criteria, because we had to develop the economy,” Shanghai’s deputy mayor, Feng Guoquin, told me. Today, however, more and more Chinese citizens demand that their local officials “pay equal attention to economic development and ecological protection.”

But given that the legitimacy of the ruling Communist Party rests largely on its ability to keep raising living standards, it can’t afford a recession and mass unemployment – in any crunch, officials will always choose raw growth. The party cannot afford a recession, and it also has to extend growth to the still impoverished rural areas. But many of those villages are already boiling because, while villagers crave jobs, they resent the deforestation, dams and polluted rivers that have already been dumped on them by the big cities.

So I’m glad that Donald Rumsfeld finally came over to China to talk with China’s military last week, but that is so 20th century. How China uses its growing military is purely hypothetical. What China’s impact on the global environment will be if it continues to grow at this pace is a certain disaster – for China and the world.

Tighter regulation alone won’t save China’s environment, or the world’s. Since logging in most natural forests was banned here in 1998, China’s appetite for imported wood has led to stripped forests in Russia, Africa, Burma and Brazil. China outsourced its environmental degradation.

That is why you need an integrated solution. And that is why the most important strategy the U.S. and China need to pursue, in concert, is one that brings business, government and N.G.O.’s together to produce a more sustainable form of development – so China can create a model for itself and others on how to do more things with less stuff and fewer emissions. That is the economic, environmental and national security issue of our day. Nothing else is even close.

The Discussion: 14 Comments

Thanks Richard, much obliged.

October 26, 2005 @ 9:02 am | Comment

Quite an article; thanks for alerting me.

October 26, 2005 @ 9:11 am | Comment

It’s funny to hear an American , whose spending habit harms environment greater than everybody’else, lecturing the Chinese on how to do with their economy. LOL. Who do they think they’re ? Chinese’s bosses ?

October 26, 2005 @ 11:08 am | Comment

Oh, it’s back to the: but you American’s do it, so it must legitimize environmental degradation in China…argument.

Tri, Americans pollute more per capita. They also pollute more overall for the very limited future. As China grows, that will change. So it is right for an American who cares about the environment to be concerned….about the pollution coming out of his/her country, AND about the pollution coming out of China. I don’t see anyone legitimizing American pollution. So don’t try to point to American pollution as a way to legitimize China’s. Two wrongs don’t make a right.

October 26, 2005 @ 11:17 am | Comment

Think about this: America has the largest economy, but we pay so much attention to China, which has the fastest growing economy.

Likewise, Americans pollute most, but China’s rate of increase in pollution far, far outweighs the U.S.’s

Which is why we’re paying attention to it.

October 26, 2005 @ 12:34 pm | Comment

As usual the complete hypocrisy of US positions on Chinese growth is apparent. You have John Snow, our Commerce secretary, telling the Chinese they need to spend much more and save much less. At the same time you have that idiot Rumsfeld telling the Chinese military they shouldn’t be spending so much on their military (unlike the US), it causes panic among neighbors about China’s intentions.

October 26, 2005 @ 1:29 pm | Comment

ya’ll are fools. Not all americans are like snow and rumsfeld. some of us vote democrat and don’t own cars, don’t want to own a car, and grew up composting food, gardening and s*itting in an outhouse. Cut some slack. China DOES have massive problems with pollution, check out my site: and

Christ, even the People’s daily is preaching environmental sustainability. The point is that China is poisoning its own people. I suppose we could just look the other way and say, “to hell with it! Economic growth at any costs! China must be the biggest! The best!” But then by the time China IS the biggest economy, all the rich people will live elsewhere, because they won’t want to pay the cost of living for imported food and water, and won’t want their children getting messed in the brain from the lead levels in the air. Your pick. Ironically, supporting sustainable growth for China, as I do, is more supportive of China in the long run then those who would criticise me.

October 26, 2005 @ 4:19 pm | Comment

Thanks Richard

October 26, 2005 @ 4:59 pm | Comment

Thanks heaps for re-publishing this article from Times Select.

October 26, 2005 @ 5:00 pm | Comment

Actually, Tri, it’s not at all unusual or ironic (“funny”?) to hear an American criticising another government for doing what their own government does. No American journalist considers him or herself to be a spokesman for the government, and many have written articles criticizing their own government’s policies or actions, whether it be politics, war, or the environment. Columnists like Friedman also occasionally author articles taking the public to task for various perceived shortcomings, to include harming the environment. Witness articles underlining the ecological impact of SUVs. (not necessarily from Friedman) It’s the mark of a free or democratic society. Hopefully your society has a similarly open press, or is on its way to having one. (Try googling “Hue massacre 1968” and see what you come up with). Fortunately for Asia, America’s spending habits produce a lot of capital flow over here. But, as your post implies, that could have negative effects by producing more pollution eventually harming the world’s environment. A salient point that deserves serious consideration.

October 26, 2005 @ 6:39 pm | Comment


I’m not sure your post is entirely relevent, but you should be clear Rumsfeld would like to see less MILITARY spending. And the commerce secretary would like to see more CIVILIAN spending. There is no hypocrisy in the cases you mentioned.

Now back to the envirnoment….

October 26, 2005 @ 11:11 pm | Comment

Of course, you do notice that the idea of using plastic disposable chopsticks that could be melted down and made into more disposable chopsticks hasn’t featured to highly.

October 27, 2005 @ 2:31 am | Comment

I love the Koreans, they use silver chopsticks.

October 27, 2005 @ 11:59 am | Comment

Hey Laowai long no see. How is it?

Good article describes the vichious circle quite well but I don’t see this “integrated solution” he is talking about. Environmental laws in China are allready very good. Reality looks different. You don’t see the costs of pollution in the financial statements of a company today but on the bills the doctor sends you years later.
It took a big effort and preassure by the civil societies in the West to get the companies and the elites to rethink their policies. Is that happening in China? I don’t see it in the scale it would be nessesary. The legal rights of individuals just aren’t there.
Then there is the green GDP of the SEPA. Well, an ambitious plan, that’s all you can say about it right now. It remains to be seen if it has any countable effect. Let’s hope so.

October 28, 2005 @ 4:10 am | Comment

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