Thomas Friedman: A Green China

China’s Little Green Book

Published: November 2, 2005

There are only about 60 gold-standard green buildings in the world – that is, buildings certified by the U.S. Green Building Council as having been made with the materials and systems that best reduce waste, emissions and energy use. One of those buildings is in Beijing – China’s Ministry of Science and Technology, at 55 Yuyuantan Nanlu Street.

I toured it the other day with Robert Watson from the Natural Resources Defense Council, who advised China in designing the building. What struck me most was how much stuff in China’s greenest

building was labeled “Made in China.”

Get used to it. In China, conservation is not a “personal virtue,” as Dick Cheney would say. Today it is a necessity. It was so polluted in Beijing the other day you could not make out buildings six blocks away. That’s the bad news. Here’s the good news: China’s leaders and business community know it. They know that as China grows more prosperous, and more Chinese buy homes and cars, it must urgently adopt green technologies; otherwise, it will destroy its environment and its people. Green technology will decide whether China continues on its current growth path or chokes itself to death. So green innovation is starting to mushroom in China.

And what’s the U.S. doing as green technology is emerging as the most important industry of the 21st century? Let’s see: the Bush team is telling our manufacturers they don’t have to improve auto mileage standards or appliance efficiency, is looking to ease regulations on oil refiners and is rejecting a gas tax that would help shift America to hybrid vehicles.

We should be doing just the opposite: creating more pressures and incentives so our companies will innovate and dominate the next great industry. You think China is cleaning our clock now with cheap clothing? Wait a decade, when we’ll have to import our green technology from Beijing, just as we have to import hybrid motors today from Japan.

Green China will be much more challenging than Red China. Look around the nine-story Ministry of Science and Technology building. Yes, a lot of cool things here are from Europe, and some are from the U.S.

But what about the porous pavement bricks, made of fly ash, a byproduct of coal combustion that allows storm water to flow through and be reabsorbed into the Beijing aquifer? Made in China. The photovoltaic panels that provide 10 percent of the building’s electricity from sunlight? Made in China. The solar hot water system? Made in China. The soil substitute in the building’s roof garden that is 75 percent lighter than regular dirt and holds three to four times more water per cubic foot? Made in China. The concrete building blocks filled with insulating foam that keeps you warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer? Made in China, by a U.S.-owned company. The water-free urinals? Made for the China market by a U.S.-owned company.

Jack Perkowski, who runs Asimco Technologies, the huge China-based auto parts maker, told me where this is heading: “As China moves from the second-largest market to the first in autos … the industry here will have to come up with transport that is more affordable, fuel-efficient and environmentally sound.”

As green technologies get adopted here and gain scale – Mr. Perkowski cited a Chinese auto company now rushing to develop a green diesel engine for passenger cars – the Chinese will set the standards for the world.

“So they will become technology exporters rather than importers,” he said. And because of the unique needs of China and the fact that it will become the biggest market for any product, the Chinese will “innovate at their affordability level.” Once they come up with low-cost solutions that work inside China, they will take them global at China prices.

The China Daily reported that China’s 11th five-year plan, which starts soon, includes a program to sharply reduce China’s energy usage per unit of G.D.P. by 2010. “To hit the target, a huge business potential will be open to investors,” Zhou Dadi, director of China’s top energy research institute, told a forum held by the paper.

“China is growing three times as fast as we are,” Mr. Watson said, “[so] a lot of innovation is going to happen here, and once it is introduced [on the low-cost China platform] it is going to spread a lot faster. … We are not the only source of innovation on the planet. The Japanese and Europeans are here in a big way, and they are giving their stuff away. …

“We deserve to lose. We are clutching our past with these tremulous hands, and everyone else is vigorously grasping the future.”

The Discussion: 26 Comments

How come no one is making some snide comments now? How about “Well, so what? China is still so poor, Friedman is biasaed!” Or “All those green technologies in China are made by slave laborers, how come Friedman does not talk about that?!”

November 2, 2005 @ 7:40 am | Comment

What a shame this article won’t be widely discussed since the Times has Mr. Friedman’s work hidden behind TimesSelect.

As for the comment “we deserve to lose.” Bah. We all stand to gain from the technological advances made in China. Go Green!

November 2, 2005 @ 8:53 am | Comment

I think there are various factors.

1) When Richard posted his last Thomas Friedman post (Green Dreams in Shangri-la) very few people commented then either. Although I have to confess that I copied the article and used it for my Intensive Reading class because I wanted to give them something positive to work on. Anyway, maybe positive coverage gives people much less material to work with.

2) The fact that I, yet again, had to go through several different proxies before I could get one to work on TPD. Possibly some of us within the mainland are getting tired of having to work round this block.

3) Possibly those of us within the mainland are experiencing a cautious sense of relief. It’s wonderful that environmental protection has come so far since it first became an issue in 1998, but I think we’re all aware that there is a long long way to go before the environmental ravages this poor country has suffered in the last 50 years are in any way made up for. Both Friedman and Imagethief commented on how bad the pollution in Beijing was yesterday. I’m just guessing here, but I think it’s likely there was bad pollution somewhere in Guangdong, and Anhui, and Jiangxi, and Jiangsu, and Zhejiang, and Hennan, and Hunnan, and probably quite a few other places as well.

4) So far Friedman has talked about one ecofriendly tourist spot in Yunnan and one green office block in Beijing. That’s lovely. My question now is: how long will it be before I can easily rent an apartment that comes with insulation, double-glazing, and electricity-saving appliances? One year, ten years, twenty years? As you know this is a vast country, and whilst changes are being made, they are being made slowly in most areas outside of Beijing. And if I can live in a green and energy-saving apartment, whose land will it have been built on? Will there be peasants displaced by the building? The countryside is still going under at an alarming rate, and it’s not just going under for apartments, plenty of it is going under for factories, some of which have pollution controlling measures, and some of which don’t.
China is following a common development pattern. Let’s take London as an example. The UK was the world’s first industrialised country. That meant that the UK was the world’s first polluted country. Have you heard of the infamous London fog of the 1950s? That wasn’t really fog, it was smog. And it got so bad that eventually the British government had to use legislation to curb the pollution (some time in the 1960s, I’m too tired to check). Even so, it took decades before London’s environment really began to recover. As I recall the smog was pretty much gone by 1980, but it wasn’t until the 1990s that many species of fish began to return to the Thames. And even now there is so much work to be done in Britain: our car emissions don’t meet European standards, and our power-stations are the dirtiest in Europe.
What I’m trying to say here is, China’s taking the first tentative steps down a long and difficult road. I for one really do hope to see China racing quickly down that road, but it’s going to take a lot more work, and a vast amount of public education. Until the environmental improvement in China starts impacting on my life, I’m going to wait in quiet anticipation (but not with bated breath).

5) One of Friedman’s main points is made very specifically to the US and its prevailing attitude towards the environment. Those of us who come from countries with very different attitudes, countries that signed the Kyoto protocol and are working for an international accord to cut greenhouse gases and slow climate change, really don’t have much to say to the USA. That’s one issue that I’m going to leave the educated and eloquent US citizens around here to get into.

6) It’s nearly midnight (Beijing time) on a Wednesday. Possibly most of the sensible commentators are asleep?

And finally,
7) Maybe you’re right. Maybe everybody here hates China and only comes to criticize. So why do you torture yourself? Why not go off to the China Daily online forums, or to converse happily and oh-so-politely with all those charming characters on Flowingwatersneverstale. You can find lots of like-minded people there to talk to.

November 2, 2005 @ 9:11 am | Comment

Don’t ask me to defend the US’ current policy on greenhouse gasses and its refusal to sign the Kyoto Accord. It’s another black mark in the Bush Administration’s very black book, as far as I’m concerned.

November 2, 2005 @ 11:30 am | Comment

Oh, and HongXing? Your comment is, how to put it, ridiculous. You simply won’t hear any criticism of China, no matter how measured, and you constantly counter with “well, other countries do it too,” as though that makes it right. I’m saying this as a person who probably is more positive and optimistic than many commentors on this board about China’s future (though I have to say, Hu’s press restrictions are causing me to dial down my optimism quite a bit).

Richard puts up posts like this to show the positive things that are going on in China. He also puts up a lot of posts illustrating the negative things that are going on in the US. It’s called “open discussion.”

I find it unfortunate as well that posts on the environment in general don’t generate that many comments. But that’s a downside of open discussion. People are drawn to more controversial issues, things in which they are emotionally invested. You put up a hot-button issue like the Yakusuni Shrine or the status of Taiwan, and watch the comments fly from both perspectives.

November 2, 2005 @ 11:36 am | Comment

Other Lisa, I don’t believe it’s true that I cannot hear any criticisms of China. I can objectively admit many criticisms of China, but the condition is that they must be from people who have friendly feelings towards China.

I genuinely believe that you have truely friendly feelings towards China, so I can accept your criticisms openly, and I even agree with what you wrote in another post that China’s not allowing open discussion on serious issues is a disadvantage to itself.

But some other people on this blog are too dark and too nasty. They are not criticising China objectively, but are attacking China like wild dogs. This is where I cannot bear to hear them and must strike them down.

November 2, 2005 @ 11:59 am | Comment

I hear what you’re saying, HongXing. And I do agree with you that some people like to attack because they enjoy tearing others down.

November 2, 2005 @ 12:07 pm | Comment


You are naive. How can you expect everyone to love or like China? If you do, you are going to drive youself crazy. There is a Chinese saying: dogs eat shit and this habit can not changed.

November 2, 2005 @ 12:51 pm | Comment

Friedman is a professional optimist and a materialist who thinks that technological progress will solve all prblems in the world. From my point of view he forgets the human factor. As everywhere also in China people want to drive cars and consume as much as they can and only after that think about the consequences. It is encouraging that the Chinese government has realised the huge environmental problem but it will be a long, bumpy road implementing what now only is spoken of. There are still so many poor people in China how also want their piece of the cake and as it is a difficult thing for a Westerner today to explain to a Chinese that it’s no good idea to have as much cars as the West has it will be hard for the then rich Chinese to explain to their poor copatriots that they should not cosume as much as the former did when they got rich.
Let’s hope for the best.
Let’s hope for a green China.

November 2, 2005 @ 1:01 pm | Comment

Other Lisa, I don’t believe it’s true that I cannot hear any criticisms of China. I can objectively admit many criticisms of China, but the condition is that they must be from people who have friendly feelings towards China.

This sort of personalizing of argument is precisely the problem with commenters like you Hong Xing. Since the condition is that someone must pass your standards for “friendly”, for which I don’t believe are specific criteria other than how they make you feel, you can dismiss peoples points whenever its convenient.

You should judge peoples criticism based on the facts they present and the rigor of their logic. A mature thinker is open to the truth, even if it comes from the filthiest of mouths. You yourself, however, have not given any facts in any of your comments. You claimed CNN reporters were fired for criticizing the Iraq War, but could provide no names. This is in fact because none were fired, let alone for criticism of the war. You claimed Chinese people are by nature “peace-oriented and tame” and Westerners “outwardly-oriented and aggressive”, giving no basis for this careless and prejudicial overgeneralization, nor responding to the rebuttal that Westerners are in fact a diverse set of cultures, not a uniform homogenous group (neither, I would point out, are Chinese people). You claimed that you have no truck with Japanese people, only their government, yet in the Michelle Malkin thread you say that you support the internment of Japanese during WW2. You have continuously made unsubstantiated arguments based only on emotion, and now you’re blatantly saying that is the standard by which you will consider any idea.

You have, in effect, announced that your mind is closed for business.

November 2, 2005 @ 1:01 pm | Comment

Other Lisa, by the way, I like the old photo on your blog.

November 2, 2005 @ 1:04 pm | Comment

As for Friedman, he has a book out and a new theory to peddle. He’s looking to bolster his Flat Earth theory, and I support his goal of kicking Americans to get off their asses and think seriously about sustainable development. He frames it as an issue of national security, technological and economic growth because apparently talking about people dying hasn’t really gotten much done the past couple of decades.

So he’s using China and India as contrasts in this way to get people thinking. Good, great. But I don’t think it really tells you what China’s environmental future is. If you want to know about that, you’d be better off listening to Pan Yue, China’s deputy minister of the environment. In Der Spiegel he sounded the alarm publicly, and in last weeks Economist there’s concern that Pan Yue’s suggestion of a green GDP is being watered down.

Of course any major environment policies in China would require adequate enforcement at a provincial and local level, something that I’m skeptical the central government can do.

November 2, 2005 @ 1:33 pm | Comment

You are naive. How can you expect everyone to love or like China?

I of course do not expect everyone to love China. So you should not expect everyone to be friendly or “reasonable” to those to hate China.

You claimed CNN reporters were fired for criticizing the Iraq War, but could provide no names.

Here are some information on what I said:

“In separate incidents, at least three different Western reporters were fired or disciplined due to their actions in covering the war. ”

Now I know some of you may say, you will say “You are distorting again! Those reporters were fired because they violated some regulations at their news organizations! That’s not censorship!”. Well this may be news to you, but when CCTV fires or jails its reporters, it’s always for violating some minor code. Do you think CNN will use “making unpatriotic artices” as a public reason to fire a journalist? Stop joking me!

Media control is in place both in the USA and China. I will agree, however, that China’s methods are more crude and less “mature”, and are more vulnerable to accusations.

In fact CCTV today LOOKS (and probably is) a lot more objective than it was 20 years ago. Do you know why? Is it because CCTV suddenly had a conscience and decided that we need to be more objective? No, because it became more sophisticated in putting on false appearances. And do you know when did CCTV become more sophisticated, let me tell you: right after the famous CNN world coverage of the first Iraqi War in 1991. It was then that the propaganda heads in China realized: “Lying and misdirection can be a great art! We need to improve our methods!”

So please get off your high horse about how media in America is “more democratic” than in China. Media everywhere is a tool to manipulate public opinion. Give CCTV another 5-10 years, and it will catch on to the same sophisticated level as those “world famous” news outlets.

To borrow the words of Jiang Zemin, some of you are “too simple, sometimes naive!”.

November 2, 2005 @ 2:28 pm | Comment

Xing, hahhah, yep, that’s me in my second-hand PLA hat.

November 2, 2005 @ 2:29 pm | Comment

Hong Xing, those articles only half back up your original assertion, which was:

There were a few CNN reporters and local newspaper writers fired for criticizing the Bush administration during the Iraq war. I don’t remember their names, but I can give you their details if you want.

Geraldo Rivera was fired due to public outcry after he drew a map, not for criticizing the Bush administration.

Brian Walski of the LA Times was fired for doctoring a photo – he pasted two images together, its wasn’t like tweaking the contrast on Condi. That’s called not telling the truth, if you didn’t know.

I’ll grant you Henry Norr and Peter Arnett. I’ll even throw in Phil Donahue too. I’d point out, however, that Peter Arnett for one immediately found a new job – something a fired Chinese journalist can’t do. And I’ll stay on my high horse about media in America is “more democratic”, because as I said before you clearly don’t even understand the meaning of the word. Every single source you quoted on fired journalists was American. You left out Amy Goodman of Democracy Now!, who interviewed Norr and undoubtedly others. In China, if you are fired from state media there is nowhere else to write or be interviewed. So your new, stronger assertion that “media control” in the US and China are birds of a feather is refuted by the very evidence you give to support it.

I still contend that your “friendly” requirement for critics is close-minded, and your comments about Chinese, Westerners and Japanese are all essentially unsubstantiated racism.

November 2, 2005 @ 2:57 pm | Comment

It is good that Beijing is finally sitting up and taking notice. However given the vast amount of damage done, is it already “too late”? Will China be able to repair the damage done, or will the environment be scarred for decades to come?

More importantly, will the government rein in the CCP at local levels by making sure that they enforce environmental laws, rather than ignore companies that flout them because it boosts the economy?

I don’t think anyone can reasonably answer those questions, to be honest.

November 2, 2005 @ 6:39 pm | Comment

The battle over Green GDP has hardly begun in the CPC despite the posturing for political effect back home of Western reporters. There is strong, coordinated and effective resistance to the idea, and if that fails there is always the traditional resistance of the bureaucracy and local officials when the emperor is far away.

November 2, 2005 @ 6:59 pm | Comment

While China is not yet known for being a major world innovator, let’s hope this is one niche where they can soar. Being behind can be a virtue in some instances, developing countries can sometimes “leapfrog” technology think of home answerig machines, VCR/VHS, etc).

For example, what better time to become a world leader in alternatives to internal combustion/deisel vehicles than BEFORE everyone owns one of the blasted things.

On another note, reading that article made me once again sympathize with everyone living in the Big Jing. The quality of air really seems to be improving every year here in Shangtown, more sunny, blue-sky days now. Is there a lot of manufacturing still going on in municipal Beijing?

November 2, 2005 @ 8:01 pm | Comment

I think it’s great that the MOE building is environmentally friendly, but it takes more than one showpiece building to make the country green. The pollution in China today is a result of a whole host of issues, from rapid economic growth to a spottily applied regulatory regime (that diminishes as the square of the distance from Beijing) to corruption. All of these things need to be tackled. It won’t be solved by 2008, it won’t be solved by 2020. But it might be solved someday.

The upside is that I think few ecological problems are unsolveable, even if they leave lingering scars. Nations do clean up as they develop. That can happen to China as well, but it will take a lot of pain and willpower along the way. If they manage it, it will be a marvellous thing.

On days when the air is clear in Beijing, and you can see the Western Hills, it’s a beautiful town in its own way.

November 2, 2005 @ 9:07 pm | Comment

Will, a good friend of mine, a Chinese who lived for years in Beijing and moved to LA in the early 80s, was dumbstruck by photos I took of a recent winter trip to Beijing. She was like, what IS that?! Blue sky?! In Beijing, in the winter?! So from my perspective and her perspective, the air in Beijing is way better than it was 20 years ago.

Dylan, as usual, hits the salient point – until the central government can somehow enforce its edicts on a local level, China’s environmental efforts will mostly be confined to smart-sounding laws and showpieces in areas where the central government has some pull. It’s not as though there isn’t a lot of genuine concern and I think good ideas in the Chinese government about this stuff. But if they can’t get the provinces to go along…

November 3, 2005 @ 12:16 am | Comment

Daily linklets 3rd November

Resolving China's border disputes in Central Asia. Politics and turf wars behind private investment in China's financial system and banks. It's the great Kimchi War of 2005. Reflections on the differences between HK and Chinese politics. P…

November 3, 2005 @ 12:29 am | Comment

Other Lisa,
I wasn’t expecting you to defend your government’s record on environmental control. Heavens no! I just meant that I don’t want to attack the USA on this issue when there are plenty of eloquent Americans around the place to attack it for themselves. (Does that make any sense?)

I’m still waiting for my insulted, double-glazed, energy-efficient apartment. When environmentally-friendly practises make it out here, then we’ll really be on the right track.

November 3, 2005 @ 1:27 am | Comment

there are a few reason that china is doing a little better

1. labor is cheap. so cost of recycling is cheap.
2. the country is poor, so the saving is significant comparatively.

Beijing is polluted!!!!
So that the leaders in zhongnanhai feel the pain!

November 3, 2005 @ 1:34 am | Comment

Sun, they feel the pain, but how much can you take when you can’t point a finger at who is exactly doing it? I mean seriously these are all free rider problems. Water? Air? The problem is we won’t see any change for a very long time because the political system isn’t set up to make integrated change because integrated planning and resource managemnt requires soo many things: a court system, interest groups, real EIA’s etc. etc. That is why the environmental movement popped up so fast in the U.S. – we had the infrastructure all set up to get the ball rolling.

November 4, 2005 @ 3:09 am | Comment

The interesting thing is the conversation on environmentalism is even happening in China.

The frustrating thing I have seen in the US is often an environmental solution will actually save money in very short term, verses a traditional solution. The problem is having to short term of an orientation. The use of incandescent lighting vs fluorescent lighting in the US is a great example, vs. other countries. The energy savings in Japan per Dollar produced vs. the US (which has improved).

The willingness of China to use the power of government to push energy efficency in a cost effective manner has great potential, noting the possible problem of local interference as noted above.

November 4, 2005 @ 9:21 pm | Comment

The Greening of China

As China goes, so goes the future. A successful bright green world requires a green China. A China that continues to spew tons of coal…

November 11, 2005 @ 5:10 pm | Comment

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