The ‘Heaven Mandate’ of the Chinese Government

You all know economist-ecologist Professor Yann Moulier-Boutang through the analyses he offers on subjects like cognition capitalism or the pollination economy. But were you aware that he is also an expert on China? I met him during his trip to Shanghai where he was broadening his views of the ecological challenges that face China today. If, obviously, the strategy of the Chinese Government is to find solutions for its environmental crisis over the coming two decades, it remains uncertain that they will or can succeed.

The ‘Heaven Mandate’ of the Chinese Government

China is faced with the same challenges as Western countries, but the scale of the problems is much greater, both in terms of solutions and typology of the problems. Although Western media regularly publish shocking images of Chinese air pollution, this specific problem is not the most crucial and comes in 5th place on the list of the seven ecological plagues identified by economist Moulier-Boutang. Beginning with the observation that unemployment appears as the main braking factor, impeding as it does ecological transition, he goes on to develop the idea of a universal income that he sees as a solution that ought to be envisaged seriously in the overall Chinese economy.

JR- How does China stand in relation to ecological issues, notably the air pollution question?

YMB- Although the media focus endlessly about air-pollution, this particular problem is not the most ominous, even though it is indeed serious. It is due to home, office and industrial heating where the energy source is coal-burning stations. The capital Beijing suffers considerably from this plague and we hear (and see) a lot about peak conditions – however, the situation has been improving ever since the city authorities launched a major ‘deindustrialization’ policy.

It was announced in April that 1.8 M jobs in coal-mining, foundry and steel-making were to be made redundant. In fact, air pollution, geography are changing. The city of Shanghai, jammed between Wuhan, Nanjing and Hangzhou, all three of which industry-intensive and highly polluting cities, has a somewhat inglorious future ahead inasmuch as its level of air pollution might even exceed that found over Beijing. Manchuria is also severely impacted. There, as with China’s coastal cities, modern industrial specifications have led to the installation of extra coal-burning stations to remove the risk of a power outage. Consequently, current coal production in China is 1.4 billion tonnes/yr. not including the 200-400 M tonnes imported from Australia.

Another source of pollution is indigenous to urban areas: combustion engine driven transportation. Over a two-year period, the index rate for such engines has risen from 19 to 21% and should rise to some 50% in 2025/2030. The equation is straightforward: even if, technically speaking, progress has been made in terms of reduced engine pollution emissions, the increase of the number vehicles on the roads will be such that overall pollution will inevitably increase. 

JR- What other ecology-related problems must China solve?

YMB- China has been exploiting its land and soil resources for 7 000 years and some of today’s problems, such as scarcity of water, go back at last a century. We must also bear in mind that the surf ace of the country represents 3 times all Europe, if we include Tibet and Manchuria which were conquered under the Han dynasty [206 BC - 220 AD]. Ecology in China is a far-reaching question.

As I see it, there are four other ecological challenges that are more worrying than air pollution, beginning with diminishing farming land. China now only has 4% of its surface in farm-land, compared with 43% in France. The reason clearly lies in the policy that has seen 27 000 km² a year changed from arable to other uses, i.e., the equivalent to the entire surface of the United Kingdom replaced every decade. That, indeed, is why China is now buying up land and property in Argentina, Ethiopia and in South Africa. The second issue is deforestation. The rate of change here has led to Inner Mongolia becoming a desert area. The futurologists’ visions of Beijing being buried under sand, consequently, are not, totally extravagant.

In third position amongst the problems, I would single out drinking water rarefaction. For thousands of years now, China has been faced with this issue, particularly in its Northern provinces. Between the 1st millennium BC and the 1st millennium AD, a canal over 2 000 km long was excavated, to bring water to the Northern capital cities. And this is still the case today. The Chinese leaders have gone as far as diverting some of the water of the Yang Tse Kiang River. The shortage of water is such that for the city of Beijing, a drastic choice had to be made between watering the 17 million trees planted especially for the Olympic Games [3008] and using this water for the Games themselves. As a result of taking the latter option being taken, all the trees died.

The fourth problem I see is that of heavy metal pollution in the main rivers. This has a notable impact on fish-farming which is a source of the majority of the food demand by the Chinese. Tap water is not safe in any of China’s cities.

But following on to air pollution, there is top-soil pollution and a degraded level of biodiversity. Pesticides, insecticides and GMOs are being used with “no limits”. And certain Chinese provinces have gone so far that all the bees have simply disappeared and humans were required to pollinate the trees, flower after flower. Bees have now been reintroduced. The same sort of problem was encountered when, under Mao Zedong, practically all the sparrows (seen as pests) were wiped out in compliance with the Chairman’s call[i] that “If a sparrow steals 3 seeds from you, hit it 3 times with a cudgel” [1].

JR - In concrete terms, what is the Chinese Government doing to solve these problems?

YMB – The Government had correctly understood that if Chairman Mao had benefitted from a “Heaven Mandate” [2], it was a reward for him restoring Chinese independence; the same holds for several past governments who accompanied the industrialization of the country, raising the standards of living of the Chinese fourfold in just several decades.

Today the ‘rewards’ should come via ecological issues. I would give the Government 25 years to solve some of the major ecological questions. Failing this the current “dynasty” will be called to question. For this reason, since the Universal Exhibition of 2010 [Shanghai]; the Government launched the pharaonic projects such as the diversion of the Yang Tse mentioned earlier. To deal with impending desertification round the capital Beijing, millions of trees have been planted on a green belt 500 m wide and 2 km long. Stringent standards in terms of water and energy saving now apply to the building trade. The Government is launching a massive nuclear power programme, with an investment covering several reactors. It is also developing hydroelectric sites and photovoltaic stations.

The solutions proposed relate to infrastructures and technologies. The Government favours a technocratic and ‘developmentalist’ vision of ecological questions. It taps into to technologies developed elsewhere, then seeks to produce them and distribute in compliance with its “Made in China 2025” programme. China, for example, moved front-stage in terms of photovoltaic panel arrays. This technology has witnessed a technical progress, viz., 18-23% better energy conversion by using silicon, a rare element. In France, EDF acquired the company capable of increasing this PV cell efficiency.

Well, all to the good, I say, except that China has done even better, using recycled silicon recovered from decommissioned panels (unfortunately with children as labour) which enables the Chinese to produce new PV panels with the same level of efficiency but at a lower unit cost and Government has made them obligatory for new housing areas. However, if China is now investing strongly in production and installation of PV arrays and wind farm generators, there remains the acute problem of connecting them to the grid which is a very costly affair; to the extent that in North East China, the authorities do not know what to do with all the excess renewable electricity produced.

JR- What difficulties does the Government meet to engage in ecological transition policies?

YMB – In my opinion, the difficulties are both economic and social. The figure for annual growth in China stands at 6.6% today and the Government asserts it will remain at this level till 2020. In more recent times, Prime Minister Li Keqiang presented a new growth calculation formula and a new figure of 3.5-4% per year. French economist Patrick Artus has redone the calculations and comes to the figure 2.2%. This scenario does not include the experts’ forecast that China is losing some 6% of its GDP every year for ecology-related reasons.

Nonetheless, the advantage of the huge land mass that is China and having an authoritarian regime at its head means that the Chinese Government in fact has considerable means at its disposal. The programme launched in 2010-2011 called ‘Smart Cities’ amounted to 100 billion euros, 10% of which was allotted to Shanghai and its conurbation. But the country is also having to face sabotage strategy thrusts. Experience tells us that bargaining and corruption are rife among politicians and industrialists. We also note and know that the foreign companies are subject to very stringent standard compliancy decisions. And, over and above the question of corruption which the Chinese are fighting at the moment, another unknown quantity is the state of employment in the country.

China is preparing itself for a strong social disruption and a face-off. The issues involved in solving ecology-related questions are seen as luxury expenditure and runs counter to the vital needs to ensure employment prospects. There is a non-negligible risk that the Government will choose ecology rather than alleviating the employment problems. This risk is all the more patent that faced with millions of workers being laid off, open demonstrations in the street have already occurred. The reality here is that China presents outside the country its intensive pro-ecology programme while it deals with the domestic employment scene on home front. I personally am rather pessimistic about these questions all the more that machines are now beginning to replace service jobs and seeing that 1.8 M workers have been laid off in the steel-making sites close to Beijing which, by a domino effect, may lead to a loss of 6 M jobs.

And the problem will not stop there. The so-called Chinese exception no longer exists and the country is having to face the same problems as other Western countries. Prime Minister Li Kegiang is striving to avoid an excessive salary hike to slow down the delocalization of industries, including Chinese companies. The country aims to attain a positive balance of payment. The Government praised hard, honest work to improve the quality of production and limit corruption. Salaries are limited, to the extent that overtime bonuses were statutorily halved, from 100 to 50% in just 24 hours. The offer for Chinese workers is a controlled salary compensated by cleaner air and safe domestic water. I consider that this political strategy is intelligent even if it there is a lot of resistance and opposition. We should not underestimate the capacity and willpower of this government to succeed.

JR – In your opinion, what solution(s) could be implemented by the Government to solve this tense stand-off between the logics underpinning ecological, economic and social issues?

YMB – My intimate conviction is that a universal basic income could provide a solution for China. I’m trying to spread this idea and I have talked about it in several conferences organized in various Chinese cities. I believe it could prove to be an especially well adapted model for developing countries in order to eradicate poverty. 

Given that the economist Jean Pisani-Ferry showed that the average transfer value per inhabitant is 800 euros, so it is useless to propose an income below that value, as the liberal thinkers do, for example, have proposed with the attached risk of seeing the State’s special budget decrease, but above all seeing the standard of living of the citizens drop. I advocate a universal basic income for all, and for all moments in life –from 1 200 € for adults and 600 € for children (the 50% difference is set to reflect the scale of consumption). The entire population is reassured, with each person acting as a pollinizer or contributor to societal wellbeing. But this subsistence income can be coupled with a parallel paid activity (whether it be a salaried post or not) and should be associated with a new labour rights protection system because of the changes in the work positions (part-time, intermittent and a lower level of pay when the pay is calculated over a year without evaluating the induced loss of rights.

If we consider the French ‘intermittent’ system with a guaranteed part-time pay offset by flexibility. Concretely, what we envision is a system where 1 hour’s work is duly paid the relevant 1 hour rate. Another advantage – with this subsistence wage those jobs that socially are not attractive should turn out to be better paid than the current (France) SMIC (guaranteed inter-professional wage). But, if the employers are to be encouraged to hire staff under this system, the lowest rated jobs (25% are paid at the French SMIC rate), they must see the social protection fraction integrally covering the social contributions. Under this sort of system, the entrepreneurs must also find points that they see sufficiently attractive so that they can decide to invest here. This enables an improvement not only of work conditions but of the activity contents proposed. The latter generates rights for extra retirement income (the base-line being the subsistence income).

Julie Rieg, Chronos

[1] - Tiānmìng : 天命 in Chinese is a concept that goes back to the Zhou dynasty (1st Century BC), according to which the Emperors were legitimized. In the case of inappropriate behaviour, the mandate could be removed. It is close to the idea of ‘by Divine Right’ of monarchs in France.

 [2] – [Ed.] English readers will surely enjoy: when Chinese children banged endlessly on cooking pans to prevent sparrows from nesting and laying eggs.