Which Modernization for China?

Andrew Feenberg


With 4.5% of world population the United States consumes 25% of world resources. It also emits a corresponding percentage of world pollution. This is the result of several centuries of industrial development in the world’s most dynamic economy.

China still trails far behind in total wealth. Its population is a bit more than four times that of the US but its share of world wealth is about one eigth the US share. Per capita income in the US is some 35 times that of China.

But China is catching up. It is growing four or five times as fast as the US. Extrapolating the trend, China too becomes a moderately wealthy country in the not too distant future, and this seems likely to happen if no great disaster arrests its progress.

This is the premise of the China Modernization Report 2006 published by the Chinese Academy of Sciences. The report’s optimistic scenario projects growth at current rates until 2050, at which time China will be 10 times as rich as it is at present. Poverty will have been abolished, five hundred million peasants will have moved to the cities, six hundred million urbanites will have moved to suburbs, and half the population will own cars. The author admits that this will be difficult to achieve but he believes it possible.

Of course the projection may be falsified by all sorts of contingencies. Forty five years is far too distant a future for anyone to foresee with confidence. But the significance of this document has less to do with the future than the present. The China Modernization Report 2006 reveals contemporary aspirations. It is intended to inspire efforts rather than to guarantee results.

This is precisely what is most disturbing about the report. China today aspires to a future that bears a startling resemblance to the American present. The US is the country of car ownership and suburbanization. This is the model of wealth that has driven development in our economy since World War II. The report adopts this model uncritically for China and presumably this reflects the image of wealth in the minds of many Chinese citizens for whom modernization is Americanization. This is the image of modernity that has been most effectively transmitted by films and books that present the US as a utopia, an ideal of prosperity.

But there are two problems with this ideal: it is both unrealizable and undesirable.

Why can’t China be rich in the same way as the US? The answer is simple. The American model consumes a quarter of the world’s resources with a population a fourth the size of China’s. The other 75% of the world’s resources must be shared by 96% of the world’s population. Multiply China’s wealth 10 times over and where will it find the resources to sustain an American level of consumption? The problem of pollution is just as severe. America contributes about one quarter of all greenhouse gases. If China catches up it will flood the atmosphere with carbon dioxide, accelerating climatic trends fatal to its own agricultural productivity. This is clearly an economic and environmental dead end.

Can minor tinkering with the technology of American modernity solve the problem? That seems unlikely. The gas mileage of automobiles can certainly be doubled, but if the report’s predictions are realized, China alone would double the number of automobiles during an era of declining oil production and expanding world demand for energy. This makes no sense.

What about really radical technological transformation? Will fuel cells or some similar technology save the American post-war model and enable China to emulate it? This is possible but now we are in the realm of science fiction. In this realm anything and everything is possible. Gambling the global future on as yet uninvented technology also makes no sense.

The China Modernization Report 2006 has more to offer than these implausible predictions of American style development. The author imagines a wealthy China providing everyone with full medical insurance and access to 17 years of education; life expectancy would rise to 80 years, and the percentage of skilled knowledge workers would rise from the current 10% to 50%. These social goals are independent of the projected suburbanization and automobilization of Chinese society. In fact, they may well contradict it.

For all its wealth the United States has not achieved these goals. Approximately 45 million Americans are without adequate health insurance and educational levels are nowhere near as high as in other developed countries. Infant mortality rates are comparable with Costa Rica, not France or Japan. Poverty is still widespread in the US, as hurricaine Katrina revealed, and America’s rapidly growing prisons contain over two million people for a population of about 300 million, nearly one percent. The gap between rich and poor continues to grow and race is still destiny for millions of Americans. Social policy appears to have very little effect on these well known problems. It is hard to escape the conclusion that American society has misallocated its resources in an environmentally and socially disastrous way.

Countries are held together by their dreams. So long as Russians believed communism was the path of prosperity the regime was stable. When doubt crept in collapse occurred. China has avoided collapse by harnessing the dream of prosperity with its successful economic reforms. Unfortunately, the image of prosperity that sustains the regime is ambiguous. Universal health care belongs on any list of important achievements of a rich society. Universal automobile ownership is specific to a temporary stage in the development of American society and has little prospect of realization elsewhere, certainly not in China.

There is something terribly unfair about this state of affairs. Whether one approves of the American model or not, why shouldn’t China have a crack at it if it so desires? Consider the fact that the US and Europe have been polluting the atmosphere with their greenhouse gases for 150 years and those gases are still up there. In all fairness China should also get to pollute the atmosphere for at least a century. But the consequences of a fair distribution of opportunities to pollute would be catastrophic and China would suffer as much or more than other countries from such a policy.

Unfair it may be, but there is also an opportunity not to be missed in the obstacles to Americanization. The alternative is to innovate a different model of wealth, focusing on the social goals China can hope to achieve and devoting far more wealth to improving health, education, and the quality of work and urban life than to automobiles and suburban homes. Rather than the America’s sprawling suburbs where every move depends on the car, China can build inspiring and exciting cities in which it is enjoyable to live and easy to get around on public transportation. Chinese experts should be sent out to study small and vibrant European cities rather than Japanese and Korean auto plants.

This is a realizable ideal that will have unsuspected rewards for a world that knows more about American achievements than about American problems. The first priority of every developing country should be to avoid the tremendous inequalities of wealth, health care, and education that characterize the American model. No study of American modernity is complete that sees only the joys of big suburban homes and not the boredom of suburban life. Take the good but leave behind the bad! That should be the motto for the next China Modernization Report.