I had a wonderful three weeks in Germany and Denmark, where I attended a wedding and met my wife’s distant relatives. It was a time full of conversation and reflection that reminded me of the dangers of being a China blogger: I start entirely too many sentences with “In China…”, and everything reminds me of China.
So today I’d like to share a few thoughts I had on China during my travels, and then we’ll get back to the usual 5 posts a week on China in the modern world.
And yes, I am very aware of the dangers of a quick visit (consider that link required reading), so these observations are coming from recurring themes in conversations with a few dozen people.
People consume as much as they can
This is an economic view of the world (quite different from my religious hopes), that people will consume as much as their resources allow. It’s no secret that over-consumption is becoming an American characteristic, but after seeing Europe, I think it has less to do with culture than incentives.
American wages are relatively higher than Chinese, and prices in the States are much lower than in Europe (where $4 cokes were a common sight at the gas station). I think American’s consume huge amounts simply because we can.
Despite hearing from a number of smug Europeans that their fondness for bicycle riding and solar panels was born out of their deeper appreciation for the environment, I was told many times that this was not the case for everyone. With gas costing $7-8/gallon in Denmark, many of the relatives told us that people bike because they can’t afford to drive. A German told me that he had only covered his roof in solar panels because he had been convinced that the gov’t incentives would make it a good investment, but after poor performance wishes he had spent his money elsewhere. This was supported by the lack of solar panels in Denmark that did not have a similar policy.
This reminded me that even though China points to its low power consumption per capita, it is also not out of environmental concerns, but because people simply can’t afford to buy the devices that suck up the wattage.
Incentives work, but can go terribly wrong
However, these high prices and solar incentives are working incredibly well when it comes to protecting the environment. In Germany I mused daily over the fact that they have the 4th largest GDP, but everywhere you look it is green, green, green. Germany is a small country, with a small population (compared to China), but it’s population density is comparable to some of China’s central regions (no where close though to Beijing and Shanghai). Yet in China, you have to travel to its most remote regions for a breath of fresh air (something Germans were completely disgusted by).
To me Europe seems to be proof that incentives can be used to encourage people to make the decisions that ultimately benefit the whole society, and China is slowly moving in this same direction (except in the area of consumption). A good first step might be to stop subsidizing oil, which only encourages its use (China now imports a larger percentage of its oil than the US). To me it seems that China must move in a direction that is decidedly more European, but I know that increasing the cost of living would be counter to the Party’s primary objective – Stability.
Hopefully in the next few years China’s priorities will shift toward creating a more sustainable economy, and someday we will marvel at how China managed to turn its problems around.
For the last two days at least, I’ve caught glimpses of blue sky over Nanjing, so I’m feeling unusually optimistic.