What is the cost of China’s rapid growth?

11 May

The following article will aim to establish the cost associated with China’s economy, and its rapid expansion, and aim to consider who will burden these costs.  China is one of five BRICS countries: Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. The acronym was coined by Jim O’Neill (Goldmansachs.com, 2013) to highlight emerging markets that often are deemed to be developing and/or newly industrialised.  It is this process of industrialisation that will be the focal point throughout this piece. It is this process that has allowed the Chinese to be labelled as a super power, with the second largest economy in the world, as referred to by many of my peers on the blog site.

Typically the process of industrialisation involves the shift away from the primary sector to that of the secondary sector, as in the case of the United Kingdom where the industrial revolution in 1970 shows a shift away from farming to that of coal mining with the aid of invention and transportation (BBC, 2013). The case of China does not highlight an exception. Before the 1950s much of China’s industry was focused around agriculture production (Can,2004, p40) which could be classed as the primary sector. A shift to a labour intensive manufacturing which could be highlighted as the producing (secondary) sector, took place under the economic reform which started in 1978 initiated by Deng Xiaoping.

Many developed countries, particularly those in the West, developed their economies through the process of industrialisation. The industrial revolution began initially in the United Kingdom and then later spread to Germany and France. If it has been repeated in the past, some may ask, what is the problem now?  By way of comparison to developed countries, analysis will take place to answer the question. One of the consequences of industrialisation is the high pollution levels (Oosthoek, and Gills, 2007, p17). This can be as a result from the CO2 emissions from the producing factories as in the case of both the United Kingdom (U.K) and China. These emissions are harmful to those people who breathe it in. Previously in the U.K , London earned the nickname “the Big Smoke” because  of  the thick blanket of smog that often filled its skies, associated with the high pollution levels.  In December 1952 the Great London Smog can provide an example as to why ‘comprehensive legislation to combat air pollution in Britain and the US was introduced’ (Committee on Energy Futures and Air Pollution in Urban China and the United States National Academy of Engineering National Research Council, 2007,p3) such as the Clean Air Act 1956, within ten years of the law being enacted industry ‘reduced its smoke emissions by 74 per cent’. (Clapp,1994,p51).

Recently in China ‘skyrocketing demand has made it the second largest consumer and major source of demand growth. This is, of course, being driven by rapid urbanisation and, in particular, by the rise of personal vehicle use’ (Committee on Energy Futures and Air Pollution in Urban China and the United States National Academy of Engineering National Research Council, 2007, p1).  These factors contribute to the reason why China is the largest emitter of sulphur dioxide (SO2) worldwide, and along with the United States of America, they both lead in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. ‘China is experiencing an industrial revolution at about ten times the speed that it occurred in the West…The shift from light industry to heavy industry has lead to a huge appetite for resources and energy and produced huge amounts of pollution. Steel, for example, uses up 16 percent of all of China’s power’(Hays, 2008). Increase industrial consumptions are impacting toxic level of emission, and having a detrimental effect on health, the environment and thus the quality of life in China.

On the agenda in conferences has been the topical issue of global emission, such as UNFCCC China Climate Change talks, held in Tianjin October 2010. Discussions during these summits often included ways in which to reduce the effect of climate change. Is it fair the developed countries forcefully encourage countries such as China to drastically decrease their emissions, despite the fact it could harm their growth, when these countries’ economies have previously prospered in similar ways? China often makes the argument that emissions should be measured per capita: if this measurement was used, the average Chinese person would almost definitely emit less than the average person in the West. Questions could be raised as to whether it is fair that China should be able to contribute to pollution in a similar way that many of the world’s developed countries previously did. It could be argued that limited information about climate change and the effect of pollution were not available in the same way as they are today and in light of this information China’s case is incomparable to the Industrial Revolutions experienced by many western countries. Despite this, exemptions have been made in the Kyoto Protocol as it does not require developing countries to reduce their emissions.

An argument can also be made that the legislations were brought in to curtail the dangerous effects of pollution within the UK when it was affecting the health of its citizens. Currently pollution levels in China have reached the extent that, ‘there have been 500,000 pollution related deaths since 2008; respiratory-related cancer is the leading cause.’  (Al Jazeera, 2013). The Beijing Olympics in 2008 brought this issue to the forefront, perhaps signalling that this issue is a global one, not just affecting China alone. From this is can be derived that maybe the international community have some right to intervene and to request that China reduce their pollution, not only for the health of people within their nation state but also because of the implications for the rest of the world. According to a 2007 report by the World Bank, the pollution is an issue if not immediately and effectively controlled, which can spread across the boundaries of administrative jurisdictions highlighting a burden we all have to bear, including those in undeveloped countries, who may not have adequate resources to deal with such outcomes.

The argument that would be made when concluding is that the right balance needs to be struck between China’s striving for economic growth and the negative externalities that it produces. This would therefore require a shift to other forms of energy; and government support is necessary for such a shift especially in terms of monetary assistance in order for business and producers to make such a transition. ‘The responsibility for developing and instituting many air-quality and energy strategies rests with local and regional governments’ (Committee on Energy Futures and Air Pollution in Urban China and the United States National Academy of Engineering National Research Council ,2007, p2). This is likely to be costly for the government and the Chinese economy. With a government that is riddled with corruption it is highly unlikely that this is feasible. The Chinese people are becoming more vocal about their concerns through the use of demonstrations, and in turn the government seems to be responding, which could signal a change in them tacking the problem of pollution in China. The impact of pollution on health is a great concern for many Chinese people and it has suffered in recent years at the expense of economic growth.


Al jazeera (2012) China: Green versus growth. [online] Available at: http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/insidestory/2012/10/20121029102720270710.html [Accessed: 1 May 2013]

Al jazeera (2013) The human cost of China’s rapid development. [online] Available at: http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/insidestory/2013/01/201311563549764927.html [Accessed: 1 May 2013].

Buck, J. L (1931) Chinese Farm Economy Pacific Affairs, University of British Columbia [Online] Available at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2750136 Vol. 4, No. 6, pp. 536-539

Can, W. (2004) Ethnic Groups in China. Beijing: China Intercontinental Press

Chow, G. (2001) Perspectives Volume 2, No. 6. Overseas Young Chinese Forum, Available from:  http://www.oycf.org/Perspectives2/12_063001/chinese_econ.htm [Accessed 8th February 2012]

Clapp, B. W (1994) An Environmental History of Britain since the Industrial Revolution. London and New York: Lomgman

Committee on Energy Futures and Air Pollution in Urban China and the United States National Academy of Engineering National Research Council (2007)Energy futures and urban air pollution: Challenges for China and the United States. Washington D.C.: The National academic press

Committee on U.S.-China Cooperation on Electricity from Renewable Resources National Research Council Chinese Academy of Sciences (2010) Power of Renewables : Opportunities and Challenges for China and the United States Washington D.C.: The National academic press

Hays, J (2008) Cheap Labor Industries in China and the End Of Cheap Labor in China – China Facts and Details. [online] Available at: http://factsanddetails.com/china.php?itemid=359&catid=9 [Accessed: 7 May 2013]

Goldman Sachs Asset Management (2013) Seeking Growth: BRIC and Beyond – Next 11: It’s Time to Redefine Emerging Markets. Goldman Sachs. [Online] Available at:   http://www.goldmansachs.com/gsam/individuals/education/investment-themes/growth-markets/growth-markets-rollup/  [Accessed: 11th Apr 2013].

Oosthoek, J. and Gills, B. K. (2007) ‘The Globalization of Environmental Crisis (Rethinking Globalizations) Routledge

World Bank (2007) Water Pollution Emergencies in China: Prevention and Response World Bank [online] Available at: http://water.worldbank.org/publications/water-pollution-emergencies-china-prevention-and-response [Accessed: 4 May 2013].


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