Build. Boom. Sell. Sprawl. The planet hasn’t seen anything quite like China
From my 24th-floor office in northeast Beijing, each day I survey the startling expansion and transformation of the city. Every morning brings either a new high-rise or a vacant lot where an old high-rise once stood, a situation accelerated by the $40 billion Beijing is spending in preparation for the upcoming Olympics. But the changes China is experiencing are far more profound than a few new skyscrapers, and the consequences of those changes reach around the globe.
As an editor for China Security, an English-language policy journal based in Beijing, I am in a unique position to observe this transitional time for China and the effect it has on the rest of the world. The mission of our journal is to foster a dialogue between Chinese and Western scholars on security issues that range from traditional military defense to energy and environment. In the course of bringing our articles to print, it is my job to help research, critique, and tailor each piece to provide our readers with diverse and informed viewpoints on modern China. It is both a demanding and a fulfilling job.
How I began a career in China defies straightforward explanation. At the University of Tennessee, I studied geography and political science, learned Spanish and Russian, studied abroad in Europe, and conducted my thesis research in the Balkans. This may seem a circuitous route to Beijing, but the breadth of experience I gained in that path is useful in a country so inextricably linked to the rest of the planet. After all, in China, the big picture is the only picture. Now the world’s fourth-largest economy, China’s exports are worth more than $1 trillion and fill stores and markets around the globe–this from a country that was struggling to feed itself only decades ago.
However, China’s reversal of fortune has come at a tremendous cost. The most obvious consequences of its unchecked growth are environmental. According to the World Bank, China is home to 16 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities. Moreover, it gets 80 percent of its electricity from coal, which has resulted in the trebling of carbon dioxide emissions since 1990 and a 25 percent increase in global mercury pollution. China’s growing thirst for energy also calls into question the sustainability of peace. Once a self-sufficient petroleum-producing country, China is now expected to import 70 percent of its oil from the Middle East by 2015, potentially putting it on a strategic collision course with U.S. interests. Meanwhile, all of these problems are compounded by lagging political reform, which has failed to progress in step with economic growth.
While many are tempted to label China as the epicenter of the world’s troubles, we must acknowledge that the expectations for China’s conduct are much higher than they were during the development phase of Western countries. Furthermore, because it faces so many challenges, China has the potential to become a leader in addressing global problems. There are many indications it is rising to meet that challenge, particularly in areas of environmental and energy innovation. Whether China succeeds or fails in this endeavor is perhaps the most important question of our generation and will impact every person on the planet. In the coming decades, policymakers and researchers will be divided into two groups: those who understand China and those who do not. Whether we like it or not, China will play a pivotal role in the coming century, and I am here in the hope that I can play a constructive role in that future.