Jacob Dreyer is a writer and editor based in Shanghai.
FUXIN, China — The coal mine outside this city in China’s decaying industrial northlands closed in 2005, but local authorities have since turned it into an ecological park, planting grass and putting in a running path. As I walked through the sunny autumn forest next to the pit recently, I found a museum of rare rocks and local handicrafts. The plaza outside held a few rusted-out tanks and train cabooses, impromptu monuments to the life that was. Every once in a while, the mine’s crater still exhales puffs of smoke from burning coal veins underground, spewing sulfur and methane into the air, but the overall atmosphere is not unpleasant.
The main drag downtown feels like a Chinese version of Homer Simpson’s Springfield, with huge power plants lying inactive and boarded-up apartment blocks. Friendly provincial youths were sprawled out with watermelon, liquor and barbecue on a Saturday night. In a local cafe, I met an Englishman who runs a local preschool; everybody in Fuxin wants to go to there, he told me, because they want to find a way out. In my hotel, I passed suites with doors propped open, with men in black t-shirts gazing intently at laptop screens inside.
Fuxin is the kind of town you’d rather reminisce about than live in. The artist Sun Xun grew up here, and he told me that in high school, studying for the Gaokao exam, he’d memorize T’ang Dynasty poems about verdant green mountains while standing on frozen piles of coal. He remembers feeling that the stories in the texts were fundamentally disconnected from the China he lived in.
But with the wistfulness that long afternoons in a dead-end town provide, Marxist theorists at the Liaoning University of Engineering and Technology dream that as an old industrial base, Fuxin has “advantages [that] can be used to develop wind turbines and units for wind power generation, improve the technology and quality of equipment, and quickly localize.” Leaders have ambitions to transform this lost socialist backwater into a green paradise churning out renewable energy; wind power projects with a generation capacity of 6.8 gigawatts are under development.
Real estate here is practically worthless; you can buy a place for a few thousand dollars. Vast investment in wind energy seems to be the only way out for a dying coal town, a project for Fuxin’s aging population to fill up the hours with. In a generation, there probably won’t be many people left here, which is fine, because unlike coal mines, wind turbines don’t require armies of workers.
During the long, hot summer of 2022, it became apparent that the economic system that had been in place in China for decades was becoming unsustainable and unsuitable to people’s lives. Rivers and lakes were drying up during one of those “once in a century” heat waves that seem to happen every other year nowadays, and forest fires swept the mountains around Chongqing. The drought caused power outages in cities like Chengdu for weeks on end, where a brand-new metro system ran with long delays and sometimes with the lights out.
In prioritizing pandemic containment over the economy — so different from Western societies, where leaders have come to accept a certain number of deaths as the price to keep business moving — the Chinese government allowed 40 years of uninterrupted growth to choke and sputter. The real estate industry, a monument to growth for growth’s sake, flatlined. Many suspect that the government deliberately aborted it, since “houses are for living in, not for speculation.”
In China, the unviability of America as an attractive model for how to construct a government and a society has become clear for everybody to see. There is a palpable sense in some parts of Chinese society that the life of the nation needs a spiritual center, one beyond the consumerist economy of late capitalism; as Xi Jinping said at the 20th Communist Party Congress, it is time for “Chinese people of all ethnic groups [to] embark on a new journey to build China into a modern socialist country in all respects.”
Disappointment with political leaders is a sentiment that can be found in many countries around the world, but in China, the Party is advocating an ecologically driven vision of building something new, recognizing that what most human societies are doing in 2022 has no future. In places like Fuxin, people are waiting to be told what they are there for; they can see that the old thing is finished but aren’t sure what they’re supposed to do instead.
For China’s leadership, the creative destruction of the COVID pandemic provided the spark for a new economy oriented to state-driven technological solutions, primarily internally facing and built for crisis. In their words and deeds, they live in a world where climate crises are coming — in fact, they are already here. And they are crafting a political model that can replace the legitimacy conferred by steady economic growth with an ethos of shared struggle, drawing aesthetically on the legacy of socialist realism even as it is based economically and technologically on an energy transition.
The forever-receding horizon of this struggle is total carbon neutrality and the mass adoption of electric cars powered by batteries that store renewable energy harvested from deserts and mountains and transported by specialized high-voltage power cables to metropolitan areas many hundreds of miles away. In August, the National Climate Center’s Wang Yang called for the country to be able to generate 95 trillion kilowatt-hours of renewable energy per year by 2060 — a colossal amount (as of 2022, the U.S. generates 4 trillion kilowatt-hours of energy in total per year) that would necessitate a substantial portion of the population continuously building infrastructure for decades. Numbers like this — six times the expected demand by then — aren’t just an energy transition, they are a map for constructing an entirely different social order than the China we know.
The U.S. may have finally passed breakthrough legislation this summer that promises to invest $369 billion in renewables, but China invested more than that ($380 billion) last year, and there are indications that this figure will be substantially surpassed in 2022. China plans to double its current installed capacity of solar and wind power by 2025, exceeding its commitment for 2030 five years ahead of time.
Unlike in the U.S., where the Inflation Reduction Act is focused primarily on domestic infrastructure, China is directing state funds to technologies that will be exported globally. Instead of giving yourself a fish, create a model by which everybody else can learn to fish, especially in those places that never had enough fish before. China is shifting from an economic model of exporting consumer goods to the West toward a model of equipping and financing the world’s energy transition. In doing so, it has no competitors.
In this moment, so fraught with uncertainty and disaster — “change unseen for 100 years,” as Xi says — China’s leaders seem to sense a chance to turn carefully nourished technology-driven manufacturers like BYD and CATL into global colossuses, to make diplomatic inroads into the Global South by offering solutions where Western powers couldn’t or wouldn’t, to stitch together China’s post-industrial north and technologically-oriented south, and to craft a post-growth model of political legitimacy.
For them, solving the problems of climate change — adapting to serious environmental crises while providing adequate carbon-neutral electricity and food to people in the world beyond who currently have neither — can create a new world order that at last definitively breaks with the imperialist powers and their heirs.
“We must regard science and technology as our primary productive force, talent as our primary resource and innovation as our primary driver of growth.” – Xi Jinping, Oct. 2022.
In 1909, the modernist novelist Natsume Sōseki went on a trip sponsored by Mantetsu, the Japanese railway corporation responsible for modernizing colonial Manchuria. Passing through Fushun, the site of another massive coal mine in Liaoning Province, he called the local laborers “tongueless men”: “Without uttering a word, they kept ascending to the third floor and descending from there, carrying these heavy sacks of beans on their shoulders. Their silence, their regular movements, their patience and their energy are almost like the shadows of fate.”
As the scholar Eri Hotta noted in her book about Japan in the 1930s and 40s, the conditions at the Fushun mine were atrocious: “Approximately 40,000 miners were working at any given time, and it is thought that about 25,000 of that number had to be replaced yearly, owing to a high rate of deaths, escapes and executions.”
Such was the birth of China’s working class: Subjugated by colonial violence, denied a voice, living lives of misery in fossil-fueled dirty factories. Such was China’s entry into modernity.
At the end of this year’s Beidaihe summit, where China’s top leadership plots out its next steps, Li Keqiang, the economic captain who is Xi’s second in command, left for a tour of a BYD factory in Shenzhen. Twenty thousand new jobs, he was told, were being created there every month.
Xi Jinping, on the other hand, went north to the decayed industrial area near Fushun and Fuxin in Liaoning Province. Shenyang, the capital of the province, with its smoky factories and a history of Communist struggles, couldn’t have a more different role in today’s China than Shenzhen. But the message Xi articulated — of “ecological conservation, environmental improvement, production and manufacturing, the development of cities, the people’s lives and other aspects to expedite the building of a beautiful China” — was similar to Li’s down south.
In the lost socialist heartland of the north, many communities are soaked in generations of resentment and living in landscapes of depletion, where existential questions about why people live there at all have driven massive migration south, as well as China’s most violent labor disputes. But the CCP has good reason not to underestimate or ignore embittered working classes up here — they were them, once.
On tours of war memorials and robotics factories, retirement homes and a newly grown forest, Xi cultivated a mythology of struggle against overwhelming odds, the aesthetic heritage of socialism. It isn’t terribly subtle, but he is appropriating it for new uses, recalling Mao’s comment that “我们说要脱胎换骨” — a Buddhist literary phrase that means something like “We would like to shed our bodies and outgrow our bones.” The bones of a socialist ethos of self-sacrifice and collectivism are back in vogue, but today the hero-workers are told to erect windmills and solar panels, preserve woodlands and plant trees — to build a “beautiful China.” Renewable energy and advanced technologies are proffered as the solution to stagnating communities with low self-esteem.
Whatever it is that Xi saw at Shenyang’s Siasun robotics factory, it wasn’t capitalism in any way that we might understand it, and it wouldn’t be even if Siasun lists on the NASDAQ. Siasun emerged from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and reflects China’s state-led model of investment in technologies that it deems critical to the future.
“Green development” is a catch-all politically correct basket for all sorts of investments in China today, many of which are taking the place of infrastructure stimulus. If, in 2008, the Chinese government sought to propel the economy by building high-speed trains, today it does so with vast arrays of solar panels in the desert or enormous water transfer programs. The National Strategy for Climate Adaptation might help China to solve ecological problems like resource scarcity, extreme climate events and changing ecosystems — but it also offers the Chinese state a date with destiny.
Today, the CCP takes the so-called “industrial party” — middle class graduates from engineering and STEM programs born in the 80s and 90s — as a core constituency and source of membership. If you are a hammer, everything looks like a nail, so if you are a technocratic organization of millions of engineers that sees its purpose as enhancing the lives of Chinese people, climate change is the sort of challenge that inspires big plans. The CCP has an almost structural need for a crisis like this one, as they direct the return of the repressed working classes into a shared fate, creating an engine for their own legitimacy in the process.
The mythology of China’s state is less one of wars with foreign powers and more an endless conflict with the rhythms of nature: irrigation, flood prevention, the management of resources. Yu the Great, the King Arthur of China, was a mythical engineer-king who gained the throne by successfully irrigating the Yellow River, preventing floods and enabling population growth via agriculture. Whether the story is true or not is beside the point; the notion of what the Chinese state is fundamentally for continues on that track: wise, scholarly individuals whose role is to terraform the land and thereby make cultural continuity possible.
China is a millennia-old project of how to not get washed away, starved to death, killed by heatstroke; how to turn leaves into dinner and withered roots into medicine. Historical rulers took the preservation and extension of the population as the moral and practical core of their reign, and today’s leaders still see society as configured by a hierarchy whose legitimacy is based on controlling climate disasters.
“Quantity is a quality all of its own.” — Joseph Stalin
Shenzhen, the upstart coastal metropolis visited by Li Keqiang, is a world apart from the resentments, Buddhist temples and abandoned coal mines up north in Liaoning. In the megacity’s 11th district, the semi-rural Shenshan, BYD is investing $2.9 billion in a vast new factory that is expected to employ 80,000 workers and generate annual sales of $14 billion. BASF, the largest chemical company in the world, is building one of its own in nearby Zhanjiang at a cost of $10 billion, which the company intends to be entirely powered by renewable energy by 2025.
Construct enough factory towns like that and you’ll get a region akin to Southern California suburbia fueled by DARPA. China’s secret sauce for cornering the market for solar panels, for dominating the mining and manufacture of the rare earths used in wind turbines, for building electric cars — is simply the economy of scale. Make a lot of something, and the price goes down.
A combination of subsidies and legal mandates (for example, issuing license plates for EVs immediately while withholding registration for new gasoline-powered cars, or mandating that silicon manufacturers’ profit margins cannot be too high) has created vast domestic markets in China for renewables, which drives the price down globally. Chinese companies benefit — but in a sense so do all human beings who want to live in a world moving toward carbon neutrality.
The EV supply chain isn’t just about automobiles. Factories in China manufacture three-quarters of the world’s EV batteries, and China has 90% market share for processing the rare earth elements so important to those batteries. BYD is an apex predator in an ecosystem designed to allow it to flourish, from the gleaming minerals in the dirt to the batteries to the cars that silently glide down the highway back to Shenzhen. You can look into any of the numerous energies called renewable, from pumped hydro to experiments with fusion or thorium nuclear reactors, and you’ll discover that the state-funding model has given Chinese companies an imposing lead.
As DARPA was to Silicon Valley, directing government funding toward basic research that would create national prestige and a strong middle-class economy, Chinese industrial policy seeks to seed strategic industries to thrive in the future — a future, Chinese leaders believe, that will be a time of floods and fires. The companies being created are intended to flourish amid hardship, an aesthetic that blends into the socialist militarism of Manchurian hero-workers, with smokestacks and oil rigs replaced by wind turbines, solar panels and battery manufacturers.
That socialist aesthetic helps to communicate to China’s population what’s going on and why, and what their role in the process is. At the same time, the big companies have no trouble raising money on international capital markets and attracting investors like Warren Buffett. And why would they? They’re best in class in the crucial technologies of the future. China, according to Forbes, wants to become the Saudi Arabia of renewables.
These companies look like a proof of concept for China’s “actually existing socialism” — not the democratic socialism debated in the West, but full-on centralized planning, mass mobilization and five-year plans. These are companies riding the wave of what the climate theorists Geoff Mann and Joel Wainwright call “Climate Mao” — “an anti-capitalist system governed by sovereign power at the level of the nation-state or the planet.”
As Chinese economies of scale continue to drive down the price of solar panels, wind turbines and EV cars, the cost benefit for countries and companies around the world will be irresistible — even if American lawmakers try to make it illegal. As Gregory Nemet, a technology and policy scholar at the University of Wisconsin, wrote to me, “The forces to develop domestic capabilities will be strong in importing countries [in the Global South]. And the production technology, now that it is mature, will be relatively smooth to transfer to new locations, likely with Chinese expertise deeply involved, at least for a while.” Shenshan, with its rural landscape being transformed by the manufacture of green technologies, could be a preview for Zambia, Indonesia or Bahia in the future. Much as America’s security state gained global power through DARPA inventions like the internet, Chinese energy technology will reshape communities around the world in unexpected ways.
China’s diplomats envision a future in which China wins more and more of the Global South into its corner by supplying aid during the inevitable catastrophes that are to come and perhaps finding markets for renewable energy in countries where Chinese state-owned enterprises control significant parts of the power grid, such as Brazil and the Philippines. As Tucker Carlson and Western energy analysts are starting to recognize, the basis of U.S. hegemony will be threatened if China controls global energy markets. This poses a real dilemma for U.S. policymakers (and perhaps an even greater one for Europeans, whose energy supplies are being choked off) who recognize the imperative to transition to carbon neutrality but will have to massively rely on Chinese imports to get there.
China After Growth
“If human affairs go awry in this world below, there will be corresponding changes in Heaven above. … We have on this account directed Our efforts toward reflecting upon the reformation of Our character, practicing abstinence and devoutly praying for sweet and prolonged rain, Our hope being that Our quintessential single-mindedness will reach upwards, and affect the heart-mind of Heaven.” — Kangxi Emperor, 1678.
According to the historian Mark Elvin, medieval China was trapped in a “high-level equilibrium trap” that prevented the development of an industrial revolution like in northwestern Europe. To make his complex theory simple: Chinese society roughly between 1200 and 1800 adapted itself to a rhythm that was adequate. More or less satisfied with the way things were for centuries, nobody felt incentivized to grow the nation more, to develop more. The Chinese simply mended what was broken, sowed new harvests to replace what was consumed and when that was finished, wrote poetry. It was a timeless land of mountains and rivers. What ultimately broke this equilibrium, of course, were the industrialized Europeans, who came first for Japan and then China.
Since then, China has been experiencing a regional variety of “anti-modern modernity,” the same as Meiji-era Japan, Soviet Russia and Germany after Hegel. As when Hegel watched Napoleon ride through Germany on horseback, this created a paradoxical sensation: rage at the plunder of one’s home, and envy of the superior strength of the conqueror.
The population of China and India both started to spike when they encountered the industrialized Western powers and slowly but surely adopted a different position vis-à-vis the world. No longer was the world simply a place that they lived. It became instead a set of objects and commodities they could transform in search of surplus value.
Many degrowth economists that have emerged in the wake of revelations about our warmer future essentially advocate for something similar to the equilibrium trap that Elvin identified. Rephrasing it to be palatable and applied to the entire globe, “sustainability,” for them, simply means: Let there be another generation and another after that, and let our works be remembered and honored by whatever people there are living in that future time.
During the pandemic, Jörg Wuttke — China’s BASF chief, an advocate of EU-China collaboration on carbon neutrality and the head of the European Chamber of Commerce in China — commented to me that the mandate for growth to which he was accustomed had been replaced by ideological imperatives. Lockdown-era China was foreshadowing the coming “Climate Mao” model.
The concerns for China in a warmer future are the same as they’ve always been: avoid famine, put down peasant revolutions, dam the rivers to prevent floods, ease the impact of droughts. In climate change, China’s state has found a match for its predilections and a justification for its preferred mode of social hierarchy. In this situation, Xi says, we’ve got no realistic choice — an emperor and his army of engineers are the only answer.