Red China’s Green Lining

Will eco-statism help save the planet?

Laura Wächter for Noema Magazine

Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.

A little more than half a century ago, the West regarded “Red China” as an indecipherable quarter of humanity cloistered behind the Great Wall, its anonymous masses collectively toiling under totalitarian control to build a self-reliant nation. Mao was its only face to the world. 

In the wake of Deng Xiaoping’s “opening up and reform” and China’s entry into the World Trade Organization, the opaque Middle Kingdom became familiar to all corners of the planet as the factory of the world that tenaciously climbed its way to the top ranks of the global economy. It supplied our wardrobes and assembled our smartphones, accumulating and distributing enough wealth in the process to lift 700 million people out of poverty, create a middle class twice as large as that in the U.S. and mint more billionaires than Wall Street and Silicon Valley combined. Seen as a vast market open for business within a nation rising inoffensively and peacefully, the word “Red” was dropped as an anachronism from another era.  

Then the dislocations of globalization hit home in the West as the collateral destruction of China’s wealth creation hollowed out manufacturing and the working middle-class that depended on it.

As that reality fueled “America First” populism, Xi Jinping, too, changed course. The paramount leader became daringly assertive internationally in his pushback against the U.S.-led effort to contain his nation’s prospects while cracking down on endemic corruption and ballooning inequality at home, which festered during the long boom that Yuen Yuen Ang, writing in Noema, calls China’s “gilded age.” In a “new left” departure from the post-Mao capitalist road, Xi jettisoned the “get rich is glorious” ethos and supplanted it with the pursuit of a more equal society of “common prosperity” guided by the heavy hand of the state. 

Xi has further sought to propel his nation to the forefront of technological prowess, commensurate with, if not besting, the West, laying the ground along the way for a surveillance state more pervading than history has heretofore known. That, along with fears of China’s tech-enabled military dominance in Asia, has prompted the present U.S. administration to throttle any flow of core information technologies from the West in Beijing’s direction.

For Xi, only an ever-tighter grip of the Party on society, and the state on the economy, can secure the civilizational mission of China’s rejuvenation in the face of all these challenges. There will be zero tolerance of menacing microbes and troublesome critics alike. “Excessive wealth” and what the Fudan University scholar Zhang Weiwei labels “spiritual Americans” will be on the chopping block. 

The recent 20th Communist Party Congress affirmed the course Xi has charted and granted him the complete authority to carry it out. Albeit in a far different era, “Red” is back bigtime in China.

A Green Giant At Home and Abroad

As Jacob Dreyer reports in a fascinating essay in Noema, however, there is a green lining to the new Red China. 

In the face of decoupling from the West, shrinking markets for its consumer goods and the unwinding of overleveraged domestic real estate, Xi’s one-party statist apparatus is turning its developmental focus elsewhere to fill the gap. The new model is built in good measure around the transition to renewable energy that will not only help avert climate calamity at home, but foster new export markets, particularly in the Global South.

“Green development,” writes Dreyer, “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.” 

Policies like those Dreyer describes in Fuxin, which have replaced coal mining with wind power as the main industry, not only help solve ecological problems but, in his observation, also inspire patriotic idealism beyond the spiritually empty materialism of recent decades. 

According to Dreyer, China’s National Climate Center has called for the country “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.” 

Well in advance of reaching such goals, China already dominates key domains of the renewable energy future. “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 [a large automobile and battery conglomerate] 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.” China is substantially ahead of the rest of the world in wind power generation as well.

Dreyer further notes how China’s long-term strategy, joined with its Belt and Road project, aims to commercially service the needs of developing countries where energy demand is rising rapidly. “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. … 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.” Notably, China has kept to its Glasgow pledge and so far shelved 26 coal-fired plants of the 104 it had planned to build overseas. 

In the minds of China’s leaders, says Dreyer, the added geopolitical benefit of solving the problems of climate change is that it “can create a new world order that at last definitively breaks with the imperialist powers and their heirs.”

Conflict, Cooperation And Strategic Competition

During China’s rise as an economic power, Western analysts struggled to define its unconventional hybrid model that withstood the liberal end of history as “Market-Leninism.” Will Xi’s new model that we may call “eco-statism” prove as successful in meeting a challenge even greater than raising nearly a billion people out of impoverishment in only a few decades?

Though still the largest emitter of greenhouse gases, we have to admit that, at the same time, China is well on the way to impressive achievements in the transition from fossil fuels. In 2021, its installed renewable energy dwarfed any other nation, with 1,020 gigawatts (each gigawatt is equal to 1 billion watts) compared to America’s capacity of 325 gigawatts in second place. 

There can be no doubt that conflict with China is inexorable when it comes to control over the flow of information and use of data, particularly through advanced technology such as AI, which stands at the very heart of the divergence between East and West over individual freedom. But when it comes to the convergent interest of everyone on Earth in battling climate change, no such conflict reasonably stands in the way. Indeed, cooperation is the greater imperative. 

Failing that, at least one upside to the dynamic of strategic competition is that it may drive the West forward faster in the energy transition, pushing it to further expand its own state-driven industrial policies on that front as it is already doing with respect to semiconductor fabrication.

In the geopolitical clashes of a warming planet, assessing China’s outsized role in the world by sorting out the Red from the Green is the new conundrum on the horizon.