Interview with Dale Wen: “China Needs an Ecologized Social Democratic System”

Mar 07

Dale Wen's short book China Copes with Globalization: a Mixed Review [PDF], published by the International Forum on Globalization,
is probably the best comprehensive introduction to the environmental
and social impacts of China's breakneck industrialization available in
English Based on both Chinese and non-Chinese sources, the report
carefully reviews China's economic policies from Mao to the present
leadership, discusses the consequences of the economics of the reform
era from 1978-92, analyzes the globalization of the economy since 1992,
and surveys the alternative voices in the Chinese scene, including the
environmental movement and the "New Left."

and raised in China, Dale obtained her Bachelor of Science degree from
the University of Science and Technology of China in Anhui province and
her PhD from the California Institute of Technology. Currently an
associate of the International Forum on Globalization (IFG), she worked
in Silicon Valley's high tech industry before moving to non-profit
work. Her writings on China's development and environment have appeared
in a number of publications. She travels frequently to China, where she
maintains close ties with China's emerging civil society.

Walden Bello: How serious is the environmental crisis in China?

Dale Wen: The environmental crisis in China
is dead serious. For example, the ground water table of the North China
plain is dropping by 1.5 meters (5 feet) per year. This region produces
40 percent of China's grain. One cannot help wondering about how China
will be fed once the ground aquifer is depleted.

WB: What in your view are the three most serious environmental crises being faced by China at this point?

DW: Water pollution and water scarcity; soil
pollution, soil degradation and desertification; global warming and the
coming energy crisis.

WB: What in your view is the role of western TNCs in the current environmental crisis?

DW: Taking advantage of lagging
implementation of environmental laws in China, many western TNCs have
relocated their most polluting factories into the country and have
exacerbated or even created many environmental problems. For example,
Pearl River Delta and Yangtze River Delta, the two Special Economic
Zones where most TNC subsidiaries are located, have the most serious
problem of heavy metal and POPs (persistent organic pollutants)

WB: There are reports (e.g., LA Times, Nov.
26, 2006) that the Chinese government is considering allowing Chinese
farmers to plant genetically modified rice. What do you think about

DW: According to the report, the Chinese
government is going slowly on this-the earliest possible decision would
be two years from now. I remember that in 2005, there were rumors that
GM rice might be approved within a year. I am very glad that this is
not happening. Now there is more time and room for debate. I understand
that the Chinese government has invested a lot of money in GMO
technology and is desperately looking for silver bullets for the rural
crisis. But from the past experience of Green Revolution, we should
learn that technology alone cannot solve social problems and sometimes
can even be counterproductive,

WB: Some people say that the problem is capitalism? Do you agree?

DW: Capitalism is certainly a big contributor
that we have to address. But it is not the only factor-we should not
forget that the former Soviet Union also had a dismal environmental
record. A critical view of developmentalism needs to be fostered by
progressives to address the environmental crisis.

WB: Is the resolution of the environmental crisis dependent on democratization in China?

DW: Not necessarily. With the type of
representative democracy that exists in western countries, the rich and
powerful can always manage to externalize the environmental cost to the
poor and voiceless-this is a major problem of the US environmental
movement. The prevalent "not in my backyard" approach often results in
relocating of pollution and environmental devastation instead of
addressing the real problems. So I do not think the US-style democracy
can help to solve the environmental crisis in China. A true
participatory democracy may help-as everyone will have a say, including
the victims of ecological destruction. Social democracies in northern
Europe work better than US model and are much closer to a true
participatory democracy, but they also have much less population and
resource pressure than China, thus copying that model directly will not
be an easy way out. China will have to develop its own inclusive
political system according to its own history and culture. The current
leadership is emphasizing "the harmonious society" and "sustainable
development". While the details of these phrases still need to be
spelled out, I think it is a good start.

WB: Western environmentalists criticize
Chinese for reproducing Western lifestyles that have a heavy impact on
the environment? What can you say about this?

DW: The criticism is right on target, as the
rapid adoption of Western lifestyles by China's elites is a sad
reality. But we should not forget why it is happening–the mainstream
West (including the governments, the media and even some NGOs) has
fiercely encouraged the middle class mentality and lifestyles in China,
as they think these are the basis for western type of democracy.
Western environmentalists would be more convincing to their Chinese
audience if they also criticized the lifestyles in their own country
and the influence of the West in spreading such lifestyles.

WB: What does China's "New Left" have to say
about the environment? Do they have a program of environmental
regulation? What are the key points of this program?

DW: As China's "New Left" refers to anyone
who disagrees with the neoliberal orthodoxy, so they do not have a
unified voice about the environment yet. Some New Left scholars, like
Wang Hui, Huang Ping and Wen Tiejun, have written extensively against
developmentalism and are active participants in China's emerging green
movements. However, other New Left scholars assume that once the
equality problems are addressed, the environmental issues will be
automatically solved. This is a position I disagree with. The
combination of green and red perspectives will be a challenge for
China's New Left, as it is for many progressives in other parts of the

WB: China is the second biggest emitter of
greenhouse gases in the world. Should China be subjected to mandatory
limits for greenhouse gas emissions under a new Kyoto Protocol?

DW: I think that under a new Kyoto Protocol,
greenhouse gas emission quotas should be allocated on an equal per
capita basis, and all countries should be subjected to such mandatory
limits under a cap-and-trade arrangement. While some may object that
such a program reward over-population in the developing countries, we
should not forget that current quota allocation according to previous
emissions rewards big emitters (i.e. developed countries) who have
created the global warming problem at the first place. As a compromise,
we can use current or 1990 population for quota setting, then an equal
per capita quota system, which would discourage both population growth
and greenhouse gas emission.

Another issue is that in this age of transnational
corporations, the boundaries of nation states are blurred. For example,
if a forest in Indonesia is cut to supply Chinese factories set up by
US companies, and the finished goods are exported to satisfy western
consumers, who should be responsible for the GHG emissions in the
process? I think the end-consumers should bear most responsibility.

WB: James Lovelock, the environmentalist of
Gaia fame, has advocated adoption of nuclear energy as part of a
strategy to counter global warming. Do you think nuclear might or
should be part of China's alternative energy program?

DW: I do not know enough about the pros and
cons of nuclear energy to answer this question directly. But I think
there are many proven, environmental-friendly, cost-effective and
less-controversial technologies already available-including energy
efficiency, wind power, bio-gas digester (using human/animal wastes and
agricultural leftovers), solar cooker, solar heater, etc. And China is
the world leader in some of these technologies (e.g., bio-gas digester
and solar heater). I hope all these proven and safe technologies would
be significant parts of China's alternative energy program before we
get dependent on nuclear energy.

WB: What do you think about the environmental
movement in China? How independent are the environmentalists from the
government? How effective are they?

DW: The environmental movement in China is
growing very fast. It has great potential and faces a big challenge at
the same time. Most environmentalists are quite independent from the
government, but they are not independent enough from their western
funders-financially, and more importantly, ideologically. In my
opinion, this is the big bottleneck that limits their effectiveness.
They need to break out of their middle-class cocoon to reach the larger

WB: Environmental organizing was a training
ground for democracy in Eastern Europe in the eighties. Do you think
that might be the case in China as well?

DW: I do not know enough about the real
situation that existed in Eastern Europe. From the limited information
I have, environmentalists and their ideas were pivotal in bringing
about change. But from what happened afterwards, I am not even sure
whether this was a change for the better. Since the 1990s, materialism
and consumerism have swept across the land, and environmentalists have
been marginalized. I have heard that some environmentalists there are
quite bitter about this or even feel that they had been used in the
eighties-what they wanted was a more humanized socialism instead of the
unchecked capitalism of today. I certainly DO NOT want to see all this
replayed in China. As I mentioned before, China needs to develop its
own inclusive political model according to its own history and culture.

WB: What is your own alternative ecological and economic path for China?

DW: Personally, I would like to see an
alternative that combines social justice and ecological sustainability:
some kind of ecologized socialism, or ecologized social democratic
system. Another important task for the progressive left is to reclaim
the spiritual and religious sphere. This is a challenge for all
progressives around the world. Those who are already engaged in the
task, including diverse interfaith efforts in the west and liberation
theology in Latin American, can be an inspiration for many of us. As
someone spiritual, but not religious, I think traditional left ideology
such as Marxism has emphasized too much on material production, and
this has actually facilitated the prevailing developmentalism and
consumerism in the 20th century, and it has surrendered the religious
and spiritual realm to the right. Secular materialism is not the right
thing to combat religious fundamentalism, which is rising in the world.
We need to cultivate and promote a healthy and tolerant spiritual life
to forge the way forward. As some Achuar Indians say, the problem with
the west is that people there get their dreams wrong. The indigenous
peoples and many land-based peoples the developing countries a still
have a strong spiritual connection with the land and environment, and
we need to learn from them. For Chinese, we should reexamine and
relearn some positive aspects of our traditional culture including
Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism, as well as learn from the rest of
the world.

WB: You are unique in that you are an
expatriate Chinese that nevertheless cares about the future of China a
lot and holds progressive views that is critical of both the Chinese
government and the US. Are there other people like you here in the US?
What would you advise other Chinese expatriates? And do you think the
Chinese government will listen to you?

DW: There are other people like me here in
the US, but we are certainly a small minority. For other Chinese
expatriates, my advice is: "The US is not the whole world, and the
middle class people we normally interact with is only a small part of
the world population-it even does not represent the majority of those
who grow and pick our food in US. So get in touch with reality, get
more informed, do not take your middle class experience in US for
granted and try to impose that on China."

I do not know if the Chinese government will listen
to me, but I hope that it will judge my ideas according to their
content instead of my expatriate status. More importantly, I hope the
government will listen to the grassroots people more. One problem in
the reform era is that the government has listened to the elites
(technocrats, intellectuals, expatriates, foreign experts, etc.) too
much and has gotten disconnected from the majority of working people.
There have been some positive indications in the last two years that
the government is responding more to people's need. I hope this trend
will continue.

WB: How confident are you that China will change course before it is too late?

DW: It is not only China that has to change
course, but other countries as well. Some problems, like global
warming, seem so severe that even our best efforts may only mitigate
them in the near future. Any solution will require long and hard work,
and this holds for China as well. These problems have been known for
some time without being adequately addressed, but it is better late
than never, and we should all hope and work for the best.

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