Cyberattacks and trade deficits: these were certainly on the agenda during the two-day meeting between President Barack Obama and Chinese leader Xi Jinping in southern California this past weekend. China showed no contrition about cyberespionage (the topic was overshadowed by last week’s disclosures about the U.S.’s own cyberwarfare activities) but some progress emerged on the one topic that politicians within the U.S. can’t agree on: climate change.
Emphasizing a spirit of cooperation, Obama called for joint efforts to address climate change, including sharing about clean-energy technologies and significantly cutting back on “super greenhouse gas” production — on the hydrofluorocarbons (HFC) used in air conditioners and refrigerators.
While China seems to be serious about the pollution it generates within its own borders, many questions remain about its concern for environmental issues around the world, especially in the many places in which it has invested.
China and HFCs
China, the world’s largest producer of HFCs, has so far resisted demands to lower its reliance on them. As of April, it agreed to end HFC production by 2030, spurred by a $385 million aid package put forward under the Montreal Protocol.
China has held out from agreeing to binding commitments, arguing that doing so would be unfair in view of its state of development. Numerous reports about air pollution in major cities and mismanagement of environmental resources as China develops mines in Tibet have only contributed to the sense that Beijing, while investing in solar power and other forms of green energy, is not really serious about environmental issues.
With China’s economy ranked the second-largest in the world and with predictions that it will surpass the U.S. for the #1 spot in a matter of years, it seems it is time to reconsider claims that China cannot implement more stringent environmental regulations out of fears of hampering development. As one sign of its seemingly ever-growing economic might, China has been investing heavily around the world in what amounts to the building of an “economic empire,” as Heriberto Araújo and Juan Pablo Cardenal recently write in the New York Times.
China’s Growing Economic Empire
Here are just some of the places where China’s influence is growing:
The Export-Import Bank of China is assisting in the building of three hydroelectric dams in Ecuador including the $2.3 billion Coca Codo Sinclair Dam — a 1,500 megawatt project that could damage the country’s highest waterfall, San Rafael Falls (pictured above). The falls are part of the Sumaco Biosphere Reserve, which is located in the biodiverse transition zone between the Andes and Amazon.
China also has a hand in the biggest engineering project in Africa, the Merowe Dam on the Nile in Sudan. This hydroelectric dam has been described as one of the “most destructive” in the world. It has a capacity of 1,250 megawatts and has more than doubled Sudan’s electricity generation — and has displaced some 50,000 people.
China has also invested billions of dollars in Sudan’s oil, but shown little regard for human rights. While China has shown some support for peacekeepers in Darfur, the country has abstained from voting on most United Nations measures that are intended to “entice or force Sudan to protect human rights there,” according to NPR.
Chinese company Cosco leased (for 500 euros or $647 million) half of the Greek port of Piraeus in 2010. The half now run by the Chinese is bustling and handling a far heavier volume of cargo than the half still owned by Greece, where workers have relatively higher wages and work according to labor rules.
Greece’s unions indeed fought the Chinese taking over half of the Piraeus’ port. As one Greek ex-employee of Cosco says, Chinese investment has resulted in “Chinese labor standards” in which workers’ safety is routinely compromised and one can be fired at any moment.
Last year, Greenland (whose minimum wage is one of the highest in the world) passed legislation that allowed for foreign workers in the country to earn salaries below the local legal minimum wage. That is, Greenland changed its own law in a concession to China, to gain access to its money and experience to develop resources in Arctic territory.
Chinese companies had said they would only invest in the “high-risk, costly exploitation of Greenland’s vast mining resources” if thousands of low-wage Chinese employees could be allowed to work in the country.
5. United States
Last week, a Chinese company, Shuanghui, made a bid to take over U.S. company Smithfield Foods, opening questions about food safety in the wake of numerous reports, and academic studies, of excessive antibiotic use on Chinese farms. Other American businesses that Chinese companies have taken over include IBM’s personal computing division and AMC movie theaters; China has also invested in a number of energy companies.
In addition, China has also become a major investor in Germany and Australia and controls oil pipelines that crisscross Asia from Turkmenistan to China.
As Araújo and Cardenal write, “it is China that needs to adapt to the world, not the other way around.” We need to hold China to its promises about reducing HFC use and also, with an eye on its growing influence around the word, fight to protect environmental resources and human and workers’ rights.
Maybe Beijing will clean up its air, but what good is this if China’s economic investments are polluting the rest of the world?
Photo via Temescal1859/Flickr