China: the Other Side of the World

John Cobb, Zhihe Wang and Meijun Fan are directing the Institute for Postmodern Development of China in Claremont, California. We visited China in order to participate in China’s debate about ecological civilization.

We left Los Angeles for Beijing at 1:30 AM, 6 October 2017. After twelve hours, we landed in Beijing only to transfer to another airplane for an additional three hours of flight for Wenzhou in Southeast China. Our destination was the city of Lishui in Zhejiang province.

We took a small bus for Lishui. Leaving Wenzhou was leaving behind the world of countless tall factories, and countless skyscrapers accommodating millions of factory workers producing the stuff of the America and the world. Oujiang (Old) River was next to the highway taking us away from Wenzhou. The color of the river mirrored the levels of pollution. The further we got from Wenzhou, the clearer the water became. And when the Sun was breaking through the colorless sky, all became bright and green. The mountains and Oujiang River blended together and neutralized the factory landscape.

Lishui is the epicenter of this other China no one knows. Oujiang River hugs Lishui with clear waters. Nanming Lake is a gorgeous place for the enjoyment of the natural world at the feet of Lishui. Add the green mountains and the beautiful traditional villages within twenty of so kilometers from the center of Lishui and you have a genuine community of city and countryside.

We walked through two villages. One of them, Dagangtou, had remnants of an ancient weir, large-scale hydraulic irrigation dated to about 1,500 years ago. This village is so beautiful that painters have made it their workshop. Oujiang River flows next to the painters’ village. Very old large trees shade the homes and streets of the village.

The other village, Xia’ nanshan, was built on a mountain in the Ming dynasty (14th to the 17th centuries). It is undergoing renovation but keeping its traditional architecture. Peasants moved out of their homes and receive rent from a company managing their Bed and Breakfast hotels.

Are these peasants happy? I don’t know. Like so many other things Chinese, foreigners are clueless. China is too large a country with a huge population. Before the 1980s, the Soviet Union (Russia) was its model. But since the 1980s, America is the new model for China. You see American influence in architecture, transportation, energy, clothes people wear, and human behavior. The Americanization of China is pretty thorough. You walk in Lishui or Beijing and you think you are in Chicago or Los Angeles. Chinese students with deep pockets at US universities live the consumer delusions of America.

China has been industrializing for decades. But the most intense effort to catch up with America has been going on since the 1980s when China became the workshop of America and the world. The price of pollution is extremely high. Seeing the number of factories lining the highway between Wenzhou and Lishui and observing the changing color of the Old river gives you a sense of the seriousness of pollution in China.

The Communist Party and State admit China must resolve the tragedy of destroying the natural world and threaten people with the toxic effects of pollution so Chinese can keep producing more and more stuff for domestic and foreign markets.

The official support of ecological civilization is part of a strategy of lowering the costs of pollution and, just as importantly, opening the doors to ancient wisdom.

Chinese know ecological civilization is no more than a pie in the sky. But Chinese are right that, unless we have our eyes on the prize of ecological civilization, we are bound to push for more of business as usual: more cars, more plastic water bottles, and more luxuries.

A policy of ecological civilization resurrects ancient paradigms of ecological behavior worthy of imitation. My Chinese friends kept pointing to writings on the walls of buildings urging citizens to respect the environment.

In the morning of 13 October 2017 at Beijing Normal University, I listened to professor Xu Yialu, Vice President of China, defending eloquently ecological civilization. “The ‘Silent Spring’ of Rachel Carson influenced China,” he said. He went on saying the 1960s were difficult times. In the midst of revolution and hunger economic development was the country’s top priority. The destruction of the natural world was inevitable. However, he kept visiting villages, mangroves, and forests. He also studied how the West developed. He knew ancient Chinese philosophers connected the cosmos with human lives. “Nature is our master,” he emphasized. “We need to spread ecological ideas up and down society. Our relationships with the Earth will determine our future. China is on the other side of the Earth.”

I returned to the United States only to hear the Trump administration gloating over its war on the environment. Trump keeps signing executive orders to cow Americans to austerity while giving tax cuts to the super rich.

One of his executive orders gave the illusion of bringing coal back. The burning of coal, a fossil fuel, is causing global warming and lots of pollution – not a word about ecology, much less civilization.

Trump obviously does not care about what other countries think of him and America under his immoral leadership. But international order matters and such order is not necessarily the result of how many bombs you have. Besides, hurricanes, fuelled by global warming, overwhelm humanity at will.

So is the US dropping from civilization into barbarism? The question is not merely rhetorical. Several presidents, the Congress, and generations of Americans before Trump agreed that the natural world is precious for our survival. That’s why the protection of public health and the environment is so important a moral and political responsibility.

On what rights and power is Trump qualified to dig such a hole for America? Do Americans understand the implications of his actions?

The rapid decline of Trump America is propelling China to the top of the world.

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