Weathering an uncertain summer, China and Russia

August 2, 2007

sun.jpgThis summer a heatwave had murderous effects in Southern and Eastern Europe, while Britain was flooded. My Italian and Southern French holiday was just right in terms of weather, but it could have been a bit warmer. Global warming hits, but unevenly…

But back to the business of this blog. Before leaving I talked about the world feeling the heat of China’s emergence in the world economy – in economic and social terms, but also in real, climatic terms. Now China is the world’s premier emitter of carbondioxide. But in per capita terms, the US is still way ahead. And per capita is the real measure. We shouldn’t forget that the hundreds of millions of Chinese who haven’t yet reaped the fruits of their country’s growth cannot be blamed for contributing to global warming. US Range Rover drivers on their way to their local Wal-Mart, for their part, certainly do.

chinaflag.jpgJust to get back on track after a long blogging break, here an excellent piece by Richard McGregor, the FT’s lead correspondent in China. It’s on the Chinese impact on Wal-Mart shoppers, their food safety, and on the environment. With a pretty unusual outlook on the issue of “Who should pay?” for all this (access to the article requires subscription). Here a few extracts:

“When an erstwhile colleague tried to illuminate the controversy over cheap imports from China, he positioned himself outside a Wal-Mart store in Illinois, asking shoppers if they should thank poorly paid Chinese workers for providing such low-cost goods. In response, as James Kynge records in his recent book on China’s global impact, most shoppers gave him puzzled looks or simply scurried away.

That was two years ago. In the wake of the multiple scandals over tainted Chinese food and drug exports in recent months, such an exercise might now provoke outright hostility rather than uneasy indifference. The scandals have ensured that Chinese goods now have an indelible image of being not just cheap, but life-threatening as well.

As with many bilateral conflicts between the US and China, perverse ironies abound. The current wave of outrage was set off earlier this year when pet food tainted by deliberately mislabelled Chinese-made additives began poisoning thousands of cats and dogs in the US.

The fact that wrongly labelled foods, liquor and pharmaceuticals – usually by entrepreneurs looking to make a quick buck or just to survive in a cut-throat market – have routinely sickened and even killed people en masse in China has been largely overlooked.

In this respect, powerless consumers in China should be thankful for pampered pets in the west. (…)

(…) the much-feared “China price” has always been about much more than cheap labour. The phenomenon has been underwritten by lax or non-existent enforcement of environmental rules, cheap finance and multiple incentives offered by regions competing for investment. (…)(…) if Chinese pollution is the price of keeping Wal-Mart stocked with cheap goods and American consumers happy, then perhaps the costs should be shared [highlighted by me]. For starters, some of the greenhouse gases emitted in China could be counted on the ledger of the countries whose consumers buy the goods.

It is an idea that would startle, and maybe even anger, shoppers in Illinois, but it might be a healthy reminder of where the low prices they enjoy really come from. One way or another, the cost of China to the world is going to rise.”

russianflag.jpgWith Russia, it is not about rising heat, but about recurrent chills. Many problems the West has with Russia, though, are related to the fuel that contributes to climate change. So here is a small piece from me on Russia in a new European-wide magazine launched by fresh and dynamic LSE alumni. It’s called Stirred Up, is read on arty lounges in Europe’s capitals, and doesn’t do too much politics. A good change for me, although I keep to my topics, and ask who is in charge in Russia: the Kremlin or Gazprom? Published on time with the new row between Russia and Belarus over gas prices…

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