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China Daily Website

Coming to the rescue

Updated: 2012-08-13 17:20
By Karl Gerth ( China Daily)

Chinese consumers still hold the key to growth in global consumption

When the first Western fast-food franchises opened in China more than 20 years ago, it was easy to celebrate. Chinese now began to have access to the food, leisure activities and experiences that consumers in more developed economies had had for decades.

Applaud the hard work of hundreds of millions of Chinese who can now afford more comfortable lives. Behind the purchases of even a simple consumer good such as a hamburger are the countless stories of hard work. It is also good to applaud the impact of Chinese consumer purchases on global economic growth.

World business and political leaders do. Despite the recent slowing of economic growth in China, they still hope Chinese consumers can revive the global economy by eating more hamburgers and buying more of, well, everything. These hopes will continue to grow, especially as the Chinese government shifts its economic model from a heavy reliance on investing in infrastructure and low-cost manufacturing toward stimulating Chinese consumer appetites.

Yet as Chinese consumers embrace new lifestyles, they also create problems.

China's mounting environmental problems are even more alarming than the growth of lifestyle diseases such as obesity or increased inequality. China has 16 of the world's most polluted cities; its lakes and rivers are fast disappearing. The problems may get worse before they get better.

Although China is the world's largest energy user and carbon-emitter, the country is still only the 18th per capita emitter. While rising per capita consumption of things such as hamburgers will boost world economic growth, that same increase is also creating unprecedented environmental challenges.

Take water, the ultimate consumer product. In addition to consuming potable water by cup or bottle, the Chinese, like their counterparts worldwide, consume water indirectly as a critical ingredient in their new and more water-intensive diets based on meat. It takes about 1,000 tons of water to produce a single ton of grain and 7 tons of grain to produce a ton of beef.

A consequence, then, of Chinese consumers switching from their pre-1978 bean-protein-based diets to kung pao chicken or fast-food hamburgers is that meat-based diets use much more water.

As always with China, per capita changes matter.

What will happen as Chinese consumers begin to consume nearly as many hamburgers and countless other consumer products as their American and European counterparts? Can China boost global economic growth without trashing its environment and the world's?

An environmental protection movement in China is showing signs of life.

But just as China is emulating Western consumer lifestyles, perhaps Chinese environmentalism will follow the pattern of environmental NGOs in the West and offers clues to China's future.

If so, there is ample reason to worry that Chinese environmentalism is likely to be absorbed by consumer culture, creating new markets for ecotourism, sustainable housing and consumer products sold as "green".

The scale and relative suddenness of China's environmental problems linked to that country's changing consumer habits may also make it easy to imagine how the world's consciousness - reflected in consumer behavior - needs to change.

Chinese have become first-rate consumers. And their leaders and citizens are aware of the downsides. But can their impressive attempts to become leaders in renewable energy catch up with the speed and size of its emerging consumer demand?

No other nation in the developed world has yet found a way to reverse the ecologically destructive effects of its way of life faster than any offsetting commitment to correcting, let alone reversing them. It is unconscionable to expect a poorer country to lead the way. But lead China must. As China goes, so goes the world.

The author teaches modern Chinese history at Oxford University. His book As China Goes, So Goes the World: How Chinese Consumers are Transforming Everything has been published in Chinese.