Senior Chinese communist: `Industrial civilisation is unsustainable'

A group of volunteers wave green handkerchiefs as they ride their bicycles in Beijing on November 21, 2012, for the launch of a world-tour to promote low-carbon lifestyles.

[This article originally appeared in Chinese in Red Flag Manuscript, no. 22, 2012. This text is from the English edition of Qiushi Journal (vol. 5 no. 1, January 1, 2013), a publication of the Communist Party of China's central committee, via the Online University of the Left. The author is a former vice-chair of the standing committee of the National People’s Congress of China. Note: this article is also a slightly abridged version of the preface of the book Saving the Earth’s Biosphere — Concerning the Transformation of Human Civilization, which was edited by the author and published by Xinhua Press in September 2012. It indicates that despite the Communist Party of China's headlong rush to embrace environmentally unsustainable capitalism, there is some questioning of this course.]

By Jiang Chunyun

As the old Chinese proverb goes, “To return a kindness with gratitude is a good deed, the act of an upright man; to treat a kindness with ingratitude is a bad deed, the act of a petty man.” These words, “good” and “bad”, “gratitude” and “ingratitude”, have long been the most fundamental criteria for judging the morality and action of an individual.

Do children treat their parents with respect out of gratitude for the loving care their parents have given them? Do countrymen serve their motherland wholeheartedly out of gratitude for everything their motherland has afforded them? And do human beings have awe for and cherish their green home out of gratitude for the life that nature has granted them? Everybody on Earth, individuals and groups alike, must find rational answers to these questions, regardless of their nationality, race, gender, class and occupation and must require both themselves and others to act in accordance with a just code of speaking out for good and doing good instead of evil.

Life on Earth began as early as several hundred million years ago, while the story of human evolution started only several million years ago. This means that humans are latecomers. At every step of human evolution—from our transformation from Australopithecus to Homo erectus, and again from archaic Homo sapiens to Homo sapiens—we have been cared for by nature, which, like a great and holy mother, has allowed humankind to grow from a species with few members to one with several billion members. In comparison with family and country, the care that nature has bestowed on us is more fundamental, more worthy of our gratitude. Yet how have we treated nature? This may be a difficult question to answer, but it is one that we must answer as a matter of conscience.

Frankly speaking, there are many people who are able to show appreciation towards nature. These people have made active contributions to ecological protection and the improvement of the environment. But at the same time, there are also people who have no sense of gratitude towards nature. These people are indifferent towards the changes that are affecting nature and the environment. Moreover, there are even people who are so ungrateful towards nature that they would wantonly damage the environment. These people are by no means few in number and their violations against nature are on the increase. This is the root cause of the ecological degradation and environmental deterioration that has plunged the human race into a survival crisis.

Ecological and environmental issues began to emerge with the advent of agricultural society, although at that time the impact of human activities on the environment was gradual and relatively minor. However, with the arrival of the Industrial Revolution and the rapid development of science and technology, human beings began to deal serious damage to the environment as they created great material wealth and cultural achievements. This damage has become increasingly serious in modern times. Air pollution, water pollution, soil pollution, desertification, global warming, the melting of the glaciers, the depletion of the ozone, the spread of acid rain, the sharp drop in biodiversity and the frequent occurrence of fatal diseases and natural disasters—these startling facts are a warning that the Earth’s biosphere, which mankind relies on for its survival, is damaged. They tell us that the major ecological systems supporting the Earth’s biosphere, such as forests, grasslands, wetlands, rivers, lakes, farmlands, mountains, the atmosphere and oceans, are bruised all over, weakened and that untold dangers lurk amongst them. The biosphere is like a cracked fish tank which is losing its water. As the water seeps out of the tank at an increasing rate, the survival of the fish inside is coming under threat. Therefore, if we are unable to repair the biosphere quickly, the damage will only become worse and worse. This will continue until the biosphere eventually ceases to function, being no longer able to operate and when that happens humankind will descend into a desperate struggle for its survival. This is not alarmist talk, but a real depiction of a hidden crisis that will threaten the survival of the human race.

In an effort to address the human crisis that has been triggered by environmental deterioration, the international community and the countries of the world have frequently convened meetings, signed conventions and accords, issued declarations, made commitments and taken action. While in some cases these efforts have led to positive results, in overall terms our efforts to restore ecosystems and rectify environments have yielded few results. At most we can say that there has been partial improvement. The trend of environmental deterioration on a global scale is yet to be reversed and there are even signs that it is becoming more serious. James Speth, the Dean of the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale University and former Administrator of the United Nations Development Program, says that the trend of environmental decline, which has made the international community uneasy, is yet to be fundamentally mitigated. Ill omens still exist and these problems are becoming more ingrained, bringing about immediate danger. Speth believes that problems such as global warming, environmental pollution, resource depletion, ecological degradation and the loss of biodiversity are much worse than we are able to understand, willing to admit, or tend to estimate.

The reasons for global environmental deterioration are deep-seated. Though we cannot rule out the influence of reverse ecological succession, the fact remains that the most fundamental cause of global environmental deterioration is humankind’s failure to treat nature correctly. Human beings have made irreparable mistakes due to their biased understanding of the relationship between humans and nature. The predatory exploitation of resources and irrational modes of production and lifestyles that came with the Industrial Revolution have had a devastating impact on ecosystems and the environment. Traditional industrial civilisation was undoubtedly a revolutionary step forward from agricultural civilisation, creating much higher productivity, huge material wealth, as well as technological and cultural achievements. However, the shortcomings of industrial civilisation are not difficult to see: it is extremely profit-driven, greedy, predatory, aggressive, and even crazy in nature, its values and approach to development being the rapid accumulation of wealth and capital at any cost. In recent centuries, under the influence of these ideas, developed industrial countries in the West engaged in an unprecedented campaign to conquer, plunder and destroy nature. With this came a long succession of colonial wars which not only saw millions die and hundreds of millions become slaves, but also caused the world’s ecological environments to suffer on an unprecedented scale. Many of those who plundered the world’s natural resources were proponents of anthropocentrism, the view that human beings are the masters of nature and that all other things in the natural world are mankind’s possessions, consumables and servants. Guided by these notions, they robbed, seized and destroyed without restraint and led extravagant, luxurious and extremely wasteful lifestyles. In more than 200 years of industrial history, developed countries in the West have consumed around half of the world’s non-renewable resources, which took billions of years to form.

Fact has repeatedly warned us that we cannot rely on traditional industrial civilisation to correct its own mistakes when it comes to the environment. Traditional industrial civilisation has therefore come to a dead end. Despite this, however, certain developing countries have failed to break away from the developmental mode of traditional industrial civilisation as they have sought to industrialise. As a result, within the space of just decades, they have encountered the kind of environmental pollution and ecological degradation that took one or two hundred years to emerge in the West. These countries must now meet the challenge of maintaining a balance between economic development and environmental protection.

Since the latter half of the last century, we have come to the profound realisation that industrial civilisation is unsustainable. Drawing from the lessons of the past, we have proposed the creation of an ecological civilisation, which is characterised by sustainable development and harmony between mankind and nature. Ecological civilisation provides us with broader prospects for resolving the environmental crisis and maintaining balance between development and the environment. It represents a substantive step forward from industrial civilisation, because it not only embodies the strengths of industrial civilisation, but is also able to address its weaknesses and failings by applying brand new ideas. The basic features of ecological civilisation can be summarised as follows.

First, human beings are a part of nature. The relationship between human beings and other creatures should be one of equality, friendship and mutual reliance, as opposed to a relationship in which humans are supreme.

Second, since it is nature that has given us life, we should feel gratitude towards nature, repay nature and treat nature well. We should not forget the debt that we owe to nature, or treat nature and other creatures violently.

Third, humans are entitled to exploit natural resources, but we must take the tolerance of ecosystems and the environment into account when doing so in order to avoid overexploitation.

Fourth, human beings must follow the moral principles of ensuring equity between people, between countries and between generations in resource exploitation. We should refrain from violating the rights and interests of other people, other countries and future generations.

Fifth, we should advocate conservation, efficiency and recycling in the utilisation of resources so as to maximise efficiency whilst keeping consumption and the impact on nature to a minimum.

Sixth, we should view sustainable development as our highest goal, rejecting the overexploitation of resources and short-sighted acts aimed at gaining quick results.

Seventh, the fruits of development must be enjoyed by all members of society and not monopolised by a small minority.

It is essential that we correct the way we treat nature and assume our rightful position in nature. As the wisest of all creatures, we should give full play to our intelligence and capacity for thought by shouldering the responsibility of caring for, protecting, guiding and strengthening nature and ensuring that all of nature’s creatures are able to live in harmony and develop in a balanced, orderly and continuous fashion.

It must be noted that while China has made remarkable achievements in socialist modernisation during more than 30 years of reform and opening up, it has also encountered serious environmental problems that are undermining its sustainable development. Fact has demonstrated and will continue to demonstrate that we must take Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought and the theories of socialism with Chinese characteristics as our guide, commit to the path of socialism with Chinese characteristics, implement the Scientific Outlook on Development, which puts people first and seeks to promote comprehensive, balanced and sustainable development and build a resource-conserving and environmentally friendly society. These are not only the essence for promoting ecological progress and realising the transformation of human civilisation, but also a prerequisite and solid foundation for ensuring the sound and rapid development of economy and society, the balancing of economic development and environmental protection, the establishment of a harmonious society and the improvement of people’s wellbeing.

There are two old Chinese sayings which, through their dialectical materialism, reveal to us the key to success in any undertaking. The first is: to go undefeated in a hundred battles, you must know both the enemy and yourself. The second is: success belongs to those who are prepared and failure to those who are not. If we are to reverse the trend of environmental degradation and save the biosphere, we must correctly assess the state of our living environment, face up to environmental problems instead of trying to conceal them, use scientific means to anticipate dangers that lurk ahead and sincerely reflect on our maltreatment of nature. Once we have acknowledged our errors we must take action to correct them. To do this, we must enhance our sense of mission, danger and responsibility and take the necessary measures to turn a precarious situation into a favourable one, so as to realise a sound balance between development and the environment.

It is about time that we changed our way of thinking and discarded our concept of a traditional industrial civilisation in favour of a modern ecological one. It is about time that we put an end to our irrational modes of development and consumption and made efforts to save the Earth’s biosphere.

The struggle to save the biosphere and transform our civilisation from a traditional industrial civilisation to a modern ecological civilisation will be an endeavor more magnificent than any seen before in human history and a complex social undertaking of huge proportions. It will require that we humans carefully consider, correctly understand, and answer a series of questions, some of which are as follows: What is the relationship between human beings and nature? Is it one of the conqueror and the conquered, the dominator and the dominated and the ruler and the ruled? Or is it one of equality, friendship, harmony, coexistence and mutual flourishing? Why is Earth the only cradle of life among the vast number of celestial bodies in universe? What is the Earth’s biosphere and how will ordinal or reversed ecological succession affect the survival and development of human beings? Which biological systems support and maintain the Earth’s biosphere? Is it inevitable that the survival and development of the human race will come at the expense of ecosystems and the environment? How should we understand the relationship between promoting an ecological civilisation and transforming our modes of development and consumption? How should we deal with the contradiction between limited natural resources and limitless human desire? Should we make up for the huge damage caused to nature by long-term overexploitation? If so, how do we repay this debt? Should we let nature rest and regain its strength like humans do when they become old or ill? What is the role of science and technology in saving the biosphere? What is the relationship between population growth and resources, environment and sustainable development? What do the constant wars of human beings mean to nature? How do we give full play to the role of law and ethics as effective means of guaranteeing environmental protection and the salvation of the biosphere? Why must we improve our methods and standards for evaluating economic and social development? How should the countries of the world cooperate and coordinate with one another in saving the Earth’s biosphere and developing ecological civilisation?

Drawing lessons from both our successes and failures in interacting with nature, we must see the global environmental crisis for what it is, and work out the relevant theories, ways of thinking and countermeasures as we commit ourselves to the path of promoting ecological civilisation.


The article touches on only some of the damage that civilization has done to the environment so provides an optimist view of what can be done in the future if society can fing the necessary understanding and wisdom. There is no consideration of the problem of operating and maintaining the vast infrastructure that society has become so dependent on. This problem will grow rapidly as the natural resources required run out. Society has become so dependent on the services provided that it no longer has the skills to provide the basic needs. There is the common belief in the ability of science and technology to ease developing problems. The fact is, however, that S&T has created the problem by misusing natural resources. S&T has only ever used natural forces. it has never created them

The article provides some insight into what should be done without realistically enunciating how the society will power down.

Interesting, although I would say it is not necessarily industrial civilization, but capitalist, consumerist civilization which is unsustainable. Industrialization, which is an entire process of scientific advancement coupled with the means to produce things with machinery, actually gives us the ability to live in harmony with the environment because we can produce more food and goods with less land, labour and materials. However, as utilized by capitalism of course, it is a disaster. Unfortunately since this is a Chinese publication, the author might have wanted to say this, but in the current Chinese political context he is not allowed. He even had to throw in the obligatory commitment to "Reform and opening up" just to get the article in print. Reform and Opening up, and socialism with Chinese characteristics are all not-so-code words for capitalism and market driven (consumer capitalism) in China.


Among China’s students, some hope for a return to Mao-era policies

Students at Fudan University in Shanghai ride past a statue of Mao Zedong located on campus. Chinese academics say more young people are embracing Maoism as a backlash against deepening social inequality.
Lara Farrar / MCT
Students at Fudan University in Shanghai ride past a statue of Mao Zedong located on campus. Chinese academics say more young people are embracing Maoism as a backlash against deepening social inequality.
On the campus of Beijing Normal University, professors say they’ve noticed a trend that worries them: students embracing radical leftism. They advocate a return to the socialist state that Communist Party founder Mao Zedong favored and that Chinese leaders for the last generation have tried to put behind them.

The students wear pins with pictures of Mao and carry bags with the former Communist leader’s famous quotations, such as “serve the people.”

Some deny the atrocities of Mao’s Great Leap Forward, which killed 30 million people, and Cultural Revolution, when millions of China’s elites and intellectuals were persecuted and urban youth were forced to live with peasants in the countryside. Others acknowledge the atrocities of the Mao era, but they’re anti-capitalism and critical of the West, and they think that Maoist values need to be strengthened in modern China.

“Their basic logic is that since the post-Mao era is not good, then the Mao era should be better,” said Zhang Lifan, a Beijing-based historian.

How big a movement the new left represents is unknown, but in a country where political thought is strictly controlled, social inequality and government corruption are epidemic and the job market for recent college graduates is considered poor, academics who are closest to the phenomenon admit to fears that it represents a dangerous split in society.

“They are either extreme leftists or extreme rightists,” one professor at the university said of her students, requesting anonymity out of concern that speaking about politics might result in retribution from the government. “When they have differences, there is no dialogue between them. This is a worrisome phenomenon and also some reflection of the split in society.”

“In general, there are more rightists than leftists,” she said, “but the leftists are very left.”

“There is widespread discontent among students with inequality and corruption, plus frustrations in their own lives,” said Yang Dali, the faculty director at the University of Chicago’s Beijing center. “It is highly understandable that there would be a leftist sentiment.”

The rise of a new left comes against a backdrop of decades of China’s ruling class allowing more economic freedom. But advocates of the new left say that 30 years of an export-oriented economy that’s brought hundreds of millions of people from rural areas to cities to fill low-wage jobs in assembly plants has led to extreme inequality and corruption.

“We emphasize that reform and opening to the outside world does not benefit the common people,” said Cui Zhiyuan, a professor at Tsinghua University’s school of public policy and management who’s known as one of the founders of China’s new left movement.

The movement has had a tenuous relationship with the government. The ouster last year of Bo Xilai, the party boss in Chongqing, whose government had instituted policies to support the city’s poor, an audacious anti-corruption campaign and the resurrection of the singing of Mao-era “red songs” in public squares, was seen as a blow to leftists, who considered Bo a champion for their cause. Today, leftist websites – such as Utopia, which strongly supports Bo – remain shuttered.

After Bo’s removal from his post and subsequent expulsion from the party, Chinese media launched a full-scale campaign demonizing his Chongqing model, with some newspapers saying his removal guaranteed that China would never have another Cultural Revolution. His trial, likely this month, on charges of bribery, corruption and abuse of power almost certainly will end in his conviction. His wife, Gu Kailai, was convicted last year of murdering a British businessman.

But that government denunciation has taken a different cast since China’s new president, Xi Jinping, took office in March. Recognizing, perhaps, what the University of Chicago’s Yang calls Bo’s “wellspring of public support,” the government has taken steps that the left embraces.

Universities have received government orders to ban classroom discussion of seven topics, including human rights and past mistakes of the Communist Party, while increasing ideological education and political training for professors. Top officials, including President Xi, have said Western values must be eradicated and that Mao’s legacy should be strengthened.

Yang said the government was hoping that by adopting Bo’s rhetoric it would “inherit some of that support” he enjoyed. “It is ironic, but of course this is a great strategy,” Yang said.

On social media, there’s an increase of pro-Maoist commentary as well as vitriolic criticism of liberal scholars who advocate further market-oriented reforms, democracy, free speech and human rights. Last autumn, during anti-Japanese protests that erupted over a territorial dispute between the countries, many young people carried portraits of Mao.

“The new leftists and the neo-liberals, they hate each other,” said Lu Xinyu, a left-leaning professor in Fudan University’s journalism school. “There are a lot of lies told by neo-liberals. A very significant characteristic of them is to always see America as a kind of utopia and that China should meet that standard, but America is facing a serious crisis.”

Mao Yushi, a prominent liberal economist who’s publicly criticized Mao Zedong, said he received threatening calls from leftists. In May, before one of his speeches in Changsha, the capital of Hunan province, dozens of protesters, including many young people, showed up with banners calling the economist a traitor. Some of the signs said, “Bring back Bo Xilai,” Mao Yushi said.

“When Bo governed, there were a lot of student supporters,” said Luo Kai, a student at Chongqing University. “People now still talk about Bo and yearn for the days when he was in power.”

But many are unwilling to have their identities known. A member of a Maoist student group called Centimeter Sunshine, at the Harbin Institute of Technology in northern China, recalls that the group had only about a dozen members when it was established in 2009. Now there are hundreds, he said, asking, however, that he not be identified because he feared retribution.

The group reads books on Marxism and travels to rural areas to study social injustice. Sometimes they sing red songs. Many support Bo’s Chongqing model.

“We get together and discuss issues in China, like government ethics, and lack of fairness and justice,” the student said. “I don’t think America’s culture or thoughts have any advanced parts. We still need to rely on the Communist Party of China and the system to come back to the core of serving the people.”

The group has faced opposition. In June, other students drafted a petition asking the university to ban the group. Centimeter Sunshine tells members that “China has been hijacked by pro-capitalist rightists,” the letter said. “They have openly showed support for Bo Xilai, and they hugely poison the minds of modern college students.”

“They think Mao Zedong is God,” said an opponent of the organization, who also requested anonymity. “I studied the backgrounds of these students and found that most of them are from impoverished families in rural areas. In reality, a lot of people can’t find hope so they resort to Mao Zedong thoughts.”

“What worries me,” he added, “is that I have heard many similar groups are at other universities.”

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