Bicycles in China are not environmentally friendly (4) – Globalisation

In this fourth post of the series I am returning to the original subject matter; the pollution being generated by Chinese industry, why it is being allowed to occur and, just as importantly, what the future will hold and why nobody really cares.

What ? Nobody really cares? Well, yes.

Let me explain a little about myself. This is me on that day trip, just having had lunch at a waterfront restaurant within the area. What do you see ?

Relaxing after lunch - near Qinzhou - Dec 2009

Relaxing after lunch - near Qinzhou - Dec 2009

You see a tourist; a western tourist. Ok, so effectively China is my second home now because it is Amanda’s home country and the rest of her family is there, but outside of the family unit I am still a “tourist” when I visit.

Despite the destruction and devastation that is being meted out to the local environment, do you see somebody who is up in arms protesting about it ? Of course not. Why not ? Because there is not a single thing that I can do about it.

If I were to want to protest and complain about what is happening to the environment in China I would find myself outnumbered many millions to one by those in the “developed world” who want as many consumer goods as they can get, and at the cheapest possible price. “Made in China” serves that need, but don’t blame China for it.

In very simplistic terms, the “Industrial North” of England was built around the cotton mills of Lancashire, the steel works of Yorkshire and other revolutionary, consumer driven initiatives of the Industrial Revolution. Did anyone give a damn about the environment then ? No. But the fact that most people who read this will probably own a motor vehicle is a direct result of that particular period in (western) world history with all the technological advances which took place.

Working conditions were atrocious. Pay for the workers was not much more than subsistence level. But the revolution continued, and from it dawned a new era of prosperity and, eventually, social and environmental caring.

As transportation methods evolved and improved and as raw materials began to run out, the sourcing of raw materials, and eventually the manufacturing processes themselves, became more globalised. Instead of making everything ourselves and exporting it we became a nation of net importers, bringing the finished products in from wherever in the world was considered to give the best value at the time. Is that car of yours really a British, European, or American car (depending on where you live) ?

I used to work for Laura Ashley, the clothing and furnishings company, in the village where Laura first set up a small workshop (which is still standing, just) using local farmers wives to make the scarves, shawls and dresses that became so popular. By the time I joined the company Laura had already passed away and the controlling interest was owned by Malaysians. Most of the manufacturing was gradually being moved over there too.

At the time of writing this I work for a “sweets” company which, although it can trace its ancestry back as far as Stockport in 1904, has its Head Office in Shenzhen (just by Hong Kong) and the manufacturing is done in China. We are now just the UK importing and sales arm of the business.

Next time you go into Wal-Mart (or its UK arm, ASDA) ask yourself why you go there. Then, when you get home, take a close look at packaging on the products you have bought. See how many of them mention China or other far-eastern countries.

There is a good side to this, and there is a bad side; and I know both of these from experience.

The good side is that Wal-Mart companies force incredibly high standards of manufacture upon their suppliers. The quality control criteria are exacting and stringently monitored. In China this is producing benefits in that the manufacturing plants are having to be modernised to meet these “western” standards. In the long term, as more and more companies adopt similar controls, this should mean better working conditions for the staff and, hopefully, should mean that out-dated, badly designed, poorly run factories in the East become a thing of the past.

The bad side is… my old enemy, economics. Why do Wal-Mart and other such companies thrive on Eastern imports ? Because wages and raw material costs in developing countries are less than in the developed world and the resulting products are, therefore, cheaper. But it doesn’t end there. Wal-Mart still wants to undercut its competitors as much as it can on price, and wants to make as much profit as it can too. So how does it achieve that ? By driving down the price it itself is prepared to pay and then, as if that weren’t enough, imposing upon its suppliers incredibly long payment terms for the goods. “30 days from date of invoice” ? … don’t make me laugh !

Once you have delivered an order to Wal-Mart there is enough time for the following to take place before you can expect payment for the goods:

  • You can order some more product to be made in China.
  • The factory can order, receive and pay for the raw material.
  • The factory can produce the goods, and pay their staff wages.
  • The goods can be transported to the docks and shipped half way around the world. This has to be paid for, and shipping lines are not good at giving credit.
  • The import duty and taxes have to be paid before the goods are released in your own country.

By the time all that has happened you might, just might, be getting paid for the goods you delivered all those months before, and will probably have made many other deliveries too. You need very deep pockets to do business with these people, and many do not survive. For those who do survive it can mean good, regular business where the sheer size of the orders generated by leviathan companies like Wal-Mart keeps the coffers topped up.

The bottom line is that you, the consumer, want the lowest price and super-huge companies can use economy of scale to bring it to you. But just remember that in order to do that they may need to source those goods (either directly or indirectly) from developing nations, such as China, and along the way any number of people in your own country may have lost their jobs because the company they worked for tried to get on the bandwagon… and failed.

Wal-Mart have stores in China. There are two of them in Nanning and people flock to them every day. Everybody wants a part of China now because it is such a huge market. The people are starting to get richer, because you are buying Chinese products, and China has opened itself up to the world in terms of trade, as any good developing nation should.

Of course I use the term “developing nation” here in order to make a point.

China missed out on the “Industrial Revolution” of the 18th and 19th centuries although it was a precursor to events which are taking place in China today, but with two major differences.

An example of the first of these is staring you in the face right now; the computer and its internet connection.

Modern life happens at a pace that would have been inconceivable to those industrial pioneers of the past. In their time the population probably struggled to keep up with the changes that were happening all around them, and in terms of infrastructure, modernisation and development of solid, physical entities there is a limit to how fast change can take place. Just think of how long it takes and how much planning and disruption is caused in order to prepare a city for staging a modern Olympic Games, and that is a driven, coordinated project that has the support of not only the local populace and Government but the outside world as well.

Yes China had the Olympics, the best Olympic Games ever staged, and the Chinese deserve to take great credit for putting on such a marvellous event, as do the Olympic Committee for being brave enough and having sufficient foresight to award it to Beijing in the first place. Ok, there are those who quote “human rights” issues, Tibet, and other “unresolved” matters where China is concerned, but the fact of the matter is that China needed those Olympics for its own good, and the developed world needed China to have those Olympics in order for China to be accessible to it. The Beijing Olympics finally ensured that China’s door was open, and open to two-way traffic.

The second major difference is a group of phenomena; history, culture and politics.

China has developed as a nation in its own unique way over thousands of years. It is a wise old grandparent where, for sake of contrast, America is a troublesome adolescent still trying to push the boundaries of tolerance where its elders are concerned. China has a rich culture which has developed in a very different way to “The West”. It has “the wisdom of the years”.

Over the past century a number of major changes have occurred within its borders, each of which has caused turmoil and untold levels of soul-searching to it and its people, and it was not left unscathed by events happening in the “outside world” during the Second World War, events initiated by other nations.

Quoting Wikipedia:

  • After the Chinese Civil War, mainland China underwent a series of disruptive socioeconomic movements starting in the late 1950s with the Great Leap Forward and continuing in the 1960s with the Cultural Revolution that left much of its education system and economy in shambles. With the death of its first generation Communist Party leaders such as Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, the PRC began implementing a series of political and economic reforms advocated by Deng Xiaoping that eventually formed the foundation for mainland China’s rapid economic development starting in the 1990s.

Its political legacy from the 20th Century is the very thing that caused “panic” throughout the western world in the fifties, but which that same western world now seems to conveniently overlook as it searches for cheaper goods to buy and larger markets to sell to.

Yes it is Communism, but it is Chinese Communism. Nothing happens in China without the innate Chinese character coming to the fore. China is a thoughtful, Confucian nation. It reminds me of one of those film shots where, as the central character in the scene, it is moving at its own pace while everything around it is speeded up, rushing hither and thither about its business in a blur of activity. When a large number of the population still use bicycles, mopeds and electric scooters as their main form of transport things are not always going to happen at the speed of light.

I see a great irony in a Communist nation being so desperately wooed by the same Governments who were so swathed in paranoia about such things not much more than a generation ago; and there we come to the crux of the matter….

If you’re still here, read my conclusion to all of this in the final chapter tomorrow.

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6 Responses to “Bicycles in China are not environmentally friendly (4) – Globalisation”

  1. Roy Davis Says:

    Thanks for the read Tom. I read you previous story and look forward to tomorrow’s ending, (don’t make it the last)

    I see a parallel between you and. I may be a little older… I spent a month in Nanning in 2008 … made a few friends… which resulted in 3 months of ‘China Touring’ and bringing back a Tinjian lass and marying her.

    Like you, I have a ‘liking’ for most things Chinese, so your’ramblings’ (if I be allowed)( I’m a Londoner now a migrant to Adelaide, Australia) are a cheerful and instructive read.

    Ta.

    Take care

    Royu

    • honorarynewfie Says:

      Hi Roy,
      Thanks for the comment.
      Glad you’re enjoying the ‘ramblings’. ( Yes, of course you’re allowed, it’s a free blog ! ) Haven’t finished writing the conclusion yet, so it might drag on through another day. 😉
      Congratulations ! Did you actually plan to find yourself a wife while you were in China, or was it just luck ?
      Catch you later.
      Tom

      • Roy Davis Says:

        No Tom, I did not find a wife in Nanning………. But I did discover a love for China and it’s people.

        I made an effort via the ‘messages’ on the net to locate someone with similar interest as myself and I was EXTRAORDINARILY LUCKY! The girl paid her own airfare to come to Australia for a month.. (to check me out?)

        A couple of months later, I flew back to China, met her family, toured, the main tourist areas, (and never spent a single penny during my 90 day stay.!)

        We came back to Australia and got married in April of this Year.
        Take care
        Roy

        • honorarynewfie Says:

          Wow, to have her visit you first is very unusual !
          A number of Amanda’s friends are / have been living in Australia, or their children are.
          I guess there must be quite a thriving Chinese community over there.
          Haven’t had the chance to do much touring yet, other than various parts of Guangxi. The trouble is, the longer I leave it the bigger my “hit list” of places I want to see becomes !
          Hope you’re both still very happy.
          Keep in touch.

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