As if "western" modernisation of "eastern" countries did not rattle the planet's surface with socio-cultural incompatibilities, here come the Chinese counterparts. President Xi Jinping announced in the April 2019 Belt Road Initiative (BRI) summit that China would be building about 300 coal plants to fuel its own manufacturing plants. Local cultures or practices long that track now face another round of assaults, predicting further global environmental damages.
By challenging the cultural (standardising native practices, promoting mass production, and turning to non-biodegradable components), the "western" of the 20th century and China's of the 21st (with over 50 African and Asian countries engaged), represent the same globalising forces (North Atlantic countries bailing out African, Asian, and Latin American counterparts), raising the political ante (growing clamour to seek national independence), in the process. Those same strains now open up a noisy environmental arena and format. To be sure, the environment was never a "safe" arena to constantly exploit, even under economic global-local strains, as the logging of trees, overfishing, and "green" revolutions exposed; but the price the environment constantly pays far outweighs remediation action. Yet now, and not necessarily because of the BRI projects, the environment is so much at the tipping point that the Chinese investments and interests merely magnify underlying fissures to unacceptable levels. It also explores either our disinterest or insufficient response to grapple with the underlying forces.
From Vietnam to Turkey on the Asia-Europe border, and Egypt on the Africa-Asia bridgehead, local dissemination only keeps brewing. What aggravates sticky situations like these is the long-term commitment involved: China has managed to create multi-year contracts to locally produce all along the BRI trails what it needs of its own now that its own competitiveness has begun to wane, and since the monetary package behind these plants contains precisely the funding the local countries desperately need, not much official notice has emanated of the brewing tension between international and provincial forces. Even camouflaging these sporadic protest cannot obscure such local preferences as solar power over environment-corroding coal. The nature of the beast is such that the shift from lame solar preferences into violent public protects cannot be delayed for long. Other climate-related corrosive factors have pushed both global and local attention beyond a point of no-return. China's entry at this point could explode in its own home: putting millions of Uighur Muslims in concentration camps could be one such "lie" hiding blatant BRI materialistic interests.
Reportedly, just under half of all Chinese investments abroad are on coal-producing plants. This is startling in and of itself: it reflects a calculated rationale to disembowel external settings for internal needs. Previous western exploitative counterparts, as under imperialism or neo-corporatism, sought profits for the "here and now." This short-term corporate mantra is at the heart of neo-liberalism.
Yet it is also startling for three other reasons. The first is the contradictory message it is emitting, given how deep China's environmental destruction contrasts with its own domestic environmental protectionism: deploying the military to plant more trees than any other country can match, and in fact, shifting the net global greenery effects perceptively through a single-country input; but also in cleaning up the pollution in cities, like Beijing, which was so bad as to rank among the world's worst only recently. There is something much more devilish in butchering the environment elsewhere while re-energising one's own.
The second is the blackmail tactic of converting infrastructural needs (of any African or Asian country) into both a debt-trap for each recipient country, but also an environmental unravelling disaster: not only will the country wake up more handcuffed to long-term Chinese exploitation (which is essentially a repetition of "western" imperialism), but also worse off environmentally with an infrastructure than it was without that infrastructure.
A final feature of the BRI strategy is that it will leave a far wider swathe of the world under Chinese manipulation than any "western" counterpart could claim. On the one hand, these "western" exploiters did not come in unison: they came competitively; and the divide-and-rule approach that ensued was evident from the very start, the 19th century "scramble" for Africa, then the 20th century foreign direct investment regime being imposed across the now-labelled "dark" continent, the reflecting the triumvirate "C" mindset of the time: commerce, Christianity, and civilisation. On the other, whereas the former encouraged movements towards independence across the "east," or nationalistic policy responses against multinational corporations, thereby encouraging democracy of sorts, the latter is eschewing all of the above: independence had been gotten, so a rational to launch a crusade is harder to summon, and nationalistic policies are proving to be so expensive that they had to yield to the neo-liberal charge from the 1990s, one way or another (without ever really becoming fully neo-liberal, but neither claiming its affirmation towards that bent). China's BRI efforts, which supplies that missing rationale, catches these countries at the brink. It cannot but encourage violent reactions at some point.
There have been exposures of this kind already, as in Pakistan. The theme has been the same everywhere: local and grassroots opposition muted by the state's government, most likely through China's modification attempts. Thus what we see is a full-bloated globalisation-localisation battle in which the intermediary, the state, locates itself on the former front, not the latter, thus complicating domestic peace. Many of these countries, such as Pakistan again, or Sri Lanka, in Asia, or Angola or Zambia in Africa, find their democratic start-ups crumbling even before sinking in. Now with China's economic presence, the forces capable of pushing for democracy will, most likely, shift to protest local rights, such as over the environment. In a nutshell, sporadic local outbursts will eventually culminate in more authoritarian governments whose only source of legitimacy will become money from a dictatorial country, China.
Yet, China alone cannot take the blame. Beneath China's drives, or, in this case, "initiatives," lie a basic human instinct: self-help, that is, economic egotism. It was what drove imperialism before democracy was embraced; but in the aftermath of embracing democracy, it is finding other manifestations. If capitalism was its explicit middle name, with China we see even socialism can be reduced to this guttural instinct. Labels cannot hide instincts.
That might be a lot to chew. What could be worse is the sheer helplessness of cultivating alternatives. We might be positioned in the final line of defence to protect what once was called "local culture," with environmental destruction as its most gasping last breath.
Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.
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