China: ‘Developing’ or ‘developed’ country?

By IndepthAfrica
In Asia
Dec 15th, 2011

Is China’s aim to surpass the major capitalist powers, or to build ‘an alternative economic system that can reclaim the earth and start the long road to human emancipation’, asks Horace Campbell.

The COP 17 climate conference in Durban ended as expected, with no real agreement and commitment to reverse the destruction of the planet earth. Before and during this meeting, China positioned itself as a developing country so that it could align with the least developed societies from Africa, Asia and Latin America in calling for the countries of Western Europe, North America and Japan to stick to the Kyoto Protocol. In previous climate change meetings, the Chinese delegations had been reluctant to discuss any replacement of the existing Kyoto Protocol. The Kyoto Protocol, which was negotiated over 15 years ago before China exploded with its economic growth, only binds developed countries to cut their emissions. The treaty, the main provisions of which expire at the end of 2012, has been ineffective and failed to curb global emissions. In the United States (US), the most conservative forces have denied the existence of global warming, while the government failed to ratify the treaty.

Throughout the COP17 meeting, representatives of the Global South presented the arguments of the consequences of global warming with the evidence of droughts, floods, hurricanes and the breakup of arctic ice. Island societies from Oceania and other parts of the world provided graphic evidence of the threats to their survival. One term that came out of this meeting was that of ‘climate apartheid’. This formulation came out of the Africa group; Nnimmo Bassey, chair of Friends of the Earth International said that:

‘Delaying real action until 2020 is a crime of global proportions. An increase in global temperatures of 4 degrees Celsius, permitted under this plan, is a death sentence for Africa, Small Island States, and the poor and vulnerable worldwide. This summit has amplified climate apartheid, whereby the richest 1% of the world have decided that it is acceptable to sacrifice the 99%.’

Massive mobilisations by progressive organisations ensured that the deliberations among governments were exposed. From the international reports on the COP 17 deliberations, even with the exposure of the catastrophic conditions of the international financial organs, the leading polluters continued to negotiate within the confines of the liberal concepts of voluntarily established clean development mechanisms. There continues to be stiff resistance to the truth that the planet has been brought to this stage because of the forms of industrialisation of the western capitalism over the past 200 years. Understandably, the US government was identified as the country that is the greatest obstacle to an agreement on reversing global warming. It was in the face of the clear isolation of the US in this meeting where Xie Zhenhua, head Chinese delegation, told journalists that China was willing to be part of a new, legally binding global agreement to mitigate greenhouse-gas emissions, which could come into force by 2020. China also sought to reassert its status as a ‘developing country.’

This is a negotiating stand by the Chinese delegation where in some settings, the Chinese want multilateral agreements where China is judged as a developing country, while in other settings China seeks bilateral understanding with the US. It is this tension in the foreign policy of the Chinese that I want to take note of. This tension is a reflection of real divisions within China. There are two broad camps in the foreign policy establishment: Some thinkers and policy makers want Chinese foreign policy to reflect ‘China’s rise as a superpower’, while other social forces within China continue to believe that the People’s Republic of China must act in solidarity with the oppressed peoples of the world and work with the peoples of the South to change the international order. In this article, I draw from the debates within China on the necessary measures to combat global warming in the context of the teaching and study of international relations in China.

It is important to note that since 2009, the top leadership of China has shown a clear commitment towards building a Green Economy. There is an understanding that the pace of urbanisation and the coal-driven industrialisation cannot continue much longer. To this end one can see the massive investments in research into renewable energy resources. This investment and the ambitious plans to achieve energy efficiency in China come at a moment when it was announced that China has been able to develop one of the fastest computers in the world. China now boasts more than 74 of the fastest super computers; the technology will enable China to move in the direction of putting on stream clean energy technologies. However, I argue that the question of cleaning up the environment cannot be resolved as a technical question, but must also be linked to political struggles.

It is here that progressive forces must take courage from the new alliances built between the least developed countries, the Africa group and the Latin American Societies that are grouped in the Bolivarian Alternative for Latin America. Teachers and students in China can read C. L. R James who wrote that revolutionary changes are not decided in meetings such as COP17 or in parliaments, they are only ratified there. The people of China will decide whether they are moving towards modernisation and catching up and surpassing the major capitalist powers or building an alternative economic system that can reclaim the earth and start the long road to human emancipation.


At the end of November 2011, in preparation for the COP 17 meeting in Durban, the government of China issued a White Paper, ‘China’s Policies and Actions for Addressing Climate Change, Information Office of the State Council, The People’s Republic of China.’ The White Paper advanced legally binding targets for the next five years. These included a 17 per cent cut in carbon emissions, a 16 per cent decrease in energy use per unit of GDP, and a goal of lifting non-fossil-fuel energy usage from its current level of 8.6 per cent, to 11.4 per cent of total energy consumption.

The document reflected the real contradictions within Chinese society with the neoliberal discourse on carbon trading and other ideas that centres World Bank discourse on meeting the challenges of global warming. Despite this discourse, this is an impressive document that spelt out the challenges facing the Chinese peoples:

‘China is the world’s largest developing country, with a large population, insufficient energy resources, complex climate and fragile eco-environment. It has not yet completed the historical task of industrialization and urbanization and its development is unbalanced. China’s per-capita GDP in 2010 was only a little more than RMB29,000. By the UN standard for poverty, China still has a poverty-stricken population of over 100 million, thus it faces an extremely arduous task in developing its economy, eliminating poverty and improving the people’s livelihood. In the meantime, China is one of the country’s most vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change. Climate change generates many negative effects on China’s economic and social development, posing a major challenge to the country’s sustainable development.’

From this admission that millions of Chinese still live in poverty, the White Paper outlined strong commitments from China on fighting the obvious destruction that is so visible with the absence of clean drinking water and lakes that are being destroyed. Environmental degradation is now so severe that suffocating smog surrounds major highways and transportation arteries routinely. It is widely known that emissions of sulphur dioxide from coal and fuel oil, which can cause respiratory and cardiovascular diseases as well as acid rain, are increasing even faster than China’s economic growth.

Major publications of environmental groups can reel off the figures of environmental destruction in China: Over 500 million people without access to clean drinking water, rampant deforestation, 16 of the world’s most polluted lakes, acid rain over two thirds of the Chinese territory, 58 per cent of the land arid and semi-arid, massive use of coal in Chinese industry etc. This information on environmental degradation is now reinforced by the reality that China is the top greenhouse gas emitting country. China’s emission of greenhouse gases is not only a health problem for the Chinese people but also for its neighbours. Non-governmental organs and grassroots movements in China are in the forefront of challenging the mantra of economic growth that is at the base of this deepening destruction of earth.

In the context of international negotiations of global warming, China’s political leaders in positioned it as a developing country and sought alliances with societies from the global South to resist the pressures from Europe and the USA that because of its impressive economic growth, China should be classified as a developed country. In the same week that the government of China issued its White Paper on Climate Change, Martin Khor wrote an op-ed in the main English language newspaper, ‘China Daily’ under the heading, ‘Is China still a developing nation?’ Khor answered in the affirmative.

He argued that despite pressures from the United States, Japan and the European Union for China to give up its status as developing country, China must resist this pressure and that the other countries should support China to maintain its developing country status. Khor repeated figures about the numbers of persons in China in poverty reproduced the figures of the Human Development Report 2011 that showed China at No. 101 of 187 countries with a HDI of 0.687, putting it in a category of ‘medium human development’.

Martin Khor pointed out that China was the number one polluter in absolute numbers because of its large population, but in per capita terms:

‘China’s emissions level was 5.5 CO2-equivalent per person, ranked 84 in the world. By contrast, the US’ per capita emission was 23.4 CO2 equivalent, Australia’s 27.3, Russia’s 13.7, Germany’s 11.9, Japan’s 10.5, Singapore’s 11.4, Malaysia’s 9.2, South Africa’s 9.0, Brazil’s 5.4, Indonesia’s 2.7, India’s 1.7 and Rwanda’s 0.4. Thus, as No. 91 country in the world in GDP per capita, No. 101 in human development index and No. 84 in per capita emissions, China is looking like, and is, a middle-level or even lower-middle level developing country, with not only all the developed countries ahead of it, but also many developing countries, too. China also shares the same characteristics of many developing countries. More than 700 million of its 1.3 billion people live in the rural areas, and in 2008 there was a large imbalance, with the urban disposable household income 3.3 times bigger on average than in rural areas.’


These figures on the growing inequalities in China are also reflected in the political calculations and alliances inside China. While the pictures of the gleaming skyscrapers of Beijing, Shanghai and the mega cities present one image of booming China, outside of these cities are the homes of over 800 million rural folk. The rise of a vibrant capitalist class in China is consistent with a section of the society that is of the view that technical fixes can deal with the environmental degradation in the future, but for the present the most important task is for China to distinguish itself by speeding the processes of ‘modernization.’ It is from this stratum where the realist intellectuals find a firm base of support in the Chinese Communist Party and in the military. In the field of International Relations and in the Universities, the dominant intellectual paradigm is that of ‘realism’ which in practice means that China must rise as a great power, if not a superpower.

There is a section of Chinese capitalists inside mainland China with allies of Chinese in Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan who are working for the Chinese banking and investment forces to overtake Wall Street and to strengthen the economic capabilities of China to hasten the day when the Chinese economy will become dominant in the world. If, according to this group, the collateral considerations include the fact that China should now be treated just like the US or Europe in terms of international obligations, then so be it. From outside China there is no shortage of intellectuals – such as Henry Kissinger and Niall Ferguson – who are of the view that China’s rise will make the 21st century China’s century and that there is a necessary convergence between the interests of the ruling elements in China and the US to keep international order.

There are many books coming out on China and the United States and the ‘new Cold War’ that it is often difficult to keep up. Titles screaming, ‘The Beijing Consensus: How China’s Authoritarian Model Will Dominate the Twenty-First Century’ or ‘When China Rules the World, The Rise of the Middle Kingdom and the End of the Western World’ herald the rise of China as the next hegemon. Though these books start out from differing intellectual positions, their thesis meets where there is agreement that not only is China the next economic superpower, but the world order that it will construct will look very different from today’s.

This thesis of China as the new hegemon sends chills down the spine of the neighbours of China and many are now rushing to enter into treaties with the United States. For good measure there are many western scholars and commentators who argue that China is already an imperialist state and that the activities of Chinese companies and state enterprises in Africa reflect a new colonialism in Africa. Those intellectuals and leaders within China who call for good relations with neighbours and cooperation to resolve disputes are not heard about in the Western media. Conservative strategic institutes poke the fires of militaristic competition with graphs and figures about the modernisation of the Chinese military.


Some of the political leaders in China and their intellectuals seek to have it both ways, they want China to be recognised as a developing country and be treated as such in international fora such as the United Nations, the IMF and the World Bank while in other settings, the Chinese want to be treated with deference as a super-power. It is from these conservative figures where one sees Chinese Students being bombarded with books by Henry Kissinger and Samuel Huntington about international order.

During the recent COP 17 meeting, the Chinese delegation caucused with the Third World countries in order to isolate the United States and rejected demands that China and India contribute equally with the advanced capitalist countries to fight climate change. While China was seeking to present a united front of countries from BRICS, the differing stance of South Africa, Brazil and India exposed the deep rifts between the BRICS countries on the question of Climate Change. Russia which had been classified as a developed country under Kyoto joined with Japan and Canada in refusing to join the second commitment period before COP17.

Early in the meeting, China had formed a negotiating block along with Brazil and India to demand that the Kyoto Protocol be extended. But the South Africans as the host of the meeting bowed to the intense pressures from the western capitalist states. India wanted to distinguish itself as a poor underdeveloped country and held out that India and other countries of the South should be exempt from binding carbon emission cuts because of their ‘right to economic development’.

When the two-week meeting was about to end without a serious agreement, the European Union sought to salvage the meeting by putting forth a ‘roadmap.’

Under this roadmap, there was the declaration that there would be a timetable for all societies to make emissions cut commitments by 2015, and by 2020, a legally binding agreement will take effect. From inside China, there was a muted acceptance of this ill-defined roadmap because according to the calculations, China was not seen as an obstacle as in the previous climate change meetings.

However, the oppressed countries did not have the same muted response to this ‘roadmap.’ From Latin America, from the least developed countries and from Africa there was agreement that this dithering will cook many in the Third World. Appropriately before the meeting Nnimmo Bassey had launched the book, ‘To Cook a Continent: Destructive Extraction and the Climate Crisis in Africa.’


The Chinese people are faced with the massive resources needed to maintain the pace of economic transformation. For the past 30, years this transformation has strengthened a capitalist class inside China. This class is now the face of China in many parts of the world and intellectually this class has spokespersons that trumpet ideas about a peaceful rise. However, inside the society there are contending voices and within the Party there are those who want to see the pace of transformation strengthening the majority of the poor.

Inside China, the evidence of workers’ struggle against exploitation grows despite the lockdown on real news of popular struggles. International news reports of the current protests by workers in Wukan, a coastal village in Guangdong Province seep through major international outlets; some sections of the Chinese intelligentsia are silent on the root causes of these uprisings because these struggles for rights do not conform to the current buzz words about harmonious development and ‘peaceful rise.’ Struggles by the oppressed in China for better conditions have resulted in mass incidents: Strikes, sit-ins, rallies and violent clashes have been a necessary response to the exploitative sweat-shop conditions that reproduce the old forms of industrial capitalism.

Martin Khor is correct to argue that the rest of the Third World ought to support China to maintain its status as a developing country because, ‘if China is pressurized to take on the duties of a developed country and to forgo its status and benefits of a developing country, then many other developing countries that are ahead of China (at least in per capita terms) may soon be also asked to do the same. Thus China’s fight to retain its developing country status is of interest to other developing countries, for they will be next if China loses that fight.’

This author concurs with such a posture with the understanding that the solidarity must work both ways. Such a position would require that China deepen its political and economic relations with the Third World in a way which would distinguish Chinese companies and corporations from western capitalist corporations. This would deepen the internationalism and solidarity of the era before China embarked on ‘reforms.’ As a corollary of the reform period, the Chinese establishment has taken on the discourse of the World Bank; hence there is the reproduction of the language of Clean Development Mechanisms.

I followed the deliberations on the mitigation fund and noted that many of the same governments in Africa that were calling for this fund have billions stashed away in foreign banks.

The urgency of making a break with the old polluting industries now requires a new mode of economic organisation. Chinese society started this break in 1949 and political reorganisation is now needed so that the society can work with others in the oppressed world to reverse the destruction of the planet. There should be no need for a schizophrenic foreign policy. Foreign policy solidarity and eschewing big power ambitions will strengthen the task of making a break with old forms of capitalist relations.

Horace Campbell is professor of African American Studies and Political Science at Syracuse University. See

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