“Airpocalypse” turns the air of the great Chinese cities into a kind of chronic and massive chemical attack. Meanwhile, ecological issues are gaining a new and strong political traction. In the meantime, China is also becoming a world leader of the digital transformation. In other words, two major dynamics run through China in the same time: the mammoth development of its digital transformation and the need and will to become an “ecological civilization”, in order to change its currently dangerous environmental and sanitary situation for a new approach to its ecological and digital development. All this happens in times of global climate, pollution and biodiversity crisis, as well as of an international digital power race.
In this article, we are going to see how the two dynamics constituted by the mammoth development of Chinese digital transformation and the Chinese need and will to become an “ecological civilization” are currently reshaping the way China intends to develop during the 21st century and could turn the “Middle Kingdom” into a singularly original strategic power.
In a first part, we shall focus upon the scale of the ecological problem faced by China and briefly outline the decisions taken to remedy the resulting danger. Then, in the context of the mammoth Chinese rural exodus and related urban development, we shall see how the digital world is actually used to mitigate ecological dangers, and thus how both the digital and new ecological revolutions are becoming intertwined. Finally, we shall look at the way this evolution is transforming the very strategic status of China.
Getting out of the ecological nightmare
As we saw in “Digital China – the (Middle) Kingdom of the Internet” (Jean-Michel Valantin, The Red Team Analysis Society, 26 June 2017), China is literally becoming a “digital nation” through its extension and continuation in the cyberspace. However, while China installs itself in this new and artificial environment that is the cybersphere (“China’s Digital Transformation: The Internet Impact on Productivity and Growth”, Mc Kinsey Global Institute, 2014), it suffers greatly from the unintended environmental impacts of its own development and of the combination of the latter with the current climate and biological planetary crisis.
These environmental and related social crises express themselves through the extremely high levels of air pollution, known as “airpocalypse”, as well as through pollution of its waters and of its soils.
Indeed, China’s economic and social development rests upon the way it produces energy for its population, its booming cities, and its industry. 75% of China’s electricity production is coal-based. China produces 46% of the global coal production, and represents 49% of the global coal consumption. The domestic development of China depends on coal, the consumption of the latter having increased by 2.3 billion tons in ten years (Joseph Ayoub, “China Produces and Consumes almost as much coal as the Rest of the World Combined”, Today in Energy, US Energy Information Administration, May 14, 2014).
As a result, China is the first emitter of greenhouse gases, being responsible for 30% of global emissions (Craig Simons, The Devouring Dragon, How China’s Rise Threatens our Natural World, 2013).
This explosion of coal use goes hand in hand with the enormous contemporary Chinese global trend of urban growth. In 2012, the Chinese urban population started to exceed the rural population when it reached almost 691 million people, out of a total of 1300 million people (Jaime A. Forcluz, “China’s Urban explosion: a 21st Century Challenge”, CNN, 20 January 2012). Contemporary Chinese social, urban, economic and political organization and development are based on coal because of the resulting new needs of the country, when China is rich in coal and wary of dependencies created by oil imports.
However, this reliance on coal is turning the Chinese boom into a domestic and global socio-environmental deadly trap. Coal atmospheric rejects are polluting the air, to the point that it endangers the health and daily life of hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens. Indeed, each year, between 350 000 and 500 000 people could be prematurely dying because of air pollution, while the number of related ailments, especially among children, is growing quickly (Malcolm Moore, “China’s “Airpocalypse” kill 350,000 to 500,000 each Year”, The Telegraph, 07 January 2014).
Furthermore, some Chinese scientists are now comparing the permanent smog to the “consequences of a nuclear winter”: coal dust adheres, and thus makes opaque greenhouse surfaces, diminishing by 50% the amount of sunlight received and needed by the growing vegetables, which could, in turn, threaten the food and health security of the country (Jonathan Kaiman, “China’s toxic air pollution resembles nuclear winter, say scientists“, The Guardian, 25 February 2014).
Meanwhile, the Middle Kingdom is turned into one of the main countries driving climate change (Simons, Ibid).
Facing the staggering scale of the massive ecological, social, economic and sanitary threat, the Chinese political authorities are elaborating a deep readjustment of the current Chinese model of development through a collective approach known as the “ecological civilization”, which is strongly implemented (Xinhua, “Xi leads ecological civilization”, China Daily, 22 March 2017). This new and vigorous approach largely integrates the mammoth digital development of the Middle Kingdom, and is conceived as a way to “domesticate” the consequences of Chinese urban and demographic changes.
Towards the Chinese digital-ecological-led revolution?
Since 1980, China has evolved from a largely rural country, where 81% of the population was living in the countryside, to a massively urbanizing country, where, in 2013, 54% of its 1,4 billion people lived in urban areas (Thierry Sanjuan, Atlas de la Chine, Une grande puissance sous tension, Autrement, 2015).
In other terms, the Chinese urban revolution drives the transformation of the Chinese society, while becoming the matrix for the dynamics of environmental pollution and degradation. Meanwhile, social tensions heighten, in a time of unprecedented economic growth. The strategic goal of the Chinese political authorities is thus to manage the urbanization of its continental country, while deeply mitigating the socio-environmental dangerous consequences of the latter (“Xi stresses efforts to build ecological civilization”, Xinhua, 28 August 2017).
Given the speed and the scale of the environmental crisis, the political, industrial and urban authorities are experimenting new ways to manage these interdependent challenges, through digitally evolving “smart cities”. These are transformational approaches to urban collective and individual life through the intelligent use of big data to manage water, energy, waste and food flows (“Chinese “smart cities” to number 500 before end of 2017”, China Daily, 21 April 2017). The need for these new environmental approaches derives from the scale of the Chinese urban development (Harold Thibault, “Chinese cities are cleaning up”, Le Monde, 29-05-2017).
In 2015, in the case of Shanghai, the number of cars grew by more than 13%, reaching the staggering total of 2.5 million cars in a 25 millions people strong megacity. In order to mitigate the impact of the car flow on the atmosphere, the municipal authorities use new “smart street” technologies. For example, the Ningbo-Hangzhou-Shanghai highway, daily used by more than 40 000 cars, is being equipped with a cyber network allowing drivers to pay tolls in advance with their smartphones. This application allows a significant decrease in pollution, because the lines of thousands of cars stopping in front of paybooths are reduced (“Chinese “smart cities” to number 500 before end of 2017”, China Daily, 21 April 2017).
In the Chinese smart cities, entire towers are being equipped with energy and water cyber management systems. Heat, humidity, and pollution sensors proliferate and interact in order to inform the management systems, the authorities and the citizens if, for example, there is a pollution peak (Corinne Reichert, “Huawei launches demo smart city”, ZD Net, 12 September 2017). This dynamic is accompanied by the staggering 360 billion dollars Chinese fund created to support the development of clean technologies and clean energy (Fortune editors and Reuters, “Here’s How Much Money China Is Throwing at Renewable Energy“, Fortune, January 5, 2017).
Those systems are closely linked to the growth of the “internet of things” and thus to the development of the 5G broadband, which is currently tried in more than 100 cities in China, i.e. by more than 250 millions people (Bien Perez, Jennifer Li, “China to roll out 5G broadband mobile equipment trials across 100 cities”, South China Morning Post, 05 October 2016 and Simon Alexander, “The Rise of the Sinosphere and the Digital Silk Road”,DCX. Technology, February 2, 2017). At the end of 2017, more than 500 hundred “smart cities” could be counted in China, 95% of the provincial capitals being “smart”.
When looking closely at this development of Digital China and at the multiplication of smart cities, we notice it also coincides with the political will to “channel” the explosive rural exodus towards manageable cities of small or middle size. In other terms, the 250 millions people expected to relocate into towns between the end of 2017 and 2026 (Chris Weller, “Here’s China’s genius plan to move 250 millions people from farms to cities”, Business Insider, 5 August 2015) are going to be directed towards small towns and provincial capitals, which, by the way, are becoming “smart cities”. This policy is also aimed at reducing the growth of already clogged Chinese megacities of more than ten million people – such as Beijing (21,5 millions people), Shanghai (25 millions), and the urban areas around them – and of the network of very great cities where more than 5 to 10 million people live. Indeed, the problem is that these very large cities and megalopolis have reached highly dangerous levels of water and air pollution, hence the “airpocalypse”, created by the noxious mix of car fume and coal plants exhaust.
Thus, channeling urban demographic growth towards small and middle size cities, which are turned into “smart cities”, is a way to turn the social, demographic and economic growth of China into a phenomenon that is “still” manageable and sustainable.
This strategy is the very context from which emerges the project of banning fuel cars from cities between now and 2040, and to replace them by electric “smart cars”, connected to both “smart streets” and environmental sensors networks through 5G (Kenneth Rapoza, “To promote electric cars, China considers move to gas guzzlers”, Forbes, September 11, 2017).
In other terms, the digital and sustainable development strategies are interconnected and aim at restoring equilibrium in the very fabric of the current mammoth Chinese development.
The Chinese ecological digital transition: an international and planetary strategy
The digital ecological Chinese grand strategy is the way for China to start adapting to the inner dangerous challenges that have built up into its own social and economic fabric, while giving itself the necessary ways and means to decrease its carbon energy use. Thus, it supports the Chinese commitment to mitigate the planetary climate change that threatens the whole world, knowing that China is vulnerable to its major impacts, such as the rise of ocean level and its consequences on the water cycle (Jean-Michel Valantin, “The Arctic, Russia and China’s energy ambition”, The Red (Team) Analysis Society, February, 2015).
The Chinese strategy also drives a gigantic urban, technological and industrial revolution, that turns China into a possible world leader in clean energy, in electric and smart cars and in urban development. As a result, China can position itself in the “middle” of the major trends of globalization. Indeed, smart and electric cars are the “new frontier” of the car industry that supports the economy of great economic powers as such as the U.S., Japan, and Germany (Michael Klare, Blood and oil, 2005). The emergence of China as an “electric and smart cars” provider could have massive implications for the industrial and economic development of these countries. And this is true from a civilian as well as from a military point of view, as the fuel engine has been used for the two activities. It will certainly be the same with smart and electric vehicles.
Finally, the Chinese energy transition is closely linked with the replacement of coal by natural gas as fuel for the thousands of energy plants of China. This entails the recent giant energy contracts and investments between Russia and China, which are literally creating a new Sino-Russian geopolitical region. In the same time, the uses of energy are being interlinked with the development of “smart grids” and smart infrastructures.
It now remains to be seen how this ecological and digital transformation is “wired” around the development of artificial intelligence.
About the author: Jean-Michel Valantin (PhD Paris) leads the Environment and Geopolitics Department of The Red (Team) Analysis Society. He is specialised in strategic studies and defence sociology with a focus on environmental geostrategy.