For 15 years, Chandran Nair led a top Asian environmental consultancy that was active in China. In 2006, he founded the Global Institute for Tomorrow, a Hong Kong think tank focused on a shift of global power from the West to Asia, at a time when China’s rise is changing the geopolitical balance.
Mr. Nair, who was born in Malaysia to a large South Indian family, is the author of “Consumptionomics: Asia’s Role in Reshaping Capitalism and Saving the Planet” (also available in Chinese).
He recently spoke with China Real Time about China’s future. Below are edited excepts.
You’ve sounded alarms that the world’s consumer-led economic model is unsustainable as hundreds of millions of Asians enter the middle class. Yet China has embraced that model. What are the implications?
The fact that we will have 10 billion people in the world by 2050 means there’s no escaping that the 21st century will be messy. We are seeing the early signs of what that means in air pollution, ocean pollution, depletion of fishing resources etc. Technology will help to some extent. But if we don’t deal with the nature of consumption it will be a lot bleaker than we think. When China opened up 30 years ago, the only economic model available was driving consumption and exports. I think China is now understanding it can’t continue to produce and export emissions like it did.
This will be the ideological clash in China between neoliberal economists and more rational development people. [China President] Xi Jinping belongs to the school of thought that we can’t go on like this. His crackdown on corruption is part of that because corruption is a manifestation of everything goes. And that is the tension. If China goes on as it does, it will be catastrophic for humanity.
What can China change?
It’s about going back to what [former China leader] Deng [Xiaoping] said. He called for a moderately prosperous society. A lot of the older leaders and think tanks understand that 1.5 billion Chinese living like the Americans isn’t possible. Moderate prosperity is a level that allows everyone to overcome the drudgery of life. That is the basic obligation of the state—to provide water, sanitation, housing, energy and nutrition. But the idea that everyone can be rich or middle class and have a swimming pool and a car is a lie. Even top business leaders don’t believe that.
Are we talking about just buying less stuff?
Let’s not forget this whole debate over carbon and climate change is a consumption issue. That’s what the Paris climate agreement is about. I’m not arguing against consumption. But consumption, like of energy and water, must be priced right to take into consideration the environment. Once you do so the whole consumption architecture begins to change. The idea that consumers will behave responsibly is complete nonsense. People like to buy one, get one free.
How can China and other big nations like India impose such consumer discipline?
We’ll need draconian measures to protect the public good in the 21st century. That means tough rules. That can only be done with a strong state. That’s why I’m concerned that India won’t be able to. But China can. Look what China did this past week when pollution got catastrophically high. It shut down factories and took cars off the road. You can’t do this in India. You’d have to take it to the High Court and it would take weeks or months.
Ten years ago people out here used to say this issue of carbon emissions was a Western world problem and a conspiracy to hold us back. That has changed. China and India realize we are so large that the impact of global warming would be even worse on us. This discussion is much more profound in China than in India on a policy level. Both countries are in uncharted territory. There are no other examples in the world on this scale.
Is there a risk of China becoming a colonial power as it expands its economic interests across the globe?
Yes there’s a risk. But my money is on China taking a long historical perceptive – away from hegemony. The question is whether economic interests will create conflicts internally in the prevailing ideology and without them even recognizing it turning them into a colonial power. Which is what traditionally happens if you look at history. Look at the East India Company. They went to trade. Then got so big they needed armies to protect them. Then they colonized.
How do you see China’s sometimes troubled relationship with its neighbors evolving?
I don’t see people afraid of China. That’s part of a Western media narrative. The Chinese will not run roughshod over [the Association of Southeast Asian Nations]. To believe so is naive. There’s too much at play there.
I think the people in Europe and the U.S. don’t understand how much this part of the world suffered post world war. People just want peace and prosperity. And they won’t let hegemonic politics get in the way. I think the Chinese government understands that.
How do you see U.S.-Chinese relations playing out under a Trump administration.
I think the Chinese will take the long-term civilizational view on [U.S. President-elect Donald] Trump. They will see him not as an aberration but as a tendency in U.S. politics to essentially try to control China. In the longer term I see a China-U.S. relationship that will be mutually beneficial over the next 20 years. This will be very good for the world.
–Robert P. Walzer