For all the tea in China – reflections on a future ecological civilisation

by James P Graham

The political leadership in China has vowed to make the ancient country the world’s first ‘ecological civilisation’. But how sincere is this grand ambition. JAMES GRAHAM travelled to a conference …

The question for China is, can the Pandora’s box of corporate power, which has fuelled their lightning growth, be purged of corporate greed for the sake of our sick planet?

I was fortunate enough to goon a trip to China this year and in so doing gained an insight into Chinese plans for their future – and indeed the future of the planet. Satish Kumar, the editor emeritus of The Ecologist, had established a strong Chinese bond through Schumacher College and was invited by Fujian Province University of Forestry and Agriculture. The aim was to discuss and facilitate an exchange of ideas around the Chinese government’s intention to become the world’s first ‘ecological civilisation’, a policy which China has been developing since 2007, and which is now firmly embedded in the Communist party’s constitution.

Powerful country

Satish was kind enough to invite me to accompany him in March this year. From the misrepresentation the Chinese receive in the foreign media one would almost regard such an objective as some sort of bad joke. Becoming the world’s first ecological civilisation is a gargantuan task! In true Sanghudata spirit and with baby steps, the Chinese are humbly reaching out to the West. They have realised that the planet cannot sustain the old capitalist paradigm, but how to reconcile economic prosperity with ecological sustainability? In typical and dignified Chinese manner, they are cautious in their approach towards solving this gargantuan issue. The question is, can the Pandora’s box of corporate power, which has fuelled their lightning growth, be purged of corporate greed for the sake of our sick planet? As they slowly become the most powerful country on the planet, the mantle of responsibility looms large through the post-capitalist mist.

Being a rebel

Having flown to Fujian’s provincial capital city Fuzjou, we were lodged at the University campus guest hotel, and dipped ceremoniously into Chinese contemporary culture, the only Westerners in sight. It felt like a diplomatic mission, and almost treated like royalty by our Chinese hosts. Our first conference in the University was chaired by Professor Wen Tiejun, an expert in macro economics and sustainable development and an executive dean at the Renmin University of China in Beijing. The Professor is the lauded eminance grise of China’s new Rural Reconstruction Movement, which promotes agroecology, sustainability and rural regeneration. Throughout his life Professor Wen Tiejun has sailed close to the wind, but now commands huge respect and influence from all quarters of the political spectrum. Well-born, he has struggled to be accepted, as he was in his own words “despised by conservatives for being a rebel, and despised by rebels for being a conservative!”

Evocative term

But this is no fence sitter, in fact his standing enables Professor Wen to express his political views candidly and openly, and he spoke frankly and eloquently about China’s intention in the world, which he assures is more hermetically positioned and definitely not predatory as many would contest. This is not a resource grab! Professor Wen’s main preoccupation is to resolve the problem of urban migration, and he has the Government’s full backing. Since 1980 China’s rural population has shrunk from over 80 percent, to around 40 percent, leaving rural villages seriously
depleted of labour, services, or life. How to swing the pendulum back? One positive consequence of the Cultural revolution is that the Chinese still have strong connections with their villages, with many city dwellers still owning properties in the countryside. In fact, the construction industry built enough homes in the city areas to house 80 percent of China’s population! If farming continues its decline many village communities will die. Every Chinese government ministry now has a department of ‘Ecological Civilisation’ – it’s such an evocative term, but what does it actually mean to the Chinese, and how can they reconcile economic growth with ecological civilisation?

Large feasts

From what I leant, there is no shortage of scholarly and academic theories but practical application is limited and therefore there is little evidence on what has been achieved so far. A diplomatic approach was adopted at the conferences, concentrating more on enthusiastic support and encouragement – there is surely greater benefit offering solutions rather than negative criticism! This approach opened up discussion and enabled our ideas to find fertile ground. We did mention however the omnipresent high rise buildings in every connurbation which provoked a defensive reaction from local government officials. Apparently the government uses profits from high rise construction to fund environmental clean up projects and building high rises ensures the maximum use of land area! To punctuate the talks our hosts organised large feasts during the visit. Tables of up to 40 people with many different foods on offer, from strange mushrooms – not psychotropic! – to bamboo, sweet potato, different kinds of rice dish, kinds of turnip, suede, corn and greenery, many of which I had never heard of.

Determined women

What’s more the Chinese tradition of sitting at a round table means that one can sample up to 20 dishes, remembering to pick the opportunity as it spins past! Food arrived in extroardinary displays, an old boat with a wooden figure on the bow singing Chinese opera and dry ice coming out of the portholes – fantastic! The wonderful social custom of getting up mid-meal to walk clockwise around the whole table to greet and toast everyone with plum wine on the way, I found particularly convivial. Food culture is important for developing good relations, and therefore agreements and compromise. The most important moment for me was my presentation of the A Plastic Planet (APP) campaign that I have been working with in the UK, Amsterdam and Italy, preceded by the stunning film Plastic Ocean. APP started from very humble origins, the brainchild of two very determined women, Frede Magnussen and Siân Sutherland, petitioning supermarkets to include one plastic-free aisle in their stores on the premise that plastic is not suitable as packaging for food and drink.

Media and lobbyists

In their own words, “we can buy fat free, gluten free, dairy free but we can’t buy plastic free. ” China is more than ready to hear this message as my audience’s reaction confirmed. My intention is to propagate this message in China and with the help of the Ecological Civilisation Association, plastic use for food and drink could be reduced substantially, and replaced with a whole new industry of materials made from grass, wheat, Mater-Bi, glass, wood, seaweed, corn, sugar cane, and algae. A large proportion of these materials already exist as a waste recource either in food production, or agriculture providing a potentially much needed income stream for the farming community, which China is trying to preserve. As I contemplate my next move I have understood that operating in China is a totally different prospect than in Europe. Creating a groundswell using media and lobbyists is not really possible, however, if the government is supportive, then change can be effected quickly. Travelling with Satish again showed me the value and power of humility, and valuing the person in front of you, which generates goodwill. Our short experience with the Chinese showed their capacity for goodwill, and coupled with their workrate, energy and commitment, they may just become the first country to become plastic-free, and that would be worth all the tea in China!

James P Graham is a Scottish contemporary artist and activist. He is part of the A Plastic Planet campaign team currently working in Italy and China.