Fantasy Islands: Chinese Dreams and Ecological Fears in an Age of Climate Crisis

Fantasy Islands: Chinese Dreams and Ecological Fears in an Age of Climate Crisis

by Julie Sze

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The rise of China and its status as a leading global factory are altering the way people live and consume. At the same time, the world appears wary of the real costs involved. Fantasy Islands probes Chinese, European, and American eco-desire and eco-technological dreams, and examines the solutions they offer to environmental degradation in this age of global economic change.

Uncovering the stories of sites in China, including the plan for a new eco-city called Dongtan on the island of Chongming, mega-suburbs, and the Shanghai World Expo, Julie Sze explores the flows, fears, and fantasies of Pacific Rim politics that shaped them. She charts how climate change discussions align with US fears of China's ascendancy and the related demise of the American Century, and she considers the motives of financial and political capital for eco-city and ecological development supported by elite power structures in the UK and China. Fantasy Islands shows how ineffectual these efforts are while challenging us to see what a true eco-city would be.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520959828
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 01/05/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 248
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Julie Sze is Associate Professor of American Studies at UC Davis and founding director of the Environmental Justice Project for the John Muir Institute for the Environment at UC Davis. Her first book, Noxious New York (MIT Press), won the 2008 John Hope Franklin Award for the best book published in American Studies.

Read an Excerpt

Fantasy Islands

Chinese Dreams and Ecological Fears in an Age of Climate Crisis

By Julie Sze


Copyright © 2015 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95982-8


Fear, Loathing, Eco-Desire: Chinese Pollution in a Transnational World

In 1983, when I visited China, I was an obnoxious American saddled with a bowl haircut. I was also the literal embodiment of my parents' triumphant return to a country they had long ago left, since everyone approvingly told my parents that I was a good "Fai Zai" (fat boy). Everyone was wearing communist outfits—blue jackets, hats, and dark pants. I had little interest in the endless parade of extended family or the historic sites and instead obsessively played with my handheld video game. At Tiananmen Square, I turned the game on for the umpteenth time. In it, Mickey Mouse carried a basket. He was supposed to catch eggs rolling down four chutes—the eggs came down faster and faster, until three broken eggs ended the game. Slowly, a crowd of a hundred curious people gathered round—they had never seen a video game. Someone said (in wonder) that in America they can even waste eggs in a game! Nothing about the lives of these spectators seemed to connect with my own existence in the United States, especially not that someone thought those rolling eggs were real, a symbol of affluence and waste. Nowadays, that video game would be made in China, and not a single stylish person (much less a crowd) would bat an eyelash.

China's privileged urban youths are increasingly obese from fast food and their own excesses of "screen" time. The China I saw then, populated by the monochromatic masses, is now the world's economic powerhouse. The title of one popular business book warns that the United States will become "China's Bitch," shocking in its profane title but not in sentiment. My own relationship to these national and global transformations is complicated. As an American consumer, I can't help but notice that almost everything I buy is from China. It's virtually impossible to consume otherwise. I can also track social and economic change through "stuff." Those early trips meant my parents bringing large suitcases full of consumer goods then unavailable in China to friends and family. Recent trips in the past decade have completely flipped the equation. Now my parents start with empty suitcases, which when they return are filled with stuff: towels, socks, and cheaper clothes with strange English phrases randomly printed on them, and the higher-end clothes for the global export market, complete with well-known brand names and expensive price tags, that they buy at a fraction of the official "price."

The growth of Chinese manufacturing and other global economic changes have been well documented, as have their environmental impacts. The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, in his Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution—and How It Can Renew America, explicitly calls on nationalism—driven by fear of China as our main competitor—in arguing for greater American investments in green technology. He writes: "as an American I want to make sure that my country is in the lead.... America wins! America wins! America wins! If Only." I envy Friedman's enthusiasm and boosterism; if only I could share it. Friedman admires China's can-do spirit while writing of the State Council ban on plastic bags in 2008 (the Council is the highest level of state power, composed of the premier, state councilors, ministers, and so on):

If only ... If only America could be China for a day—just one day. Just one day! ... [A]s far as I'm concerned, China's system of government is inferior to ours in every respect—except one. That is the ability of China's current generation of leaders—if they want—to cut through all their legacy industries, all the pleading special interests, all the bureaucratic obstacles, all the worries of voter backlash, and simply order top-down the sweeping changes in prices, regulations, standards, education, and infrastructure that reflect China's long-term strategic national interests—changes that would normally take Western democracies years or decades to debate and implement.... What would be so bad? China? Just for one short day?

Friedman admires the increasing attention that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has paid to environmental industries, particularly the 2004–2006 project known as "Green GDP." This project was an effort to create an environmental yardstick for project evaluation and to recalculate gross domestic product to reflect the cost of pollution. Friedman writes, "This could be the greatest show on earth." He exemplifies the Western fascination with the "good" side of China's political authoritarianism: admiration of its ability to implement sensible environmental policy by fiat, with no consultation with communities or process to hold up beneficial environmental policies, investments, and practices. He's right; Green GDP would have been a big deal if it hadn't been almost immediately scrapped as a political nightmare (adjusting for pollution reduced red-hot growth rates in some provinces by 3 percent).

I call Friedman's attitude "eco-authoritarianism," and it is a highly developed form of eco-desire. Western environmentalists can be captured by this eco-desire, convinced that the ecological ends justify the authoritarian means. But aren't environmental problems and solutions supposed to transcend nations? After all, pollution from Asia, particularly from China, moves, often across epic distances, traveling across the Pacific Ocean to the western United States. On some days, a third of the air pollution over Los Angeles and San Francisco can be traced directly to Asia. This pollution is in the Sierra Nevada mountain region, in the iconic Yosemite National Park all the way up to Donner Summit and northward. Scientists liken the movement of polluted air to a "ribbon" covering the entire Pacific Ocean basin bent back and forth.

In theory, we're all on this sinking planet together. In practice, defining what the environmental problems are, where they stem from, and what the best ways to solve them are immensely complicated questions that can end up replicating and amplifying geopolitical, cultural, and racial struggles and anxieties writ large. Within the United States, our greatest ecological desire is to fixate on China as the focal point of the vast majority of global pollution, and thus displace our own responsibility for global environmental damage. After all, for the past century, the United States was truly "number one," to quote Friedman, not only in carbon emissions, but in many pollutants. At the same time, influential architects, environmentalists, and others in the United States fervently believe in the fantasy of China as the "go-to" place where great green things happen on a vast governmental scale. Contrast Chinese environmental policy with what the American environmental sociologist Andy Szasz calls the contemporary U.S. obsession with "Shopping Our Way to Safety," or environmentalism through individual consumption of things such as bottled water, buying or growing organic food, and the use of nontoxic materials. That is not to say that Chinese middle-class consumers don't also increasingly drink bottled water, eat organic, and use "natural materials," but there is a difference in the national character and investments, both literal and cultural, in environmental policy and action.

China is our psychological displacement and doppelganger, our enemy and our salvation. It is home to the world's first "solar billionaire," and Chinese companies represent 47 percent of the market share of solar panel installations in the United States, dwarfing the 29 percent market share for American companies. China is also the world's largest market for wind energy. Yet, China's investments in green technology are also seen as a cause for alarm by elected officials and trade bodies in the United States. For example, the U.S. International Trade Commission imposed tariffs on Chinese solar panels of 24–36 percent, accusing Chinese solar manufacturers of dumping cheaply made panels. In the United States, our ecological desire is defined by an ecological blame-the-victim game. We focus on China at the moment when its carbon emissions surpass ours and ignore that our per capita rate is far higher. And it's not just about carbon. In 2004, according to a World Bank Report, China surpassed the United States as the world's largest waste generator.

We fear China and its pollution; at the same time, we are defined by our envy of the power of authoritarian government to make positive environmental changes. In contrast, Chinese eco-desire takes a related, but somewhat different form. I suggest that Chinese eco-desire is based on three closely linked factors: technocratic faith in engineering, reliance on authoritarian political structures to facilitate environmental improvements, and discourse of "ecological harmony" between man and nature. The rest of the examples in this book—Chongming, Dongtan, suburbanization, and the World Expo—are examples of these factors at work.

In China, the shape that eco-development takes is a direct result of the authoritarian political structures that promote and enable large-scale planning—though these "big" plans for improvement often lead to significant environmental devastations, most notoriously (but not only) the Three Gorges Dam. Contemporary Chinese environmental policy is defined by the tendency to build on an epic scale. In political scientist James C. Seeing Like a State, he explains what it means to "see like a state." In the twentieth century, large-scale plans for improving the human condition often went spectacularly, and sometimes violently, wrong (examples include compulsory ujamaa villages in Tanzania, collectivization in Russia, Le Corbusier's urban planning theory in Brasilia, the Great Leap Forward in China, and agricultural "modernization" in the tropics). Scott explains how and why these plans share a literal and political perspective. Attempts to make a society legible and to arrange the population in ways that simplify state functions create the conditions of their own failure, especially as these utopian plans and projects disregard the experiences, worldviews, values, and desires of their purported beneficiaries. These episodes of state-initiated social engineering share key elements: administrative ordering of nature and society, high modernist ideology (including a valorization of rational design through urban planning and manipulations of temporal/spatial context), authoritarianism, and a weak civil society.

Contemporary eco-authoritarian practices—like the eco-city and eco-development trend in China—are a milder, greener version of the plans discussed in Scott's Seeing Like a State. These schemes don't lead to the deaths of millions. But they are similarly doomed to fail in ecological or social terms. Authoritarian political structures by definition inhibit strong civil society. That explains why, even though China has very strong environmental legislation on the books, it's often not enforced. Scott's theory of "seeing like a state" is useful in that far too many environmentalists wear blinders when it comes to the contemporary eco-city.

Understanding his theory of "seeing" means that we instead focus on issues of power and power relations. Unlike climate skeptics, climate change activists and sensible policymakers understand the urgency of global environmental problems. This urgency can sometimes lead to a willful blindness to the negative consequences of projects that are proposed to address climate change but end up creating or exacerbating other social injustices. Chinese eco-desire is also in lockstep with American eco-desires, which hold China as both the environmental pariah and salvation in a fun-house distortion of our own environmental hopes and insecurities, paradoxes and failures.

This chapter lays out both the realities and the discourses around Chinese pollution that set the political and ideological contexts for Dongtan eco-city, Chongming Island ecological development and planning, ecological suburbanization, and the World Expo. Climate change is the primary environmental and policy context. In other words, climate change is a "metanarrative" that structures policy decisions. The desire to address climate change can dovetail with a willful blindness to the failures of projects that purport to advance environmental aims. When describing Chinese pollution, I'm not talking about it solely as a discursive phenomenon. Chinese pollution is real, it's systemic and huge (and growing), and it hurts Chinese populations the most intensively (only 1 percent of Chinese urban residents breathe clean air, and estimates of early deaths attributable to air pollution are in the hundreds of thousands per year) even as its impacts are regional and global in scope. That said, "Chinese pollution" must be understood not just as an environmental and scientific problem to be solved by engineering and technology, but also within broader cross-cultural, comparative, and political frameworks.

I give a brief history of pollution in communist China as a way to show the linkages between contemporary environmental policy and development and the recent past. In other words, the frameworks and discourses of Chinese "environmental solutions" and "ecological harmony" in the post-reform era are directly related to these earlier periods. Both this history and contemporary policy changes are important in shaping the broader discursive landscape upon which eco-cities are being built in China, as well as the recent environmental casting of the Beijing Olympics in 2008. I then turn to an overview of Shanghai's environmental problems as a way to situate the city's recent forays into ecological development.


In 2007, the New York Times ran a series of investigative articles under the banner "Choking on Growth." Focusing on a series of devastating contemporary environmental disasters in China, the series highlighted the social and environmental costs of economic growth and the rampant political corruption that destroyed a variety of landscapes and habitats, and their costs to human and nonhuman populations. From the burgeoning water crisis, to the hundreds of thousands of early deaths from the polluted air (often triggered by poor fuel standards in a transportation system centered almost entirely over the past three decades around automobiles), the toxic and chemical pollution that contaminated Lake Tai (the third largest body of fresh water, which sustained two million local residents), the extinction (or near extinction) of rare Yangtze River species (the Baiji dolphin and large freshwater turtles), wastewater contamination, and illegal drugs used in the farmed fish markets, the picture was grim and largely devoid of hope.

To longtime China watchers, "Choking on Growth" offered no real surprises. In her book The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenge to China's Future, the foreign policy expert Elizabeth Economy documents the ruinous environmental costs of China's economic development in flooding, desertification, water scarcity, and dwindling forest resources. In Mao's War against Nature: Politics and the Environment in Revolutionary China, the international relations scholar Judith Shapiro argues that CCP rule laid the groundwork for the contemporary landscape and politics of Chinese pollution. She documents how closely intertwined the abuse of people and the abuse of the natural environment were under Mao. These abusive programs included population control policy in the 1950s, the building of the first big dams, the Great Leap Forward, "grainfields in lakes," wetlands destruction, and the forced relocation of urban youth.

This war on nature, or seeing nature as the enemy, is not unique to China; in many ways it came out of the U.S. World War II context of military research, especially the postwar growth of pesticides. What is arguably unique is the large scale and destructive impacts of this Mao-era war. My own parents, like virtually everybody in China at that time, were directly affected by Mao's war on nature. My parents remember banging pots to keep the sparrows from landing in order to kill these pests through sheer exhaustion, and they experienced the famine triggered by the Great Leap Forward. My father was forced to relocate to the countryside, and those memories explain why he still won't eat carrots, one of the few foods available during those turbulent times.


Excerpted from Fantasy Islands by Julie Sze. Copyright © 2015 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

1. Fear, Loathing, Eco-Desire: Chinese Pollution in a Transnational World
2. Changing Chongming
3. Dreaming Green: Engineering the Eco-City
4. It’s a Green World After All? Marketing Nature and Nation in Suburban Shanghai
5. Imagining Ecological Urbanism at the World Expo

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