Smith, R. (2015). China’s Communist-Capitalist ecological apocalypse. Description and Critique

Smith, R. (2015). China’s Communist-Capitalist ecological apocalypse. real-world economics review, 71, 3-4.


In the article, “China’s Communist-Capitalist Ecological Apocalypse,” Richard Smith discusses the environmental challenges faced by China in light of its break-neck pace of unregulated industrial development. Smith points to the consumption-based, neoliberal economic model driving China’s growth as both unsustainable and responsible for straining the resources of China’s diverse ecosystems. To give a sense of the global scale of the problem, Smith notes how China “consumes 32 percent of the world’s” cement, ore, fossil fuels, and biomass, mining these resources not only from the mainland but also from other countries. The pace of industrial development has come at the expense of public health as rural communities in particular are poisoned from factory waste and cities are shrouded in toxic smog. The culture of consumption and governmental support for sailing growth fuels the crisis, argues Smith. Not only is industrial production directed toward superfluous construction projects, but government oversight of the development project has gone hand in hand with political corruption. The overall situation, in Smith’s view, looks bleak. He offers his suggestions for an “emergency plan” to evade the collapse of the ecological and economic systems currently under stress. Many of Smith’s suggestions entail down-scaling industrial sectors as well as restoring the political and ecological autonomy of regions already “plundered” by Han Chinese activities. Ultimately, Smith places the onus on the Communist Party and advocates for grassroots movements as the primary mechanism of reform and remediation.


Smith’s evaluation of China’s environmental situation is broad and sweeping, highlighting the environmental challenges along with political and cultural complicity. He writes with journalistic alarm and revolutionary zeal, using facts and cases to weave his argument for the direness of the national plight. Smith’s article touches on almost every conceivable aspect of China’s development and progresses with an energy commensurate with the ghastly appearance of the picture he illustrates. The article is primarily polemical, arguing from the standpoint of criticism over the failures of the Chinese political and developmental models. It is also pessimistic. In its pessimism and polemical ardor, the urgency of the issues which Smith attempts to capture drains away as the credibility of his argument falters on the overcharged discourse of its emotional appeal. While Smith’s article represents the unspoken fears and concerns likely harbored by many China-watchers, analysts, and scholars, it misses the opportunity to seize a serious and sober readership that might otherwise rally around the issues he raises.

The polemical nature of Smith’s article launches his argument into an emotional dimension. Immediately, the reader must decide if the hyperbolic language he uses (e.g. “demonic,” “criminal behavior,” “cynical disregard,” “plunder,” “breathtaking,” “ill-conceived boondoggle,” etc.) is justified and if it doesn’t reflect an inherent bias that skews his presentation of the state of affairs. If readers already agree with Smith’s basic position, then his polemics likely reinforces their sentiments and may even spur them to action. If readers either don’t agree with his polemics or come to the article without an existing knowledge base, then Smith offers few handles for them to get on board with his cause. In fact, his style would likely foment skepticism and drive away the readers he might most hope to win over.

Where Smith excels in providing data-backed evidence for his arguments he fails by couching the same arguments in editorial rants and colorful interpretations rather than allowing the data to stand out and speak for itself. For example, he notes how “12 of the planet’s 20 tallest towers” are expected to stand in provincial cities by 2020, then ridicules the skyscraper and housing construction model as atrocious and redundant. He has a good point about over capacity and redundancy, but framing it in charged language distracts from his point by overlooking the underlying economic, social, even historical reasons behind such construction. Were Smith to frame his criticisms with a thorough analysis of the underlying conditions of the supposedly grotesque issues in his article, he could offer more neutral reasons for concern and criticism. Such concerns would ideally balance out with a reflection on the silver lining or reasons for optimism. Smith’s credibility would be better established and more effectively serve to win readers to his side, thus achieving the overall objective of stopping the madness of China’s development schemes and working towards responsible solutions.

Research Suggestions

My research suggestions entail orienting the writing in a more credible presentation of the issues Smith addresses. The flow of the article is logical. Smith lays out his argument in successive sections that end with suggestions on how to remedy the serious problems confronting China. In order to frame the content in a more objective manner and to appeal to a wider base of readers, many of whom I would anticipate might disagree with Smith’s basic approach, I would first trim out the editorial, polemical language, then set up the issues with more critical distance that allows the facts to speak for themselves. This would also require balancing out a pessimistic or negative interpretation of the facts with reasons for optimism, a feature Smith almost entirely overlooks.

Within the first few paragraphs, one gets the sense that Smith’s article does not offer an objective presentation of the content. His hyperbolic language frames the writing as a rant rather than a scholarly analysis. Reworking the language to filter out emotional appeals would create a more objective and academic thought-environment. Rewording the headings is a key step in this process. After cleaning up the language, I would suggest beginning each section with a fuller presentation of the data Smith only briefly touches on. I would make qualifications and highlight potential shortcomings of the data, also including sources and perspective on their broader implications. I would then go into multifaceted interpretations of the data, suggesting what they most likely suggest but nonetheless leaving the discussion open ended to allow for dialogue and debate. The basic content and material Smith has used to compose his argument are largely sufficient. I would add more data and change the way he talks about the issues and how he frames them for the sake of credibility.


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