Lula Tanzania

Lula visits Tanzania in 2010. Image source: AFP/Getty Images

The bond between the countries of North America (Canada and the USA) and Europe is one of the world’s strongest and most consequential. Historically, culturally, and linguistically, North Americans are intimately bound with their European kin. Since the beginning of European settlement there, North Americans have flocked to Europe on travel, study or work, and there is a continual fascination with the other side of the ocean. Through the institutional architecture of NATO, North America and Europe (which is most of what is called “the West”) generally move in lockstep on diplomatic issues.

This post, though, is not about that relationship. Instead, it’s about another key transatlantic bond, but one that’s been continually ignored: the one between Brazil and Africa.

Brazil and Africa have very strong ties. Start with geography: South America and Africa used to be one landmass, as evidenced by how far east Brazil bulges and the huge indent along Africa’s coast (the Gulf of Guinea). The sea between Natal (in Brazil) and Liberia (in West Africa) is still the narrowest part of the Atlantic except for the northernmost part where Greenland fills in the gap. There is a murky tradition in West Africa of the medieval Empire of Mali voyaging across the sea to trade with the opposite coast and maybe colonize it.


Gondwana, the super-continent also including modern India, Australia and Antarctica, broke apart in the age of the dinosaurs. Image source: U.S. Geological Survey

But as usual, it was Europe who bound the 2 regions together for good. Portugal sailed around Africa’s coast in the 1400s on its way to the riches of Asia, seeding it with trading posts along the way. Eventually an explorer found the part of Brazil that bulges out. Like its Spanish cohorts, Portugal vanquished the native Brazilians and seized the coastline for itself. Brazil turned out to be a rich and bountiful prize, loaded with lumber, gold and diamonds. Portugal needed lots of labor to work its colony, and the native peoples were dying out from imported diseases. And the Portuguese themselves didn’t want to do it.

… So they turned to Africa, where thousands and thousands of people were being captured and brought in chains across the ocean to work the sugarcane plantations of Brazil. The Caribbean may have been the main destination, but Brazil was the biggest single colony: over the 300+ years of the transatlantic slave trade, around 5 million Africans were brought to Brazil, or around 38.5% of the total. They stripped Atlantic Brazil of its jungles, mined its minerals, hacked its sugar, and later plucked its coffee. Any kind of manual labor, from unloading ships to housekeeping, became the province of black slaves. And because slaveowners were rarely hesitant about raping their property, Brazil grew into a mixed-race society united by the Portuguese language. (Not all of this traffic was one-way, by the way; Brazilian slaves could buy their freedom, and some of them returned to Africa afterwards, where they brought valuable technical skills and commercial expertise to an area mostly cut off from international trends.)

Slavery in Brazil was abolished in 1888, but it left a permanent mark on the country. Most obviously, it gave it a permanent black underclass and a social hierarchy that closely paralleled skin color. But the African influence on Brazil was profound. For example, feijoada, Brazil’s national dish, is a black bean stew strongly influenced by Portuguese tastes (it uses linguiça sausage) but incorporating weird cuts of meat like pork tails and feet, which were the scraps given to slaves. Brazil’s national music, the samba, is directly descended from African styles and was pioneered in the early 1900s by black musicians. African beliefs inspired a uniquely Brazilian religion, Candomblé, which worships personal deities and has its own rituals. The northeastern part of Brazil — the part that bulges out towards Africa — is predominantly black and has the strongest African cultural influences.

Despite this, Brazil’s elite snubbed Africa and links with it after abolition. In thrall to the racist ideology pervasive among whites in the early 1900s, they instead tried to whiten Brazil’s demographics by encouraging immigration from Europe and further race-mixing in the belief that future generations would be lighter-skinned than the current mix(the branqueamento policy). The first part of this policy succeeded, and Brazil now has large populations from Italy, Germany and Eastern Europe. Black people, however, never really went away.

By the 1960s, overt racist ideology was dying away, and African colonies were gaining independence. Brazil’s presidents began paying more attention to Africa and forging alliances with the new countries. But concerted outreach to Africa remained lacking for many decades; Brazilian dictators prioritized the relationships with Portugal and South Africa, that is, an intransigent colonial power and a racist regime. The dictators also embraced a generally conservative world outlook, which didn’t appeal to Africans, who prefer more revolutionary, left-wing stances.

These days, Brazil is experiencing a renaissance in its connections with Africa. It began under President “Lula” da Silva, who took a genuine interest in the continent. During his 8 years in office, he visited Africa 28 times, taking in 21 different countries there, and doubled Brazil’s embassies there from 18 to 37. His successor, Dilma Rousseff, carried on the momentum, albeit to a lesser extent.

As usual, the core of Brazil’s diplomacy with Africa is investment and technical cooperation. African countries are rich in minerals and oil, and Brazil has the mining companies to exploit them. Brazil also has a bevy of construction firms ready to build up African infrastructure — Odebrecht, Andrade Gutierrez, OAS, Camargo Corrêa — and well-educated engineers and scientists with the expertise to research new drugs, crop varieties, and other things of benefit to Africans. On the other hand, trade plays a growing role in the relationship; it’s shot up from $3 billion in 2000 to $26 billion in 2012, and Brazilian companies now use Africa as a market for their (cheaper) consumer goods. Brazilian telenovelas (soap operas), with their rags-to-riches stories and melodrama, are popular in Africa.

Brazilian TV is most popular in Angola and Mozambique, which are Brazil’s main partners in Africa. This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise: they were also Portugal’s main colonies in Africa (the other ones being Guinea-Bissau and the islands of Cape Verde, São Tomé and Príncipe). Many Afro-Brazilians originally came from these lands, especially Angola. They are also struggling to rebuild from devastating civil wars and need sustained infrastructure investments. But Brazil is moving on to other countries that don’t speak Portuguese and importing Nigerian oil (which is better suited to Brazil’s refining processes), building roads in Kenya, and selling cluster bombs to Zimbabwe.

Brazil is far from alone in supporting African development, and it lags behind the West and China in the scope of its involvement, but it has several key advantages. For one, there’s its shared history and a certain sense of familiarity with African culture, but more importantly, it’s a tropical country. Its agricultural specialists figured out how to grow crops like cassava, soybeans, and cotton in the cerrado (Brazil’s parched savannah), so its techniques are relevant for other tropical countries searching for ways to grow new crops, create more farmland and increase their yields.

Brazil also represents sort of a development success story. It has long festered in poverty and underdevelopment, and its chronic hyperinflation made it depend on IMF bailouts to keep afloat. It is now a member of the BRICs, the most powerful and important emerging economies, and until recently had money to throw around overseas. It still has a huge, struggling underclass, but its welfare program, the Bolsa Família, has been a roaring success, lifting 40 million Brazilians out of poverty since its inauguration in 2003 at a cost of only .05% of GDP. Proud of its achievement, Brazil has held seminars on the program and other welfare initiatives for Africans grappling with much worse poverty and invites delegations over to see conditions for themselves.

Politically, Brazil isn’t the stern conservative oligarchy it once was. The ruling party, the Worker’s Party, is leftist and preaches Third World solidarity. For all of its close links with the West, Brazil still feels a lot of bitterness toward it as a result of being ignored, dismissed, and indebted for much of its history. It sees the “global South” as having a common bond: resistance to Northern oppression and a struggle to survive in a Northern-run economic system. And as by far the largest and most important country in the Southern Hemisphere, Brazil is in a natural position to lead — and increasingly knows it.

This is most likely the main reason for Brazil’s increased attention to its eastern neighbors. Consumer markets and natural resources are great, but other markets are much more lucrative and Brazil has plenty of resources of its own. Sentimental and cultural ties are also important and give Brazil an edge over some of its rivals, but it’s hard to tell how much this is the result of Lula’s personal feelings and whether it will endure after the Worker’s Party is swept out of office. But politically, Brazil needs Africa. It has ambitions to be a Great Power someday, and Latin America won’t be enough of a sphere of influence. Africa remains the most struggling part of the world and the area in most dire need of sustained investment and development, and it lacks a hegemonic power that could feasibly be a rival for Brazil, so it will remain the continent Brazil must win over if it wants to demonstrate Third World solidarity and maybe even a seat on the UN’s Security Council (the important part) someday.

So far, Brazil is doing well. The West remains tainted or at least a little suspect in African eyes; even if well-intentioned, Westerners rarely face the same crippling institutional problems and hurdles to development that Africans do. China and India are rising powers with development cred, but they are also seen as distant foreigners motivated primarily by self-interest and sometimes rapacious in their greed. Brazil actually hires Africans, builds urban housing for the poor, consults with locals, and trains them to manage their own enterprises. Most of the resources it extracts still flow out of Africa, and Brazilian companies are still corrupt and destructive like other Third World firms, but all in all Africans trust Brazilians more.

Back in Brazil, African heritage is becoming more and more widely accepted and celebrated. Capoeira, the dance form invented by slaves that doubled as martial training, is now considered Brazil’s most unique contribution to martial arts. Salvador’s heavily African-influenced Carnival celebrations rival Rio de Janeiro’s bigger, more famous ones. Black Brazilian artists and musicians incorporate more and more African influences into their work. Yet Brazil’s elite continues to value European culture over African, and the vast majority of blacks remain poor manual laborers. Whether Brazilian business will get more interested in Africa if more blacks go into the business class remains an open question.

Brazil continues to face enormous and daunting problems. The legacy of its slaveholding past has not gone away, and racism remains a fact of life there. It is also grappling with an economic slowdown that is forcing businesses and the government to cut back on all fronts; it may even have to seek funds from the IMF once again. (Africa is suffering from a similar slowdown, mostly caused by falling demand for commodities.) Many of Brazil’s biggest companies have been tarnished by a corruption scandal focusing on its state-owned oil company, Petrobras. But depressions don’t last forever, and Brazil remains a development success story and a natural leader for the Southern Hemisphere. Continued Brazilian engagement in sub-Saharan Africa should bring benefits to both sides.

One more for the road.



India Land 2

A dispute over land acquisition gets ugly near Agra in 2010. Image source: PTI

Read the first post in the series here.

If you’re a major international corporation interested in investing in India, you’ll first have to contend with its onerous and confusing labor regulations. But if you get past that, you might still find yourself stymied by a very basic impediment: not getting the land you need to build your factory.

India has a dire reputation for being hard to find spare land in. To a certain extent, that’s a consequence of its geography and demographics: it’s extremely densely populated. India has almost 1.3 billion people, and even though that’s fewer than China, India has less land. It’s also unusual in that people are fairly evenly distributed; most countries have big population centers and big wilderness, but in India people live almost everywhere. Sure, the Ganga valley in the north and the far south are especially crowded, but in between there’s very little available land. Finally, a lot of it is farmland, and most Indians are farmers. The only part of the country without many people is the Thar Desert in the far west by Pakistan, and who wants to build there?

But India is also politically biased in favor of farmers. Mohandas Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, its founding fathers, loved villages and farmland and saw the “true India” as a patchwork of small farms supported by tight-knit villages. A socialist and Communist tradition in a few states makes governments hostile to big business. More generally, since most Indians are farmers, they hold big power at the ballot box; politicians that don’t care about them, or seem like they don’t, usually have to pay dearly.

The tale of Tata Motors is often used as an example. In 2006, India’s flagship car company chose the state of West Bengal as the site for its latest factory after being wooed by the local government (lots of land, discounted electricity, a ₹2 billion loan). But the farmers at the proposed site protested, claiming they hadn’t been compensated enough. A local politician and later chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, went on hunger strike. Negotiations grew acrimonious; neither side trusted the other, and compromise solutions were rejected. (It didn’t help that Tata wanted to make the Nano, a super-super-cheap car, so it couldn’t pay the farmers too much.) Finally, in 2008, Tata gave up and relocated to Gujarat, its CEO complaining about a “state consumed by a destructive political environment of confrontation, agitation, violence, and lawlessness.”

A similar story concerns POSCO, the Korean steel giant. In 2005, it signed a ₹500 billion deal with the state of Orissa for a steel plant — the largest foreign investment in India yet. But there would have been environmental side-effects (air and water pollution and coastal erosion). Locals again complained that POSCO wasn’t compensating them enough. Many farmers refused to give up their livelihoods. They protested and police and hired thugs attacked them. Even though 90% of affected villagers supported the project, opposition lawmakers joined the protests for political gain. In 2015, a law was passed forcing POSCO to buy a mining license in an auction, contradicting its initial agreement. This year POSCO gave up on the project entirely.

Obviously, getting farmers to give up their land isn’t easy. Some politicians claim that farmers are deeply attached to their land and love farming for its own sake. More likely, farmers want a good deal. In both the Tata and POSCO fiascoes, they were convinced that the corporations were ripping them off, since land value (usually) goes way up when it’s used for industry instead of agriculture. They haggle hard, knowing that if they don’t get enough, they’re now homeless, landless and jobless. Even if the farmers are more compliant, corporations have to deal with competing ownership claims and patchy or non-existent records.

Politically, Congress tends to support landowners while the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) favors big business (although they will switch sides for opportunistic reasons, of course). Congress’s traditional support base is farmers and the poor in general, so to placate them, it updated India’s 122-year-old (!) land acquisition law in 2013 with more stringent requirements. The industrial or infrastructure project has to pass a strict social impact test, get approval from 80% of the landowners (70% for a government project), and pay compensation equal to 4x the market value of the land (or double in an urban area). It also required government intervention in any sale of farmland to industry. Business groaned, worried that it would cause a massive logjam in investment. It was right: 43% of India’s projects are now stalled over land acquisition hassles — that’s ₹530 billion in limbo.

Mindful of how much this red tape was strangling his ambition to Make in India, India’s reformist prime minister, Narendra Modi, introduced some amendments to the land acquisition law when he took office. For certain “critical projects” — anything involving defense or national security, affordable housing, industrial corridors, rural infrastructure — the social impact test would be done away with, as well as the consent clauses. But opposition in the Rajya Sabha, the unelected upper house of India’s parliament, howled with rage. Congress came out against it, but so did parties like Aam Aadmi (a Dilli-based party which speaks for the common man), Shiv Sena (a Hindu nationalist party like the BJP but based in Mumbai) and Anna Hazare (an independent political agitator mostly concerned with India’s notorious corruption). Even some of Modi’s own BJP were against it. Finally, in August 2015, the amendments were passed, but they were so watered-down that little has changed from the original law. Modi was worried enough about the upcoming election in Bihar, a very rural state, that he didn’t want to jeopardize the results. Of course, those who read that blog post know that he lost, which makes things look grim for his land reforms.

Instead, Modi has suggested that the states deal with land acquisition in a way they see fit. This is one of his pet projects in general, since he made his political career out of sponsoring business and infrastructure in Gujarat (he was the guy who invited Tata there). Gujarat in particular has a reputation for being business-friendly, and sure enough, it announced this year that it is adopting the reforms that failed at the national level. Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Assam are also forging ahead with exemptions for the social impact and consent clauses similar to what Modi had pushed for. Andhra Pradesh, which is building a capital out of scratch after half the state broke away in 2014, is placating the local landowners by giving them a stake in the new city’s development — they’ll get 30% of their land back when the city is built, and in the meantime, they get a stipend and job training.

India Land

Image source:

As you might have gathered by now, it’s not exactly a simple issue. Farmers and their advocates have real concerns. Not everyone wants to or can move to the big city and start a new career. Companies will try to squeeze landowners as much as they can. States like Gujarat and Maharashtra with business-friendly governments can be horribly biased, which leads them to ignore landowners’ concerns and crush protests. Mysterious thugs can be deployed by businessmen to rough up farmers and destroy their crops, intimidating them into relenting. Native Indians with tribal societies in states like Odisha depend on the forest for their livelihoods, and iron mining would probably ravage the ecosystem. China’s disgusting pollution is partly the result of unrestricted development, and factories and power plants aren’t what most people want in their backyards.

But as the previous post in this series says, manufacturing is the next step in economic development India is “supposed” to reach to move out of poverty. Farmers don’t always resist industrialization — in another (ultimately failed) POSCO project in Karnataka, farmers lobbied the government not to drive POSCO out since they wanted the money. Schemes like Andhra Pradesh’s can keep farmers interested and involved in their land’s development. Food security (which is sometimes whined about) isn’t really an issue — India still has plenty of farms and farmers.

Most of all, foreign companies won’t want to invest in India if their projects get strangled by red tape and political bickering. They definitely won’t want to deal with a decade of stalling and uncertainty. They can always take their business elsewhere. Chinese ambassador Le Yucheng called land acquisition a “major impediment” for investing in India. Although it’s unlikely that messy, democratic India will have the same unrestricted land-grabbing China can get away with, the process will have to get easier for foreigners to get interested in Making in India.


China Smog

Image source: Imgur

China’s economic development over the past 40 years has been nothing less than astounding. 660 million people have been lifted out of extreme poverty since 1981. Its economy has doubled on average every 7 years. Today China exports as much in 1 day as in an entire year when it first opened to the global economy. It is one of the world’s economic engines, and it continues to be a model for rapid development for emerging countries regardless of its current economic and fiscal issues.

But with rapid development comes great costs, as we saw earlier in Indonesia. The environment gets ravaged and damaged at a rate as furious as wealth gets created and money gets exchanged. Tragically, China has also become a poster child for the environmental consequences of frenzied economic growth and development.

As Mark Elvin documents in The Retreat of the Elephants, China’s disregard for the environment has deep historical roots. It’s been under strong central government rule and an intensive agricultural society for a very long time (since the beginning of civilization, in fact). China spread by chopping down its forests, farming its fields and diverting water to irrigate them. Animals like elephants were driven to the edges and wiped out (often eaten). While it’s true that Chinese poetry and art have detailed and sentimental depictions of nature and China’s amazing scenery, a Chinese tradition of ecological devastation and environmental exploitation is at least as old and noticeable.

This destruction only accelerated under Communist rule. China became determined to finally catch up with the West, and the resulting “Great Leap Forward” program threw all caution to the wind. A campaign to encourage backyard iron smelting made smokestacks sprout all over the countryside. A campaign to eradicate obnoxious pests like sparrows led to a pest of locusts instead. A massive dam was built over the Yellow River at Sanmenxia, leading to increased silting of an already very silty river. Deep plowing techniques exhausted the soil and contributed to erosion.

Communism is a fading memory in modern China, but the assault on the environment continues. The most visible sign of this is undoubtedly air pollution. Anyone who flies into China probably notices the thick haze that blankets much of the east (the important part). In China’s major cities, more often than not, the sun is blotted out by a low-lying layer of clouds. Although this was traditionally described as “fog,” it’s actually smog.

Power Plant

A coal power plant in Inner Mongolia. Image source: ChinaHush

China’s horrendous smog comes from a variety of factors. One of the chief culprits is coal, which is China’s main power source. 80% of China’s power comes from coal power plants, and China is responsible for half of coal power generation in the world. Coal blocks are also frequently burned for heat in Chinese homes in the winter. All this means a lot of massive smokestacks scattered around the east, spewing odious black smoke into the sky. Then there are the cars. While China is traditionally a biking country and Chinese still bike often, with increased wealth many people have bought cars too. But since “many people” adds up to over 300 million in a country as humongous as China, that’s a lot of engines pumping a lot of exhaust.

These 2 factors are the most prominent, but there are a bunch of minor ones. The other fossil fuels (oil and gas) are burned frequently too. Noxious gas vapors escape from nozzles during fueling in gas stations. China’s many, many, many factories and mines usually pollute in some way or another. Restaurants pump their black smoke into the air. Construction sites (of which there are many) spread dust. Farmers traditionally burn leftover straw on the same week each year, adding more smoky haze each time. The Yellow Valley takes its name from yellow dust called loess that drifts through the air each spring, an environmental phenomenon that’s given northern China bad air since time immemorial anyway.

Vehicle exhaust, smoggy power plants and dust are common worldwide. Industrializing countries usually belch out a fair bit of pollution. But China is almost a perfect storm of pollutants exacerbated by frenzied development and dense population. It was bad enough to make organizers worried about the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, which compelled them to crack down on driving in that city during the games. But the problem’s gotten even more severe in recent years, with air quality and visibility in Beijing descending into catastrophically bad levels. On really bad days you can’t even see the other side of the street, and breathing outside is like smoking cigarettes. Many people opt to just say inside; those who venture out wear masks.

Lake Dongting

Lake Dongting in central east China. Image source:

Manufacturing and industry have also taken their toll on China’s water. Toxic chemicals are regularly pumped into rivers and lakes, wiping out fish and making it hard for people to get drinking supplies. Rivers have turned lurid red or pitch black or bloomed green with algae. Lake Tai, a major lake in the Yangzi Delta area, has been polluted by a combination of cyanobacteria, algae, garbage and toxic waste. Some farmers find their skin blistering and peeling away from contact with their irrigation water. The Yangzi river dolphin and Chinese alligator are probably on the road to extinction, at least in part due to foul water. Countless small streams have died under the deluge of chemicals, grime, garbage and poop and the effect of intensive diversion. China’s major rivers — the Yellow, the Yangzi, the Huai, the Pearl, take your pick — have all been beleaguered under the twin assaults of disgusting industrial discharge and unsustainable commercial and residential use. The people of the Huai valley wrote this poem to summarize the gradual corruption of their water:

In the ’50s, we washed our food in the clear river.
In the ’60s, we irrigated our fields with its waters.
In the ’70s, we saw our river turn black and oily.
In the ’80s, we watched dead fish float to the surface.
In the ’90s, we too started to fall sick.

The usual Chinese response to this devastation has been, as before, disregard. China is overwhelmingly focused on economic growth. Most ordinary Chinese people worry more about making money than breathing clean air or swimming in clean water. The government is determined to make China great again, and this means more factories, more jobs, and more cars on the roads. As the “fog” misnomer exemplifies, it has waved away even the most obvious signs of pollution and even denied and covered up the health problems that inevitably follow from it.

But by the 2010s, ignoring the problems has become harder and harder. Partly this is because the worst days of smog in Beijing are just that unendurable; people stay home and restrict their breathing when they venture outside. Outrages in the provinces could be swept under the rug by corrupt local officials, but the national government can hardly ignore the consequences of its own policies in Beijing. It’s also because the growth of social media, especially a microblogging site called Weibo, has provided a handy forum for people to vent about their local pollution problems. Last year the CCTV journalist Chai Jing produced an Inconvenient Truth-style documentary about the pollution crisis called Under the Dome (after the American TV series). The government took it offline after a few weeks, but not before it had racked up 300 million views — an impressive achievement for a country with around 700 million Internet users. (If you’d like to watch it — and I highly recommend it — you can see it here).

China Smog 2

This personal photo of the Yi River near Luoyang gives a more representative picture of what smog in China looks like.

So what can be done about this? The good news is that China is definitely trying to clean up its act. In the past, complaints from foreigners about its greenhouse gas production were countered by whining about how the West had developed by ravaging the environment and polluting the atmosphere, so it was China’s turn now. Now China is much more cooperative in international climate change conferences and makes pledges to cut its emissions. China’s dictator, Xi Jinping, has made pollution one of the government’s key priorities. Efforts are being made to reduce the country’s dependence on coal power and promote other fossil fuels. China is also the world’s biggest market for renewable energy, like wind, solar, biofuels and geothermal, and the government invested $125 billion into it in 2012 and ’13. Private companies are rushing into the renewable energy field and sometimes succeed. Xinjiang, China’s vast northwest desert, is a tempting source of both sunlight for solar power and wind for windmills. The government is also upgrading the country’s energy grid to be more efficient. No matter how much contempt the government might have for its subjects, smog affects everyone, and the frequency with which pollution prompts protests pushes it to act.

But it’s easy to get discouraged too. One of China’s general problems is a lack of law enforcement, and this definitely comes into play with the environment. China has a Ministry of Environmental Protection, but it’s toothless and takes a back seat to other ministries. Corruption and fraud are endemic; polluting truck drivers lie about their emission ratings and officials don’t follow up with major polluters’ pledges to clean up. The oil industry has deep influence in the government (it is dominated by state-owned enterprises) and pushes for lax emissions standards. China is extremely censorious, and no matter how worried officials might be about pollution, their impulse to silence critics or even whistle-blowers is strong. The Under the Dome story is one example of this; another is pollution levels in Beijing, which were only exposed for how awful they really are thanks to the US Embassy.

The biggest problem might simply be the government’s priorities. China is determined to industrialize and grow. Partly this is the result of a national determination to catch up with the West and Japan and assert Chinese greatness. The industrialization drives of Mao Zedong, China’s dictator from 1949 to 1976, were designed to catch up to British steel production; America is now the country China targets as a rival to surpass. It’s also the real justification for the Communist Party’s rule; widespread prosperity and economic opportunity have won it popularity. Any economic slowdown is considered a national security risk because it undercuts the Party’s legitimacy. So local officials are graded and promoted based on how good their jurisdiction’s economic statistics are. It might seem like a meritocratic system of governance in the best Chinese tradition, but it’s also an incentive for shoveling money into smog-belching factories, mines and power plants.

China’s future is uncertain. This makes it both a fascinating and devilishly frightening country to study. Its environmental prospects are no different. Some observers (like Mark L. Clifford) are optimistic, pointing to the increased political and financial support for innovative, environmentally friendly companies and the high risks of perpetuating polluting firms (pollution is estimated to cost China about 10% of its GDP). Others (Elizabeth Economy, Jonathan Watts) remain pessimistic, thanks to the above factors and things like the Chinese leadership’s love of big, fancy, expensive and impressive engineering projects and the sheer size of China’s population and its hunger for stuff. I waffle, but lean more towards pessimism, given how dire China’s pollution problem was already by the ’90s and ’00s and how blatantly the government ignored it then. But China’s response will probably be schizophrenic; it has both jailed or beaten up critics and whistle-blowers (for making it look bad) and acted on their concerns (to prevent criticism from spreading… or maybe out of sympathy too).

China’s frustrations should be understandable. The world has followed this path before. Britain, America, and Eastern Europe have all coped with soot-black air and poisonous water before; other developing countries, like India, grapple with identical issues now. China still produces less greenhouse gas per person than the West. A lot of that smog is produced by foreign companies operating factories in China but ignoring environmental regulations because they can. So constant China-bashing over pollution is unfair. But it is also the world’s biggest and most problematic polluter, and until serious health outrages like whole villages stricken with cancer or a river choked with 6,000 pig carcasses subside, environmentalists (or anyone, really) will keep haranguing it, both at home and abroad.

Who knows? Pollution might revive China’s love of moustaches.