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On the Energy Front, State-censored Chinese Media Trumps U.S. Media

This post is the first in a year-long series by Ed Grumbine, professor of environmental studies at Prescott College and author of Where the Dragon Meets the Angry River. Only five days into a one year stay in China, I’ve already noticed that the Chinese and U.S. media don’t report the news the same way. What amazed me is that Chinese state-run papers describe China’s economic growth and energy consumption more accurately than the U.S. press. The past two years have been big years for China’s global position in economics and energy. In 2009, China replaced the U.S. as the largest auto market in the world, and surpassed Germany as the largest exporter of trade goods. Just a few weeks ago, China passed Japan in overall GDP to gain the No. 2 spot behind the U.S. (Japan had held this position since 1968). In the first six months of 2010, China emitted more greenhouse gases than have ever been measured in a six month period and burned through more total energy than the U.S. (China debates this statistic, but the trend is clear). Almost without exception, the U.S. media portrayed these events as “threats.” The Wall Street Journal labeled China “the world’s most voracious energy consumer” accusing China of “… seeking resource and energy leverage…” in a “global scramble for (fossil fuel) resources.” The New York Times suggests that if China did not meet domestic energy efficiency targets, this “would be a big setback for international efforts to limit (carbon) emissions.” (The NY Times failed to mention that the U.S. doesn’t even have such targets.) What distinguishes Chinese media accounts from U.S. stories is China’s emphasis on per capita data. Due to the fact that 20 percent of all people on Earth live here, at some point, China will likely surpass all countries in virtually every category of economics and energy use. The only meaningful way to compare nations is through per capita data, and this is what is missing from American reporting. The Chinese media is quick to point out that China, despite its record-breaking behavior, is still a low-middle income nation according to United Nations definitions. China passed Japan in overall GDP, but each Japanese citizen pulls in ten times more income than the average Chinese. In terms of its human development status, China doesn’t even rank in the top 50 percent of all countries. The Wall Street Journal’s characterization of China as “the world’s most voracious energy consumer” is false; each U.S. citizen consumes about five times more energy that their Chinese counterparts. What is behind the American media inaccurate portrayals of China? I see two biases at work here. The first bias is symbolic. America is so used to being No. 1 that we find it difficult to accept any position other than ‘leader.’ The second bias is more insidious. There are many U.S. politicians and policy makers who view the world as a zero sum game. If China is rising, everyone else must be falling. Competition—not cooperation—is the hallmark of these “realists, as if China was the new Russia.” On the street here in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province, I see economics and energy embodied all around me. The sheer number of people in the street can be overwhelming. It seems as if there are new buildings rising up on every urban block, and vehicles spew out exhaust while the number of bicycles declines steeply. So far, however, my advice is to take U.S. media reports about China with a hefty dose of soy sauce.