Rare Metals Industry and Pollution: Assessing Chinese Authoritarianism in the 21st Century


  • Economic Progress, Political Stability and Environmental Degradation in China

It is common sense amongst political analysts that China in the 21st century is no longer a Communist nation. Deng Xiaoping, the second-generation leader of the Chinese Communist Part (CCP), famous proclaimed, “Only (economic) development makes hard sense”. Economic progress was the first priority of the post-Mao China. In fact, CCP has always been embracing a very rigid type of state-capitalism (as a means to achieve democratic socialism, according to the CCP) that has focused on the encouragement of foreign investment and manufacturing exports to the rest of the world by compromising some of the basic rights its own peasants since 1978 after the Great Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). As a result, China is now the second largest economy and is the world’s fastest growing economy. It has been sustaining an average growth rate of 9.4% for the past 30 years.[1]

chinese_metalindustryWhile China’s economic rise is to be commended the CCP elites have been growing concerned about how to properly manage the stark economic gap between rich and poor (Gini coefficient in 2010: 0.47). Although, Deng was aware that eventually, China would become an egalitarian society by “letting some people grow rich first”, we never know when and how such an ideal can be realised. Like any developmental state, the insurmountable accumulation of wealth is concentrated in a handful of the central and local Politburo members (and their relatives) and localized capitalists. The Party keeps maintaining its political stability and legitimacy in the eyes of the people by retaining its high economic growth rate. However, without a greater control of the widespread corruption the CCP knows it risks losing the support of the people.

Economic progress has led to irreversible environmental degradation throughout the country. No country in history has ever faced the environmental problems like China now faces in the 21st century. More than 30% of fresh water of China is now considered undrinkable by the CCP , which affects over 500 million people who are now unable to gain access to clean and safe water. Environmental pollutions of various kinds have caused a wide range of diseases that include: respiratory problems, cardiovascular damage, heavy metal poisoning, and cancer. According to the Ministry of Health, cancer has become China’s leading cause of death and this is a direct resulted of the rampant pollution within China.

Environmental pollutions have also increased the rate of social instability throughout the country. Riots and social conflicts are only going to increase in the foreseeable as long as the local Chinese authorities continue to condone irresponsible but preventable landfills and industrial waste dumping.

  • Chinese Rare Earth Industry and Consequences

In 1992, during his political tour in Southern China, Deng proudly said, “’The Middle East has its oil, China has rare earth.” Rare earth metals (fifteen lanthanoids plus scandium and yttrium) are the black diamonds of China. In fact, since the 1980s, China has dominated the market by providing over 97% of the world’s supply, while Inner Mongolia accounts for 40% of the global production (See the map for Chinese regions of rare earth metals production).

In the fall of 2010 there was the concern amongst the West over halting of rare earth metals to Japan and the United States from China. For the United States rare earth minerals are needed for a wide array of technology. There were calls from the politicians within the United States and Europe to find alternate sources of rare earth minerals to ease the West’s reliance on China.[2] However, while China has been able to corner the market on rare earth and establish a strong dominance in its supplies it is not without a cost.


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*Published in Political Reflection Magazine (PR) Vol. 2 | No. 2

** Nicholas J.S. Miller graduated in 2010 from Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia with a concentration in International Relations.

*** Antony Ou is a PhD Researcher of University of Sheffield, the China Review editor of Political Reflection Magazine, and the China Representative of CESRAN. His monograph, Just War and the Confucian Classics: A Gongyangzhuan Analysis, has been published and is available at amazon.com.

© Copyright 2011 by CESRAN

[1] For a general review of the Chinese economy since 1949, please see China Focus, CESRAN, under the section of Economy: http://cesran.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=category&layout=blog&id=261&Itemid=283&lang=en

[2] Judy Dempsey, “Germany to Raise Alarm Over China Rare Earth Restrictions at G-20,” The New York Times, 21 October 2010.; Judy Dempsey, “Decline in Rare-Earth Exports Rattles Germany,” The New York Times, 19 October 2010.; Tiffany Hsu, “As China slashes exports of rare earth elements, U.S. mine digs for more,” Los Angeles Times, 20 February 2011.; Keith Bradsher, “Taking a Risk for Rare Earths,” The New York Times, 8 March 2011.

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