There is no exaggerating China's hunger for commodities. The country accounts for about a fifth of the world's population, yet it gobbles up more than half of the world's pork, half of its cement, a third of its steel and over a quarter of its aluminium. It is spending 35 times as much on imports of soya beans and crude oil as it did in 1999, and 23 times as much importing copper—indeed, China has swallowed over four-fifths of the increase in the world's copper supply since 2000.
What is more, China is getting ever hungrier. Although consumption of petrol is falling in America, the oil price is setting new records, because demand from China and other developing economies is still on the rise. The International Energy Agency expects China's imports of oil to triple by 2030. Chinese demand for raw materials of all sorts is growing so fast and creating such a bonanza for farmers, miners and oilmen that phrases such as “bull market” or “cyclical expansion” do not seem to do it justice (see special report). Instead, bankers have coined a new word: supercycle.
Not all observers, however, think that China's unstinting appetite for commodities is super. The most common complaint centres on foreign policy. In its drive to secure reliable supplies of raw materials, it is said, China is coddling dictators, despoiling poor countries and undermining Western efforts to spread democracy and prosperity. America and Europe, the shrillest voices say, are “losing” Africa and Latin America.
This argument ignores the benefits that China's commodities binge brings, not only to poor countries, but also to some rich ones, such as Australia. The economies of Africa and Latin America have never grown so fast. That growth, in turn, is likely to lift more people out of poverty than the West's faltering aid schemes. Moreover, China is not the only country to prop up brutish regimes. Witness the French troops scattered around Africa, some of whom recently delivered a shipment of Libyan arms to Chad's embattled strongman, Idriss Déby.
A new nuance
China could—and should—use its influence to curb the nastiest of its friends, including the governments of Sudan and Myanmar. And it is beginning to do so. It has ceased to resist the deployment of United Nations peacekeepers in Darfur, and is even sending some of its own military engineers to join the force. Wen Jiabao, China's prime minister, has called publicly for democracy in Myanmar—which, even though Chinese officials' understanding of democracy is different to Westerners', is a bold step for a government that claims not to meddle in other countries' internal affairs. The more business China does with the rest of the world, the more nuanced its foreign policy is likely to become.
Still, China's hunger for natural resources is creating plenty of problems. Most of them, though, are in China, not abroad.
China is hoovering up ever more commodities not just because its economy is growing so quickly, but also because that growth is concentrated in industries that use lots of resources. Over the past few years, there has been a marked shift from light manufacturing to heavy industry. So for each unit of output, China now consumes more raw materials.
That may sound like a minor change, but the implications are dramatic. For one thing, it has encouraged the sort of foreign entanglements that are now causing China such embarrassment. More worryingly, it is compounding China's already grim pollution. Heavy industry requires huge amounts of power. Steelmaking, for example, uses 16% of China's power, compared with 10% for all the country's households combined. By far the most common fuel for power generation is coal. So more steel mills and chemical plants mean more acid rain and smog, not to mention global warming.
These are not just inconveniences, but also an enormous drag on society. Each year, they make millions sick, cause hundreds of thousands of premature deaths, sap agricultural yields and so on. Pan Yue, a deputy minister at the government's environmental watchdog, believes that the costs inflicted by pollution each year amount to some 10% of GDP.
No fire without smoke
It is no wonder, then, that pollution is the cause of ever more protests and demonstrations. There were some 60,000 in 2006 alone, by the authorities' own count. Some are led not by impotent peasants but by well-organised burghers from Shanghai and Xiamen, a development that must horrify China's rulers. And the potential for even more disruptive environmental crises is great: northern China is already running out of water, and the glaciers that feed its dwindling rivers are melting, thanks to global warming.
The government is aware of these problems, and is trying to address them (see article). It has used this month's People's Congress to raise the status of Mr Pan's agency to a ministry. It has increased fines for pollution, reduced subsidies on fuels and scrapped tax breaks for heavy industry. It is also promoting cleaner sources of power, such as windmills and natural gas. Yet despite frantic efforts to clean up Beijing in time for the Olympics in August, athletes still doubt the air will be fit to breathe. The world's fastest marathon runner, for one, has threatened to drop out of that race because of pollution.
All the government's green schemes are being undermined by an artificial abundance of cheap capital, and by bureaucrats' enthusiasm for channelling it to grubby industries. Chinese banks, with the government's blessing, pay negative real interest on deposits and so can lend to state-owned firms very cheaply. Many of those firms also benefit from free land and pay negligible dividends to the state, leaving lots of money to invest in more dirty factories. Chinese depositors and taxpayers are subsidising the very industries that are slowly poisoning them.
China is bound to consume enormous amounts of raw materials as it develops. But given how polluted the country already is, and how much unrest that pollution is causing, it should curb its hunger for resources. A less wasteful development strategy would be a healthier one.