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Fran O'Sullivan: Quick answer to 'Chinese Dream' - come to NZ

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Beijing has pledged to reduce pollution by 2017 but the number of vehicles is growing and alternatives to coal for energy are some way off. Photo / AP
Beijing has pledged to reduce pollution by 2017 but the number of vehicles is growing and alternatives to coal for energy are some way off. Photo / AP

Diplomats present during an informal gathering with former Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing in Auckland early in the week talked about how many Chinese now wish to live in New Zealand.

It's all about fulfilling the growing Chinese desire for Blue Skies. Fresh Air. Having Options. New Zealand's way of life is appreciated. It is their first choice.

The appetite for things Kiwi will only increase as more Chinese experience New Zealand as tourists, and as well-connected and wealthy Chinese visitors spend time relaxing at the new hotel on Auckland's waterfront that is expected to be built by the Fu Wah group.

Li, one of China's most polished diplomats and a man of considerable charm and subtle wit, concurred.

Arriving in Beijing the next day it was hard to discern what they were on about. China's capital city for once was bathed in piercing light. The skies were indeed blue.

The air crisp and dry.

Down south in Shanghai, it was very different. Smog had settled in - air that you could chew. Yesterday, a slight haze had again settled over Beijing. By next month - if last January's weather is a reliable predictor - you will hardly be able to see at all on many days through the dirty brown, heavy and dangerous smog laden with PM 2.5.

Those are particles smaller than 2.5 microns in diameter that can penetrate deeply into the lungs; the upshot of heating from coal-fired power plants, the 5 million vehicles that clog the city, industrial activities in neighbouring provinces and agricultural biomass burning.

In September the Beijing municipal government pledged to reduce PM 2.5 density by a quarter or more by 2017 with the implementation of a five-year action plan. This follows on from the Airborne Pollution Prevention and Control Action Plan that sets goals for the nation's 338 cities.

But reaching the target is no simple matter as I discovered when I took part in a thought experiment (with 200 others) at the Economist's annual China Summit, where we were asked to put ourselves in the position of Chinese politicians or bureaucrats or businesses in assessing what options to take given that 80 per cent of energy needs are met from coal-fired plants.

Only one-third of participants believed the Beijing authorities would meet the 2017 target.

A switch to using natural gas, shale gas and nuclear power - notwithstanding the Fukushima nuclear reactor disaster - topped the list on the alternative energy options. And, following some hesitation after Fukushima, the nuclear reactors programme has stepped up again.

But China might have to adopt a back-to-the-future approach - many suggested a return to bicycles and getting more cars off the roads - if it is to restore the quality of life of its citizens.

Try selling that when members of the world's most strongly networked and connected society see images of the cars that Westerners have and the futility of a making a backwards switch is easily understood.

Hence the growing desire by Chinese to simply seek a better life elsewhere.

No nation can maintain internal harmony if its children have to be kept inside and away from school in the worst days of the gloom and if parents fret about long-term damage to their children's tender lungs.

Foreigners have options. Many foreign companies will no longer send managers or staffers to China if their families have young children.

The potential destruction of the Chinese quality of life underlies Chinese Premier Li Keqiang's and United States Vice-President Joe Biden's talks this week about forging bilateral co-operation on clean energy and China's ability to gain access to the United States' shale gas reserves.

It is imperative that some commonality is reached between the US and China on this score. The dirty secret is that so many US companies sent their manufacturing to Chinese factories in the first place in full knowledge that they were powered up by subsidised state-controlled coal energy, thus helping goods to be produced at a fraction of American costs.

Last month the Chinese Communist Party released "A Decision on Major Issues Concerning Comprehensive and Far-Reaching Reforms", a document detailing the party's reform plan that was foreshadowed at the fifth plenum. President Xi Jinping has set 11 priorities. The most significant were a decision to allow the market to play a big role in resource allocation, focus on SOE reform, and foreshadowing a gradual shift away from being the "world's factory" - the old model of China being the high-volume manufacturer of low-margin exports where rising cost structures has affected profitability.

The time is ripe for this fundamental reform. It won't be easy. But in a perverse way the problem of endemic air pollution will increase pressure by the Xi Administration to ensure the "Chinese Dream" is fulfilled.

In the meantime, expect more Chinese visitors and citizens.

- NZ Herald

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