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Playing the China Card

Updated: May 26, 2023


The conversation goes like this:

Them: “So what do you do?”

Me: “I campaign on the climate crisis.”

Them: “Oh yes, I’ve heard of that - It’s a really big problem, do you really think you can solve it?”

Me: “Not alone, no, but I think the work I do makes a difference.”

Them: “But aren’t you wasting your time in the UK? China is the big problem? If you can’t fix China, there is no point surely?”

Me: screams in utter disbelief at the audacity of people who feel the need to assert their knowledge over me, on a topic in which, yes, I am the expert. Uncontrollable frustration ensues...

This scenario is real, and it happens again and again. I don’t think I am alone in feeling frustrated by people’s attempts to belittle the relevance of the global climate movement by simply throwing out the word “China”. So, the next time it happens to you, or the first time it happens to you, I’ve written a 5 step rebuttal so you can be ready.

1. Acknowledgement

The China argument cannot be won without an acknowledgement that yes, China is currently the world’s largest polluter. The impact of China’s sprawling population and increasing pollution is undoubtedly disastrous for our planet. If we indeed “fixed” China we would drastically limit the impacts of climate change for our world in general. But, as I will argue, this does not mean that China is the only starting place for achieving a positive environmental impact.

2. Question the Excuse

Unfortunately the China argument is not just being used by irritating individuals, but by the United States, the world’s second largest polluter. They have picked up on the “if not China then what’s the point” angle and are using it to their advantage. By redirecting the focus towards China, the USA does what western countries have always done - placing the burden on someone else. But China actually has much lower emissions per person than the USA, and you don’t see them talking about that do you?

By playing the China card, you allow countries to do the same - legitimising the idea that all progress is useless without China.

3. Address the Global

And yet, no one country can solve the climate crisis. China contributed towards 27.2% of the world’s total emissions in 2017. That means that all the other countries contributed to 72.8%. Every country needs to lower, reduce and remove its impact on the planet, urgently if we want to avoid climate catastrophe. That definitely includes China, but it doesn’t mean China must go it alone.

Imagine you were to break up China into UK sized chunks. Each chunk would have a much less significant impact compared to the whole of China, but their total impact would be immense. Would you tell campaigners in one of the small chunks of China that their work was doomed to fail because other countries had a larger footprint?

Our global accumulative impact matters, that is what got us into this mess, and that is what will fix it.

4. Remember the History

While China may be the biggest polluters today, the UK and USA have dominated historically for years. And that pollution doesn’t just go away.

If we really want to start pointing the finger, then the UK has just as large a role to play in owning up to their historical responsibility as China does owning up to its current impacts. We not only started the industrial revolution at home, but we colonised the world with our capitalism and in turn created a humanitarian and ecological catastrophe as a result.

Yes, we might have a smaller impact if we decarbonise our current environmental footprint - but we owe it to the rest of the world to pay for decarbonisation elsewhere too. We have offloaded responsibility for far too long, and playing the China card does the same.

5. Congratulate Progress

It would be unfair and inaccurate to suggest that China isn’t doing anything about their environmental impact. China has the largest renewables market, has plans to use its army to plant 60,000 trees, and has an emissions peak target of 2030 at the latest (among the most ambitious of any of the world’s emerging economies). They have a long way to go, but China is certainly doing its part albeit within a system that celebrates economic growth and technological prosperity. Sound like any other country we know?

So when the next nincompoop you meet throws down the China card, be ready. Climate justice cannot be achieved by one country alone, and we must all play our part in shaping the revolution.


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