17 June 2008

Dooh Nibor

..or Robin Hood in reverse. In today's [London] Independent, Dominic Lawson writes about how China subsidises oil consumption:

While crude oil prices have doubled, the price of a tank full of petrol on the forecourts of the Middle Kingdom has not increased by a single renminbi – and is not likely to do so this side of the Olympic Games. In this context, the article by the vice-premier of China's state council in [the 16 June issue of the London] Financial Times was almost comical. Wang Qishan argued that his government "gives high priority to energy and resources conservation and the protection of the environment". No one can doubt the pressures the Chinese Politburo is under to meet the aspirations of its people and neither should we in the West criticise their desire to enjoy the opportunities which industrialisation bestowed on us. But still, how can the representative of a government which pays its industries to burn more fuel expect to be taken seriously as a proponent of "energy conservation"?

This seems, on the surface, to be one of the greatest paradoxes of the modern world: while democracies such as those in the European Union have been sufficiently insensitive to the wishes of their consumers as to have provoked disturbances over the price of petrol and diesel – augmented as they have been by very high taxes – totalitarian states such as China have pre-empted the possible political consequences of high domestic gasoline prices. Perhaps it is because the rulers of such countries know their people do not have the safety valve of elections to let off steam; so if things get ugly they could get very violent indeed. There is a less charitable explanation. In China, only the wealthiest two per cent own a motor car; the proportion is not much more in many of the other developing countries with high petrol subsidies: so we are seeing the subsidisation of the richest in the Third World at the expense of all. ...It is exactly the same as the global food market, in which subsidies ostensibly designed for the benefit of everyone are in fact disproportionately directed at the richest, paid for by national exchequers which supposedly represent the interests of nations as a whole.

And so it goes on, at great cost to the environment and ordinary people. Though we do have elections in the west the agricultural subsidies to which Mr Lawson refers also continue - decades after it was realised how wasteful, socially unjust and environmentally diastrous they are. We cannot foresee all the ramifications of our policies, but we should at least be able to stop the ones that are failing. That, our current policymaking system seems incapable of doing, no less in the west than in the ..er.. People's Republic of China.

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