Monday, August 9, 2010

China's MIIT Orders Capacity Cutbacks

According to an announcement on the website of China's Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT), 2,087 companies in 18 industries have been ordered to close outdated, heavily polluting factories by September.

While this sounds like a positive step by a government that values the environment, it also sounds like similar orders that have been given in the past -- long before it was cool to care about climate change. I hate to sound skeptical (and I would like to be wrong about this), but, frankly, I'm not buying it this time either.

The punishments suggested for companies failing to comply are restrictions on access to bank financing and new project approvals. First of all, most of the companies on MIIT's list are small or medium sized enterprises, and many of them are privately owned. These companies never had access to bank lending anyway. Furthermore, because they are so small, their approval processes -- if indeed there were any -- most likely never went further than their local governments.

In addition, local governments are still heavily incentivized on two very measurable criteria: social stability and economic growth. Closing local businesses is unlikely to help their job performance measurement under either criterion.

While local governments will, of course, have to be seen to follow central government orders, it's not hard to imagine that local authorities are already working with the owners of these businesses (which in many cases are the local governments themselves!) to find a way around Beijing's dictates.

Ultimately, Beijing sees great opportunity in the climate change movement. But contrary to outward appearances, the opportunity for China lies, not in cleaning up its environment, but in selling related technologies to foreigners.

Clean technology will be expensive, and a country facing a demographic time bomb in a decade or so cannot afford to waste a single percentage point in GDP growth to clean up its environment. China will, however, be more than happy to sell the necessary technology to those countries that are already on the bandwagon.

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