Chinese New Year and the Year of the Pig


Chinese New Year and the Year of the Pig

There are two kinds of pig: there are adorable pigs like Wilbur from Charlotte’s Web and there are terrifying ones like Napoleon from Animal Farm. In the period from 2000 to 2017, the public image of China was located about half way along the Wilbur-Napoleon scale. Essentially, about half of what one read was written by so-called “panda huggers”, the other half by so-called “dragon slayers”. From about mid-way through 2018 this started to change, and greater prominence was given to news stories about vicious Chinese repression in Xinjiang and the “Tech Cold War”. Special prominence – or greater weight – started to be given to reports on China’s alleged systematic state-directed theft of intellectual property, as well as the numerous non-tariff barriers that it has erected against foreign businesses that seek to expand into its market.

Say what you like about the Chinese leadership, it can hardly be denied that they have consistently brought home the bacon since this century started – and foreign investors have thrown themselves at China like so many Gadarene swine. While it may be true that a great deal of Chinese money has been wasted on massive pork barrel projects, it is also true that China’s growth has left capitalists and economic commentators the world over as happy as pigs in muck. People like making money and they like to see it being made, and these two factors have had key roles to play in the “peaceful rise” narrative that has informed article after mind-numbing article in the last twenty-or-so years. According to this narrative, China’s economic growth is miraculous and benevolent, and the downsides to it (unprecedented environmental destruction, the creation of a high-tech surveillance state, rampant and aggressive Chinese mercantilism etc.) will be sorted out in the fullness of time. Investors with their snouts in the trough have not had time or the inclination for a more profound analysis.

But you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. The post-1949 Chinese government has always been at the Napoleon end of the Wilbur-Napoleon scale. What changed in Western media in 2018 was the narrative, not its subject. So-called China watchers have been living on the pig’s back for twenty years by telling slightly varied versions of the same two stories: (1) that (terrible) China is about to collapse and (2) that (wonderful) China is about to confound everyone’s expectations of its collapse. China watchers now find themselves in hog heaven, with a brand new narrative falling into their laps, just as the old two were getting boar-ing. 

2019 is likely to be a pig of year, for China and for everywhere else. I’m writing this article in São Paulo, where climate change has already increased the average annual temperature by three degrees. Meanwhile, people in Chicago are literally freezing to death. Industrial civilization is destroying the conditions for life on Earth. China and the United States are in the midst of a trade war. As growth slows, the Chinese economy finds itself burdened with mountains of bad debt. The United States and Europe agonise in the grip of conspiracy theories. Here in Brazil the government has been taken over by YouTubers.

The pig seems to me the perfect symbol for 2019, conveniently the Year of the Pig. Putting aside the usual hogwash about ‘prosperity’ that interlards so much of the content in articles about Chinese New Year written in English, it seems to me that we should consider the humble swine in the round. What, after all is a pig if not an agricultural animal whose production and consumption are implicated in almost all of the seven deadly sins of the modern age? Pig farming warms the climate. Too much pork causes obesity. Pigs, when farmed en masse, pollute waterways. The excessive use of antibiotics in pig farms is a key contributor to the growth of so-called superbugs. Pig blood is thrown at mosques and synagogues by racists (a flourishing demographic in 2019). And so on and so forth.

This Year of the Pig, then, should be a time for reflection. Humanity (and our domesticated suidae) stand at the threshold of a new age. Much of the frightening ecological transformations that were predicted only a few decades ago have become mundane realities in 2019. The prospect of ever more intense resource wars awaits us in the very near future. Are we to continue rootling blindly forwards, continually in search of the elusive truffle of a higher GDP? Or is it time for us to realize that we can’t go on like this, and that in seeking endless growth we have traded our own and everyone else’s futures for a pig in a poke? In 2019, the kind of answers you are likely to get to both of these questions sound surprisingly similar: they mostly sound like “oink.”