Prosperity before climate change action?

Hoax press release puts spotlight on Canada

This morning a group of protesters rolled out the welcome mat -- literally -- for Canada's prime minister, Stephen Harper, who arrived in Copenhagen today. They mingled with Christmas shoppers outside the Canadian embassy by the main shopping drag in Copenhagen. There was a quirky element to the protest, with a gift basket of treaties for the prime minister to sign presented at the embassy door, but the atmosphere was serious. Speakers included Naomi Klein, who has been very prominent on the activist circuits this week.

The demonstration was organised by the Indigenous Peoples of Canada and called for a stop to the extraction of oil from the tar sands region in Alberta. Tar sands mining is the most energy-intensive and environmentally damaging method of extracting oil. It also destroys Canada's boreal forests, which store a vast amount of carbon.

Canada also figured prominently on the climate change blogosphere today. A hoax press release, which was picked up by the Wall Street Journal, raised false hopes among Canadian campaigners. It outlined a drastic shift in the country's environmental policy, doubling greenhouse-gas reduction targets to 40 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020. But Ottawa responded quickly with a statement saying: "Canada's binding responsibility is to supply the world -- including its burgeoning developing portion -- with those means of transport, health and sustenance that prosperous markets require. Stopping short of these dictates would violate the very principles upon which our nations were founded, and endanger our very development."

"Without the dynamism of our oil sands industry, we in Canada would not have the energy -- moral, financial and literal -- to develop the alternative energy future the whole world craves," says Bruce Carson, a special adviser to Environment Canada.

Also released today was the Climate Change Performance Index report. The report was produced by the NGO German Watch, and ranks nations according to their environmental achievements. Canada was ranked 56th, out of 57 countries. Draft regulations on cap-and-trade in the country have been repeatedly delayed and are not expected until late 2010 at the earliest, while emissions continue to increase at 26 per cent over 1990 levels. In the past few months, the present administration has made it clear that it will ape US environmental policy, but continues to lag behind its neighbour in reducing emissions and investing in renewables.

Canada, the only nation to drop out of the Kyoto Protocol, has shown today that it will continue to put prosperity before climate change prevention. It could be a huge obstacle to achieving a transformative agreement this week.

Photo: Getty
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The age of China's female self-made billionaires – and why it could soon be over

Rags to riches stories like Zhou Qunfei's are becoming less common.

Elizabeth Holmes, 33, was the darling of Silicon Valley, and the world’s youngest self-made female billionaire. Then, after a series of lawsuits, the value of her healthcare firm plummeted.

Holmes might have abdicated the billionaire crown, but another tech queen was ready to take it. Only this time, the self-made female billionaire was not a blonde American, but Zhou Qunfei, a 47-year-old from China. She dropped out of high school and began working at a watch lens factory as a teenager. In 1993, when she was in her early twenties, she founded her own company. Her big break came ten years later, when Motorola asked her to develop a glass screen for smartphones. She said yes.

Zhou is in fact more typical of the SMFB set than Holmes. Of those listed by Forbes, 37.5 per cent come from China, compared to 30 per cent from the United States. Add in the five SMFB from Hong Kong, and the Middle Kingdom dominates the list. Nipping at Zhou’s heels for top spot are Chan Laiwa, a property developer who also curates a museum, and Wa Yajun, also a property developer. Alibaba founder Jack Ma declared his “secret sauce” was hiring as many women as possible.

So should the advice to young feminists be “Go East, young woman”? Not quite, according to the academic Séagh Kehoe, who runs the Twitter account Women in China and whose research areas include gender and identity in the country.

“I haven’t seen any of these self-made female billionaires talking about feminism,” says Kehoe. Instead, a popular narrative in China is “the idea of pulling yourself up by your boot straps”. So far as female entrepreneurs embrace feminism, it’s of the corporate variety – Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In has been translated into Mandarin.

In fact, Kehoe believes the rise of the self-made woman is down to three historic factors – the legacy of Maoist equality, and both the disruption and the opportunity associated with the post-Mao economic reforms.

Mao brought in the 1950 Marriage Law, a radical break with China’s patriarchal traditions, which banned marriage without a woman’s consent, and gave women the right to divorce for the first time.

In Communist China, women were also encouraged to work. “That is something that was actively promoted - that women should be an important part of the labour force,” says Kehoe. “At the same time, they also had the burden of cooking and cleaning. They had to shoulder this double burden.”

After Mao’s death, his successor Deng Xiaoping began dismantling the communist economy in favour of a more market-based system. This included reducing the number of workers at state-owned enterprises. “A lot of women lost their jobs,” says Kehoe. “They were often the first to be laid off.”

For some women – such as the SMFBs – this was counterbalanced by the huge opportunities the new, liberal economy presented. “All this came together to be a driving force for women to be independent,” Kehoe says.

The one child policy, although deeply troubling to feminists in terms of the power it dictates over women’s bodies, not to mention the tendency for mothers to abort female foetuses, may have also played a role. “There is an argument out there that, for all of the harm the one child policy has done, for daughters who were the only child in the family, resources were pushed towards that child,” says Kehoe. “That could be why female entrepreneurs in China have been successful.”

Indeed, for all the dominance of the Chinese SMFBs, it could be short-lived. Mao-era equality is already under threat. Women’s political participation peaked in the 1970s, and today’s leaders are preoccupied with the looming fact of an aging population.

“There has been quite a lot of pushback towards women returning to the home,” says Kehoe. Chinese state media increasingly stresses the role of “good mothers” and social stability. The one child policy has been replaced by a two child policy, but without a comparable strengthening of maternity workplace rights.

Meanwhile, as inequality widens, and a new set of economic elites entrench their positions, rags to riches stories like Zhou Qunfei's are becoming less common. So could the Chinese SMFBs be a unique phenomenon, a generation that rode the crest of a single wave?

“Maybe,” says Kehoe. “The 1980s was the time for self-made billionaires. The odds aren’t so good now.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.