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Monday, November 12, 2007

The other side of China's success

As the country’s land, air and rivers choke on pollution, only a change in culture can save it

China’s environmental problems are mounting. Water pollution and water scarcity are burdening the economy, rising levels of air pollution are endangering the health of millions of Chinese, and much of the country’s land is rapidly turning into desert.

China has become a world leader in air and water pollution and land degradation, and a top contributor to some of the world’s most vexing global environmental problems, such as the illegal timber trade, marine pollution and climate change.

As China’s pollution woes increase, so, too, do the risks to its economy, public health, social stability and international reputation. As Pan Yue, vice-minister of China’s state environmental protection administration, warned in 2005, “The [economic] miracle will end soon because the environment can no longer keep pace.”

With the 2008 Olympics around the corner, China’s leaders have ratcheted up their rhetoric, setting ambitious environmental targets, announcing greater levels of environmental investment and exhorting business leaders and local officials to clean up their backyards.

The rest of the world seems to accept that Beijing has charted a new course: as China declares itself open for environmentally friendly business, officials in the United States, the European Union and Japan are asking not whether to invest but how much.

Much of this enthusiasm stems from the widespread but misguided belief that what Beijing says goes. In fact, local officials rarely heed Beijing’s environmental mandates, preferring to focus on economic growth.

The truth is that turning the environmental situation in China around will require revolutionary bottom-up political and economic reform. Without it, China will continue to have one of the world’s worst environmental records, and the Chinese people and the rest of the planet will pay the price.

Record growth necessarily requires the gargantuan consumption of resources, but in China energy use has been especially unclean and inefficient, with dire consequences. The coal that has powered China’s economic growth, for example, is also choking its people. As much as 90% of sulphur dioxide emissions and 50% of particulate emissions are the result of coal use.

Yet coal use may soon be the least of China’s air-quality problems. The transportation boom poses a growing challenge to air quality. Some 14,000 new cars hit China’s roads each day. By 2020, the country is expected to have 130m.

Grand-scale urbanisation plans will aggravate matters. China’s leaders plan to relocate 400m people to newly developed urban centres between 2000 and 2030. In the process, they will erect half of all the buildings expected to be constructed in the world during that period.

This is a troubling prospect, considering that Chinese buildings are not energy efficient. Although China is one of the world’s largest producers of solar cells, compact fluorescent lights and energy-efficient windows, these are made mostly for export. Unless more of these energy-saving goods stay at home, the building boom will result in skyrocketing energy consumption and pollution.

China’s land has also suffered from unfettered development and environmental neglect. Centuries of deforestation, along with the overgrazing of grass-lands and overcultivation of crop-land, have left much of the north and northwest seriously degraded. Some reports say a quarter of the country is now desert.

Then there is the problem of access to clean water. Although China holds the fourth largest freshwater resources in the world, two-thirds of its approximately 660 cities have less water than they need and 110 suffer severe shortages.

More than 75% of the river water flowing through urban areas is unsuitable for drinking or fishing, and the Chinese government deems about 30% of the river water throughout the country to be unfit for use in agriculture or industry. As a result, nearly 700m people drink water contaminated with animal and human waste.

In early 2007, Chinese officials announced that over a third of the fish species native to the Yellow River had become extinct due to damming or pollution. And more than 80% of the East China Sea, one of the world’s largest fisheries, is now rated unsuitable for fishing.

China’s ministry of public health is sounding the alarm. In a survey of 30 cities and 78 counties released in the spring, the ministry blamed worsening air and water pollution for dramatic increases in the incidence of cancer throughout the country: a 19% rise in urban areas and a 23% rise in rural areas since 2005. All along China’s major rivers, villages report skyrocketing rates of diarrhoeal diseases, cancer, tumours, leukaemia and stunted growth.

Social unrest over these issues is rising. In the spring of 2006, China’s top environmental official announced there had been 51,000 pollution-related protests in 2005.

Citizens’ complaints about the environment, expressed on official hotlines and in letters to local officials, are increasing at a rate of 30% a year; they will likely top 450,000 in 2007. But few of them are resolved satisfac-torily, and so people are increasingly taking to the streets.

For several months in 2006, the residents of six villages in Gansu province held repeated protests against zinc and iron smelters that they believed were poisoning them. Fully half of the 4,000-5,000 villagers exhibited lead-related ill-nesses, ranging from vitamin D deficiency to neurological problems.

In the spring of 2005, after trying for two years to get redress by petitioning government officials over spoilt crops and poisoned air, 30,000-40,000 villagers from Zhejiang province swarmed into 13 chemical plants, broke windows and overturned buses, attacked officials and torched police cars.

In the face of such problems, China’s leaders have recently injected a new urgency into their rhetoric concerning the environment. Premier Wen Jia-bao issued a stern warning to local officials to shut down some of the plants in the most energy-intensive industries. But the six industries that were slated to slow down posted a 20.6% increase in output during the first quarter of 2007.

Even the Olympics are proving to be a challenge. Since Beijing promised to hold a “green Olympics” in 2001, the city is now ringed with rows of newly planted trees; hybrid taxis and buses are roaming its streets (some of which are to be lined with solar-powered lamps); the most heavily polluting factories have been pushed outside the city limits, and the Olympic dormitories are models of energy efficiency. Yet in key respects, Beijing has failed to deliver.

City officials are backtracking from their pledge to provide safe tap water to all of Beijing for the Olympics; they now say that they will provide it only for residents of the Olympic Village. They have announced drastic stopgap measures for the duration of the Games, such as banning 1m of the city’s 3m cars from the streets and halting production at factories in and around Beijing (some of them are resisting).

Preparing for the Olympics has come to symbolise the intractability of China’s environmental challenges and the limits of Beijing’s approach to addressing them.

Clearly, something has got to give. The costs of inaction to China’s economy, public health and international reputation are growing. And the government is well aware of the increasing potential for environmental protest to ignite broader social unrest.

One event this spring particularly alarmed China’s leaders. For several days in May in the coastal city of Xiamen, after months of mounting opposition to the planned construction of a $1.4 billion petrochemical plant nearby, students and professors at Xiamen University, among others, are said to have sent out 1m text messages calling on their fellow citizens to take to the streets on June 1.

That day, and the following, protesters reportedly numbering between 7,000 and 20,000 marched peacefully through the city, some defying threats of expulsion from school or from the Communist party. The protest was captured on video and uploaded to YouTube.

One video referred to the Tiananmen Square protest of 1989. The Xiamen march, the narrator said, was perhaps “the first genuine parade since Tiananmen”.

In response, city authorities did stay the construction of the plant, but they also launched an all-out campaign to discredit the protesters and their videos. Still, more comments about the protest and calls not to forget Tiananmen appeared on various websites.

Such messages, posted openly and accessible to all Chinese, represent the Chinese leadership’s greatest fear – namely, that its failure to protect the environment may someday serve as the catalyst for broad-based demands for political change.

Effective environmental protection requires transparent information, official accountability and an independent legal system. But these features are the building blocks of a political system fundamentally different from that of China today, and so far there is little indication that China’s leaders will risk the authority of the Communist party on charting a new environmental course.

Until the party is willing to open the door to such reform, it will not have the wherewithal to meet its ambitious environmental targets and lead a growing economy with manageable environmental problems.

2007 Council on Foreign Relations, publisher of Foreign Affairs
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