“A Decade off our Lives”: Notes from the frontlines of China’s environmental catastrophe

I (Jeremiah) returned to China this month after two years. Two things I noticed about Beijing: the service is better and the air is worse. There’s no getting around it, anyone who lives in China can relate numerous anecdotal details of the environmental costs to China’s rapid growth. It’s all around us. But how to measure these costs? Just how bad is the situtation and what, if anything, can be done to reverse this long march to environmental catastrophe?

Via CDT comes a trio of articles first posted on the China Dialogue website. Dave mentioned this bilingual site back in October of last year, and it’s a great resource for anyone interested in environmental issues in China.

The first article is a two-parter by Jiang Gaoming, a chief researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Botany, and Gao Jixi, chief specialist and head of the Institute of Ecology at the China Academy of Environmental Sciences. (So we’re not talking a couple of anti-state backpacking hippies here…) Their article, “The Terrible Cost of China’s Growth” provides some beyond sobering statistics (downright terrifying really) on the effects of economic development throughout China. Their article argues that all of China’s myriad ecosystems are under considerable ecological strain, and the authors demonstrate quite clearly how current development practices and levels of economic growth are simply unsustainable by any measure.

Over the past 27 years, China has adhered to an economic model characterised by high levels of pollution, emissions and power consumption, combined with low levels of efficiency. It has repeated the ‘pollute first, clean up later’ model that Western nations adhered to during their early stages of capital accumulation.

The Tang-dynasty poet Du Fu once wrote: ‘Though a country be sundered, hills and rivers endure,’ yet we can only reflect that while our country endures, our hills and rivers have been devastated. Environmental degradation harms public health, affects social stability and holds back China’s sustainable economic growth. It is a major problem, one which threatens not only the development but also the survival of the Chinese people.

The authors are clear that economic growth at the expense of China’s environment is not an option:

At one time, China’s economists proudly proclaimed the country to be the ‘factory of the world.’ But unfortunately, this manufacturing has been characterised by a high consumption of energy and resources, large emissions of pollutants and low added value. And while China has exported many goods to foreign – and mostly developed – countries, we have kept the pollution for ourselves.

China needs to produce 100 million pairs of trousers in order to purchase one Boeing aeroplane. The country manufactures seven billion pairs of shoes a year, more than the world can wear at one time. And the price China pays for this manufacturing, in terms of increased pollution, is an extortionate one.

Professor Jiang and Gao propose a series of measures that they feel will help to improve the situation on the ground. These include increased use of the rule of law to enforce environmental regulations, making local officials accountable using environmental as well as economic benchmarks to measure performance, and by building an “ecological civilization”: encouraging China’s citizens to take an active rather than passive role in preserving the environment.

The second article, by Chen Yu, looks at the environmental damage being done to the “cradle of China’s civilization”: the Yellow River. Reporting from Ningxia, Chen quotes a local taxi driver:

“Living here takes a decade off our lives…Everywhere the sky is full of black fumes, like storm clouds. You can’t see the sun; even in the daytime you need to put your headlights on.”

Finally, journalist Liu Jianqiang interviews SEPA director Pan Yue and asks: who is it that is damaging China’s environment? Surprisingly, Pan Yue didn’t just give the stock answers of ‘development first” that one might expect from a government official. Liu writes:

Pan Yue, outspoken as ever, rejects the claim that living with pollution is a ‘humane’ alternative to poverty, and holds that China’s bureaucracy is at fault. In China, he says, economic growth trumps all else and local government officials, who rely on their superiors – rather than an electorate – for jobs and advancement, are judged according to their contribution to GDP. As a result, they pursue economic growth at any cost to the environment.

Liu however disagrees slightly with Pan Yue’s interpretation as only half the story and so Liu presses Pan for a fuller explanation. Liu reports:

A ‘coalition of special interests,’ combined with the flawed evaluation of officials’ performance, is what is causing environmental degradation, [Pan] said. Officials aim to boost their records by supporting heavy industry, while the businesses they protect convert our shared, environmental resources into profits. As a consequence, they not only interfere with central government’s macroeconomic controls but also infringe on the rights of the public.

This is the truth of the matter. Although Pan did not say explicitly that local government and business form a special interest group, the Chinese reader can understand that this is the case, simply by observing what is done to China’s environment on a daily basis.

All three articles are must-reads in their entirety.

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Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

The Discussion: 4 Comments

I’ve been following Pan Yue for a couple of years now, and as far as I can tell, he pretty much rocks (if I have time, I’ll dig up some links to older articles about him). He’s put the costs of China’s environmental catastrophe in very blunt terms, saying that it will be the end of China’s economic miracle.

January 30, 2007 @ 2:40 pm | Comment

True. But he also has a responsibility as head of his department to get things done. Talk is cheap – if he can’t get any change pushed through it’s because:

a) He doesn’t want to rock the boat by pushing people too far and risking his career.

OR

b) He doesn’t have the authority/influence to change things.

If he can’t get the results China needs, he should be replaced by someone that can. Chinese politicians often excell at being “blunt” or generally saying the right things – they need to start “walking the walk”.

Given that the environmental problem is reaching breaking point, I would outline a list of policy proposals backed up by the threat of resigning if they weren’t followed through – he should say “back me, or fire me” to the leadership.

January 30, 2007 @ 11:41 pm | Comment

I think it’s B. The problem as I understand it is that SEPA lacks the power or budget to enforce its own rules.

It’s such a huge, overwhelming and complicated issue. Sometimes just getting the issue out in the open by bluntly stating the problems, as Pan Yue has, is what begins the shift to actually solving it. I think of the impact that Al Gore has had here with AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH. There was plenty of evidence about global warming previous to his film, but that film really helped shift the public discourse on the issue.

But yeah. On both of these issues, it’s time to shift from talking to dooing. Past time.

January 31, 2007 @ 1:36 am | Comment

It’s (b). When the songjiang benzene spill became public and Russia became angry, Pan Yue was fired even though none of the top people in Beijing knew about it (until the Russian embassy called).

He’ll be immoralized as a crusader eventually, but for now all he can do is turn out statistics and line up experts to give out dire warnings. Business in China will continue as usual, the air will get worse, the “pollution fogs” will deposit more residue on everything and people like me will continue to invest in big environmental companies with presences in China (ERM, CH2M Hill, etc).

As a taste of what is to come, right before Hu’s most recent visit to India, the PRC ambassador to India started claiming the that provice through which the Brahmaputra river flows trough was actually “southern Tibet” and thus an integral part of China since ancient times. It’s no coincidence that in that section of the river, the water runs cool, clean and deep.

February 7, 2007 @ 2:00 pm | Comment

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