China’s Development vs. Environment: Irreconcilable?

It really had to happen. The rape of China’s environment in the name of development had to eventually catch up with the CCP, and it’s done so in spades. At the heart of virtually all the recent rural uprisings has been one fundamental issue, i.e., the environment, whether in terms of pollution or lack of usable land. Some have maintained, rather cavalierly, that if you focus on development first, you can worry about the environment later. This article is a further indication that if draconian action isn’t taken now, there won’t be a “later” for China’s environment.

China’s environmental woes are so large that they’ve begun to generate social instability.

Choking on vile air, sickened by toxic water, citizens in some corners of this vast nation are rising up to protest the high environmental cost of China’s economic boom.

In one recent incident, villagers in this hilly coastal region grew so exasperated by contamination from nearby chemical plants that they overturned and smashed dozens of vehicles and beat up police officers who arrived to quell what was essentially an environmental riot.

“We had to do it. We can’t grow our vegetables here anymore,” said Li Sanye, a 60-year-old farmer. “Young women are giving birth to stillborn babies.”

Across China, entire rivers run foul or have dried up altogether. Nearly a third of cities don’t treat their sewage, flushing it into waterways. Some 300 million of China’s 1.3 billion people drink water that is too contaminated to be consumed safely. In rural China, sooty air depresses crop yields, and desert quickly encroaches on grasslands to the west. Filth and grime cover all but a few corners of the country.

China’s central government isn’t sitting still. It’s enacting fuel-efficiency requirements for cars and shutting down mammoth dam-building and other projects. By some accounts, it now has world-class laws on environmental protection.

Yet provincial and local officials, who feel pressure for economic growth, often shield polluters and ignore environmental laws.

So in a sense the CCP has made important progress, implementing “world-class” laws to protect the air and water and land. But of what value is the very best-written law if it remains unenforced? As the reporter says, it all goes back to corruption, the heart and soul of all evil in China (and many other developing nations). The argument, however, that we have to accept the corruption simply because China is developing doesn’t quite hold water. Look at their investments in space and defense and big bridges and needless skyscrapers. If they’d put a fraction of those efforts into reining in corruption maybe we’d be getting somewhere. Replacing a skyscraper is no big deal. Replacing lakes and rivers and farmland isn’t as easy, and will take generations. How about some serious prioritizing?

Update: Do not, repeat do not, miss Laowai’s excellent post on land use in China.

This is definitely the topic du jour; Lisa has a great post on the pollution in Xinchang and the riots it caused.

The Discussion: 30 Comments

Is there any Chinese environment activist granted Visa protection by US government?

July 21, 2005 @ 1:41 pm | Comment

is there anyone in the current US government that cares about the environment?

I’ve got a post on what’s happening to farmland and wildlife in China

July 21, 2005 @ 2:37 pm | Comment

Sand-dirt storm. We got that several times every year in Xi’an.

It had become increasingly worse year after year before I left.

July 21, 2005 @ 2:57 pm | Comment

All in the post! go forth and read!

The article I’m quoting is from a team of scientists – Chinese and Western – that published in Nature – certainly one of the best scientific journals around – and the one that some Chinese minister just trashed for their bird flu article.

Bush, I believe, has trashed nature too for their environment research articles.

The US and China are just too similar sometimes. Maybe that’s the real reason Dems and Reps are screaming “China threat.” Who wants another US, I mean, really?

July 21, 2005 @ 3:09 pm | Comment

we should all pray for a better future.

July 21, 2005 @ 3:18 pm | Comment

I can’t remember if there was a similar article to this before, but it’s terribly true (and sad) that in Beijing’s desire to distract the people from the CCP’s autocracy with money and economic success, the land itself is being ravaged. It’s all very well for late-middle aged politicians because they won’t have to deal with the mess they’ve made.

Don’t they care about what will happen to their children and grandchildren, or are they planning a Phantom 2040 solution by having the rich and powerful live in specially constructed habitation to protect them from the pollution? o_0

July 21, 2005 @ 4:51 pm | Comment

Actually Raj, this has been one of the most discussed topics on this site. This seems to be the year that the victims take action as the crisis becomes all but uncontainable. Your question about whether they care about the future…I think it all goes back to the culture of Me First, another much discussed topic.

July 21, 2005 @ 5:00 pm | Comment

well, as this article points out, I really do think there is a strong awareness at the national level of the problem’s extent. On paper the regulations they are creating are very good. It’s what happens down at the provincial/local level that’s causing a lot of the problems now – these guys are getting rich off this uncontrolled development.

We all tend to emphasize the role of leaders, ask ourselves questions about Hu’s intentions, wonder if Wen Jibao is the real reformer, etc. etc. etc. But though relevant, the real issue is what’s happening at the base. The Chinese government needs to reform itself from the bottom up. I just don’t know how this can happen under the current system.

July 21, 2005 @ 5:00 pm | Comment

Lisa, I agree in full. The leaders should be given credit for creating these laws. Enforcement of such laws generally has to be done at the local level, and that’s where it all falls apart. But I won’t say that means the CCP is doing great, and all the trouble is with the local cadres. The reason things fail at the local level is the corruption built into the system that encourages the cadres to tax, plunder and exploit. And if you take that away, many of them have no incentive to remain loyal to the Party. So the CCP is in a bind of its own making.

July 21, 2005 @ 5:15 pm | Comment

well, I guess looking to mass riots to tell you who is taking the money under the table might work until they find a better way of fishing out the corruption and coming up with a good solution to reporting on enforcement.

Maybe reinstitute large scale versions of Baojia? As in, the populace of each county has a duty and responsibility to report dodgy officials, and they set up like a national baojia overseer umbrella organisation that investigates them according to the claims – like large scale pollution gets priority over low level corruption from restaurant chains slipping the official a franklin for priority in the new mall etc.

July 21, 2005 @ 5:51 pm | Comment

And people get paid for tips that turn out to be true.

July 21, 2005 @ 5:51 pm | Comment

I mean hell, if you’re going to have a country with strong guanxi culture might as well use it as the self-policing system. I guess that’s why there were baojia in the first place.

July 21, 2005 @ 5:52 pm | Comment

The environmental problem in China is indeed very bad; but I am not sure it is getting worse. In Guangzhou, it used to be hard to see the blue sky for many days a year. My friends there told me it is much better now. During my visits to China, I need to travel about 300 miles from Guzngzhou to my homedown, a small city. I can see well-planted trees on the mountains much along the freeway. Even in my homedown, trees are planted along many streets. But air and water are more polluted than before.

July 21, 2005 @ 6:07 pm | Comment

Renxu, check out the link above – the scientists did a good job characterising the state of the environment. Of course some places are getting better, but anecdotes aside, on the whole the situation is very grim.

July 21, 2005 @ 6:11 pm | Comment

I think it’s very hard to measure. I know there is a huge new awareness of the problem and I sincerely believe the Party is doing much more now to correct it than ever before. But that’s still very little very late; I’ve been readings warnings about this for years. In Simon Winchester’s River at the Center of the World he warned years ago of the ecological/environmental catastrophe the Three Gorges Dam would create (in the tradition of most ohter Chinese dams), but as always, development came first. The Party can clean up the shit it leaves behind later.

July 21, 2005 @ 6:14 pm | Comment

I guess that’s what I’m trying to demonstrate – that it isn’t that hard to measure. Average turnover of wild land turned to farmland, rate of wetland loss, fertility of current farm land, salinity of soil, expansion of the deserts, accumulated pollution in China’s grasslands, etc, all give a decent picture, beyond anecdotes. And that’s what we’re looking for, ultimately – we’re looking to take it beyond anecdotes. Of course some of the cities are getting better – but is China getting better? Not yet, although they are trying – the green wall is one of the successes.

July 21, 2005 @ 6:23 pm | Comment

Whether they can reverse the environmental destruction or not will depend on the success of the economic development. With a better life, people will demand better environment; and the leadership is becoming more responsive to popular demands. It is not co-incidental that, in general, those more developed cities in China have better environment.

July 21, 2005 @ 8:42 pm | Comment

I enjoyed reading the articles, but they are not quite accurate nor are they particularly useful. First of all, desertification is not a function of economic development, but rather is a function of the post pluvial condition of the world. That does not mean the government ought not to do anything, the green belt may be a good idea. But attributing any and all problems to economic development is not going to understand nor resolve the problems themselves.

The conversation about each person having one hectare of land, etc. is rather meaningless trivia. Many of the social problems that China is facing will not be resolved until the farmers become less than one percent of the total population (this is a function of the division of labor).

The position that farm yields are declining significantly (or even at all), is problem laden. Fourty years ago there was a real decline in farm output, the result was easily measured in the death by starvation which was in the millions.

The lack of water treatment is not a function of economic development, but a lack of economic development. Likewise, many of the cities that I have visited or work in or live in have dramatically improved their air quality.

Richard points out that not building one more skyscraper and instead increase the policing power to combat corruption sounds admirable, except there is no causal relationship between the two. As a matter of fact, the state does a lot of police enforcement. They are jailing or executing mayors, vice mayors, governors, etc. all the time. That is not the problem. The problem is that the society was collectivized, and now there are representatives of the collective that are responsible for disbursing this property. In all societies, that is a major source of corruption, even in Europe and the Americas.

Having written the above, I do not wish to imply that any one has the right to pollute somebodies else’s property or destroy their livlihood. But these tirades that impute that economic development is the source of all our problems is not accurate nor beneficial. As a side note, respiratory problems were more acute and affected a significantly larger percentage of the population of pre-industrialized society than post-industrialized society. As a matter of fact, the life span of homo sapians in pre-agricultural societies was close to an order of magnitude lower than in post industrialized society. The natural environment can be a nasty place to survive in.

July 21, 2005 @ 8:59 pm | Comment

Could well be, renxu. But they have to abandon that attitude that as long as it’s good for economic development they should do it and never mind about the environmental consequences. There are so many instances of acts of environmental catastrophe since 1949, starting with Mao’s killing off the swallows and setting up smokestack factories in the midst of residential neighborhoods, it boggles the mind, and there’s no evidence the lesson has been fully absorbed.

July 21, 2005 @ 8:59 pm | Comment

As a matter of fact, the life span of homo sapians in pre-agricultural societies was close to an order of magnitude lower than in post industrialized society. The natural environment can be a nasty place to survive in.

JFS, the reasons for life extension are many and complex. It is specious reasoning to imply that we are living longer than earlier homo sapiens in part because our environment is less clean. There are multiple factors, like medicine, aluminum foil, toothbrushes, houses, stores and satellite weather reports (to name a few of literally thousands of factors) that play a part in our living longer lives.

July 21, 2005 @ 9:05 pm | Comment

I had a friend who drank a lot of Tab (an artificially sweetened soft drink) because she figured the preservatives would protect her…I think she was kidding…

July 21, 2005 @ 10:17 pm | Comment

And Richard, thanks for the plug!

July 21, 2005 @ 10:18 pm | Comment


People probably have too high expectations from chinese readers. Even in this country which considered by many to have the best form of government, we know what we can expect from the Bush adminastration.

July 21, 2005 @ 10:20 pm | Comment

Exactly, Richard. All those things you listed come from economic development, not from a return to primitiveness and non-economic development.

July 21, 2005 @ 11:17 pm | Comment

Yes, I’d also recommend everyone to go to Public Enemy (blogrolled on TPD) and read Laowai’s post on the environment as well. It is superb.

I’m of course worried by the direct assault on the environment in China as I don’t plan on going anywhere. If I do have children then they will be brought up here and I intend to see out my days here.

A couple of years ago, the envoronment was a non-issue in China. The article correctly says that China now has world-class laws and at least the Central government are strating to take notice. Part of the problem lies in the poor inner provinces I think which host the more polluting industries (dye factories, tanneries, chemical plants etc). The officials there run those places like the mafia and they normally have a stake in or are at least aware of these factories.

However, they want their share of the cash pie and I’m very pessimistic about the Central governemnt being able to implement environmental laws.

Nevertheless, if these polluting factories were headquarters of democracy groups, F*L*G exercise centres, independence group military training grounds, christian churches, Chinese history revisionist clubs and the like then I don’t think they’d be around for very long.

Or am I being a little tooooo cynical here?

July 22, 2005 @ 1:13 am | Comment

Where’s Stephen Frost? He would have a thing or two to say about this I’m sure. I’d be very interested in what his take is on all this.

July 22, 2005 @ 1:14 am | Comment


No you’re right. The CCP cares about two things more than anything at the moment:

#2 Economic growth
#1 Crushing political and “cultural”/religious opposition

So #1 (targetting dissidents) would overrule #2 (letting polluting plants get away with it because they give jobs).

It is good that Beijing has brought in these laws, but for one thing it’s their own fault for letting it get this way in the first place. But also does this demonstrate that their one “excuse” for remaining in power, that they bring STRONG central rule, is a sham because the CCP in Beijing can’t make the CCP in Guangdong enforce national laws?

July 22, 2005 @ 5:51 am | Comment

Yes, JFS, from economic development. But not from economic development at any price. A completely natural world = lifespan 35 years.

A modernized but clean world = lifespan of 80 years.

A modernized but dirty world might mean a lifespan of 55 to 60 years.

These are not scientifically determined ages, I pulled them out of my rear, but it expresses the point well. Sure modern conveniences extend life, but when you add in an extremely high level of pollution, the life will not be as long as the life with a low amount of pollution. You can spout off all of the skeptic arguments you want, but I really doubt you will convince anyone but the foolish that when you live in an extremely contaminated area, it does not affect health or livelihood.

July 22, 2005 @ 8:09 am | Comment

…or convince anyone that an ultra-rapid rate of industrialization in China is not having a serious effect on the environment.

July 22, 2005 @ 8:12 am | Comment

Thomas, it actually is a wee bit worse than that. In pre-industrial society, when a child was born, its life expectancy was five years at the most. The major cause of death for women was in childbirth. Ancient man lived a very harsh life, one that does not register with modern humans. My opposition to most environmentalist is not that they are concerned about the environment, but that they quite often assume that any economic development is too much of a price to pay, is beyond the pale of acceptability.

What the English or Americans, or even as late as the Japanese did when they industrialized was under the radar, but now many people actually want the Chinese not to industrialize, but continue living in wretched conditions, all in the name of environmentalism.

I am not advocating that someone be allowed to sump heavy metals into someone else’s backyard nor that anyone be allowed to do damage to someone else. Take the argument that crop yields are declining and therefor industry must not be allowed to proceed. Often, when I have seen specific cases of such, they are based on specious documentation and extremely faulty reasoning with conclusions that are not evident in the data.

The Chinese are no different than other people, they also want to live with clean air and clean water. By the way, clean water very seldom happens in nature, that is a product of economic development. Even acid rain is just as often a natural phenomena.

July 22, 2005 @ 6:39 pm | Comment

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