Progress vs. Pollution in China – Approaching the Point of No Return

One of the most upsetting and creepy pieces on how Chinese factories are ignoring the law and wreaking lethal havoc on the environment appears in today’s NY Times, and it’s ugly, smelly and mean.

Dark as soy sauce, perfumed with a chemical stench, the liquid waste from two paper mills overwhelmed the tiny village of Sugai. Villagers tried to construct a makeshift dike, but the toxic water swept it away. Fifty-seven homes sank into a black, polluted lake.

The April 10 industrial spill, described by five residents of the village in Inner Mongolia, was a small-scale environmental disaster in a country with too many of them. But Sugai should have been different. The two mills had already been sued in a major case, fined and ordered to upgrade their pollution equipment after a serious spill into the Yellow River in 2004.

The official response to that spill, praised by the state-run news media, seemed to showcase a new, tougher approach toward pollution – until the later spill at Sugai revealed that local officials had never carried out the cleanup orders. Now, the destruction of Sugai is a lesson in the difficulty of enforcing environmental rules in China.

“The smell made me want to vomit,” one villager said recently, as he showed the waist-high watermark on the remains of his home. There is no shortage of environmental laws and regulations in China, many of them passed in recent years by a central government trying to address one of the worst pollution problems in the world. But those problems persist, in part, because environmental protection is often subverted by local protectionism, corruption and regulatory inefficiency.

…In July, a reporter, photographer and researcher for The New York Times visited the village after being warned it was under official watch to prevent outsiders from entering. After nightfall, a sedan without license plates pursued the Times’s hired car and tried to force it to the side of the road. The Times’s car escaped to a highway but was later stopped by the police, who questioned the driver for about three hours.

Later on in the article, an official says the conflict between growth and environmental protection is “coming to a head,” but I wonder. So many horror stories have been out there, each scarier than the last, if the government hasn’t been shaken into taking drastic action by now, what will it take? As noted in the article, the government already took steps to end the Sugai mess, and the rules it imposed were summarily ignored. What to do?

Meanwhile, I really want to be fair and balanced about the stories I post on China’s environment. If anyone sees any stories on the strides they are making to improve the situation, let me know. I’m thirsting for positive stories on the subject; I just can’t find any.

The Discussion: 10 Comments

I’m sure this has been said before, but it bears repeating. I think there are three ways of looking at this. The first is increasing criticism, at the grassroots level, regarding the venality and lack of accountability of local officials. At least during the Qing, officials were rotated every three years and were not allowed to serve in their home provinces. It didn’t stop corruption, but it did make it somewhat harder.

The venality is also in line with what Wang Hui and Cui Zhiyuan (whom I think you’ve posted about before?) call GNP-ism. As long as local officials are judged based on the economic performance of their district, (Though I have heard rumblings that this might change, at least on paper) there is little incentive to put the brakes on runaway development.

And the CCP is kind of caught in a trap–having traded in the ideological petticoats of Marxism for something a little more flashy the CCP’s legitimacy increasingly relies on a Reaganesque mantra of “Are you better off now then you were four years ago?” (Or during the Cultural Revolution?) They’ve painted themselves as masters of economic development. Stepping on the brakes now, despite overwhelming evidence of the envrionmental and social costs of their policies, must seem, to them, like a kind of political suicide.

Not that China is alone. By rights, we in the US should tax gasoline to $6.00/gallon, in line with Europe and Japan, and use the proceeds to fund alternative fuels and public transportation. For any US politician to suggest this, despite the environmental and geopolitical costs of current policies and our consumption patterns, must seem, to them, also to be political suicide.

I’d be interested to know who was behind the thugs in the car. Local officials? Company employees? PSB?

September 4, 2006 @ 5:30 am | Comment

The good news is that Beijing is trying (not hard enough, obviously, but trying) and in some places it is working. For example, try starting a high pollution factory in or around Shanghai. It’s becoming extremely difficult. Problem is that it is supposed to be extremely difficult throughout China and that certainly is not the case. The hope is that some combination of Beijing and the locals will eventually force the corrupt local officials to back down. I do not see that happening until Beijing fears the wrath of its people more than it fears crossing its local party hacks.

Granite Studio — It hardly matters who the thugs in the car were as they easily could have been either local officials, company employees, or a combination of both. Indeed, each of the people in the car might have been a combination of both.

September 4, 2006 @ 2:55 pm | Comment

We’ve spent a lot of time discussing (and writing about) the conflicts between the central government and local officials, particularly with regards to environmental enforcement. I do believe that there are people in the central government who take this very seriously and that the situation is improving in some areas. And that of course it’s very complicated, given the tension between rapid growth and environmental regulation.

What I don’t get is why China’s EPA isn’t given a much bigger budget. It’s one thing to draft good regulations, another to enforce them. Certainly giving SEPA some real teeth would help.

September 4, 2006 @ 3:17 pm | Comment

Lisa, maybe central government is scared that if the EPA gets real funding it will close down so many businesses that it will slow the economy “too much”.

September 4, 2006 @ 3:31 pm | Comment

Raj, if so then that illustrates factionalization within the central government as well.

SEPA minister Pan Yue (is that right? Too lazy to look up) has said repeatedly that China’s environmental crisis threatens to swamp its economic growth. I have to think that a majority of the Central leadership feels the same way, but as is oft-remarked, good intentions aren’t nearly enough.

On a related but off-topic note, I’m just thrilled that California has moved forward on capping carbon emissions. It’s a start. Maybe as California leads, America will follow. Wn’t be the first time.

September 4, 2006 @ 3:36 pm | Comment

OtherLisa — I think the answer is in the question. If Beijing cared more about the environment, it would do more.

September 4, 2006 @ 10:21 pm | Comment

True, CLB, but I don’t think “Beijing” is a monolith. I assume we are watching another policy argument in process.

September 4, 2006 @ 11:25 pm | Comment

While Beijing is not a monolith, it can get things done when it wants them done, as was shown all of the sudden out of the middle of nowhere during SARS.
Their inability to crack down on things that might actually matter until the very last minute really never ceases to amaze me.
Unfortunately, there seem to be other priorities. I’ve probably told this joke a million times, but if you want anything done here, just tell them it has to do with the Fajita Lovin’ Guys. “I heard ‘they’ are running polluting factories.” You’ll see a crackdown the next day, hehe.

September 5, 2006 @ 12:32 am | Comment

This is a problem that goes way back. History books might not be everybody’s cup of cha, but a great read, even for the non-specialist, is Philip Kuhn’s “Soulstealers” about a sorcery scare in 18th century Jiangnan. One of the subplots of the book is that this was the last time that an emperor, in this case the Qianlong Emperor, could really crack the whip and do an end run around his bureaucracy to get the local officials to act according to the court’s wishes. After this, it became increasingly difficult until the 19th century when severe center/local conflicts of interest became the norm rather than the exception.

Some would say that the GPCR was Mao’s attempt to do something similar, go around the party and the government and extend his influence down to all levels with gruesome unintended consequences.

The current regime seems resigned to ‘anti-corruption campaigns’ and a lot of blather but don’t seem willing to put any teeth behind measures to curb the power of local officials.

Any thoughts?

September 5, 2006 @ 3:20 am | Comment

Central has Central’s interest.
Region has Region’s interest.
In China, Central is the strong side. Although Region can win something, in China’s tradition, Central will win at last.

Region want to develop regional economy, which will do harm to evironment. I think this is just a phrase in the development of country like China. In this point, Environment pollution is the cost of development and it is hard for China to avoid it.

After the living problem is solved, regional government will try to solve the pollution issue, which will be done next 5 years in China, by the urge of centra government.

September 7, 2006 @ 9:00 am | Comment

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.