China’s economic development over the past 40 years has been nothing less than astounding. 660 million people have been lifted out of extreme poverty since 1981. Its economy has doubled on average every 7 years. Today China exports as much in 1 day as in an entire year when it first opened to the global economy. It is one of the world’s economic engines, and it continues to be a model for rapid development for emerging countries regardless of its current economic and fiscal issues.
But with rapid development comes great costs, as we saw earlier in Indonesia. The environment gets ravaged and damaged at a rate as furious as wealth gets created and money gets exchanged. Tragically, China has also become a poster child for the environmental consequences of frenzied economic growth and development.
As Mark Elvin documents in The Retreat of the Elephants, China’s disregard for the environment has deep historical roots. It’s been under strong central government rule and an intensive agricultural society for a very long time (since the beginning of civilization, in fact). China spread by chopping down its forests, farming its fields and diverting water to irrigate them. Animals like elephants were driven to the edges and wiped out (often eaten). While it’s true that Chinese poetry and art have detailed and sentimental depictions of nature and China’s amazing scenery, a Chinese tradition of ecological devastation and environmental exploitation is at least as old and noticeable.
This destruction only accelerated under Communist rule. China became determined to finally catch up with the West, and the resulting “Great Leap Forward” program threw all caution to the wind. A campaign to encourage backyard iron smelting made smokestacks sprout all over the countryside. A campaign to eradicate obnoxious pests like sparrows led to a pest of locusts instead. A massive dam was built over the Yellow River at Sanmenxia, leading to increased silting of an already very silty river. Deep plowing techniques exhausted the soil and contributed to erosion.
Communism is a fading memory in modern China, but the assault on the environment continues. The most visible sign of this is undoubtedly air pollution. Anyone who flies into China probably notices the thick haze that blankets much of the east (the important part). In China’s major cities, more often than not, the sun is blotted out by a low-lying layer of clouds. Although this was traditionally described as “fog,” it’s actually smog.
China’s horrendous smog comes from a variety of factors. One of the chief culprits is coal, which is China’s main power source. 80% of China’s power comes from coal power plants, and China is responsible for half of coal power generation in the world. Coal blocks are also frequently burned for heat in Chinese homes in the winter. All this means a lot of massive smokestacks scattered around the east, spewing odious black smoke into the sky. Then there are the cars. While China is traditionally a biking country and Chinese still bike often, with increased wealth many people have bought cars too. But since “many people” adds up to over 300 million in a country as humongous as China, that’s a lot of engines pumping a lot of exhaust.
These 2 factors are the most prominent, but there are a bunch of minor ones. The other fossil fuels (oil and gas) are burned frequently too. Noxious gas vapors escape from nozzles during fueling in gas stations. China’s many, many, many factories and mines usually pollute in some way or another. Restaurants pump their black smoke into the air. Construction sites (of which there are many) spread dust. Farmers traditionally burn leftover straw on the same week each year, adding more smoky haze each time. The Yellow Valley takes its name from yellow dust called loess that drifts through the air each spring, an environmental phenomenon that’s given northern China bad air since time immemorial anyway.
Vehicle exhaust, smoggy power plants and dust are common worldwide. Industrializing countries usually belch out a fair bit of pollution. But China is almost a perfect storm of pollutants exacerbated by frenzied development and dense population. It was bad enough to make organizers worried about the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, which compelled them to crack down on driving in that city during the games. But the problem’s gotten even more severe in recent years, with air quality and visibility in Beijing descending into catastrophically bad levels. On really bad days you can’t even see the other side of the street, and breathing outside is like smoking cigarettes. Many people opt to just say inside; those who venture out wear masks.
Manufacturing and industry have also taken their toll on China’s water. Toxic chemicals are regularly pumped into rivers and lakes, wiping out fish and making it hard for people to get drinking supplies. Rivers have turned lurid red or pitch black or bloomed green with algae. Lake Tai, a major lake in the Yangzi Delta area, has been polluted by a combination of cyanobacteria, algae, garbage and toxic waste. Some farmers find their skin blistering and peeling away from contact with their irrigation water. The Yangzi river dolphin and Chinese alligator are probably on the road to extinction, at least in part due to foul water. Countless small streams have died under the deluge of chemicals, grime, garbage and poop and the effect of intensive diversion. China’s major rivers — the Yellow, the Yangzi, the Huai, the Pearl, take your pick — have all been beleaguered under the twin assaults of disgusting industrial discharge and unsustainable commercial and residential use. The people of the Huai valley wrote this poem to summarize the gradual corruption of their water:
In the ’50s, we washed our food in the clear river.
In the ’60s, we irrigated our fields with its waters.
In the ’70s, we saw our river turn black and oily.
In the ’80s, we watched dead fish float to the surface.
In the ’90s, we too started to fall sick.
The usual Chinese response to this devastation has been, as before, disregard. China is overwhelmingly focused on economic growth. Most ordinary Chinese people worry more about making money than breathing clean air or swimming in clean water. The government is determined to make China great again, and this means more factories, more jobs, and more cars on the roads. As the “fog” misnomer exemplifies, it has waved away even the most obvious signs of pollution and even denied and covered up the health problems that inevitably follow from it.
But by the 2010s, ignoring the problems has become harder and harder. Partly this is because the worst days of smog in Beijing are just that unendurable; people stay home and restrict their breathing when they venture outside. Outrages in the provinces could be swept under the rug by corrupt local officials, but the national government can hardly ignore the consequences of its own policies in Beijing. It’s also because the growth of social media, especially a microblogging site called Weibo, has provided a handy forum for people to vent about their local pollution problems. Last year the CCTV journalist Chai Jing produced an Inconvenient Truth-style documentary about the pollution crisis called Under the Dome (after the American TV series). The government took it offline after a few weeks, but not before it had racked up 300 million views — an impressive achievement for a country with around 700 million Internet users. (If you’d like to watch it — and I highly recommend it — you can see it here).
So what can be done about this? The good news is that China is definitely trying to clean up its act. In the past, complaints from foreigners about its greenhouse gas production were countered by whining about how the West had developed by ravaging the environment and polluting the atmosphere, so it was China’s turn now. Now China is much more cooperative in international climate change conferences and makes pledges to cut its emissions. China’s dictator, Xi Jinping, has made pollution one of the government’s key priorities. Efforts are being made to reduce the country’s dependence on coal power and promote other fossil fuels. China is also the world’s biggest market for renewable energy, like wind, solar, biofuels and geothermal, and the government invested $125 billion into it in 2012 and ’13. Private companies are rushing into the renewable energy field and sometimes succeed. Xinjiang, China’s vast northwest desert, is a tempting source of both sunlight for solar power and wind for windmills. The government is also upgrading the country’s energy grid to be more efficient. No matter how much contempt the government might have for its subjects, smog affects everyone, and the frequency with which pollution prompts protests pushes it to act.
But it’s easy to get discouraged too. One of China’s general problems is a lack of law enforcement, and this definitely comes into play with the environment. China has a Ministry of Environmental Protection, but it’s toothless and takes a back seat to other ministries. Corruption and fraud are endemic; polluting truck drivers lie about their emission ratings and officials don’t follow up with major polluters’ pledges to clean up. The oil industry has deep influence in the government (it is dominated by state-owned enterprises) and pushes for lax emissions standards. China is extremely censorious, and no matter how worried officials might be about pollution, their impulse to silence critics or even whistle-blowers is strong. The Under the Dome story is one example of this; another is pollution levels in Beijing, which were only exposed for how awful they really are thanks to the US Embassy.
The biggest problem might simply be the government’s priorities. China is determined to industrialize and grow. Partly this is the result of a national determination to catch up with the West and Japan and assert Chinese greatness. The industrialization drives of Mao Zedong, China’s dictator from 1949 to 1976, were designed to catch up to British steel production; America is now the country China targets as a rival to surpass. It’s also the real justification for the Communist Party’s rule; widespread prosperity and economic opportunity have won it popularity. Any economic slowdown is considered a national security risk because it undercuts the Party’s legitimacy. So local officials are graded and promoted based on how good their jurisdiction’s economic statistics are. It might seem like a meritocratic system of governance in the best Chinese tradition, but it’s also an incentive for shoveling money into smog-belching factories, mines and power plants.
China’s future is uncertain. This makes it both a fascinating and devilishly frightening country to study. Its environmental prospects are no different. Some observers (like Mark L. Clifford) are optimistic, pointing to the increased political and financial support for innovative, environmentally friendly companies and the high risks of perpetuating polluting firms (pollution is estimated to cost China about 10% of its GDP). Others (Elizabeth Economy, Jonathan Watts) remain pessimistic, thanks to the above factors and things like the Chinese leadership’s love of big, fancy, expensive and impressive engineering projects and the sheer size of China’s population and its hunger for stuff. I waffle, but lean more towards pessimism, given how dire China’s pollution problem was already by the ’90s and ’00s and how blatantly the government ignored it then. But China’s response will probably be schizophrenic; it has both jailed or beaten up critics and whistle-blowers (for making it look bad) and acted on their concerns (to prevent criticism from spreading… or maybe out of sympathy too).
China’s frustrations should be understandable. The world has followed this path before. Britain, America, and Eastern Europe have all coped with soot-black air and poisonous water before; other developing countries, like India, grapple with identical issues now. China still produces less greenhouse gas per person than the West. A lot of that smog is produced by foreign companies operating factories in China but ignoring environmental regulations because they can. So constant China-bashing over pollution is unfair. But it is also the world’s biggest and most problematic polluter, and until serious health outrages like whole villages stricken with cancer or a river choked with 6,000 pig carcasses subside, environmentalists (or anyone, really) will keep haranguing it, both at home and abroad.