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China’s Incomparable Environmental Challenge

by Elizabeth C. Economy
January 7, 2014

A van carrying air sampling equipment drives through Los Angeles as part of the Los Angeles Reactive Pollutant Program in September 1973. (Gene Daniels/NARA/Wikimedia Commons) A van carrying air sampling equipment drives through Los Angeles as part of the Los Angeles Reactive Pollutant Program in September 1973. (Gene Daniels/NARA/Wikimedia Commons)


It is tempting to write-off China’s environmental situation as simply a moment in time. The imperative of lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty while managing the economic demands of a burgeoning middle class is bound to take a toll on any country’s environment. Many commentators see China as now reaching the inflection point attained by the United States in the 1960s and 70s, where rising incomes, citizen awareness, and government priorities combined to produce a shift in how Americans understood the relationship between development and the environment. What American alive during that time could forget the contamination of the Love Canal, the burning of the Cuyahoga River, and Rachel Carson’s devastating expose of the impact of pesticides on the environment in triggering a new approach to environmental protection in the United States?

Chinese officials also like to compare China today with other countries during their periods of industrialization. As Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau official Wang Bin has claimed, “You can see in those big cities like in London in Britain, Los Angeles in America and Tokyo in Japan, they all had huge air problems in the past—for example, London was nicknamed Smog City—which was caused by fast industrialization. But their situation has improved a lot and their air is really better now. Beijing’s pollution is not that severe. We have already moved fast to cope with this issue.”

Yet after two decades of thinking and writing about China’s environment, I have come to think that such comparisons, while not entirely misplaced, are nonetheless misleading. The scale and scope of the environmental challenge that China faces today and that faced by the United States in the 1960s and 1970s are vastly different. The population pressures on the environment and resources, for example, are not of the same magnitude. While the size of both countries is roughly equal, from 1962 to 1982, the U.S. population grew from roughly 192 million to 232 million; by 1982, the Chinese population had already topped one billion and today stands at over 1.3 billion.

Unlike the situation in the United States, moreover, China’s environmental degradation and pollution are not simply a function of decades of rapid economic growth; rather they have been hundreds and sometimes—as in the case of deforestation and land degradation—over two thousand years in the making. As early as the Han dynasty (220 B.C.E.-220 C.E.), Chinese writers decried the deterioration and exploitation of their environment as a result of economic development. By the time Deng Xiaoping began the wave of economic reform in the late 1970s and early 1980s that would produce the Chinese economic miracle of today, China already faced an environmental disaster. In his 1999 book Environmental Management in China, Qu Geping, who served as the first head of the country’s environmental protection agency, described the environment in the 1960s thus: “A lot of places were polluted by either smog, sewage waters or rubbish. Mineral resources were also exploited, resulting in startling losses and destruction to both topography and landscape. Biological resources, forests in particular were seriously damaged, causing several losses to the ecosystem. There was extensive destruction of the natural environment of our country.”

Even more importantly, the institutions that underpin the two countries’ environmental protection efforts are radically different. Like the United States, China began developing many of its environmental institutions and laws in the wake of the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment. Yet the transparency, official accountability, and rule of law—however imperfect—that became the mainstay of environmental protection in the United States eluded and continue to elude China. Despite some progress, Beijing still works to limit transparency, refusing, for example, to release the results of a 2006 soil pollution survey on the grounds that it is a “state secret”; it controls access to the legal system in order to limit the number of environmental lawsuits; and it offers few institutionalized means by which the public can participate in the process of environmental debate and decision-making.

Yet in one crucial respect, China is following in the United States’ footsteps. One outgrowth of citizen awareness in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s was the establishment of non-governmental organizations, such as the Environmental Defense Fund and Natural Resources Defense Council, that drove the U.S. government to adopt more stringent environmental protection laws and regulations. Today there are thousands of Chinese environmental NGOs—many of which work with their U.S. counterparts—that push local officials to reveal accurate pollution statistics, work with Chinese journalists to investigate corruption, and launch public campaigns against corporations that break environmental laws and regulations. The Chinese people are energized as well. The environment has become the largest source of the more than 180,000 demonstrations that rock China every year.

China’s new leaders are working hard to turn the environmental situation around, but overwhelmingly within the parameters of their traditional approaches: top-down targets for everything from the number of steel plants to the number of cars on the road; a belief that technology can solve all their problems (even if the incentives for deploying the technology remain skewed against its implementation); and a demand that local officials bear the burden of improving the environment (still without providing them much in the way of additional resources to do so). Yet if the leaders are still largely stuck thinking inside the box, the Chinese people are not. While Beijing may demand change from on high, the Chinese people are forcing change from below. This bottom-up pressure represents the American political tradition at its best.

Post a Comment 4 Comments

  • Posted by Jason

    Environment in China has changed greatly since the 20th century with the industrailization and modernization, while the environment problems during the Han dynasty have nothing to do with the current problems. The author should give more evidences to justify its claim about the connection of the environmental problems prior the Communist take over and the current environmental problems. The author also seems to be more interested in introducing American way of environmental protection than giving more useful and de-ideological suggestion about environmental protection in China.

  • Posted by Scott

    How does proper pricing factor into this equation? It seems like that is a missing element to improving the quality of economic reform in China. Those kinds of pressures helped improve the environmental situation in the U.S., but is determining the proper price point for resources possible with the heavy handed state here?

  • Posted by Yoshimichi Moriyama

    The ethnic pride of the Chinese people is monumental (Edwin O. Reischauer). Wang Bin’s remark “Beijing’s pollutin is not that severe. We have already moved fast to cope with this issue” is one such minor and humble example. It has enabled the Chinese to think that everything is all right with China and brought upon them one social calamity after another.

    “the two countries’ enviornmental protection efforts are radically different.” The enviornment protection pills that take effects for the United States, going down to the etiological spot, do not take effects for China, evaporating or being absorbed somewhere in the middle of its body.

  • Posted by Fred Zimmerman

    What do you think this means for Chinese emissions growth? When do you see the peak?

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