History of Pollution: economics, politics, and Deng XiaoPing


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While China’s recent economic boom has accelerated the pollution spewing across the land, the roots of its environmental problem stretch back centuries. The dynastic leaders of ancient China regularly conquered and consolidated territory while developing China’s economy; this exploited the nation’s natural resources in such a way that it contributed to famines and natural disasters according to the Council of Foreign Relation’s Elizabeth Economy in The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenge to China’s Future. Culturally, China’s Confucian roots helped encourage policies that often promoted man’s use of nature, hindering the development of a conservative ethos. “China’s current environmental situation is the result not only of policy choices made today but also of attitudes, approaches, and institutions that have evolved over centuries,” Economy writes.

It wasn’t until the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment that China began to develop its first government approved environmental institutions. A delegation was sent to the United Nations Conference, but by then the country’s environment was already in dire straits that were further exacerbated by economic reforms of the late 1970s. Prior to the initiation of economic reforms, China maintained policies that kept the economy very poor, stagnant, centrally controlled, vastly inefficient, and relatively isolated from the global economy. According to the Congressional Research Service, Since opening up to foreign trade and investment and implementing free market reforms in 1979, China has been among the world’s fastest-growing economies, with real annual gross domestic product (GDP) growth averaging nearly 10% through 2013. In recent years, China has emerged as a major global economic and trade power: it is currently the world’s second-largest economy, largest trading economy, second- largest destination of foreign direct investment (FDI), largest manufacturer, and largest holder of foreign exchange reserves.

Since 1978, China’s opening to the global economy has exacerbated its environmental ills. Spearheaded by Deng Xiaoping (a politician and reformist leader of China who led the country towards a market economy), these reforms boosted China’s industrial output at an average annual rate of more than 11.4 percent. As China produces goods for the global economy it consumes huge amounts of natural resources, with all of the pollutants from this production staying behind in China. At the same time, since the beginning of economic reform in the late 1970s, the government has paid considerable attention to environmental problems, particularly in terms of regulatory responsibility and enforcement at the local government level. For example, China passed the Environmental Protection Law for trial implementation in 1979. It covers a broad spectrum of environmental issues, ranging from the protection and control of pollutions to the protection of wildlife, and provides basic principles for both preventative and rehabilitative measures. Its regulatory measures address water, air, solid waste and noise pollution, and establish a system for environmental management, monitoring, liability and enforcement.

However, in his attempt to advance China economically, Deng gave lower-level officials the freedom, and the responsibility, to increase economic growth. This legacy of decentralization characterized by Deng’s economic reforms hindered environmental regulations and remains at the heart of China’s environmental struggles today. Local party bosses gained broad powers over state bank lending, taxes, regulation and land use. In return, the party leadership assessed them primarily on how much they expanded the economy in their domains.

The reforms diffused authority to the provinces and local governments, creating a proliferation of township and village enterprises (TVEs) to encourage development in rural industries. In 1997, TVEs generated almost a third of the national GDP. But local governments were difficult to monitor and therefore seldom upheld environmental standards. Today, environmental policies remain difficult to enforce at a local level, where officials often retain economic incentives to ignore them.

In terms of stimulating the economy and creating jobs, the system and reforms Deng put in place has been wildly successful. Nevertheless, his system also undermined the national government’s ability to fine-tune the economy by giving more power to local governments. This led to a culture of collusion between government and business that has made only policies encouraging economic growth easy to enforce.

China’s modernization has lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty and created a booming middle class. However, experts point to the nation’s staggering size and equally fast pace of its growth, noting that its environmental effect on the world is far greater than that of any other single country. “It’s on a scale and speed the world has never known,” says Jennifer Turner, director of the China Environment Forum at the Woodrow Wilson Center.



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