Not only is pollution is shortening lives in the world’s most populous nation, but it is also an inescapable reminder of the trade-offs at the heart of China’s transition from a developing country into a prosperous, modern nation. While the Communist Party has been legitimized by the thriving economy, it now needs to balance the rush for economic growth against the threats to life and health.
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang gives an address during a news conference in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing December 6, 2013. Photo courtesy of Resuters/Mark Ralston
China’s premier, Li Keqiang, has declared “war on pollution,” saying that the country would tackle it with the same determination it has used to fight poverty in the past three decades. Spoken at the annual meeting of the National People’s Congress earlier this year in March, Li’s remarks reflect government recognition of public displeasure over pollution and its impact on people’s health. Garlic Liu, a college student in Beijing said in an in person interview (Liu is currently studying abroad in Columbia University) “I can’t go out everyday. I have to choose when to go out so I don’t make my asthma worse. All my friends do the same thing. We hang out not when it is convenient for us but when it’s convenient for the weather. We all have a pollution app on our phones to check when it’s a good day.”
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In terms of scale and speed, China’s economic transformation has no historical precedent: since initiating market reforms in 1978 China has shifted from a centrally planned economy to a market based one. In 1978 China was one of the poorest country’s in the world with its GDP only one-fortieth of America’s and only 16% of its population living above the poverty line. Since then it has demonstrated a stunning economic reversal which many deem as the “Chinese economic miracle”: while in 1978 only 16% of its population lived above the poverty line, by 2005 only 16% lived below it; while in 1978 its GDP was only one-fortieth of America’s, with an astounding rate of 8% real per capita GDP growth annually, China’s GDP is now almost one-fifth of the U.S. level. This rapid and sustained improvement in average living standard has occurred in a country with more than 20 percent of the world’s population (population of 1.3 billion people), thus causing China to be the world’s second-largest economy as well as lifting 500 million people out of poverty.
Photo courtesy of econews.com. Chinese workers manufacturing solar panels.
However, all industrial nations one day hit an environmental turning point, an event that galvanizes the population to realize the ecological consequences of rapid growth. In America in 1969, that event occurred when the Cuyahoga river in Ohio, thick with pollutants, caught fire. America’s Environmental Protection Agency was founded the next year. The rank smog in Beijing could join the ranks of these environmental turning points. A swathe of warm air has settled over the Chinese capital like a duvet and trapped beneath it pollution from the region’s 200 coal-fired power plants. The concentration of pollutant particles hit 900 parts per million—40 times the level the World Health Organization deems safe.
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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. Continue reading →
No country in history has ever risen as a major industrial power without also rising as a leader in environmental damage, leaving behind a slew of environmental chaos that can take far longer and far more wealth to remedy than its rise to power took. The environmental damage caused by rapid industrialization of the world’s most populous nation, China – it had 1.351 billion people in 2012 – is so severe and far-reaching that its multifaceted repercussions are present not only domestically, but also internationally. Continue reading →