Smothered in Beijing

Environmental protection could unify a society tiring of both autocracy and toxic air

Chinese government officials are fond of saying "this is the tuition we have to pay", to downplay the consequences of their policy mistakes. The tragedy of such cavalier attitudes by individuals who have enormous power but little accountability is that China has paid very costly tuitions but its government appears to have learned precious little.

The late dictator Mao Zedong's "Great Leap Forward" in the 1950s starved 36 million peasants to death. The Cultural Revolution (1966-76) deeply traumatised Chinese society. Even in the post-Mao era, the party, which has pursued economic reform but stuck to autocracy, has produced several monumental disasters. The one-child policy, enforced with rigidity and brutality, has contributed to China's demographic ageing and huge gender imbalances. The government's focus on grooming state-owned national champions has resulted in mass wasted investments and a stunted private sector.

The latest exorbitant tuition bill Beijing is paying is the cost of the unfolding environmental catastrophe. Although the severe degradation of the environment in China is not news, the spectacle of thick, acrid, brownish smog smothering Beijing and one seventh of the entire country for days in January served as the most persuasive evidence that the Chinese government's past policy mistakes on the environment are threatening the country's very survival as a civilised society.

This statement is by no means an exaggeration, if you consider even the incomplete data on China's environmental decay a full official account of the extent of environmental pollution is impossible because that would greatly damage the Communist Party's legitimacy. A World Bank research report released in 2007 estimated that air pollution alone kills about 7,00,000 Chinese citizens a year. The total cost of pollution (lost lives, healthcare and physical damages) per year was 5.8 per cent of the GDP. A separate MIT study in 2012 shows that the cost of air pollution in China rose by five times (adjusted for inflation) from 1975 to 2005. In July 2012, a vice-minister of water resources told the press that up to 40 per cent of China's rivers were seriously polluted in 2011, after 75 billion tonnes of untreated sewage and waste water were discharged into them.

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