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.

According to this senior official, 20 per cent of the rivers in China were so polluted as to be rated too toxic for humans to come into contact with. In addition, 300 million rural residents have no access to safe drinking water. In terms of the human toll, water pollution has resulted in a dramatic increase in "cancer villages", rural communities with very high incidence of cancer because of poisoned water, throughout China.

Perhaps the most alarming and deadly news on the pollution front is the extensive contamination of China's arable land by heavy metal, such as mercury — China discharges about a quarter of the world's mercury waste. According to a government-funded study conducted in the late 1990s, about 10 per cent of the agricultural land was found to have been contaminated by heavy metal. Six years ago, Beijing conducted a national survey of soil pollution, but it has not released any results. Journalists and scholars in China believe that the results must be so awful that the government is afraid to make them available to the public. If China's agricultural land has been so polluted by heavy metal, the conclusion is deeply worrying: the country's food chain is no longer safe.

The economic and political consequences of China's environmental disaster are self-evident. With soaring healthcare costs, water shortage and physical damage to its environment, the Chinese economy will almost certainly under-perform in the coming decades. The quality of life will deteriorate to such a point that talented people, professionals and businessmen in particular, will leave for cleaner and safer environments. Politically, environmental protection could become a rallying cry, unifying a Chinese society that will grow increasingly tired of both autocracy and toxic air. Unlike with many other failings, the ruling Communist Party will not be able to cover up its mismanagement of the environment — it is physically impossible, otherwise it would have tried. As a result, its legitimacy will suffer. Social instability will rise rapidly as victims of environmental disasters pressure the government for effective actions. These days, environment-related collective protests and riots are among the fastest-growing types of social unrest incidents.

No one knows whether it is too late to save China from its man-made environmental collapse. Beijing can certainly increase its environmental spending from an inadequate 1.3 per cent of the GDP today to between 2 and 4 per cent. It may make up some lost ground by adopting and enforcing stricter environmental standards. For example, retrofitting China's coal-fired power plants with clean-burning technology should cut down the emission of harmful particulates significantly. Reducing the sulphur content in the gasoline and diesel used in its 230 million motor vehicles will definitely improve urban air quality, although this step will raise fuel prices considerably. Perhaps the simplest thing to do for Beijing to mitigate water pollution is to turn on the power switch of its urban waste water treatment plants — Chinese environmentalists and experts have observed that many municipal governments do not operate such plants because of high costs.

Unfortunately, these economic and technical fixes are unlikely to constitute the most effective policy measures to save the Chinese environment. Experience in other countries strongly suggests the link between an open society and environmental protection. In the Chinese case, the greatest political obstacle to sound environmental stewardship is the country's autocratic political system, which restricts press freedom, civil society and free flow of information — vital tools to protect the environment against government neglect and business interests.

So after paying such a horrific tuition bill in economic costs and human toll, the Chinese government should have learned many lessons. An obvious one is that its policy of "pollute now and clean up later" is irresponsible and self-destructive. But the most important one is that it must open up the political system to have a fighting chance to save the Chinese nation from an environmental catastrophe.

The writer is a professor of government and non-resident senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the US

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