Smothered in Beijing

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.

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