Smothered in Beijing

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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