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Adelaide Festival of Ideas 2007: China +pollution « Previous | |Next »
July 12, 2007

One of the themes runing through the regional sessions of the Adelaide Festival of Ideas was a coming to grips with increased power of China, its economic growth and its environmental pollution. Whilst some speakers (eg., Joseph Cheng) were optimistic others (eg.,Collen Ryan) were more pessimistic. And for good reason.

As Stephen Wyatt says in the Australian Financial Review (11 July, 1 2007) almost two thirds of China's rivers are poisoned , a third of the country suffers from acid rain, and thick smog covers the mainland. The Tai Lake symbolizes the problem. It is surrounded by textile, chemical, paper-making and other industries that pump out ammonia and nitrogen, filling the lake with nutrients that cause algae outbreaks.

China's environmental problems now threaten the sustainability of China’s economic expansion, whilst China's rapid economic growth is producing a surge in emissions of greenhouse gases that threatens international efforts to curb global warming, as Chinese power plants burn ever more coal and car sales soar.

The reasons for Ryan's pessimism is that, despite claims by China's central government that it is striving for more environmentally sustainable development, the regional authorities continue to push for growth at all costs. Christina Larson highlights the problem in The Washington Monthly:

The dilemma is enforcement. The central government’s decision to open up the country’s economy has simultaneously undermined its ability to impose its will on far-flung provinces. Since 1980, China’s economic strategy has been one of decentralization. State-owned enterprises have been partially privatized; provincial governments have been given more authority; entire sectors of the economy have been deregulated.

In economic terms, this strategy has been wildly successful. But it has also diminished the central government’s reach. Gone are the days when Beijing could easily disseminate party dicta—or orders such as not dumping trash into the river—to every citizen through clearly delineated work units. Perhaps more significant, the central government has a dwindling ability to make regional and local government officials follow its lead. Although laws are promulgated in the capital, provincial authorities are responsible for implementing them. But provincial governments depend on tax revenue from local industries, so shutting down polluters often runs counter to their interests. Local officials are no longer beholden to the party patronage machine as they once were. They can make good money by selling land to developers, or taking bribes to protect a private factory. A promotion from Beijing is no longer the only route to upward mobility.

The central government no longer maintains a permanent presence in the provincial capitals, so there is no energetic national oversight of what happens in the provinces. Consequently, the breakdown in governance is so pronounced that, in defiance of Beijing’s ambitious targets, the country’s environment is getting worse, not better.What's more, China has shown little interest in controlling its green house gas emissions.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 1:58 PM | | Comments (5)


china is hopeless. mass death from pollution related disease is certain- and a good thing. there's too many chinese.

there's too many humans, in fact. however, this will soon correct itself in the usual ways: war, famine, pestilence, and death are out in the corral as i write- getting saddled up for the next racial die-back.

nothing to be done, humanity is too stupid for survival.

Now now al, Have you forgotten to take your Happy Pill today?
Sad thing is your probably right.

The Chinese leaders have at least held population under control, and they are moving big time into production of value-added goods rather than straight sweat shops. Good for them, good for the environment, not good for the Oz/US economies.

The Chinese also have a darn good reason to pressure for per-capita final targets for CO2 emissions - and they are getting the economic clout to force that.

When you look at Global Hectares per person over Human Development Index Table of figures here, China is about 3 times more efficient at providing human needs than US/Oz.

Actually, the only nation to meet both UNDP criteria for sustainability (healthy educated population AND low Global Hectars per person) is Cuba - and Castro can take full responsibility.

And yes, while generally undesirable philosophically, more centralized power in China is essential for everyone.

BTW: It's a pity our pollies are still pushing baby booms.

Forgot to mention for Al the despondent the Swift solution to overpopulation and resource issues: via Adelaide Uni

The Larson article in the Washington Monthly that I linked to is upbeat about the governance issue. It says:

To deal with this predicament, Beijing has invited help from an unexpected corner: civil society. Citizen groups can help spread information, provide oversight, and put some pressure on local authorities. The government granted legal status to NGOs in 1994, and green groups were the first to flood into this new space....In 2003 and 2004, however, environmental activists gained a major wedge in the door of the public policy process with the passage of a series of laws and accompanying regulations. One law, for instance, required environmental-impact assessments to be conducted before construction projects could be approved, articulating for the first time the principle that the public has a right to participate in the process. Another gave members of the public the right to request a hearing when an administrative ruling—for instance, one that granted a license for a construction project—would impact them substantially and directly. Given the Communist Party’s long-standing preference for secrecy, these measures represented a fairly dramatic departure from the past.

I'm not sure because I've read about envirornmental activists still being imprisoned.