Jonathan Fenby: The great pall of China

Turning off lights in Britain will achieve nothing if the world's biggest market doesn't clean up its act. And China, whatever it says, is putting growth ahead of the planet, says Jonathan Fenby
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First, it was the spectre of China cutting a swathe through Western economies. Now, as the last strains of Live Earth die away from London to Shanghai, awareness is mounting of the menace that the economic rise of the People's Republic of China (PRC) poses for its own ecology and that of the planet. Not only is the world's most heavily populated nation the biggest producer of shoes, textiles, toys and IT hardware, but it is also, according to a report by Dutch monitors, the biggest emitter of greenhouse gas.

The scale of the environmental damage in China may induce some people to wonder what is the point of turning out the lights and leaving the car at home if such harm is being done on the other side of the world in the cause of maintaining 10 per cent annual growth. That would be a confession of defeat, or an attempt to shrug off the responsibilities of developed nations.

The Chinese authorities dismiss the Dutch report as "meaningless". On Thursday, an official said it was "not the time" for the PRC to consider binding commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The Chinese point out that, given the population differences, the US was still way ahead of the PRC in per capita emissions, and remind us that the West showed no regard for the environment during its industrial revolutions. Perfectly true, but that does not diminish the actual impact on the rest of the planet or on China itself.

Another argument that has surfaced is that it is really all the fault of the West and Japan for having moved manufacturing to China; that ducks the fact that it was China, itself, which set out to make itself an export-led manufacturing giant. Proponents of Western guilt add that the developed countries should stump up to pay to clean up the People's Republic, ignoring China's considerable bankroll in the form of more than a trillion dollars in reserves, some of which could be diverted to environmental protection.

International co-operation is certainly necessary, but the prime responsibility for the ecological disaster - and for doing something about it - must lie with China, itself. It is not a new problem. Ten years ago, when editing The South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, I ran two photographs on the front page. One showed the view across the harbour during Chinese New Year when factories across the border in Guangdong province were shut; the other was taken after work had resumed. The first showed a bright and sparkling view. In the second, you couldn't see the other side.

The problem was barely recognised until recently. But the scale of the disaster can no longer be neglected as China's air pollution is carried to Korea, Japan and South-east Asia and, by some reports, right across the Pacific.

An American expert on the Chinese environment, Elizabeth Economy, warns that, if the PRC's development trajectory continues as planned, it is likely to pump out more greenhouse gas emissions than all other industrialised countries combined over the next 25 years, surpassing by five times the cut in emissions sought by the Kyoto Protocol.

Some estimates put the cost of ecological degradation and pollution to China at the equivalent of 8-10 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) a year. Chinese newspapers have reported that almost £20bn is lost in industrial output because of lack of water. Disasters related to extreme weather patterns apparently caused by climate change brought damage of more than £12bn last year.

As the government pushes urbanisation, energy demand grows: city dwellers use 250 per cent more power than rural people. The government acknowledges that almost 600 cities have unhealthy air. Sixteen Chinese cities figured in a recent list of the 20 worst-polluted metropolitan areas on earth. A new power station is opened each week. Most use coal, including highly polluting brown coal.

The country which once moved by bicycle or on foot has 152 million motor vehicles, an increase of 5 per cent in the first six months of this year. The Asian Development Bank predicts that the number of private cars could jump 15 times from the current 13 million in the next 30 years, boosting CO 2 emissions. Agriculture is hit by desertification and pollution; a recent study on climate change predicted a decline of up to 37 per cent in yields of wheat, rice and maize in the second half of this century. In the same period, water in three major river regions - the Huai, Liao and Hai - could drop by up to 30 per cent. Before then, melting Tibetan glaciers will produce floods followed by drought in the Yangtse and the Yellow River.

On Thursday, the head of the national environmental agency said that a quarter of the length of the country's seven main rivers was so poisoned that the water was harmful to the skin. Urban waste is mushrooming and China has become a dumping ground for rubbish from the developed world. Walk round some of the villages which process the garbage and you will see British crisp packets along with toxic waste being burned or thrown into ponds.

International awareness of its ecological disaster comes at a tricky time for the PRC. Politically, it attracts flak for its support for regimes like those in Sudan and Burma, which serve its economic purposes. Its military build-up frightens some people concerned about the strategic situation in the Pacific, including Australia. China continues to show scant regard for human rights. Its troops stand guard in Tibet and Muslim Xinjiang, in the far west.

Religious persecution, the suppression of the Falung Gong, control of the media and the thousands of "cybercops" patrolling the internet for websites that step out of line demonstrate that this remains an oppressive top-down system, even if individual liberties have grown greatly. Such incidents as the recent discovery of hundreds of child slave labourers in the brick kilns of Shanxi province hardly help China's international standing.

A state agency in Beijing said last week that 20 per cent of Chinese products failed quality tests. Western manufacturers of luxury goods and software have grown hoarse complaining about Chinese counterfeits. The United States has been swept this summer by scares about dangerous imports from the mainland ranging from fish fed with antibiotics to tainted wheat in pet food, from faulty truck tyres to toothpaste containing noxious chemicals. In Guangdong province, the authorities say they have found mobile telephone batteries that risk exploding - a welder was killed when one went off in his shirt pocket last month.

The political potential of accusing the rising power across the Pacific of poisoning children and pets, on top of amassing a huge trade surplus by under-valuing its currency, is all too evident as America approaches its next election year. Forget about how Beijing helps to fund the federal deficit and keeps down inflation and interest rates. On Friday, the Democratic presidential frontrunners, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, were reported to have agreed to co-sponsor a Senate bill to allow US companies to seek anti-dumping duties on Chinese imports unless Beijing significantly revalues the yuan. A trade war lies just over the horizon.

But it is in the environmental arena that the dilemma posed by China's explosive growth is at its starkest and most dangerous. This is not an issue that is going to go away with the expansion of the PRC's 80-million strong middle class, as some have hoped. The equation is simple. If growth breeds pollution, massive growth breeds massive pollution. Doing something about it could endanger the growth that constitutes the Communist Party's main claim to rule, and would require a huge change in the way the PRC operates.

The leadership recognises the scope of the problem. New steps are regularly announced, including a climate change plan that calls for greater energy efficiency, reforestation and use of technology to control greenhouse gases. On Wednesday, the Cabinet approved draft measures calling for stiffer water protection and for state banks to withhold loans from companies that infringe the water law. In another move, a scheme was announced to take a million cars off the Beijing streets in a trial for next year's Olympic Games.

But the effects to date have been minimal. Energy use per unit of production is meant to be dropping by 4 per cent a year: last year it fell by just 1.4 per cent. Instead of declining, sulphur emissions rose in 2006 after jumping by 27 per cent in the previous five years. "This series of dark statistics shows that traditional industrial growth has pushed China's resources and environment to nearly intolerable limits," warns the head of the State Environmental Protection Administration (Sepa), Pan Yue. "It's a nightmarishly bad picture," adds Elizabeth Economy.

The ramifications of the disaster are wide and deep, constituting part of the only real threat faced by the last major Communist administration on earth. Reports by the World Bank and others put the number of Chinese who die prematurely of pollution at between 500,000 and 750,000 a year. Environmental concerns are often among the motives for protests which, according to official figures, have exceeded 80,000 in some recent years. "The public refuses to accept increasing degradation of the environment," the environment minister, Zhou Shengxian, said on Wednesday.

From mothers in Hunan province furious at the poisoning of their children by lead smelter deposits to the citizens of the eastern port of Xiamen who staged mass rallies last month against the construction of a petro-chemical plant on the edge of the city, the environment has the power to mobilise. Such protests meld in with other causes for popular anger - more than 100,000 land grabs each year by officials for industrial, urban and transport projects, corruption, arbitrary "fees" imposed by local government, and the one-child policy. The absence of anything resembling a proper health and welfare system is a major burden on the population.

In cities, more than 100 million migrant workers live twilight existences, the foot soldiers of the economic army whose remittances keep villages alive, but without residential rights and with the most limited educational facilities for their children. Though the market-led economic changes of the past 30 years have made more people materially better off in a shorter time than ever before in human history, the wealth gap in China is greater than in the United States or Europe.

One estimate puts the number of dollar millionaires at 500,000. But by international standards, 76 million Chinese still live in absolute poverty, and the PRC ranked only 81st worldwide in the United Nations Human Development Report last year.

Despite the monopoly position of the Communist Party, provinces still go their own way. Directives from the centre to cut down on coal mines or limit steel plants are ignored. Local officials who have a stake in factories turn a blind eye to pollution or tip off the managers when an environmental team is on its way.

Penalties for pollution are low - those responsible for two major petrochemical spills into the Yellow River paid around £10,000. Courts make life hard for protesters - magistrates refused to hear complaints from individuals after a major chemical accident in the north-east poisoned drinking water for five days for 3.8 million people in the city of Harbin 18 months ago.

It is cheaper for polluters to pay fines than install clean technology. A coalmine owner told a recent visitor that he had calculated that the price of fitting new equipment to cut pollution would be greater than all the pollution fines he might have to pay over the next dozen years; so he was not going to do anything. A power industry analyst reckons that the daily cost of running desulphurisation equipment can be three times the fine for not meeting emission standards. Controls of energy prices act as a further disincentive to installing cleaner technology since the cost cannot be recouped.

Schemes to produce non-polluting coal involve the use of large amounts of water, and most of the coal is in the north where there is a severe water shortage. Production of ethanol from maize ran at four times the official target last year, but that raised the price of the maize which also goes into animal feed for meat for which there is fast-growing demand. So food inflation set in this year, and, to check that, the government has just banned all new ethanol projects.

For an autocracy that allows no organised opposition and has never held an open national election, China has quite weak governance in which departments overlap and the party is superior to the administration. The result can be a gridlock in policy formulation, and, when a decision has been made, foot-dragging, particularly from the provinces.

Combating the environmental degradation of the PRC, therefore, involves issues that reach to the political, economic and social heart of the country. It should form a key element in the "harmonious society" which President Hu Jintao says he wants to pursue in his second five-year term, starting this autumn. But that would involve massive changes to the Communist system and a gamble on lower growth. For all the eco-friendly words last night at the concerts that started in Shanghai, it is difficult to be optimistic about the new challenge China poses for the world.

Jonathan Fenby is China editor of the analytical service, Trusted Sources (, and author of the 'Penguin History of Modern China', to be published next spring

Further browsing: 'The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenge to China's Future' by Elizabeth C Economy (Cornell University Press)