To say that the Chinese government has not been a good custodian of the environment is an understatement. The number of ways that the centrally-planned, socialist economy in the PRC has caused environmental devastation on a scale unprecedented in the United States (excepting El Paso, Texas) is so vast that it can be difficult to really appreciate just how awful it can be when you attempt to meld an industrialized country with capitalism and extensive state controls over what those industrialized capitalists can do with with their factories.
The picture to the left was taken in 2003 from near the rooftop of a hotel to which Westerners were steered. At this time, traffic on the streets was light because of the SARS epidemic. The next year, the air pollution got so bad that a joint Chinese-French airshow was canceled, not just because no one could see the airplanes, but because it was feared that President Jacques Chirac would become physically ill from being outside.
There has been a lot of talk about something directly affecting the Olympics — the air. Beijing may well have the world’s worst smog. When the state-run TV news predicts “overcast and hazy skies,” that means “air pollution so thick you won’t be able to see more than a block away.” A “blue sky day” is one in which the outline of the sun’s disc can be clearly discerned against the sky, and not even a relatively rare rainstorm clears the air. The World Bank had announced that 16 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities are in China, and estimates that the neglect of the environment in China causes 750,000 premature deaths a year there, nearly half of them in Beijing.
And China exports its air pollution, in the form of sulfuric dioxide that is dumped on Korea and Japan in the form of acid rain, and plumes of toxic, airborne particulates that are carried on the trade winds as far east as Los Angeles and San Francisco. China now outproduces the United States and all other nations in the emission of carbon-heavy “greenhouse gases.”
There are a variety of other terrible environmental policies, both on paper and in practice. Consider, for instance, the state-subsidized industries of e-waste disposal, which results in lots of the rest of the world’s old televisions, computers, and electronic equipment being dumped in landfills next to rivers and aquifers, resulting in all sorts of bizarre heavy metals being leached into the local water supply and eventually making their way into the ocean so that the rest of the world can eat particles of the chromium, lead, and palladium found on microchips in our frozen shrimp and tilapia.
The causes of the pollution include the continued use of leaded gasoline and an inability of the government to upgrade motors to include the use of catalytic converters. As in most other places in the industrialized world, electricity is provided by power plants burning massive amounts of coal — and electricity is plentiful, which means so too is the sulfurous smoke belched out from the plants. But more to the point, the country’s policies encourage all of this. Oil and electricity, land and water, are provided on the cheap by the state-run utilities to industrialists looking to help build the country’s economic infrastructure.* Despite large amounts of propaganda and visible efforts by the government to improve the environmental quality of China, the tax policies, price controls, and corrupt enforcement of environmental laws makes it much cheaper for those industrialists to pay off inspectors and continue to belch all manner of awful things into the air and dump them into the rivers.
It is for this that China deserves blame. Its authoritarian leaders do not need anyone’s approval or consent to really clean things up. Certainly some steps would be expensive, but others would be easy to do and they will not do them. China has consistently rejected the idea of a cap-and-trade system for controlling air pollution. (While a system like that has inefficiencies and environmental downsides, the model has worked pretty well, overall, in North America and Western Europe.) But they continue to value growth, growth, growth, all else be damned.
The leaders of the PRC understand that this is a huge black eye in the modern world. President Hu Jintao has spoken of environmental cleanup perhaps more than any other subject since taking office, at least in his public speeches. And extraordinary efforts to make Beijing look green instead of gray for the Olympics have been undertaken. Artillery and military aircraft have been deployed for weeks to try and make it rain around Beijing so as to help wash away some of the smog. The Chinese claim that it sort of works.
Rivers have been diverted to create a lake and to temporarily run water through a generally dry riverbed near Beijing for the duration of the games, which has resulted in farms in the drought-stricken west of China getting no water at all, and tens of thousands of people in the historically-ignored western provinces will starve, some of them to death, so that the rivers can run for twenty days with “high-quality” water while the cameras are rolling. Of course, if it does rain, the rain will likely foul the water so badly that it will kill anything that drinks it other than bacteria that normally thrive in the heart of geysers.
Green Olympics, my ass.
Let’s be clear — environmental control are frequently oppressive and economically harmful. But there can’t be none of them, either. Only the government can protect the environment. When the government effectively refuses to do so, you get… well, you get China. The NAFTA and EU nations, and Japan, and even to some extent Russia, are all on board with improving environmental controls and trying to balance the need to not poison everyone with our industrial and vehicular wastes. Meanwhile, China has won the “race to the bottom” in terms of lax environmental controls overtly aimed at attracting medium to heavy industries. It’s high time China started taking its responsibility to engage in meaningful environmental protection at least as seriously as the rest of the industrialized world does.
* It’s not particularly fair to say that the Chinese are “communists” anymore. Over the past generation, they have embraced capitalism with gusto. However, “capitalism” and “democracy” are not necessarily bedmates. China is dramatic proof that strong socialism and rapid capital development are not incompatible.