08 Jan

Thoughts on the Second Edition of China’s Environmental Challenges

Posted By Politybooks

Since the publication of the first edition of China’s Environmental Challenges in 2015, the most common question I am asked is whether I think China will be able to resolve its environmental problems. The answer, of course, is complex, but the simplest response is simply, “It must.” As I outline in the new edition, the Chinese people’s frustration is at a boiling point. Red alert “airpocalypse” days, heavy metals and bacteria in water supplies, and adulterated, unsafe food including in staples like pork, tea, milk powder, and rice mean that in many well developed parts of the country the time for patience is over.The Chinese government understands this very well indeed and is strengthening laws and giving them teeth, punishing polluters, and making environmental protection a central feature of national plans.

There was a time, not long ago, when a disempowered,fatalistic populace thought they could do little to press their leaders to implement the laws and force polluters to stop their toxic ways. In 2001, in Shenyang in China’s Northeastern rust belt, a worker told me that the city’s chronic “fog” was something the local people were used to – but not you foreigners. Since then, the rising middle class, armed with social media that provide them with information transparency and the ability to upload their own images and facts about pollution, has come into its own. Independent journalist Chai Jing’s March 2015 “Under the Dome” documentary, viewed within a matter of days by hundreds of millions, called on the Chinese people to download pollution transparency apps and demand clean air and water, for the sake of their children who had never seen stars and whose very health was in jeopardy.

This encouraging restlessness does not solve China’s problems, as the underlying dynamics of displacement of environmental harm simply postpone and shift them: during the “APEC Blue” meetings of late 2014, for example, when factories were shutdown and automobiles kept off the road to provide clear skies for the global leaders’summit, a provincial governor boasted that soon all Hebei’s polluting factories would be relocated to Africa. Bad news for Africa, worse news for the planet. As I chronicle in the new edition, as long as “dirty migration” shifts environmental harm from politically strong regions to weaker regions, from cities to countryside, from East China to West China (where, not coincidentally, so many ethnic minority nationalities live), from China to neighboring countries and to the reaches of the globe, then the people of China and the world are postponing our reckoning with the limits of our planet’s ability to provide resources and absorb them after use. Indeed, as China goes, so goes the world.

Judith Shapiro is a Professor in the School of International Service at American University, Washington DC. She is the author of Mao’s War against Nature and the co-author of Son of the Revolution and other books on China.