Book Launch:The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenge to China's Future | Wilson Center

Book Launch:The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenge to China's Future

While the China Environment Forum has since 1997 held meetings and produced articles highlighting the myriad domestic and international efforts to resolve China's acute pollution and energy problems, few books have taken a comprehensive look at the historical and current causes of China's growing environmental crisis. In The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenge to China's Future, Elizabeth Economy offers a history of environmental degradation in China, outlines the wide-reaching impact such problems have on nearly every part of Chinese society, and profiles the challenges facing China in resolving pollution and natural resource problems today. While the Chinese government began in the 1980s to promulgate many environmental laws and in the late 1990s to more publicly embrace the cause of improving the country's environment—most notably with Beijing's successful Olympic bid centered around the concept of a environmentally-friendly "Green Games"—its efforts have not always been successful. Economy argues that China's well-intended attempts to promote sustainable development ultimately are hampered by inappropriate policies and ineffective local implementation. Economy—a long-term participant in the Wilson Center's China Environment Forum (CEF)—launched her recently released book at this May 11 conference cosponsored by CEF, the Asia Program, and the Council on Foreign Relations.

China's environmental problems are not simply a crisis born of the past twenty years of rapid economic development, rather centuries of war, economic development and population pressures. Environmental challenges can be traced back to the Tang dynasty (1618-1906) when the country's population began to swell and its natural resources began to be overexploited. Rapid economic growth in the Qing dynasty, coupled with continued population growth, lead to more widespread desertification, polluted groundwater, and industrial pollution. Mao Zedong launched numerous ill-conceived development campaigns that greatly exacerbated China's environmental degradation. Today, the Chinese government has been quite responsive to environmental problems. And yet, Elizabeth Economy contended that this legacy of environmental degradation, and continued economic development could keep China from realizing its green dreams. Economy noted that China now is home to 16 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world; cities like Beijing have attempted to reduce air pollution by replacing coal heated systems with natural gas, but their efforts are being thwarted by the rapid increase in private automobile ownership in China. While cities have choking air, water actually may be the countries most serious environmental problems, with 60 million Chinese residents have difficulty finding adequate drinking water sources, while ten times that number regularly consume contaminated water. Water scarcity continues to grow as demand for the resource increases 5 percent annually.

The magnitude of China's increasingly degraded environment has implications for the country's economic development, public health, and social stability. Economy noted that, according to the World Bank, environmental problems cost the country 8 to 12 percent of its GDP each year. Further deteriorated land in western China is creating more rural eco-refugees, whose migration to the east coast is sure to place stress on already burgeoning urban centers. Nearly 300,000 people die prematurely due to air pollution; Economy noted a preliminary study that suggests the impact of SARS could be heightened in areas with already severe air pollution. Pollution and lack of access to natural resources have the potential to lead to widespread social unrest. Already government officials acknowledge that environmental problems are one of the four major sources of social unrest in China. As the Chinese government attempts to resolve the most pressing environmental issues, according to Economy, these efforts have often failed.

To illustrate the central problem with China's environmental protection efforts, Economy offered a telling vignette: In what was just the latest, and perhaps most devastating in a series of environmental disasters along the Huai River valley on China's coast, unchecked industrial pollution nearly a decade ago turned the river's water black; the polluted flow killed fish, destroyed crops, and seriously impacted human health in the basin. The central government responded to this crisis with a comprehensive two-stage campaign designed to halt all industrial pollution by 1997 and have the river run clear by 2000. Beijing entrusted local officials to achieve these goals by forcing industries to comply with new regulations and oversee the construction of 52 wastewater treatment plants. By 2001, the central government declared the campaign efforts a success and heralded the river running clear.

Economy highlighted this campaign for what was billed as a success was in fact a failure, which mirrors countless other failed environmental campaigns in China. Suspecting that the Huai was not as clean as the government reported, a group of environmental scientists ran a battery of tests. Their suspicions were confirmed; the Huai River was as polluted, if not more polluted, than before the government's clean-up campaign. Today Chiina's State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) acknowledges the water on the Huai has continued to deteriorate and is only grade four or five, which means it is barely suitable agricultural use. The continued problems in the Huai River stem from Beijing's over-reliance on high-profile campaigns to solve large-scale environmental problems. These campaigns fail because they do not engage local officials and scientists and lack sufficient financing resources and follow through. In short, Economy maintained that China's system to adequately respond to environmental problems, let alone disasters, is effectively broken.

One roadblock to overcoming China's environmental challenges is the lack of appropriate resources. Though the country's environmental bureaucracy is home to many forward thinking individuals, SEPA has a workforce of only 270 people. What is more, according to official figures, China invests only 1.3 percent of its GDP in environmental protection efforts; Chinese environmental scientists contend the country needs to spend at least 2.2 percent of GDP to maintain the current level of air and water quality.

Economy also strongly criticized the government's reliance upon an inappropriate implementation model. Since the Deng era, Beijing has devolved implementation of economic policies from the center to more local levels—usually with great success. This economic triumph, however, has lead many government officials to inappropriately apply the same model to other sectors. In the case environmental problems, the central government has entrusted implementation to local officials. The result, according to Economy, is a "patchwork quilt" of environmental protection. Just as economic success is spotty throughout the country, environmental protection vacillates from sturdy to frail: Cities like Shanghai and Dalian spend in upwards of 5 percent of revenues for environmental protection efforts, while Sichuan contributes just 1 percent. Those cities that boast a strong environmental record are indebted to strong leaders who are able to resist the strong pull of economic protectionism. In spite of national policies, when given the choice between enforcing environmental protection initiatives or ensuring economic success, most local officials feel there is little choice.

Though Economy contended that the decentralization of environmental protection policies has failed in many parts of the country, she noted that the China has been successful in tapping into international resources. China still enjoys a high level of environmental protection assistance for infrastructure and policy development from international organizations like the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, as well as aid from foreign governments and pilot projects from international environmental nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Economy also lauded the increasing role of domestic NGOs in environmental protection. While these groups still encounter some legal restrictions in their work, they are increasingly having an impact both on the environment and civil society development. The first NGO started in 1994, and within only a decade, the network of environmental groups throughout the country have garnered enough power to successfully derail plans for two major dam projects in southwest China. Economy also noted the growing role of Chinese environmental journalists in providing a check on poor local implementation.

Economy is not completely pessimistic about China's environmental situation due to the greater political space being granted to environmental NGOs and journalists and Beijing's willingness to accept international environmental assistance. However, she maintains that the Chinese government's strategy for resolving environmental problems is simply not sustainable. Using the economic model of entrusting local officials with environmental policy will only continue to fail. When Beijing officials prematurely celebrated the cleaned Huai River, one boasted that China had achieved in a few years what has taken Western countries decades to achieve. If China does not begin to create more checks on local governments, Economy believes that the environment will continue to deteriorate like the Huai River.

Drafted by Timothy Hildebrandt.