The China Syndrome

Mark Hertsgaard is the author of "Earth Odyssey: Around the World in Search of Our Environmental Future." Zhenbing Zhou is an associate professor at People's University in Beijing

The biggest environmental challenge in the world today is not global warming or ozone loss, as serious as those hazards are. Rather, it is poverty or, more precisely, the urge of billions of people around the world to escape poverty. No one can begrudge the poor a better life, but their aspirations raise a troubling question: Can the world’s human majority ascend from poverty without overwhelming the ecosystems that make all life possible on this planet? The answer may determine humanity’s fate in the 21st century. Nowhere is the challenge more urgent than in China, one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, not to mention its single most ravaged environment.

Last summer, when floods roared through China’s Yangtze and Songhua river valleys, they left an estimated 56 million people, nearly twice the population of California, at least temporarily homeless. Remarkably, China’s central government soon acknowledged that its own environmentally damaging logging policies had greatly contributed to the floods’ severity. Even more surprising, Beijing pledged to reverse those policies. But that promise is unlikely to be kept, mainly because China’s continuing struggle against poverty ends up taking precedence over environmental reform.

China exhibits both the large, growing population typical of poverty--nearly one of every four humans on Earth lives in China--and the high-impact consumption patterns promoted by Western capitalism. This combustible mix makes China a sort of environmental superpower, capable of wreaking havoc on ecosystems the world over.

Like the United States, the other environmental superpower, China is responsible for such a large share of global pollution that any attempts to, say, reduce greenhouse-gas emissions cannot succeed without its cooperation. The United States casts its long environmental shadow largely through its extravagant consumption patterns; the average American consumes about 53 times more goods and services than a Chinese does, for example. China’s environmental heft still derives largely from its population size; only a small minority of Chinese can afford even a pale imitation of American excess. But if incomes keep rising in China, the size of that minority will grow, and the environmental effects could be fearsome.


Over the past 20 years, market reforms championed by former leader Deng Xiaoping have more than doubled the average income in China, enabling hundreds of millions of Chinese to climb out of absolute poverty to “mere” conventional poverty. A massive increase in coal burning has made most Chinese warm in winter for the first time in the country’s history, but it also has made China the world’s second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, trailing only the United States. Similarly, the purchase of millions of new refrigerators and air conditioners has made China the world’s leading consumer of the chlorofluorocarbons that destroy the ozone layer.

During a six-week investigative journey throughout China, the authors of this article often walked amid air so thick with coal dust and vehicle exhaust that sunny days looked foggy. Yet, average Chinese said the same thing again and again: Though they did not enjoy filthy air or toxic water, they would put up with it in exchange for warmer apartments, better pay, fewer power shortages. “We have a saying in China,” said one journalist, who had tried to raise awareness of the subject. “ ‘Is your stomach too full?’ In other words, are you so well-off you can afford to complain about nothing?”

Government officials know the environment must be better cared for, if only because environmental costs--lost work days and health-care expenses caused by air pollution, for example--are canceling out virtually all the growth that has made China’s economic miracle famous the world over. Air and water pollution alone are costing $54 billion a year, roughly 8% of China’s gross domestic product.

Yet, environmental reform threatens the short-term economic interests of millions of Chinese and thus the future of an increasingly unpopular Communist Party. As the nation’s shift to a market economy continues to push millions of Chinese into unemployment, strictly enforcing environmental laws would throw additional millions out of work. This, in turn, would intensify the demonstrations and other social unrest evident in China in recent years, not a scenario China’s political leaders wish to encourage.


Thus Beijing, like many other governments, ends up talking a good environmental game but not following through with new policy, the very scenario now unfolding in response to last year’s floods.

Zhao Qizheng, director of the State Council Information Office, admitted in August that the Yangtze floods had been exacerbated by extensive clear-cutting of timber in western Sichuan province. Both rain water run-off and silting of riverbeds had increased, swelling the Yangtze far beyond its normal volume. Meanwhile, lakes and wetlands downstream had been converted into farmland, eliminating the natural buffers that used to absorb excess flood waters.

Zhao pledged that the government would shut down the offending logging operations and restore the wetlands and lakes. In September, the governor of Sichuan province duly announced that forestry workers would henceforth be planting, rather than felling, trees within a 46,300-hectare area containing the second-largest concentration of old-growth forest in China. Greenpeace activists disclosed in December, however, that logging had never stopped at the largest forestry farm in the province.

When Premier Zhu Rongji learned of the continued logging, he complained that the Sichuan government had lied to him. But the deception could hardly have surprised Zhu; local officials often pay mere lip service to Beijing’s edicts. “The mountains are high, and the emperor is far away,” says the old Chinese adage.


Local corruption is only one explanation for such disobedience; fear of unemployment is another. What will become of the forestry workers if logging is halted? Beijing has spoken vaguely about retraining. But alternative careers are few and far between in China’s remote mountain regions. In reality, most loggers will have no other option than to eke out a miserable existence as subsistence farmers--and curse the government that impoverished them.

The choices for the government are even less appealing downstream, where so many lakes and wetlands are slated for reclamation. But those former wetlands are now filled with the houses and farms of tens of millions of people. Where will they go? Who will pay to resettle them? China is already fiendishly overcrowded. Indeed, population growth is part of what led Beijing to drain the lakes and wetlands in the first place.

To reverse that policy now is a practical impossibility, and local officials know it. In Hubei province, authorities have already allowed displaced villagers to begin rebuilding on recently flooded land, though this invites a repeat of last year’s tragedy. There is simply nowhere else for them to go.

Perhaps Zhu will manage to square the circle: carry out environmental reform without endangering the party’s hold on power. After all, in the mid-1990s, Zhu succeeded in the seemingly impossible task of cooling off China’s double-digit inflation without halting economic growth.


One ray of hope is Beijing’s new campaign to cut China’s electricity consumption 20% by 2010 by increasing energy efficiency. Investing in energy efficiency yields two to 10 times as many jobs as investing in fossil fuel and nuclear power does. Switching to more efficient light bulbs, insulating drafty apartment houses and installing more efficient electric motors in China’s factories would not only decrease its dreadful air pollution and greenhouse-gas emissions, it would also provide jobs for the millions of unemployed workers Zhu and the rest of the leadership must worry about.

The United States could encourage such environmental reform--and make money for U.S. companies and workers--by helping China buy the relevant technologies. But solutions to the Yangtze floods and other environmental challenges are harder to come by. Chinese and U.S. leaders must pay more attention to the twin challenges of poverty and environmental degradation if humanity is to prosper in the century ahead.*