Montreal, August 15, 2008 • No 258




Bradley Doucet is a writer living in Montreal. He has studied philosophy and economics, and is currently completing a novel on the pursuit of happiness. He also is QL's English Editor.




by Bradley Doucet

          A lot has understandably been written about China in the weeks and months leading up to the Beijing Olympic Games—and a lot of it is pretty negative. Indeed, Wenran Jiang, senior fellow of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, complained in last Saturday's Globe and Mail that "heavy reporting of negative news is painting an incomplete picture" of the Middle Kingdom. The good news is that China has achieved spectacular growth in recent years, to the continuing benefit of many of its 1.3 billion people. But rapid growth has sparked anxieties in the rest of the world. There are concerns about China's military ambitions, its economic strength, and its human rights record. Perhaps the most pervasive fear, though, is that China is despoiling the environment.


          An article by Jacques Leslie in the February 2008 issue of Mother Jones paints a depressing ecological picture. Leslie covered China for the Los Angeles Times in the mid-70s and writes now about "the immense environmental and social consequences of humanity's heedless, headlong embrace of development," according to his website. In this article, he takes us on a tour of "choked rivers, depleted forests, and grasslands that [have] ceded to encroaching deserts," and bemoans the fact that China has become what he calls "a ravenous consumer." He claims, on the authority of Vaclav Smil, a "highly respected China scholar at the University of Manitoba," that environmental damage actually costs China between 5 and 15 percent of its GDP, essentially wiping out "all of the economy's celebrated growth."

Wanted: More Capitalism, Not Less

          Now, there is no question that China is polluted. Air quality in cities is notoriously bad, as I saw for myself in March 2007, when I visited Beijing and Shanghai, where smog was the norm and blue skies the exception. But are things as bad as Leslie would have us believe? One cause for doubt is his obvious anti-capitalist bias, revealed when he claims that "the Mao era's ecological devastation pales next to that of China's current industrialization." This after admitting that Mao's disastrous policies resulted in "history's greatest famine, in which 30 to 50 million Chinese died." In fact, it is true that some environmental problems have intensified, and will just as surely continue to worsen before they improve. But the only way things can seem worse now than they were at the height of Mao's deadly lunacy is if one thinks pristine rivers and grasslands matter more than human lives.

          The main problem with Leslie's analysis is that he does not consider that some of China's environmental problems would be neatly solved by more secure property rights and less government interference—in other words: more, not less, capitalism. To take just one of the examples he mentions, overgrazing is the prototypical tragedy of the commons. When land is owned by everyone, it is owned by no one, and no one has an incentive to nurture and preserve its usefulness. Regarding fields that Leslie admits were overgrazed during Mao's Cultural Revolution, he writes, "As capitalism gained momentum in the 1980s… peasants needed wood for fences to demarcate their newly privatized fields, and tree cutting accelerated." But Leslie's very next sentences reveal the real culprit: "At the same time, the government dispersed many Han Chinese into the traditionally Mongolian province—to the point that it is now 80 percent Han. The grassland succumbed to the intensified grazing, and storms threw sand across the landscape." When the government forces more people onto already stressed land, it is hardly sporting to blame capitalism for the resulting degradation.

Industrial Revolution 2.0

          Even if capitalism were to become as triumphant in China as Leslie imagines it already to be, the environment, while improving, would be far from squeaky clean. This is because the Chinese are still by and large too poor to be able to afford to care about the environment. When you're worried about getting enough calories and micronutrients into your children's bellies and enough education into their heads, perfect air and water quality are of secondary importance. As they become richer, the Chinese will naturally start to care more about the environment, as has been true in every other country that has industrialized. They will use more energy, it is true, but they will also start using scrubbers to limit emissions from their coal-fired power plants, for instance, and they will start moving to cleaner but more expensive fuels. The best thing we can do is help speed them along through their industrial revolution.(1)

"The only way things can seem worse now than they were at the height of Mao's deadly lunacy is if one thinks pristine rivers and grasslands matter more than human lives."

          Not everyone is as pessimistic as Leslie. Thomas P. M. Barnett is decidedly more upbeat in an article published in the May/June 2008 issue of GOOD Magazine. Barnett, a policy and foreign affairs expert and a contributing editor at Esquire, writes,

          If China replicates our resource-intensive style of growth throughout its economy, there will be no end to its pollution and carbon emissions. If you've spent any time in China, you know what I'm talking about: acrid-tasting air that the U.N. estimates is responsible for the premature death of 400,000 Chinese a year. Now add in the four times as many cars and trucks that will be on Chinese roads in 20 years' time, along with far more urbanization and industrialization, and tell me if that sounds sustainable.

          The twist, though, is that Barnett does not think China will replicate the West's pattern of growth, and indeed, there is little reason to think that they will. As they grow wealthier, they can leapfrog over generations of heavily-polluting technologies straight to newer, healthier ones. Barnett continues, "The Chinese themselves aren't exactly clueless on the subject. After all, they live there. So I'm betting—and I admit this is a bet—that the Chinese… will be smarter than that. Not because they want to be, but because they're forced to be. [They] will have to zig where we zagged."

          Indeed, although I wrote above that the Chinese are still mostly too poor to be able to afford to care about the environment, this may already be changing. The Economist reported in its May 3, 2008 issue that, enabled by the internet and mobile-telephone technology, "[t]he past year has seen the first large-scale, middle-class protests in China over environmental issues." It seems the Chinese are already beginning to "zig."

And How About a Little More Freedom of the Press?

          But clearly, things could be better. In addition to more capitalism, the Chinese could really use some more press freedom, too. The fourth estate is allowed to perform its important function sporadically at best, and this holds true for environmental issues as well as any other. The above-mentioned Economist article tells the tale of Wu Lihong, who was arrested in April of last year. According to his wife, he was brought up on false charges. Mr. Wu's real crime: "his tireless campaigning against pollution around nearby Tai Lake, China's third-biggest freshwater body."

          How can the government get away with this persecution? Adding insult to injury, when Mr. Wu was tried and convicted four months after his arrest, his wife says, "journalists were barred from the proceedings and no witnesses were produced for cross-examination." Before the arrest, Mr. Wu's exploits were "glowingly" reported, but since then, his wife believes the media "have been quietly ordered to avoid mention of her husband." Again, the heavy hand of government is impeding progress toward a cleaner future.

          Yet even the firm grip of the one-party state cannot simply ignore the wishes of its citizens or of the international community. Changjua Wu, the Greater China director at the Beijing office of Climate Group, an international NGO, writes in the August 9, 2008 issue of New Scientist that China is "a country deeply aware of its environmental problems but also of its potential to achieve a second, clean 30-year miracle." Specifically, Wu tells us that the Chinese government is subsidizing wind power, introducing tough fuel economy standards for passenger vehicles, and closing smaller coal-fired power stations to replace them with "a new generation of coal stations that use the most advanced supercritical and ultra-supercritical clean-coal technologies."

          Wu concludes, "The bottom line is that China is doing a lot already, mostly unsung. Could it do more? Yes… [but] the world should revise its image of China, not fear it but work with it constructively." This is good advice, even if Wu is overly sanguine about the positive effects of government action. The best thing the government could do is establish the rule of law and then get out of the way, letting entrepreneurs discover ever better ways of creating wealth and journalists uncover corruption wherever it may be hiding.


1. Economists refer to the phenomenon described in this paragraph, by which nations clean up their act once they can afford to, as the "Environmental Kuznets Curve" or EKC, and it is not without its detractors. A good overview, with specific reference to China, is "The China Syndrome and the Environmental Kuznets Curve" by Steven F. Hayward, published in late 2005 by the American Enterprise Institute. Hayward discusses the controversy surrounding the EKC, but also finds reasons to hope that China may already be turning the corner with regard to certain pollutants.