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Pollution: A Real Political Issue

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by Arthur Waldron, Ph.D
Published on May 9th, 2007

Reports are that at an internal party meeting China’s inscrutable premier Wen Jiabao, recently delivered a scathing indictment of his government’s failure to control the pollution that is rapidly turning much of his country to waste land.

Because pollution is real and tangible, indeed inescapable, this is a very important development. Political prisoners are invisible; human rights such as voting seem abstract, as they have not been practiced in China for sixty years; propaganda eventually bends all but the strongest minds.

But stillbirths and deformities owed to polluted soil and water; the stream that was clear when you were a child but is today a sewer; the particulate laden air that leaves you tearing and coughing; the once mighty rivers that are now mostly mud—these are realities that hit even the simplest people very hard indeed, and that cannot be conjured away with talk and campaigns.

In other words, the Chinese authorities are now facing an issue of a novel sort. It is not about them and their futures. Nor is it about abstract concepts such as human dignity. Rather it is about things that everyone can see, and having seen, accordingly judge the government. Furthermore, no easy or quick solutions are to hand. If the party tackles environmental degradation, as the environment will force it to, disagreements about substance will emerge in the party—fundamental disagreements, not easily resolved by payoffs, dinners, high sounding offices, etc.

When the earthquake hit Tangshan in 1976, killing more people probably than in any other natural disaster in history, and the hospitals of Peking were emptied to make way for truckloads of dying victims, missing arms and legs, piled in heaps, and when the city was sealed off, to be re entered only after days had elapsed, by special crews in space suit like gear—when all that happened the world was none the wiser, and only eyewitnesses in Beijing saw what was really going on. But times have changed. The disaster that has something like seventy percent of China’s water polluted, her air pollution figures classified, and rivers run dry, while persistent pesticides, heavy metals, radioactive medical waste, etc. are dumped heedlessly—is increasingly well known.

Chinese visitors to my house eight miles west of Philadelphia marvel at how clean everything is. Windowsills can go months, even years, without dusting. In Beijing and Shanghai, dusting is a daily Sisyphean labor. That is something they can understand.

Two possibilities exist. One is that the problem is solved, or at least that progress is visible toward its solution. The other is that things get worse. No amount of television programming, speeches, or propaganda will conceal which it is.

China’s rulers must therefore do something. The question is what? The pollution is, after all, the product of communist policies that have effectively outlawed private property, notably in rural land; systematically undervalued resources; paid no attention to externalities of growth, such as environmental degradation, and relied on the police to keep the people in line. To be sure, living standards measured one way are rising. But measured more comprehensively, and taking the destruction of the environment into consideration, they are, at best, not moving.

China is perhaps the most inefficient energy and water user in the world. Her production of value per unit of energy is half that of India, which is no model, and perhaps one fifteenth that of Japan. She uses ten times as much water to produce a unit of value as does Japan. Water and energy prices are subsidized, at least to some extent. All of this is the result of government policy.

For the party to attack pollution, however, will require the party to attack itself. The vast profits from exports made by sweat labor at the cost of pure air and water—those profits accrue, effectively, to the party. The new millionaires who have misappropriated public property and created their own industrial empires that belch out waste are overwhelmingly party members. The goons from the public security bureau who beat up protesters are from the party.

Furthermore, Beijing, the center, has relatively little control over what goes on locally. We have long known this—a fine example was the failed Singapore industrial park in Suzhou, which had approval from the top but somehow was sabotaged by the locals.

To root out the short sighted and destructive policies at the provincial and regional level will require the center somehow to coerce—but how? No legal system worth the name exists. Deeply rooted vested interest in the hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake. Really to pursue local malefactors will threaten unity.

Nor are the central authorities guiltless in this problem,

The way to sum this up is to say that for the first time since 1989 Chinese politics, even the mafia politics of the politburo and party, have content. They are potentially about something other than who is on next as prime minister. They face a problem they must deal with, in a situation in which reality will overwhelm all attempts to manage perception. Some of the people in power will agree with Prime Minister Wen, others will disagree. How will they resolve their disagreements? No one knows, as the whole system is based on a top down approach, in which one person takes the lead and everyone else follows. But that one person no longer exists.

An Australian sinologist long ago—in the 1970s—spoke of China’s "endless, contentless politics." That was a brilliant summation and it has been accurate for most of the twentieth an the beginning of the twenty first century. Nothing real was at stake: only whether the gang from Shanghai or the gang from the Youth League or the gang from the Party School was going to enjoy the perquisites of power.

But now there is content. Indeed there is an environmental crisis. It cannot be covered up, nor can it be cleaned up quickly by mass mobilization and diktats. It has to be solved in a rational way, over time, by a process that is understood to be both fair and effective.

Let us not underestimate the challenge this task will pose to the very fabric of communist rule.

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