China's Rapid Development and the Environment Critics say that China's rapid economic growth leads to pollution in the air and water, and leaves mountains of untreated waste. In one recent incident, an explosion at a Chinese chemical plant spilled benzene into a major river, cutting off the water supply to thousands. As part of an ongoing series on China in the 21st century, experts and guests examine the country's environmental record.
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China's Rapid Development and the Environment

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China's Rapid Development and the Environment

China's Rapid Development and the Environment

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

China's emergence as an economic, political and potentially a military colossus could be the story of the 21st century. Since this summer, we've been taking a look at different aspects of China every month, and for good reason we've talked a lot about growth. Today the down side of China's rapid development: the environment. Every province in China now wants to repeat the success of Shanghai: gleaming skyscrapers, five-star hotels, six-lane highways, major universities, an international airport and a grand opera house to boot. When you do get to the top of one of Shanghai's soaring new hotels these days, the view, though, is usually an ugly cloud of smog and soot. The factories in towns that churn out everything from your latest sneakers to the shiny new bicycle under your Christmas tree also pump out toxic chemicals and waste. And like the economic figures, the environmental numbers are staggering: 16 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world, 70 percent of the country's rivers are tainted with toxins, acid rain, erosion, deforestation, desertification, you name it, China's got it in spades.

Later in the program, we'll go to Capitol Hill where Vice President Cheney had to break a tie vote earlier today as the Senate struggles to vote on deficit reduction, drilling in Alaska, defense appropriations and the Patriot Act.

Plus, after yesterday's decision on intelligent design in Pennsylvania, we'll revisit the Scopes Monkey Trial of 80 years ago.

But first, the environment is today's focus as we continue our series on China in the 21st century. If you have questions about China's environmental problems, if you've seen some of them firsthand or if you want to know more about their effect on China and on the world, our number here in Washington is (800) 989-8255. That's (800) 989-TALK. The e-mail address is

Our guest today is Elizabeth Economy, director of Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of "The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenge to China's Future." She joins us from CFR Studios in New York.

Hope you didn't have too much trouble getting to work today. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

Ms. ELIZABETH ECONOMY (Council on Foreign Relations): Thanks so much, Neal. No, I confess I live two blocks from work, so it wasn't too much of a stretch for me.

CONAN: Makes it a little easier.

Ms. ECONOMY: Right.

CONAN: We seem to be focused today, at least at the beginning, on toxic spills into rivers. We've just heard in the newscast about Russian complaints about the spill into the river, I guess, outside of Harbin, China, that denied drinking water to millions for a while and now is running into Russian territory. Today news of a zinc smelter with--released high levels of cadmium, a metallic element found in batteries. This in Shaoguan in Guangdong province. What's going on?

Ms. ECONOMY: Well, I think that these disasters--environmental disasters really are just the tip of the iceberg, and what they do is, I think, point to the broader systemic environmental challenges that China is facing, both in terms of sort of trying to strike the right balance between the environment and development, and in terms of the governance that China has in--to manage its environmental challenges. So I think both for the international community and for China domestically, these two incidents really provide a window into these broader challenges.

CONAN: Interestingly, in the Harbin, China, incident there in the northern part of the country, China's coldest city, they were--they waited five days before reporting this; in fact, they told people not to drink the water but said, `Oh, the water system isn't working. It has to be repaired.'

Ms. ECONOMY: That's right, and that, again, speaks, I think, to the governance. There are limited opportunities for the media to explore issues. There's little incentive for officials to be the bearer of bad news in China. They're not subject to elections. They report to Beijing, not to the people that they ostensibly govern, and so the initial sort of impulse typically in these cases is to try to cover things up rather than to let the people know what's going on.

CONAN: Eventually in that case, the environment minister lost his job.

Ms. ECONOMY: Right, and I think that was an easy sacrifice for the central party leadership to make. He's a good man. I've met him on a number of occasions. He's a committed environmentalist. It's not clear the extent to which he was made aware of the depth of the problem from Jilin, where the explosion took place, but the environment minister's a relatively weak political player, and it allows the central party leadership to make a show, a political show without really tackling the much more difficult issues at hand.

CONAN: And one of the things I think everybody realizes that environmental problems are gonna be--cause a lot of economic problems for China. We've certainly seen that in this country where environmental problems have certainly cost people a lot of money and ways getting around them have cost even more. But the other factor I wanted to ask you about is the political problems it could cause for that one political party in China.

Ms. ECONOMY: There's no doubt that increasingly we're seeing social unrest surrounding the environment. You know, China has reported--the Chinese government has reported that last year there were upwards of 70,000 protests in the country that involved more than 50 people, and the environment, we've seen just over the course of this past year, upwards of 40, 50,000 people protesting chemical plants that are polluting their cropland and their fisheries. We saw 100,000 people protest in Xinjiang province a dam resettlement program. So we've seen a number of incidents over the past year engaging tens of thousands of people that have turned violent. In some cases, people have died, police have been sent to the hospital, all because of, you know, environmental problems that are not being addressed by local officials effectively.

CONAN: Our guest is Elizabeth Economy of the Council on Foreign Relations. We're talking about China and the 21st century; today, the environment. If you'd like to join us, (800) 989-8255, (800) 989-TALK. The e-mail address is

And, well, let's begin with Christopher, Christopher calling us from Greensboro, North Carolina.

CHRISTOPHER (Caller): Yes, sir. Ever since the Three Gorges dam, I've tried to pay attention to China and its environment and what's been going on there. My question is: How large is the grassroots environmental effort in China, or is the whole country concentrating as a populace on economic growth and modernization of the countryside? And I'll take my answer off the air. Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks for the call, Christopher.

Ms. ECONOMY: That's a terrific question. In fact, since 1994, China has opened the doors to environmental non-governmental organizations. They have to be officially registered with the government but, in fact, by now there are about 2,000 environmental NGOs in the country, and probably another 2,000 that have elected not to be registered, because to register means you have to report your activities, you have to report your membership. There are a lot of sort of strictures that go along with this. But, in fact, they are becoming increasingly proactive.

So in the beginning you saw environmental NGOs in China focusing on relatively politically safe issues--biodiversity protection, environmental education--but today we see these same environmental NGOs launching large-scale efforts to counteract dams, just like the Three Gorges. In fact, you know, a little bit more than a decade ago, Dai Qing, who's one of China's most renowned environmental activists, was put in jail for writing her book that was in opposition to Three Gorges called "Yangtze! Yangtze!" Today, again, many of these environmental NGOs that have been established are working effectively to at least raise the profile of the dams, insist that proper environmental impact assessments are done without fear of political repercussion.

CONAN: And is there reason to fear political repercussions?

Ms. ECONOMY: Absolutely. I mean, there have been instances--in fact, recently in October, an environmental activist was arrested because he had formed a non-governmental organization to monitor the implementation of a government decision to shut down a number of factories that had come after a series of these violent protests that I mentioned earlier, and so he had his environmental NGO called Green Watch, and then local officials arrested him, and we haven't heard from him since.

So at the local level, you know, local officials, in many cases, don't support these environmental NGOs because, in fact, they are good watchdogs at the local level, and they often uncover sort of local malfeasance and bad practice, payoffs, etc., and so local officials get very nervous.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in. This is Scott. Scott's with us from Circleville, Ohio.

SCOTT (Caller): Yes. Thank you very much. Just kind of curious as to how environmentally conscious nations like the United States compete with China, especially when you look at what DuPont's just going through with Teflon and other issues. It just seems very difficult to compete when you look at China. I just wondered how you could answer that.

Ms. ECONOMY: No, you're exactly right. I think that some of the ways that multinationals are trying to make themselves competitive are to work with the Chinese to raise environmental standards so that when they do business in China, in fact, the standards are raised and they try to encourage Chinese companies to adhere to the same standards. Companies like Wal-Mart even or Mattel, Nike, are looking to source now only from factories that have better environmental practices, so they're trying to put pressure on the tens of thousands of companies from which--and factories from which they source to have better environmental practices.

But in general, you're quite right, it's very difficult for, you know, corporations that manufacture in the United States to compete against a country like China where both the costs of labor as well as environmental and labor and safety standards are much lower than they are here.

SCOTT: Thank you very much for your time.

CONAN: Thanks, Scott, for the call.

SCOTT: All right. Bye-bye.

CONAN: And I guess here's a related e-mail question, this from John in Milwaukee: `Could you ask your guest what percentage of this pollution in China is related to production of goods exported to the US?'

Ms. ECONOMY: You know, actually I don't know the answer to that question. I know that about 50 percent of the pollution comes from the small-scale township and village enterprises, many of which in some way contribute to exports, you know, to the international community, but I have to say I don't know precisely, you know, what percentage of the pollution, you know, emanates from companies or corporations or factories that do export.

CONAN: An awful lot of manufacturing, an awful lot of export, and I guess it's hard to break down and, of course, China is its own best internal market.

Ms. ECONOMY: That's true, too, and, in fact, some of the sort of--on the horizon, the greatest sources of pollution--for example, the automobile industry--really are largely--the burden of that is largely borne by the Chinese themselves in terms of pollution.

CONAN: And the automobile as, I guess, everywhere else in the 20th century, is now the 21st century luxury item of choice in China?

Ms. ECONOMY: That's true, and we can expect that probably by 2020 there's going to be a, you know, five times increase in the number of cars on Chinese roads at a minimum.

CONAN: We're talking about China and the environment. Our guest is Elizabeth Economy of the Council on Foreign Relations, author of the book "The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenge to China's Future."

We're gonna take a short break and come back with more of your calls: (800) 989-8255, if you'd like to join us. That's (800) 989-TALK. E-mail us:

I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Today we continue our series on China in the 21st century, and we focus on the down side of China's rapid economic growth, environmental degradation. Our guest is Elizabeth Economy, director of Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, author of "The River Runs Black." Of course, you're invited to join us. If you have questions about China's environmental problems, if you've been there and seen some firsthand, give us a call: (800) 989-8255, (800) 989-TALK. Our e-mail address is

And let's go right to a call. This is Helena, who's calling us from Coral Springs in Florida.

HELENA (Caller): Hi there, Neal. I thank you very much for your program.

CONAN: Oh, thank you.

HELENA: I'm calling you from the pedicure chair, but I just--I'm so compelled by your program. I was in China in 2003 with a group of students, and we were standing on the ...(unintelligible) in Shanghai, and it was morning time and there was quite a lot of smog and pollution, and one of my students made a comment about the amount of pollution there was, and the tour guide was apparently very offended. And my question is: Is this a matter of national pride, this pollution issue with the Chinese, or is it something that officials there readily recognize? And I'd like to hear the comment on the air because I am in the pedicure chair and I won't make any other comments...


HELENA: ...but I want to hear the answer.

CONAN: All right. We'll see if we can--go ahead.

Ms. ECONOMY: OK. I think that you'll find in some cities, particularly like Shanghai, they consider Shanghai to be a leader in environmental protection, so, in fact, the comment by your student probably was taken as somewhat of an insult or an offense, because by and large the Shanghainese believe that over the past five to seven years they have really made great strides in terms of cleaning up their city, and they have a huge program under way to clean up their air quality and their water quality on the Huangpu, which is the river along which you were standing. I think for much of the rest of the country, you know, the interior parts of the country, it's less a matter of national pride. They're still largely focused on development, on raising the standard of living for their people, but I think overall in China's wealthier cities, they are beginning to consider sort of the environment as almost equal to economic development, and they want their cities to be showplaces where the international community will come to visit, where they can host international trade shows, the Olympics, the Expo 20, you know, that's going to take place in Shanghai in 2010. They want their cities to be viewed as the equals of the great cities of the world.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. And as I understand it, in fact the laws on the environment in China are pretty strong. It's just paying any attention to them that's the problem.

Ms. ECONOMY: By and large that's right. I mean, the Chinese are prolific when it comes to writing environmental laws and they, in many cases, model their environmental laws after those in the United States. In some cases still they're a little bit vague, so some Chinese laws might be, you know, five or 10 pages or 20 pages, while a comparable law in the United States might run 100 or 150 pages long. But they do try to--they have tried to develop a strong regulatory standard but, in fact, really where the sort of rubber meets the road is at the implementation at the enforcement level, and that's where the greatest challenge is found.

CONAN: Do they have the equivalent of an EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, agents there?

Ms. ECONOMY: They do. They have in Beijing the state Environmental Protection Administration, which has about 300 people, and that compares to about 6,000 in the US EPA, so you can imagine having 300 people to sort of govern the environment in a country that has 1.3 billion people and is roughly the same size geographically as the United States, is a rather formidable task. They do have local environmental protection bureau officials throughout the country, maybe 60,000 of them, but in fact, these people report to local governments. They're not responsible to the central Environmental Protection Administration directly, so they come under a lot of pressure from local officials in many cases.

CONAN: Well, Helena, we're gonna say goodbye, and I guess your pedicure salon can now offer a--well, you've got digital radio there now.

HELENA: Well, actually I'm just hearing you over the cell phone. That's a wonderful thing. When we used to call in, they used to tell us we had to turn down the radio, so now we can hear all your wonderful comments and enjoy it.


HELENA: So thank you very much. Happy holidays, merry Christmas to everyone.

CONAN: You, too, Helena.

HELENA: Bye-bye.

CONAN: Thanks very much. Bye-bye.

Let's get another caller on the line. This is Rowland. Rowland's in Traverse City in Michigan.

ROWLAND (Caller): Yes, sir. Good afternoon.

CONAN: And good afternoon.

ROWLAND: I'm an airline pilot for a major carrier. I fly in and out of Beijing quite a bit. My first trip there was approximately seven or eight years ago. I took my children to go see the wall. And at that time the pollution was what I called the worst I had ever seen. I can recall quite vividly my children and I were outside one night, outside of the hotel doing some shopping outside--it was a little--some of the little stands. And my children were the first to pick up on the fact, looking up into a clear sky, clear meaning there were no clouds, that it was maybe just a quarter crescent moon, but you could see no stars. There was not--starlight was not enough light to filter through the pollution.

I'd say that was seven or eight years ago, and now I've changed bases and I'm flying regularly into Beijing--I was there last week and I'll be there again several times next week--but in returning to Beijing after an absence of--after seven or eight years, it was incredible the political--excuse me, I should say just the change just within the people. Seven or eight years ago, you know, people were walking around with Mao suits. Seeing a Westerner for them was extremely different and strange. My daughter's blonde, blue-eyed, and they would actually stop and want to have their picture taken with their cameras with my daughter. That was a rare thing. In fact, I can even remember two teen-age girls who were together that was pushing the other girl out of the picture because she wanted to have her picture taken solely with my daughter rather than having her friend in the picture.

After I say seven or eight years, now suddenly going back, people are wearing Izod, what were millions of bicycles now is gridlock traffic. It's incredible the change which has taken place in such a short period of time, but as I say to you, seven or eight years ago, the pollution was bad; now landing at Beijing, it's--day after day is a very foggy day for me to make a landing. It's a case where my first opportunity to see the Beijing skyline here was on my last trip, and the visibility was maybe six or seven miles, and that was incredible to see something.

CONAN: Elizabeth Economy, you--in reading some of these statistics and hearing stories like Rowland's, you have to worry about the athletes at the Olympic Games next summer.

ROWLAND: Well, you know, on that very issue, last winter I was on vacation...

CONAN: Excuse me. Rowland, excuse me. That was actually a question to Elizabeth. We'll get back to you in a minute.

ROWLAND: All right.

CONAN: Go ahead, Elizabeth.

Ms. ECONOMY: Right. Well, I think that Rowland raises a very valid point that there hasn't been the kind of improvement even since 2001 when Beijing won the Olympics bid in terms of the air quality that people had anticipated. And, in fact, a lot of this is due now to the automobile traffic, because they tried to move out a lot of the polluting industries outside the city limits, they're trying to use natural gas instead of coal to heat the city, so they're trying to make these improvements, but as he reports, the situation is still quite, you know, significantly behind schedule. In fact, last fall they were forced to cancel the French air show because they didn't have enough visibility. So--but I think when the time comes for the Olympics, in fact what they'll do is simply shut down all industry, they will prohibit cars from going, you know, into the areas where the athletes will be, they will ensure that they have clear skies for the Olympics. But in terms of the real systemic changes that need to be made, those have yet to happen.

CONAN: And I'm sorry, Rowland, you wanted to make another point?

ROWLAND: Oh, on that very issue that she was talking about, last winter I was on vacation, and I happened to have an opportunity to meet a couple who was with the--or I should say he was with the State Department in Beijing as a political officer for the United States. And he had told me that during the lobbying that China was doing for the purposes of obtaining the Olympics, whenever the Olympic Committee was coming to town, they would shut the factories down approximately a week in advance for the purposes of cleaning up the environment and making it look good for the Olympic Committee.

CONAN: Yeah, and I guess for the TV pictures that we'll see from Beijing.

ROWLAND: Very much so.

CONAN: Yeah. Rowland, thanks very much for the call and good luck on your next flight.

ROWLAND: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

Let's turn now to Ken, and Ken is calling from Tucson, Arizona.

KEN (Caller): Hi, Neal.


KEN: All right, I lived in China on two separate occasions, first as a student in 2001-2002, and then I went there for work in 2004, and so I got to travel around the country extensively throughout southern China and western China, and I was able to see a lot of the environmental degradation firsthand. You know, deforestation, particularly in small towns, you know, just garbage everywhere, no real, like, sanitation infrastructure. And, you know, I talked to a lot of my Chinese friends about this, about what they felt about it and, you know, a lot of times they kind of just shrugged it off. They said (Chinese spoken), meaning, like, you know, there's nothing you can do. They kind of reasoned it as well, `First, we're going to develop economically, and then we'll worry about that when we're a developed nation.'

Now my question was, you know, this sort of economic development and environmental protection, does it have to be mutually exclusive, and can China afford to wait that long? You know, I mean, the human cost is rising, it's hampering economic development to some degree and everything. So my question was, you know, does it have to be mutually exclusive, and if it is, can China afford to wait that long?

CONAN: That's a good question. Elizabeth Economy?

Ms. ECONOMY: Yeah, that's--I think that is the question, and I think what you find now again is that in some of the more developed cities, in the wealthier cities where there are proactive leaders, that they are starting to invest more of their local revenues into environmental protection. There's recognition within Beijing that the environment and development do have to go hand in hand, because as you mentioned, environment is beginning to impinge on economic growth. The statistics are really quite staggering. I mean, things like $28 billion lost every year in terms of industrial output because of lack of water. So they're beginning to take this seriously. They're concerned about public health. You know, recently the Chinese Ministry of Public Health came out and said that 400,000 people are dying prematurely in China every year because of respiratory infections related to air pollution. And then I think the third factor is really that of social unrest, which we talked about earlier. And here this really goes to the core of what the Chinese government wants which is really political stability and to maintain the authority of the Communist Party.

So I think that there is recognition within Beijing and some of the wealthier cities that environment and development can go hand in hand. They've started to put into practice some new policies that address that, like trying to calculate a green GDP, but I think we're a long way off, again, from really reshaping the way that the entire country begins to address that balance between the environment and development.

KEN: OK. Thank you very much.

CONAN: And, Ken, thanks for the call. We appreciate it.

KEN: Mm-hmm.

CONAN: We're talking about China in the 21st century, the environment. Our guest is Elizabeth Economy of the Council on Foreign Relations, and you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let me ask you about some of the global effects of this. Obviously, many countries now rely on China's economy for their own development, but beyond that, there is the issue of global warming. China, along with the United States, declined to sign the Kyoto Accords. Is this going to be a continuing problem?

Ms. ECONOMY: There's no doubt. China is the second largest contributor to climate change in the world after the United States, so we have one of the great partnerships right now between the United States and China on this issue. China's also the largest contributor to ozone depletion in the world. It is the largest importer of illegally logged timber and pulp and paper products. It is exporting many of its worst environmental practices abroad as it goes into Latin America and Southeast Asia. Chinese timber companies, Chinese mining companies, which, again, have some of the worst labor, environmental and safety standards, are, you know, simply exporting their way of doing business to many of these developing countries. So China's really exerting, I think, quite a profound impact on the global environment in a whole range of ways.

CONAN: And as--is this policy--are their policies, rather--is that going to have an effect on foreign investment, which has again been another major portion of the engine for rapid development?

Ms. ECONOMY: Well, already I think some multinationals are thinking about the cost of doing business in China. When their top managers don't want to be based in China because, for example, the air quality isn't good, they don't want to subject their children to Chinese air quality issues or the water quality problems, I think that's one challenge. Again, if they're not competitive in China because the standards are so low environmentally, yet their standards are much higher but they can't compete against Chinese industries, that's a second consideration.

What the Chinese government has done is to call upon multinationals to lead in environmental protection, and they give a lot of positive play to those companies, like Shell or Mattel or Coca-Cola--these are some of the companies that are supporting environmental protection activities within China or have best practices, and they get a lot of positive attention in the Chinese media. The Chinese government may, you know, provide them with some kind of awards for their environmental practices. So they're trying to find ways to entice, you know, foreign companies to come in and sort of raise the level of the environmental standards within the country.

CONAN: And let's see if we can get one final call in; just two minutes left. William--William from Mystic, Connecticut.

WILLIAM (Caller): Hi. How are you?

CONAN: Very good.

WILLIAM: Thanks for having me on the show.


WILLIAM: I'm a college senior and I spent this past summer traveling throughout China, and I was--just interesting to notice the personal behaviors of the people within the country, in both the city and the country, were so wasteful in their pollution habits. And I was wondering how the country can change the microenvironmental effects on their country, and how they can form some sort of policy to change this behavior.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. And what were you talking about, in particular, William--burning coal, that sort of thing?

WILLIAM: Burning coal and burning trash; in particular, I traveled down the Yangtze River, and all of the people on the boats would just throw all of their trash into the river, and the conditions were just terrible. There was trash throughout the river and throughout all of the countryside.

CONAN: All right. Elizabeth Economy?

Ms. ECONOMY: Right. I think that's a great question, because it really speaks to both the incentive and disincentive system that the country has fashioned for environmental protection, so that the fines or the disincentives for doing the wrong thing are not significant enough. Enforcement is weak and there's very little penalty that comes, either at a personal level or at a company or factory level, for doing the wrong thing. Many factories in China would simply rather, you know, pay a low fee and continue to pollute than to actually use pollution control technology and, you know, do the right thing. And at the same time, incentives aren't there. So water isn't priced appropriately. It's way far below the cost of replacement, so that, you know, about 20 percent of all water in China is lost simply through leaky pipes. It's this kind of incentive and disincentive system that really needs to be restructured.

CONAN: William, thanks very much for the call.

WILLIAM: Oh, thank you very much for having me on.

CONAN: All right.

Elizabeth Economy, thank you for your time today.

Ms. ECONOMY: Thanks very much, Neal.

CONAN: Elizabeth Economy, director of Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, author of "The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenge to China's Future." She joined us from the CFR studio in New York.

When we come back, high drama on Capitol Hill. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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