Tiger Leaping Gorge in Yunnan Province is one of the most stunning tourist destinations in the world, let alone China. Sheer cliffs drop 3,000 meters from mountain peaks to rapids that eventually become the mighty Yangtze River.
Intrepid, mostly foreign, tourists hike along a treacherous goat track high above the gorge while the less adventurous are bused in to see the place where, according to legend, a local mandarin once saw a tiger jump clear across the foaming torrent.
The tigers are long gone and soon, if plans go ahead, the gorge and its rich mix of ethnic minorities will also disappear.
Xue Xiaokang, a member of the local Naxi minority, along with 1.5 million other residents, will be relocated in the next three years to make way for a massive hydroelectric dam project.
"We hear we will be sent to Shangri-La [a recently renamed city in northern Yunnan] but we definitely don’t want to go; we love this place and our families have always been here," Mr Xue said as he led his mule along the narrow trails built by his ancestors.
The project is billed as "progress" by the Communist Party but when weighed against environmental concerns and the effect on individuals’ lives, its overall benefit to society becomes less clear.
China’s economic boom requires enormous amounts of electricity, at least 70% of which still comes from coal-fired power plants, with their devastating effect on the environment through air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.
Building hydropower stations is part of a campaign to diversify away from coal but the pace of economic growth means the country will be reliant on the abundant black fuel for a long time to come.
Improving coal-burning and energy conservation technology would seem a much better option than destroying the country’s most unspoiled and alluring tourist destinations.
China is one of the most inefficient users of power in the world, with an aging grid that leaks electricity into the ground and incredibly lax enforcement when it comes to pollution controls.
Two encouraging developments are the emphasis in the latest Five-Year Plan on the need to improve energy efficiency and a revamp of the energy department of the powerful central planning agency, the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), to give it more prominence in Beijing policymaking circles.
In recent years the government has begun to talk about the need for "scientific development" – a more balanced approach to economic growth that emphasizes a holistic view as opposed to one in which gross domestic product (GDP) figures are the only measure of success.
Officials at all levels espouse this latest slogan but too often their career advancement prospects are still tied directly to headline growth rates while environmental and other considerations are ignored.
Local government officials are tasked with providing enough jobs to ensure social stability in a rapidly modernizing and industrializing economy characterized by intense competition between cities and regions for foreign and domestic capital investment. Even cadres who do not accept bribes to overlook environmental requirements often do so in order to keep or attract jobs to their jurisdiction.
Some in the government argue that China, which is only now undergoing its own industrial revolution, should have allowances made while it catches up with more developed nations.
But that argument blatantly ignores the wisdom of learning from history as well as the fact that China, with its teeming masses, will never be able to have a consumption-based economy on par with developed countries because of the natural limits imposed by environmental degradation.
A more likely scenario will see other countries revising their own consumption patterns to make way for China’s rise and the ensuing scarcity of resources.
Counting the cost
Prominent bureaucrats at the toothless State Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) have talked for years about introducing a "Green GDP" system to measure the true costs to society of dirty and wasteful economic growth. At present, investment in polluting industries and health costs associated with severe pollution are counted as a positive contribution to GDP growth.
Under a green GDP system the cost of having to clean up environmental destruction or treat people for pollution-related illness would be counted as a negative and reflected in growth figures. Experts in Beijing estimate China’s growth over the past 25 years would actually be half its average 10% annual rate if measured in this way.
Despite much talk, no other country has yet established such a system. Government sources say green GDP is many years off in China because of the difficulty of measuring negative factors and the fact that statistics gathering and reporting is still so unreliable and sensitive to fraud and exaggeration at the local level.
Even if the methodology could be introduced in the near future it is probably already too late for Xue Xiaokang and the gorge that tigers used to leap.
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