The lifting of 400 million people out of absolute poverty over the last 30 years has had a price, and today environmental degradation is one of the biggest problems facing China and its economy.
Acute water shortages and toxic waterways, air pollution, diminished resources and industrial wastelands – the problems are numerous and vast and increasingly extend well beyond the national borders. But the good news is that the extent of the damage and the unsustainability of current levels of waste and pollution have brought about a revolution in Chinese attitudes, most noticeably within the last three years.
While environmental initiatives in the West mostly began with popular grassroots movements, the momentum in China has come from the top, in the form of legislation and political directives. Beijing began espousing a somewhat vague and undefined doctrine of "sustainable development" in early 2003, but since the late 1970s China has implemented a large number of laws and regulations and it now has some of the best environmental legislation in the world. A regulation introduced as far back as 1978 even stipulated that in places where pollution was serious and where attitudes were resistant to change local government officials would be sacked or even targeted with legal action.
The big problem with all these environmental laws is that they aren't effectively enforced. The Environmental Impact Assessment Law, effective from September 1, 2003 stipulates the government should hold a public hearing and collect expert opinions on any projects that might damage the environment or hurt public environmental interests before examination and approval. In the current political climate this sort of utopian legislation is most likely to induce a wry chuckle.
Pressure to skirt enforcement
Except in a few notable cases, laws such as this one are generally ignored by local, and even central, government as being unrealistic or downright impossible. Faced with record unemployment and an ever-shifting tax base, even the incorruptible among local officials find it very difficult to impose stringent environmental laws on profitable polluters who are liable to close up shop and move to a neighboring district governed by more reasonable cadres.
Since Deng Xiaoping started the country on its path of "reform commentary and opening up" twenty-five years ago, growth has been the mantra in China. Amongst the many astute aphorisms attributed to Deng ("To be rich is glorious", "I don't care if the cat is black or white just so long as it catches mice" etc) there is no mention of conservation and environmentalism. But the 2008 Beijing Olympics are to be known as the "Green Olympics" and today the Mao-era official mentality of doing battle with nature has disappeared and been replaced by the buzz-words "sustainability" and 'environmentalism'.
Especially within the last three years, the reporting on environmental matters in the Chinese media has changed dramatically. While usually very careful not to directly criticize the central government, Chinese media are increasingly reporting specific cases of serious pollution and a relatively open debate has sprung up in the editorial pages of the official state press.
It is true that part of this new-found emphasis comes from the loosening and commercialization of the media, but another major reason is recognition at the highest level of leadership of the severity of China's ecological problems – because of the issue's importance it is no longer on the list of taboo subjects.
"The economy is overheated if measured by the sustainability against the availability of resources," said Wu Xiaoling, vice-governor of the People's Bank of China, at the Boao Forum for Asia earlier this year. She went on to say that none of the nation's energy, water and land resources could support the current growth rate.
It is hard to imagine a central banker in any other country saying such a thing, but those words pale in comparison to those of Pan Yue. Pan is the deputy director of the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) and many inside and outside the central government regard him as a maverick reformer. He is the face and voice of the government's environmental policy.
Foremost among his visionary environmental proposals is the concept of a "Green GDP" accounting system. By some estimates if the damage caused to the environment through China's industrialization were to be taken into consideration in calculating the GDP growth figure for the last 25 years then it would probably be closer to zero, rather than the 15 odd percentage points recorded in the history books.
The Green GDP concept is simple – rather than counting things like environmental cleanup operations as adding to the GDP, such things are deducted from the overall figure so it better reflects social, as well as financial, well-being in an economy.
Of course this is a long way off and at present is being paid little more than lip service. China's economy is still growing extremely fast and conservation measures are far from keeping up. About 70% of China's energy production still comes from coal-fired power plants and despite enormous expansion in nuclear and hydro capacity this proportion is expected to decrease only very slowly because of massive increases in demand for power.
The most striking example of the conflict between the growth imperative and environmental concerns is the rapidly burgeoning automobile industry. The one million cars in China in 1990 ballooned to 24 million by the end of 2003, and conservative estimates put the figure at 57 million by 2010, and 130 million by 2020.
Seen as a "strategic" sector by Beijing, auto manufacturing is one of the largest engines of growth. At the same time experts have warned that vehicle emissions have now become the largest source of urban air pollution and SEPA warns that motor exhausts will account for 79% of total air pollution in China next year.
The central government itself has made it clear that an economy based on a Western consumption model is increasingly unsustainable for China. By identifying the environment as a top priority the government has started a process that will hopefully allow utopian talk of sustainable development to eventually become reality.
It's not only the Chinese who hold a stake in the success of their environmental initiatives. In the words of Liang Congjie, China's leading independent environmentalist: "If Chinese wanted to live like Americans, we would need the resources of four worlds to do so."