SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 103 - September 2006

China’s ecological suicide

a global nightmare

China is committing ecological suicide, argues LAURENCE COATES – destroying its waterways, atmosphere and natural resources to fuel runaway industrialisation. And this process threatens the entire planet. Just as the Chinese people are among the main victims of global warming, mainly caused by the older industrialised ‘West’, China’s latest export wave – acid rain, air pollution and even more greenhouse gases – is a major threat to the global environment.

IN APRIL, THE population of Beijing awoke to find a yellow blanket covering the city. A massive sandstorm originating from Southern Mongolia had dumped an estimated 300,000 tons of sand dust on the Chinese capital, with the authorities urging its 14 million people to stay indoors. Desertification in northern China and one of the most acute water shortages in the world, alongside the effects of global warming, has increased the frequency and ferocity of such storms. While Beijing was struck by five severe sandstorms in the 1950s, this rose to 20 in the 1990s, and eight so far this year!

Extreme weather conditions, environmental shocks and pollution scandals are grabbing the headlines in China, despite the ‘communist’ regime’s continuing tight grip on the media. There is a growing popular questioning of the regime’s pursuit of rapid but uncontrolled industrialisation, and the antics of corrupt officials who in cahoots with local and foreign capitalists are fast obliterating the country’s land, forests, rivers and other natural resources.

Desert now accounts for a quarter of China’s landmass and is advancing at the rate of over 3,000 square kilometres a year. The destruction of China’s natural forests as a result of ill-planned cultivation during the Mao era, industrialisation and, more recently, widespread illegal logging, is the main cause of desertification. A government crackdown on the loggers has driven them into Burma, Indonesia and the Amazon, where Chinese companies are notorious for evading local laws in order to feed China’s booming furniture export trade.

With pollution-related mass protests rising ten-fold over the last decade, the Chinese dictatorship is increasingly forced to pay lip service to a ‘green agenda’. According to the World Bank, of the 20 most polluted cities in the world, 16 are in China. More than 100 million people live in cities like Beijing where the air is considered ‘very dangerous’. The approach of the 2008 Beijing Olympics – improbably dubbed the ‘Green Olympics’ by regime propagandists – adds to the pressure on the ruling Communist Party (CCP). But, above all, it is the rising economic cost of environmental destruction that alarms the CCP leaders. The World Bank estimates this is costing China 7.7 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) every year. By this measure, its recent headline GDP growth rates of 10% a year are not so impressive. Giving vent to the pessimism in official circles, deputy environment minister Pan Yue warned of millions of "environmental refugees" and predicted that China’s so-called economic miracle "will end soon because the environment can no longer keep pace". (Spiegel, 7 March 2005).

‘Life-threatening environmental crisis’

ACCORDING TO the US environmentalist Elizabeth Economy, hundreds of millions of Chinese face "a life-threatening environmental crisis". The poisoning of its rivers, into which largely untreated industrial waste and sewage is routinely pumped, means that 700 million Chinese drink contaminated water. China now produces as much organic water pollution as the US, Japan and India combined, which explains its high rates of hepatitis A, diarrhoea, and liver and stomach cancers. Of the 500 largest Chinese cities, 193 undertake no sewage treatment whatsoever, according to a report from the State Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA). Thirty thousand children die every year from diarrhoea caused by drinking unclean water. The Ministry of Health openly acknowledges that environmental pollution is behind a 25 per cent increase in birth defects nationwide since 2001.

The dangers were brought home to the entire population in November 2005, when 3.8 million people in the north-eastern city of Harbin had their water supplies cut off for a week following an explosion at a petrochemical plant 350 kilometres away. The scandal at Harbin, involving a 100-ton toxic slick of the deadly chemical benzene, and a botched cover-up by local authorities, forced the environment minister’s resignation. Yet appalling industrial accidents of this kind are a weekly occurrence in China. While the central government can make an example of this or that errant official, the incentive to cut corners in order to maximise profits means that countless other transgressions go unpunished and often unreported at local level.

Around 60 per cent of the water in the seven major river systems – the Yangtze, Yellow, Huai, Songhua, Hai, Liao and Pearl River – is ‘unfit for human contact’. Even the Yangtze, the world’s fourth longest river and previously considered too big to poison, is a ‘dying river’ according to a recent official report. With 25 billion tons of mostly untreated wastewater pumped into the Yangtze every year, its water is ‘cancerous’ and a threat to drinking supplies in the 186 cities along its banks. The official Xinhua news agency reported a pollution belt stretching hundreds of kilometres from the inland metropolis of Chongqing all the way to Shanghai. Cities along the Yangtze must tap far away reservoirs for drinking water or drill deeper into the underground aquifer, a process that causes land subsidence. Shanghai’s city centre has sunk 1.7 metres over the past 40 years.

This explains the increasingly heated debate surrounding the mastodon $50 billion project to divert 45 billion cubic metres of water from the Yangtze to China’s arid north via a network of canals, dams and tunnels to be completed over the next four decades. The south-to-north water diversion scheme is the regime’s answer to the acute water shortage in Beijing and other northern cities. As pollution exacerbates China’s water crisis, however, even water rich southern regions like the Pearl River Delta and Yangtze River Delta are now experiencing water shortages.

River runs dry

WATER, EVEN MORE than oil, is a vital commodity in any industrialised society and therefore the object of potentially serious conflicts. Inter-provincial conflicts over natural resources are nothing new in China and are set to intensify. This is due to the increasing sway of private – including foreign – capital, deregulation, and the anarchic jostling for economic advantage between the provinces. There has been fierce competition for control of water resources between mainly agricultural upstream provinces and the industrialised coastal ones.

"There’s growing tension among rural interests, urban interests and factories over who gets water. Water will become a major problem in China in the next decade", warned Yukon Huang of the World Bank.

On a per capita basis, water consumption is 2.5 times higher in the cities than in the countryside. The rapid growth of China’s cities means urban demand for water is set to rise by 60 per cent over the next five years.

The CCP regime’s love affair with large dam projects has further aggravated the situation. It is "a dictatorship run by engineers, in particular hydropower engineers", argues Jesper Becker in Asia Times. President Hu Jintao is by profession a hydropower engineer, as is former prime minister Li Peng, whose son heads the China Huaneng Group, involved in several major dam projects including the world’s biggest, the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River. Nearly half the world’s 45,000 large dams are in China (22,104). Many more are underway as the regime aims to double China’s hydropower output by the year 2010.

CCP spokesmen insist the dams help prevent devastating floods and generate clean electric power, helping to reduce dependence on coal, which currently produces 70 per cent of China’s electricity. Hydropower is undoubtedly cleaner than coal, but not without serious adverse effects on the environment. The problem of severe flooding has become worse despite the proliferation of dams, due to global factors such as climate change but also local factors, particularly silting of the riverbed. This was illustrated when the Yangtze burst its banks in 1998, killing 4,000 people and causing $30 billion-worth of damage. The dangers that flow from excessive dam building are illustrated by the fate of the Yellow River – known as the ‘cradle of Chinese civilisation’ – which has been dammed virtually out of existence. In 1972, the river failed to reach the sea for the first time. Nowadays, with the exception of the rainy season the Yellow River is prone to run dry about 1,000 kilometres from the coast.

Opposition to new dam projects has been the main issue for the emerging environmental movement in China. As Chinese author Dale Wen points out, "At the root of the rush to build more dams is deregulation and privatisation of the utility industry. The phenomenon is generally known as ‘enclosure of the waters’ in Chinese". (China Copes with Globalization, December 2005).

By restricting water flow, the dams limit a river’s natural ability to dilute and break down industrial pollution. They also aggravate the problem of sedimentary build-up or silting. This has led to the absurd situation in which the construction of large dams creates the need for more dams to ‘correct’ problems caused by the existing ones. Large dam projects have been catastrophic for China’s bio-diversity: The Three Gorges Dam threatens the world’s only fresh water dolphin and several other unique species with extinction. The human cost too has been monumental. So far 16 million Chinese have been displaced by dam projects, the majority condemned to unemployment and destitution. Local officials often cheat ‘dam refugees’ out of the meagre compensation due to them under Chinese law. Mass protests, marches and battles with the police have become a common feature of dam clearance schemes.

Fossil fuel addiction

CHINA’S CONSUMPTION OF fossil fuels has exploded as its economy has surged, but in a hugely wasteful and uncontrolled fashion, with "vast overcapacity" in industry according to Chinese premier Wen Jiabao. So, while it accounts for five per cent of global GDP, China consumes 12 per cent of the world’s primary energy resources and is now the number two producer of greenhouse gases after the United States. Between 1996 and 2003, China’s oil imports increased from 20 million tons to 90 million tons annually. More than a third of this increase is due to the expansion of the motor vehicle fleet, already the world’s third largest and growing rapidly under the impact of World Trade Organisation (WTO) market-opening rules.

"China has begun to enter the age of mass car consumption. This is a great and historic advance", proclaimed Xinhua proudly in 2004. The environmental impact of this is, of course, devastating. Based on research by the State Environmental Protection Agency, vehicle exhaust emissions already account for 79 per cent of total air pollution in China. If this is so today, with 33 million motor vehicles on Chinese roads, consider what will happen when that figure rises to 130 million by 2020, as most industry analysts predict. China will in that case have amassed, in a relatively short span of time, around half as many vehicles as in the United States today. As is widely known, motor vehicles are the single biggest source of atmospheric pollution, causing around 14 per cent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions – the most common ‘greenhouse gas’.

Not surprisingly, with nearly 1,000 new cars hitting the streets of Beijing every single day, it recently became the ‘air pollution capital of the world’, based on satellite data from the European Space Agency. Not only are the people the capital being poisoned; motor traffic in Beijing now moves at less than half the speed (eleven kilometres an hour during peak periods) than when it was still known as the world’s ‘bicycle kingdom’ in the 1980s!

While other famously polluted metropolises like Mexico City and Los Angeles have an air pollution index of 66 and 44 respectively, Beijing has recorded figures above 300, at which point the air becomes ‘hazardous’. For a child exposed to this level of airborne toxins, this is equivalent to smoking 40 cigarettes a day!

Despite the huge rise in oil consumption, coal is still the main driver of the Chinese economy. Given the three-fold rise in world oil prices since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, this dependence on coal has grown. China is the world’s biggest producer, with total estimated coal reserves of 5.5 trillion tons. Domestic production has rocketed from less than one billion tons of coal in 2000 to two billion last year. The coal boom has spawned countless small ‘wildcat’ coalmines across China, and directly contributed to the carnage in that industry. Almost 6,000 Chinese coal miners were killed last year, 80 per cent of the global total. In India, where miners are organised in trade unions, mining deaths are one-tenth the level in China. As one Indian commentator pointed out, if the Indian coal industry suffered a similar horrific body count, the government would fall.

Every seven to ten days a new coal-fired power station opens somewhere in China. Given that only one-fifth of China’s coal is washed, coal-power produces massive quantities of sulphur dioxide causing around 400,000 premature deaths a year through heart and lung disease. It also creates acid rain, which falls on nearly 40 per cent of China’s territory – poisoning rivers, forests and crops. According to the World Bank, crop loss from acid rain alone costs China $5 billion annually. In Chongqing, which burns 15 million tons of coal every year, acid rain has stripped the paint off traffic signs.

‘Green GDP’?

CONSIDERING THAT CHINA just two decades ago was a Stalinist ‘command’ economy, today’s anarchic state of affairs – the almost complete lack of even minimal environmental controls – can seem incongruous. In fact, the Stalinist regimes of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping wrought colossal environmental damage, due to arbitrary and adventuristic policies that, in the absence of democratic controls by the working class, could not be reversed or modified. The wholesale destruction of forests carried out under Mao, designed to expand the area under cultivation and achieve complete food self-sufficiency, has led to widespread soil erosion, flooding and landslides.

But the growth of capitalist relations and even more pervasive official corruption since that time has powerfully undermined the central government’s grip on the provinces and, therefore, over the economy. Today, barely ten per cent of China’s environmental laws and regulations are actually enforced. SEPA, the government’s environmental protection arm, is, according to the Financial Times, "a weak and understaffed actor in the Beijing bureaucracy", with a staff of just 250 compared to 18,000 at its US equivalent. China’s ‘strong’ central government, in other words, is a myth!

While the government still produces a ‘five-year plan’, this is no longer in any sense a directive to the state-owned sector that still accounts for half of industrial production, but rather a set of guidelines. A 2004 government study found that half the sewage treatment facilities built under the last plan (2001-05) were not being used because local officials considered operating them too expensive. Similarly, although two-thirds of factories have water purification equipment, most choose not to use it. Not only are the fines for non-compliance usually cheaper than the cost of running the equipment, but local governments also derive a significant part of their budget income from collecting the fines. The new five-year plan approved in March, promises greater use of ‘Green GDP’ (economic production less environmental costs) as an official measure. But the National Bureau of Statistics has yet to agree what criteria to apply when compiling this information. Not surprisingly, local governments are not keen on ‘Green GDP’ measurements – their income and influence within the government machinery are based on the past year’s economic performance. A pilot scheme introduced in Shanxi province in 2004 concluded that, based on ‘Green GDP’, its economy had hardly grown at all for the past 20 years. This province, which produces one-third of China’s coal, suffers from massive subsidence caused by its network of underground tunnels. One-seventh of the land in Shanxi – twice as big as Austria – has caved in, leaving 400,000 people homeless. The picture is similar in other resource rich regions. Of 118 cities whose economies depend mainly on natural resources, supplies are running out in thirty. The Economist reported that, "protesters blocking bridges and roads, and staging sit-ins and other kinds of demonstrations had become common sights in these cities", some of which have unemployment rates in excess of 20 per cent.

Clearly, the Chinese dictatorship is incapable of arresting the headlong rush of the country – and with it the whole planet – towards ecological suicide. Only by completely reconstructing the Chinese state along democratic socialist lines, ending the rule of the so-called ‘communist’ party (in reality a pro-capitalist bureaucratic dictatorship) and taking the economy into democratic public ownership and control, can the present disastrous course be changed. To bring about such a fundamental shift, China’s fast-growing environmental movement must link up with working class resistance to privatisation, deregulation and sweatshop labour, a movement that has experienced an even more dramatic upswing in recent years.

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