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Talking Points


Laws control the lesser man. Right conduct controls the greater one? (Chinese proverb) A SLEEPING GIANT AWAKENS

China is one of the world’s oldest civilizations, consisting of states and cultures dating back more than six millennia. It has the world’s longest continuously used written language system, and it is the source of some of the world’s great inventions, including the Four Great Inventions of ancient China: paper, the compass, gunpowder and printing.

Since 1978, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) government has been reforming its economy from a Soviet-style centrally planned economy to a more market-oriented economy while remaining within the political framework provided by the Communist Party of China. This system has been called “Socialism with Chinese characteristics” and is one type of mixed economy. The People’s Republic of China now has the fourth largest economy in the world when measured by nominal GDP. Its economic output for 2006 was $2.68 trillion USD, and although its per capita GDP in 2006 was approximately only US $2,000 (quite low by world standards) it has been rising rapidly. As of 2005, 70% of China’s GDP was in the private sector. The smaller public sector is dominated by about 200 large state enterprises concentrated mostly in utilities, heavy industries and energy resources.


China’s mercurial rise to economic power has been the fastest industrialisation in history, with the past six years of growth equating to double the total annual economic output of India. This growth has taken close to 400 million people out of poverty in China, but the environmental impacts have been nothing short of devastating.

More than half of China’s 1.3 billion population, including 278 cities, live without any form of sewage treatment, and eight of those cities have populations of more than 500,000. It has become the world’s top emitter of acid-rain causing sulphur dioxide and many analysts expect it to overtake the United States this year as the biggest greenhouse gas emitter. This pollution has taken on greater urgency as Beijing tries to clean up its notoriously toxic air before hosting the 2008 Olympics next August.


Pollution is hitting the two major Chinese rivers (the Huai and the Yangtze) as well as all of their tributaries. Control points stretched along the waterways reveal a level of pollution equal to 5 (on a scale of 7) or worse: in many cases, the waters are so polluted that physical contact is advised against. According to Mao Rubai, chairman of the National People’s Congress (NPC) environment and resources protection committee, the volume of waste pumped into China’s rivers is “enormous”. This situation is directly related to the fact that water pollution standards for the country’s industries are either too low or nonexistent, and the sheer volume of toxic waste pumped in far exceeds the capacity of the river basins to replenish themselves.
Either way, whatever controls and limits imposed by the government are generally completely ignored by the industries. The South China Morning Post in Hong Kong cites as an example the Jinyuan chemical company on the banks of the Han River. Operating since the 1970s, it has collected numerous official complaints from local authorities, which have frequently ordered the cessation of all production and the application of government standards for waste treatment. Yet Jinyuan has never stopped production, not even for one day.

Exports in Exhaust

Another of China’s lesser-known exports is a dangerous brew of soot, toxic chemicals and climate-changing gases from the smoke stacks of coal-burning power plants. In April 2007, a dense cloud of pollutants over Northern China sailed to nearby Seoul, sweeping along dust and desert sand before wafting across the Pacific. An American satellite spotted the cloud as it crossed the west coast. Researchers in California, Oregon and Washington noticed specks of sulphur compounds, carbon and other by-products of coal combustion coating the silvery surfaces of their mountaintop detectors. These microscopic particles can work their way deep into the lungs, contributing to respiratory damage, heart disease and cancer.
The sulphur dioxide produced in coal combustion poses an even more immediate threat to the health of China’s own citizens, contributing to about 400,000 premature deaths a year. It also causes acid rain that poisons lakes, rivers, forests and crops. Unless China finds a way to clean up its coal plants and the thousands of factories that burn coal, pollution will soar both at home and abroad. The increase in global-warming gases from China’s coal use will probably exceed that for all industrialised countries combined over the next 25 years, surpassing by five times the reduction in such emissions that the Kyoto Protocol seeks.

Everybody’s Problem?

Already, China uses more coal than the United States, the European Union and Japan combined, and it has increased coal consumption 14 percent in each of the past two years. Aware of the country’s growing reliance on coal and of the dangers from burning so much of it, China’s leaders have vowed to improve the nation’s energy efficiency. No-one thinks that this effort will be enough. To make a big improvement in emissions of global-warming gases and other pollutants, the country must install the most modern equipment – equipment that for the time being must come from other nations.
Seeing as the Chinese are merely following in our own toxic footsteps. industrialised countries need to help by providing loans or grants, as the Japanese government and the World Bank have done, or by sharing technology. Unfortunately, many of China’s utilities have in the past preferred to buy cheap but often antiquated equipment from well-connected domestic suppliers instead of importing costlier gear from the West. The Chinese government has been reluctant to approve the extra spending. They feel that asking customers to shoulder the bill would set back the government’s efforts to protect consumers from inflation and to create jobs and social stability.

A familiar, but dangerously flawed logic that may end up making corpses of us all. AF KECK


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