1998 PRC Environment Book “Deep Concerns” by Zheng Yisheng and Qian Yihong Translation Summary

The 1998 book by Zheng Yisheng and Qian Yihong, economists at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, made a deep impression on me twenty years ago when I worked in the Environment, Science and Technology section of U.S. Embassy Beijing.   Today, although we have much more and of couse more recent information about China’s environmental challenges, the deep analysis here of how various aspects of China’s political and economic system complicate facing the challenges are still valuable now two decades later.  

I had the privilege of meeting the authors several times.  I shared a summary translation of the book with colleagues and got permission for it to put the summary translation on the then web page of U.S. Embassy Beijing so that it would get wider circulation.  The EST section webpage is still preserved on the Internet Archive at http://web.archive.org/web/20000815110546/http://www.usembassy-china.org.cn/english/sandt/index.html

Today I republish that translation summary here on my translation blog.

Copied below is the summary translation.

China’s Environment, Politics and the Economy: Grave Concerns by Zheng Yisheng and Qian Yihong

Introduction: U.S. Embassy Beijing in 1999 produced a six-part summary translation of Grave Concerns [Shendu Youhuan], a 1998 book by two economists at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Zheng Yisheng and Qian Yihong. Grave Concerns highlighted the politics of the environment, in particular how poor coordination, political structures that make it hard to set proper priorities and corruption are the major underlying causes of pollution. The authors conclude, with many other Chinese environmentalists, that corruption is the most serious form of pollution and that a more democratic political system is needed that can effectively reduce corruption and set proper priorities. Grave Concerns has stood the test of time, unfortunately. While China has made progress on energy efficiency and cutting pollution, the sheer pace of economic growth means that pollution often increases even though pollution per unit of GDP is still declining. Some cities on the east seaboard, including Shenyang and Beijing, have made progress on reducing air pollution. Even there, however, the gains made by reducing industrial pollution are to some extent being lost as pollution from motor vehicle emissions increase. The big picture today remains much the same today as when this book was written in 1998. Readers will likely find that Grave Concerns helps them understand the China’s environmental problems in their political and economic context.

[See the old webpages referred to here by inputting this URL on the Internet Archive website    http://www.internetarchive.org ]

Deep Concerns  深度忧患


PRC Environmental Grave Concerns – Part 1

A February 1999 report from U.S. Embassy Beijing

Summary: Grave Concerns an October 1998 book written by two Chinese Academy of Social Sciences Environmental and Development Institute researchers, presents an overview of China’s environmental problems, Chinese views on the international dimensions of sustainable development, and a deep analysis of the technological, social and political barriers to sustainable development in China. The authors point out that China has reasonable environmental laws and policies but has been unable to implement them because of poor coordination among ministries and between local governments and the center. The authors conclude that waste arising from a collective property system in which no one exercises property rights over natural resources, widespread corruption, and the failure to respect laws and individual economic rights are the principal obstacles to sustainable development in China. This is the first in a series of five reports which present a summary translation of Grave Concerns Part one examines the awakening of China to environmental deterioration during the 1970s, an overview of China’s environmental problems, and the international and Chinese internal debate on sustainable development.

Grave Concerns — Problems of Sustainable Development for China 深度忧患 [Shendu Youhuan — Dangdai Zhongguo de Kechixu Fazahan Wenti] is a volume in the influential China’s Problems Series. Grave Concerns was published by Today’s China Publishing House in October 1998. Authors Zheng Yisheng 郑易生 [STC: 6774 2496 3932] and Qian Yihong 钱薏红 [STC: 6929 5650 4767] are the Vice Director and the Secretary-General of the Environment and Development Research Institute at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Like many other books published since the fall 1997 Fifteenth Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, Grave Concerns finds that not just corrupt individuals or bad policies but deep structural problems in China’s political and economic system are the key barriers to China’s social and economic progress.

Part one of this five part series of summary translations from Grave Concerns covers a brief introduction to China’s environmental predicament; Chinese perspectives on the injustice of the world economic order and the international development of sustainable development; China’s effort to “win equality for China in the eyes of the foreigners while combating ignorance at home” how China must confront simultaneous and increasingly acute crises of population, food and pollution in the coming decades; China’s position in the international global warming and CO2 emissions debate; and a short account of environmental protection in China since 1972.

Page numbers refer to the first edition of Grave Concerns published as a volume of the China’s Problems series by the Today’s China Publishing House [Jinri Zhongguo Chubanshe] in October, 1998. Embassy Beijing summary review/translations of two other volumes in the China Problems series — China Doesn’t Want to Be Mr. No and Competition on the Pacific Ocean — are available on the Embassy Beijing Environment, Science and Technology Section web page at http://www.usembassy-china.gov/english/sandt/bjbkwrm.html


China’s Environmental Woes: Awakening in the Seventies

Chinese Academy of Preventive Medicine epidemiological studies conducted 1976 ?1980 in a study of 26 large Chinese cities, including Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin found a strong correlation between air pollution concentrations and lung cancer deaths. During the late 1980s, health studies in polluted districts of Shenyang having a population of 2.2 million attributed 3000 annual early deaths, twenty percent of chronic illnesses and 35 percent of acute illnesses to severe air pollution. These figures probably considerably understate the problem since other relatively unpolluted areas of Shenyang, used as a baseline in the study, themselves actually exceeded the World Health Organization standard for total suspended particulates (60 ?90 micrograms per cubic meter) by three to five times. In the early 1980s, a study of 1.28 million fishermen and nearby farmers in northern China found markedly higher mercury, cadmium and lead levels as well as a higher death rate in the fisherman. The Jilin Province Environmental Protection Bureau found high mercury levels in the Songhua Jiang River. After the discovery of DDT in mother’s milk in some areas which exceeded WHO recommendations by ten times, China banned organic chlorine pesticides, including DDT, in 1983. [pp. 8 – 10]

Public Consciousness, Environmental Education Essential

Just as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring awakened the environmental movement in the United States, so do does environmental education have an important role to play in China. By 1990, the United States had 5000 citizen environment groups. Many Chinese people, too, care about their environment much more than many people realize and the popular concern about China’s environmental is growing. Environmental degradation exacts a toll on national economies. Some experts say that if damage to health and decreasing production are considered, the environmental toll on many developing countries is about ten percent of GNP. Yet not just GNP but the total welfare of a country should be considered. [pp. 10 -18]

Chinese Should Not Make Excuses on Environmental Protection

Concern about the environment is not merely something imported from Western countries but something Chinese people have out of concern for the fate of their own country. Talk like “our national circumstances are different” [guoqing bu tong] and “we are at a different stage of development” [fazhan jieduan bu tong] are excuses we should not be making as China enters the Twenty-First century. [p. 40]

World Economic Order Injustices Discussed at Stockholm

At the Stockholm Environmental Conference of 1972, the developed countries were concerned about pollution, overpopulation, and environmental protection while the developing countries placed a higher priority on the problems of poverty, hunger, disease, illiteracy and unemployment. The Stockholm Conference refuted the idea of limitless resources and pointed out that we are all fellow passengers on lifeboat Earth. Some delegates pointed out the injustice of a world in which one-fifth of the world’s population consumes 80 percent of the resources.

In the late 1980s, the Brundtland Committee worked out a framework called “sustainable development” which included the concerns of both the developed countries of the North and the developing countries of the South. At the 1992 Rio de Janeiro “Global Environment and Development Summit” the sustainable development concept was accepted by the assembly and a global Agenda 21 was passed. The Rio summit also delineated the responsibility for pollution and opened the way for funding. The responsibility for regional and global pollution rests with the developed countries. Moreover, some of the environmental problems of developing countries result from the pillaging or purchase for an excessively low price by developed countries of developing country resources. An understanding was reached that the developed countries would each year give 0.7 percent of their GDP to help developing countries solve their environmental problems. [pp. 43 – 47]

Developed Countries Ignore the 0.7 Percent GDP Commitment

Yet the developed countries did not keep their promise. In fact, the level of official development assistance from the developed to the developing countries fell from 0.35 percent of GDP in 1991 to 0.27 percent of GDP in 1995, the lowest level in 25 years. Moreover, many developed countries are not eager to transfer technology to the developing countries. There is a fundamental contradiction in the global interest and specific national interests. This can be seen very clearly in the arguments over global warming at Kyoto in 1997.

Many of the developed countries are disturbed that they must replace costly industrial plant well before the end of its design life in order to meet Kyoto emissions reduction commitments while developing countries can go on increasing their emissions as their economies grow. Some developing country leaders say that the developed countries put pressure not only on their own resources but those of other countries as well not because of a large population but because of wasteful developed country lifestyles. At the root of many environmental problems in the developing countries is an unjust international order. [pp. 52 – 60]

Tariff Barriers For Processed Goods: A Bar to Development

Many developed countries through differentiated tariff treatment (example: a 5 percent tariff for wood but 15 percent tariff for furniture) make it hard for developing countries badly in need of export earnings to escape their role as mere providers of raw materials. Loans to developing countries to create big plantations for cash crops have often resulted in unsustainable development. When economies turn sour, reverse capital flows to the developed countries of which former World Bank director Robert McNamara said “This is like a blood transfusion from the poor to the rich.” [p. 65]

Some in the developed countries understand. The former Norwegian Foreign Minister said at an opening ceremony of a World Environment and Development Commission meeting, “We should reflect upon all our international relationships including trade, investment, and development assistance as well as industrial and agricultural relations. These relations are the cause of underdevelopment and environmental devastation in the Third World. Our task is to take measures that will reduce the bad effects [of these relations].”

Closing the Development Gap: Help from Multinationals

The developing countries want to close the gap with the developed countries but the developed countries want to maintain the present situation. In some area, developing countries such as China and Brazil are closing the gap but in other such as information technology, the gap between the developed and developing countries is widening. The end of the Cold War and the greater integration of the world are helping some countries, notably in Eastern Europe, to develop more rapidly. Although international corporations are much criticized, they are increasing economic cooperation among countries. [p. 72 – 73]

Winning Equality Abroad While Fighting Ignorance at Home

While it is easy to criticize the views of the developed countries on global sustainable development, we Chinese should not forget our own responsibilities for sustainable development. Chinese revolutionaries for over a century have had the twin tasks of “Winning equality for China in the eyes of the foreigners while combating ignorance at home.” We need to understand how international politics and economics affect environmental issues and how some people in the developed countries want to “restrain” China’s development. We also need to clearly explain to China’s people the seriousness of China’s population, resources and environmental dilemmas. We need to convince them of the urgency of changing old ideas, making changes in the structure of government, and reforming the system. [pp. 83 – 84]

To Meet Its Own Needs, China Chose Sustainable Development

Understanding China’s problems is harder than understanding international problems. Slogans and nationalistic feelings often prevent serious consideration of these issues. Some people even say that “sustainable development” is just a slogan to use on foreigners but fortunately those people are only a small minority. The plain truth is that even if there had never been an international Conference on the Environment and Development, no “Agenda 21” and no sustainable development slogan, China would still need to develop sustainably. [p. 84]

Sustainable Development Ideas in PRC History

Although China’s Cultural Revolution was still going on in 1972 when the Stockholm Conference was held and China at that time held that “environmental pollution exists in capitalist but not socialist societies? Zhou Enlai sent a Chinese delegation to Stockholm. International meetings were new to the Chinese delegates, but they participated in the drafting of the Stockholm Declaration. It may well be that the three quotations from Chairman Mao that made it into the final declaration, including “We need passionate but steady feelings and intense but orderly work” was their major contribution to the conference. The delegation brought ideas about the environment back home to China, yet just as in the West, there were already intellectuals in China who had begun to think about environmental problems. [pp. 84 – 86]

Beijing University President Ma Yinchu proposed family planning in 1957 to slow China’s population growth but was condemned as a rightist and his ideas buried for twenty years. In 1998, Zhongshan University teacher He Bochuan’s book “Shanao Shangde Zhongguo [Translator’s Note: Published in English as China on the Edge in 1991 by China Books and Publications. End note] shocked many Chinese raised on a diet of triumphant slogans with his perspectives on population, resources and environmental crises confronting China and his call to action. [pp. 86 – 89]

1988 Science Academy Report: Survival and Development

The 1988 report of the Chinese Academy of Sciences Committee on China’s Situation [Guoqing fenxi baogao] report Survival and Development [Shengcun yu Fazhan] analyzed China’s population, resource, environment and food situation on the basis of information collected during previous Chinese Academy of Sciences natural resources surveys. The report considered issues such as the growth and aging of China’s population, increasing pressure on China’s agricultural resources and their population carrying capacity; unemployment; spreading environmental pollution and ecological deterioration; and a growing demand for food.

The report concluded that the Chinese people must rid themselves of several illusions: that China’s resources are limitless, that it would be able to thoroughly modernize quickly, and that it would be take the same path as the western countries to modernization. According to the report, “China is now faced with unprecedented multiple simultaneous crises.” “History has left little maneuvering room to us and to our posterity. The time we have to change is short, and the conditions we will have accept are arduous”, “We should tell the people that there is no way that China can achieve the same resource consumption levels of the United States and Europe or even the consumption levels of Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macao. From this short review of sustainable development ideas in the PRC, we can see that these ideas are not a passing fashion, but arose from a conjunction of China’s needs and the ability of intellectuals who were able to give them due attention. [pp. 89 – 92]

China’s Agenda 21

China’s Agenda Twenty-One, also called the White Paper on China’s Population, Environment, and Development in the Twenty-First Century approved by the State Council in March, 1994 is a plan drawn up by 300 experts in 57 ministries and agencies for implementing China’s sustainable development strategy. [pp. 92 – 98] [Note: China was one of the first countries to complete drafting its national “Agenda Twenty-One For more information, see the China Agenda Twenty One website at http://www.acca21.edu.cn End note]

Obstacles to Sustainable Development in China


China in 1995 had a population of 1.21 billion or 22 percent of the world total. Declining fertility, down from an average of six children per woman in the 1950s and 1960s to about two children per woman [fertility drop of 17 per thousand to 7.1 per thousand] by the early 1990s, meant that 200 million fewer children were born during the last two decades than would have been born otherwise. The Chinese population is likely to reach 1.5 – 1.6 billion people in the middle of the Twenty-First century.

Evolution of Family Planning Policy in PRC Since 1970

China began developing a family planning policy in 1970. The implementation of family planning policy begins during 1970s, strengthen by orders and policies of 1979 – 81, in 1984 farmers a change in policy : farmers are allowed to have two children and creates more relaxed family policy adopted for national minorities. In late 1980s policy implementation of family planning policy was strengthened. With the development of the market economy, “government administrative intervention” in family planning became less effective and so family planning was integrated with other government program to create incentives in housing and farming land allocation to families who follow family planning regulations. Chinese studies found that better educated women had fewer but better educated children. [Note: See the Embassy Beijing report PRC Family Planning: The Market Weakens Controls But Strengthens Voluntary Limits for more information. End note.]

Sex Ratios, Illiteracy, Poor Educational System

Failure to report the birth of girls and sex selective abortions on the basis of ultrasound examinations of pregnant women put China’s male/female sex ratio at birth to 113:100, eight points above the normal range. China will enter the Twenty-First century will more poorly educated people than any other country. China since the 1980s has been spending about 2 – 3 percent of GNP on education ?just half the average developing country level of 4.1 percent. Some Chinese educators criticize Chinese education as merely test preparation or education to become an official and not really suitable for China’s needs. [pp. 99 – 108]

Who Will Feed China — the Food Problem

Lester Brown wrote that “a serious food shortage will bring a premature end to rapid Chinese economic growth.” Chinese experts see the same problems as Lester Brown, director of the Worldwatch Institute [http://www.worldwatch.org], but do not expect that the problem will become as acute as Brown anticipates and see measures that China can adopt to solve the problem. Brown predicts that by 2030 increased population and changes in the food consumption pattern (more meat) will per capita grain requirements to 500 kg per person and total demand to 956 million tons. Chinese government experts and experts predict per capita consumption in the 400 ?500 kg per capita range and total grain requirements in the 640 million to 720 million ton range owing to shift towards a more typical Asia/Japanese rather than Euro-American dietary pattern.

Lester Brown predicts that industrialization will cut cropland in half; Chinese experts say that opening new land to cultivation and increased multiple cropping means that the decline will not be large as Brown predicts. Increasing the Chinese multiple cropping index by one percent boosts effective arable land by one million hectares, say Chinese experts.

Lester Brown predicts increasingly serious water shortages for China. Chinese experts agree on the seriousness of the water shortage to the extent that 80 million farmers are short of drinking water. Yet the Chinese experts see very large potential gains possible in water conservation by improving the highly inefficient use of irrigation water by Chinese agriculture.

Lester Brown argues that large productivity increases for Chinese agriculture should not be anticipated. Chinese experts say that the contribution of science and technology to agricultural production is just half what it is in Western countries. They say that there are still many agricultural techniques such as improved varieties and combating pests that are still far from being full utilized in China.

Lester Brown points out the serious effects of air and water pollution and poor irrigation on Chinese agriculture. Chinese experts agree, pointing to the 95 percent of China’s solid waste that is dumped untreated into China’s rivers and the six million hectares of Chinese cropland that is already polluted. Eighty-eight percent of Chinese rivers are already polluted, say Chinese experts. Brown predicts a large (369 million tons or 57 percent) shortfall in Chinese agricultural production in the year 2030.

Chinese experts also predict that Chinese grain requirements will exceed production but say that the gap will be much smaller than what Brown predicts. Chinese experts say that agricultural production will be determined by government policy and the response of Chinese farmers to that policy and to markets. [Translator’s note: see U.S. Embassy Beijing EST section web page reports Chinese Food Security: Debate Over Brown Highlights Insecurities and Chinese Critics Confront Lester Brown on Lester Brown’s arguments and Chinese food supply concerns. Frequently recurring debates on China’s food sufficiency problem are often referred to as responses to Lester Brown.] [pp. 109 ?114]

Blind Faith in Ideology Led To Disasters

Mass movements such as the movement to criticize Malthus’s population theory, the exaggeration of the capacity of human willpower to transform nature (in the Great Leap Forward, the movement for everyone to make steel, the People’s Communes) caused damage to the environment. Misguided, unscientific policies, such as overemphasizing “food is the main thing” and suppressing non-collectivized agriculture, expanding arable land at any cost, creating fields on mountainsides, transforming pastureland into farmland, and reclaiming land from lakes, resulted in severe ecological damage.

After the Great Famine, Agriculture Stressed

After the Great Famine of the late 1950s and early 1960s that killed tens of millions of people, the main focus of government policy was to build agriculture. Despite many of the uneconomic projects pushed in the movement “Agriculture Study Dachai” movement, important improvements in agricultural infrastructure such as water projects, flattening land and terracing fields were accomplished. Between 1965 and 1977, China’s arable land doubled, irrigated land increased by one-third and chemical fertilizer use tripled. Improved varieties of rice, maize and wheat brought the Green Revolution to China. With the beginning of reform in 1978, agricultural development increased rapidly. The use of chemical fertilizer tripled between 1978 and 1990. Yet environmental problems and agricultural disasters became more frequent during the 1980s. This may be partially due to the increased water, fertilizer and pesticide inputs required by Green Revolution varieties. [p. 114 – 117]

During the 1970s, China entered the chemical fertilizer age. By 1991, Chinese farmers were using three times as much fertilizer per hectare as American farmers. China’s environmental problems are to some extent the result of its intensive agriculture since China must support 22 percent of the world’s population on 8 percent of its arable land.

[Translator’s note: With the 40 percent upward revaluation of China’s arable land, this 8 percent estimate was raised to 10 percent. See PRC Arable Land Jumps Forty Percent on the U.S. Embassy Beijing EST web page. End note]

For each ton of grain production, 53 kg of soil were lost in central Sichuan, 140 kg in Gansu and 107 kg in Shaanxi Province. [p. 119] Heavy fertilizer use caused water pollution. Increased water use made the water table decline. Sixty five percent of China’s nitrate fertilizer is made by burning coal. Air pollution is one of its byproducts. Nutrient pollution of lakes and streams has also become a serious problem.

Unlike Korea and Taiwan, PRC Kept Raising Taxes on Farmers

Many areas such as Korea and Taiwan switched from agriculture subsidizing industry to state subsidies to agriculture when per capita agricultural production reached USD 400. When China hit that level in 1991, not only was there no switch to agricultural subsidies, but the amount of capital extracted from farmers continued to increase, thereby limiting growth in farm incomes. Now that Chinese food prices are approaching international levels, there is less room to increase prices. [pp. 117 – 118]

Industrial Waste Treatment Improves But Few Sewage Plants

During 1990 – 1995, China’s industrial waste water pollution declined but because of the rise in residential pollution sources, overall water pollution became more serious and affected a larger area. Eighty-six percent of China’s rivers exceeded pollution standards. Industrial waste water treatment increased to 70 percent but 70 percent of Chinese cities had no sewage treatment plant. Beijing and Shenyang are among the world’s most polluted cities. [p. 125]

[Translator’s note: In a new study sponsored by the World Resources Institute (http://www.wri.org), Beijing and Shanghai don’t make the top world’s ten although nine of the top ten cities on the WRI list are Chinese. What appears on the top ten to some extent depends upon which cities are looked at: the big Chinese cities of Lanzhou, Chongqing and Hehaote have considerably worse pollution than Beijing and Shenyang but for some reason were not on earlier international pollution comparison charts. Sewage fees are not common in China so financing sewage plants (and their operation once built) has been difficult. End note]

Air Pollution, Solid Waste, Water Shortages

Sulfur dioxide pollution increased and acid rain now falls on thirty percent of Chinese territory. A large part [Translators note: 75 percent] of China’s energy supply comes from coal, much of it high sulfur coal. Exhaust gases output climbed as the number of Chinese motor vehicles climbs by ten percent annually. [p. 125] Annual industrial solid waste output amounts to 6.64 billion tons. Five percent of this is hazardous waste. Urban waste amounts to 146 million tons and increases by 10 percent annually. Chinese per capita water resources come to 2316 cubic meters or one-fourth the world average. Six to twelve million hectares of land are short of irrigation water each year because of shortages and 80 million north China farmers don’t have enough drinking water. Three hundred Chinese cities are short of water. Excessive ground water use has made the water table decline in some areas. Chinese water resources are unevenly distributed. Sixty-four percent of China’s arable land but only 19 percent of its water resources are north of the Huai River. [p. 126] [Note: More information is available at Summary, Comments on Can the Environment Wait? Priorities for East Asia, A 1997 World Bank Report End note.]

Soil Erosion

China has one of the world’s most serious soil erosion problems. Desertification already affects 8 percent of Chinese territory and threatens the livelihood of 170 million people. About 2100 square kilometers of land are lost to desertification each year. Soil erosion is a serious problem on the Yellow River, the Yangzi, Songhuajiang, Huai and other rivers. Silting raises the bed of the Yellow River by 10 centimeters each year.


Overpopulation leads to cultivation of unsuitable land and overcutting of forest lands. China has a relatively low forest cover and just one-sixth the world average on a per capita basis. Biodiversity is threatened by habitat loss including loss of virgin forest and grasslands, inappropriate pesticide use and encroachment on wetlands. In the mid 1980s some experts calculated that China loses 5 ?10 percent of GNP each year to environmental damage. Various studies have come up with widely varying estimates of the cost of pollution and the relative importance of various kinds of pollution in China. [pp. 127 – 128]

  • A 1992 Chinese Academy of Social Sciences Environment and Development Research Center put environmental loss at 4.5 percent of GDP with 45 percent of this attributable to air pollution, 52 percent to water pollution and 3 percent to solid wastes. With ecological damage to GNP added, the total came to 10 percent.
  • A 1990 study by the U.S. East-West Center put the environmental loss to China’s GDP at 2.1 percent with 41 percent attributed to air pollution, 32 percent to water pollution, and 26 percent to solid wastes. Considering ecological damage as well, the GNP loss total rose to 7.5 percent.
  • A 1997 World Bank study estimated environmental loss to China’s GDP at 8 percent with 93 percent attributable to air pollution and 7 percent to water pollution. The World
  • Bank air pollution damage estimates are based on damage to human health alone which the Bank put at 44.8 billion USD annually. [pp. 130 – 131]

Pollution Moves to Medium Cities and the Countryside

“Pollution in the larger cities is being brought under control, but it is rapidly spreading to the rapidly growing medium and small cities, and into the countryside, where pollution is getting worse. The township and village enterprises may well become the main source of pollution in China. Perhaps one day Beijing, Shenyang and other large Chinese cities will no longer be among the most polluted cities in the world, but by then pollution sources will have spread far and wide throughout the country. This kind of pollution situation may be even worse than what we have today.” (p. 132)

[Comment: Much less information is available about rural pollution in China than about urban pollution. This is beginning to change. A Chinese government survey of the township and village enterprises that concluded in 1997 indicates that the township and village enterprises produce about half of China’s GDP and half of its pollution. Many provincial environmental situation reports [Huanjing Zhuangkuang Gonggao] last year included for the first time data for the township and village enterprises. Indoor air pollution (from burning coal for cooking and heating indoors, which is often much higher than outdoor air pollution), may result in an air pollution problem in rural China fully as serious as in its cities. See the report PRC Air Pollution: How Bad is It? on the U.S. Embassy Beijing EST section webpage. End comment.]

Halting Environmental Deterioration Will Take Decades

China has deep ecological deterioration problems (such as soil erosion, declining soil fertility, and water problems) that will likely take several decades and the mobilization of society to stop and reverse. This kind of problem is deeper and more difficult than the urban air pollution and industrial pollution problem that Japan was able to reverse in about a decade starting from the 1970s. [p. 133]

Chinese, Carbon Dioxide Emissions, and Global Warming

As a consequence of rapid industrial growth, China is already the world’s second largest CO2 emitter and will likely become the largest soon. And “greenhouse gases, chiefly CO2, despite uncertainties in present knowledge are generally considered to be the principal cause of global warming. Global warming will have serious consequences for China, especially for Chinese agriculture. At a recent international meeting, a Chinese delegate said, “on a per capita basis, Chinese carbon dioxide emissions are still much lower than those of the developed countries. The developed countries reply, “China’s energy efficiency is just one-half the world average. A Chinese response would be, “We are a poor country and can’t afford the massive investment in clean technology and must continue using fuels that cause a lot of pollution.” To which a foreign professor said, “What do you mean you don’t have the money?” The professor mentioned China’s rapid economic growth, its trade surplus with the United States and the hundreds of millions of dollars in Chinese capital invested overseas. This foreign professor concluded, “You are just not interested in improving the environment!” [p. 134]

PRC CO2 Strategy: Population, Renewables, Conservation, Trees

Carbon monoxide emissions are a big hidden problem that very likely will have a big effect on the future of the Chinese environment. At Kyoto, the Chinese delegation stressed that in the spirit of the Berlin Conference, it opposed the efforts of the developed countries to persuade the developing countries to take on new responsibilities. The leader of the Chinese delegation, Chen Yaobang, said that until China reaches the ranks of the middle-ranking industrialized countries, it cannot take on any responsibility for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It can only seek to slow increases in greenhouse gas emissions by: (1) limiting its population, (2) energy conservation, (3) developing renewable energy resources, (3) planting forests.

An Active Role? More Influence But Constraints Too

“At the December 1997 Kyoto Conference, China was asked to make voluntary commitments to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and China may well get more pressure (and perhaps one day even face an economic embargoes) stemming from this matter than other countries. Changing our position from a passive to an active one might well give China more influence in these matters. We can’t expect that the developed countries will understand the determination to modernize and hopes for the future of a country on the rise to becoming a great power. As we have already discussed, this world doesn’t leave the weak much room to maneuver. And not all the calls to keep the world clean come from a magnanimous spirit. We have to stay alert to these questions and understand them properly. [pp. 134 – 135]

Progress in Environmental Protection

Environmental protection in China has slowed ecological deterioration so that the environmental deterioration from waste water, air pollution and other causes has been slower than China’s economic growth rate. Between 1987 and 1995, 2.7 billion RMB [8.3 RMB equals 1 USD] in pollution fees had been assessed to polluters under the principal “The polluter pays [shei wuran, shei zhili]. Since 1988, the state has established 120,000 pollution remediation projects. Laws to protect the air, water, and ocean were made and over 200,000 people were directly involved in environmental protection work.

The decades-long project to plant three northern forest belts beginning in 1978 protects the soil. The forests cut the number of windy days in the Beijing-Tianjin region by fifty percent. During 1998 logging was forbidden in most state-owned forests and plans to cut wood production by 40 percent by the year 2000. Energy conservation regulations in 1985 have led to the replacement of some inefficient plants and a steady decline in Chinese energy consumption per unit GDP.

Environmental Protection in China Since 1972

Environmental protection began with the first environmental conference convened by Premier Zhou Enlai in 1973 after the Stockholm Conference. During the 1970s, China’s environmental policies were formulated and implemented. This included requirements that environmental controls should be designed, built and put into operation simultaneously with the plant itself. A pollution fee collection system for excess wastewater and sulfur dioxide emissions was established. Proceeds from the fees go to environmental protection including environmental impact statement preparation; and that environmental impact statements should be made before the approval of a project. The 1978 PRC Constitution included a provision that “The State protects the environment and natural resources and environmental work entered the legal code with the 1979 draft law on environmental protection.

“In 1983, environmental protection was affirmed as a fundamental state policy. “Prevention is primary. Combining prevention and environmental remediation is the basic policy [yufang wei zhu, fangzhi jiehe] This includes including environmental protection considerations in overall economic and social planning as well as in urban development plans; environmental protection systems planned, built and put into operation at the same time as the plant; environmental impact statements; and preventing new pollution sources from appearing.

Over twenty years of environmental protection in China have improved the state’s capacity to control pollution, increased the rate of treatment of polluted water, air and wastes, and increased the proportion of enterprises that meet environmental protection standards. Much of this involved the upgrading and replacement of low efficiency boilers. This effort has meant that industrial pollution rates have actually declined considerably when compared with economic growth. Environmental progress has also been made by increasing the capacity to treat urban water and wastewater, widening the use of coal gas, and the increasing the size of the area now served by central heating plants.

Energy Efficiency Gains

China made important gains in energy efficiency. In 1980, China needed to burn 13.0 tons of coal equivalent energy to produce 10,000 RMB unit of GNP. By 1988, this figure had fallen to 9.8 tons. Energy consumption in high energy consuming products had fallen by two-thirds. Important gains in rural use of methane gas and solar energy were realized. China’s fifteen year Trans-Century Green Plan, begun in 1995, includes in its first five year segment 1591 projects and an investment of 188.8 billion RMB. [pp. 135 – 140]


China Faces Its Environmental Crisis: Grave Concerns – Part 2

A February 1999 report from U.S. Embassy Beijing

Summary: The Summer 1998 Yangzi River floods demonstrated that the costs to China of neglecting infrastructure and damaging the environment are rising. China has only a narrow safety margin. Pollution will grow more serious until 2010 but energy and water shortfalls will last decades longer. In this second part of a summary translation of Grave Concerns two Chinese Academy of Social Sciences Environmental and Development Institute researchers examine a China approaching environmental crisis. As its economy grows, China faces increased pressure, including green trade barriers, from the developed countries. Uneven development, the shirking of official responsibility, and very poor cooperation among ministries hinder sustainable development efforts. Rapid development, environmental crises and regional disparities also make political modernization much more difficult. The greatest problem of all is the neglect of the political and economic dimensions of sustainable development in favor of the purely technical. Short sighted policy making and ineffective enforcement of laws and regulations are not just the failures of individuals but are inherent in the present system.

Grave Concerns — Problems of Sustainable Development for China [Shendu Youhuan — Dangdai Zhongguo de Kechixu Fazahan Wenti] is a volume in the influential China’s Problems Series. Grave Concerns was published by Today’s China Publishing House in October 1998. Authors Zheng Yisheng [STC: 6774 2496 3932] and Qian Yihong [STC: 6929 5650 4767] are the Vice Director and the Secretary-General of the Environment and Development Research Institute at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. A thread running through this book like some other books in the “China’s Problems Series is that many of China’s problems stem not just from the actions of bad individuals or bad policies but from deep structural problems in China’s political and economic system.

Page numbers refer to the first edition of Grave Concerns published as a volume of the China’s Problems series by the Today’s China Publishing House [Jinri Zhongguo Chubanshe] in October, 1998. Additional background information on Chinese environmental issues can be found among the ninety unclassified Embassy Beijing reports posted on the U.S. Embassy web page at http://www.usembassy-china.gov/english/sandt/index.html Some informal translations from the Chinese press bearing on the Chinese environment (including Summer 1998 Yangzi floods) are available at http://www.usembassy-china.gov/english/sandt/sandsrc.htm


Our Common Danger

The Summer 1998 Yangzi River floods, the biggest Yangzi River basin flood since 1954, reflect China’s environmental crisis in microcosm. Experts had warned of the great danger of natural disaster there. Even as some people give their lives to save flood victims, other people are creating (without realizing it) the conditions for more natural disasters. The flood was caused chiefly by the ecological deterioration of the Yangzi River basin. Zhuang Guotai, director of the Ecology Section of the State Environmental Protection Bureau, said that the peak flood rate at Yichang on the Yangzi of 60,000 cubic meters per second was no record; it was no more than the twenty-third highest flow level recorded. The causes of the flooding included:

  • Low flood control standards set for just the biggest flood that might happen in a ten year period;
  • Encroachment by land hungry farmers on river beds and lakes which otherwise would have sequestered much of the flood waters. [see Embassy Beijing webpage report on Yangzi River flooding.]
  • Many reservoirs and dams are poorly designed and poorly maintained. Of the over 80,000 dams in China, one fourth of the large ones and two-fifths of the small and medium dams have problems. China’s three pronged sustainable development problem (population, agriculture, food, and environment-ecology may be developing a synergy that will bring on a crisis. For the problem isn’t just the environment, but also an economic crisis and a social crisis that could lead China to disaster. [pp. 141 – 147]

[Note: For an overview of the Summer 1998 Yangzi River floods, see Yangzi River Floods and the Environment End note.]

China Enters 21st Century With A Narrow Safety Margin

  • China’s population will peak [Note: at 1.6 billion] around 2030 with a large proportion of elderly people.
  • China’s food shortfall, according to some estimates of about one-third or more of production) will peak around 2020.
  • China will be self-sufficient in primary energy sources in the year 2000, but will be 8 ?10 percent short in 2010 ?2020 and the shortfall will increase, assuming that China uses advanced world-class technology. The oil supply shortfall will be 22.5 percent of supply in 2000, 36.5 percent of supply in 2010, 43.7 percent of supply in 2020 and 84 percent of supply in 2050.
  • China’s water consumption requirements will climb by 20 percent from now to the year 2010. China’s water supply demand will continue to grow until 2030. If there is no change in the current overall situation, agricultural water demand will reach 70 billion cubic meters and urban water demand 20 billion cubic meters. If current trends in the Huai River and Yellow River basins (which account for one third of China’s industrial GDP but with just 7.6 percent of China’s water resources) do not change, water demand in these areas will seriously outrun supply.
  • Air pollution will continue to worsen if China’s current policies do not change. In the years 2010 particulate pollution will be 39 percent higher and in 2020 35 percent higher than in 1995. Sulfur dioxide pollution and NOx emissions will double from the current level.
  • Vehicular exhaust emissions are expected to increase until the year 2010. In 2010 volatile organic emissions will be 3.4 times the present level. Chinese carbon dioxide emissions in 2020 will be 2.38 billion tons of carbon equivalent compared with 800 million tons in 1995. China will face more natural mineral resources shortages. While China has a shortage in only one-quarter of the 45 most important mineral resources, it will be short in half of these minerals in the early Twenty First century. In the first ten years of the next century, China will confront unprecedented pressures on its population, environment, and resources. [pp. 141 -149]

This is the critical time for making the needed changes in these trends. It is also what some economists call the “golden age of Chinese economic growth” — the years 1990 to 2010. Growing economic inequality and especially the growing gap in incomes among urbanites (4X ratio between the top and bottom ten percent) as well as between the city and the countryside is an alarming trend. [pp. 151 – 154]

How the Crisis Will Erupt

“Environmental deterioration is expressed through the worsening of socio-economic contradictions within society. In some countries, this is the main way in which environmental deterioration appears. If we do not pay attention to this and only consider environmental/ecological deterioration itself and its direct effects, we can miss the big picture such as ecological disaster in a mountain village or the health effects of pollution on an urban population. These are serious problems, but still far from adequately reflect the very great threat that environmental degradation poses to the sustainable socio-economic development of the entire society.

[Note: For an example of the vicious cycle of poverty and desertification at work in Ningxia and Inner Mongolia see PRC Desertification: Inner Mongolian Range Wars and the Ningxia Population Boom End note.]

“.. The environment is one of a country’s key economic characteristics … The acceleration and the accumulation of environmental change in individual countries and on the global scale will have ever greater effects on the competitiveness and social stability of many countries. The developing countries lag far behind the developed countries in their capacity to exploit and sustain resources (including the capacity to use resources very efficiently). While unsustainable development for developed countries means something that doesn’t meet the test of long-term sustainability, for developing countries, the problem looms as a very pressing problem of poverty and survival. There is an old Chinese saying, “He who is not concerned with far-off dangers will surely face a present danger [Ren wu yuan luu, biyou jinyou]. But the developing countries today face both present dangers and far-off dangers. If the present crisis is not resolved, there will be no tomorrow in which to confront the long-term danger.

Environmental Problems Complicate Social, Economic Problems

“In short, China has the greatest environmental pressure of any country on Earth. In these circumstances it is not reasonable to discuss the long term danger facing all of mankind with the Chinese who are themselves one-fifth of humanity. The question is, will these environmental problems make China’s economic and social problems even more difficult to solve”. [pp. 154 – 155]

Disaster-Prone China Faces Rising Environmental Costs

In 1990, one hundred members of the Chinese Academy of Sciences warned that many natural disasters occur throughout China. China is one of the most disaster-prone countries on Earth. The frequency and extent of natural disasters continue to climb. With economic growth, the economic costs of environmental pollution and ecological damage are also rising sharply. In the year 2020, air pollution alone is expected to impose an annual cost equal to 13 percent of China’s GDP. [pp. 156 – 158]

Sooner or Later “Compulsory International Environmental Assessments” Will Come

As global economic integration proceeds into the Twenty-First Century, resource-poor China must consider its own comparative advantage on the world market. But there are many uncertainties. Many foreign observers, including Vaclav Smil (author of “China’s Environmental Crisis? [Translator’s note: See Environmental Scarcities, State Capacity and Civil Violence: China on  the University of Toronto web site for reports by Vaclav Smil and other scholars on the environment and state capacity in China. End note]  and Lester Brown, are concerned at the coming very large export demand from China for food, oil, iron ore, and other ferrous minerals. What price will China have to pay for these raw materials as the international competition for these resources becomes more acute? [p. 159]

“The developed countries will eventually demand, regardless of whether their demand is reasonable or not, that the developing countries reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants with regional and global impact. .. This trend is becoming more and more serious. More and more developed countries will want to put restrictions on China as the “leading source of pollution”.

And there is no doubt that as the Chinese economy grows, the developed countries will put more pressure on China. More and more people around the world are saying, “Chinese determination to modernize is the greatest threat to the global environment? To the Chinese people this is the “voice of the strong and represents to a certain degree the selfish interests of the strong. We must protect the “right of development principle contained within the idea of sustainable development. Nonetheless, a Chinese insistence on not making fundamental changes in its own production and consumption patterns and holding to its own standards and rules would be unrealistic. [p. 159 – 160]

Green Trade Barriers

Green trade barriers are becoming more common. Increasing pollution in Chinese coastal waters and new European and Japanese health standards have sharply reduced Chinese exports in some categories such as shellfish market to Europe. Chinese products which do not meet ever stronger regulations lose access to foreign markets. Trace pesticides in Chinese cotton have resulted in losses of millions of dollars in exports to Europe. China in 1997 had 134 products with environmental standards but far fewer than Germany which has 7500 commercial products (40 percent of the total) with an “Environmental Blue Angel standard.

Some of these barriers, which arise not just from environmental concerns but out of attempts to protect the economic advantage of developed countries within international trading rules, are becoming more common. [pp. 160 – 164] The “technical trade barriers accord of the WTO Uruguay round stipulates “These rules do not prevent any country from taking necessary measures to protect the lives and health of people, animals and plants and to protect the environment? The ISO 14000 environmental management series standards were published in draft by the International Standardization Organization (ISO) in September 1996, so now sustainability has become a selling point in international trade competition. [pp. 190 – 194]

The rapid increase in the Chinese work force by 15 million workers each year not only makes redundant workers more common but also reduces the economic incentive to convert to labor saving technologies which are often more environmentally-friendly as well. [pp. 165 – 166]

China: Unique Regional Disparities Make Problems Worse

The uniquely large environmental, population, economic and cultural disparities in China are getting larger and merging into a single large problem. Poor, crowded countries probably have the least tolerance for income disparities. Political and economic problems arising from unequal incomes and regional disparities are important parts of the Chinese sustainable development problem. China has little room to maneuver when faced by an array of associated problems including increasing disputes at all levels over scarce resources, disrespect for law, growing local protectionism, and backsliding and slowing up in efforts to establish the rule of law.

The Chinese Microcosm: Developed China vs. Developing China

China is becoming unfortunately a microcosm of the whole world. The developed parts of China have become concerned about the environment, the poorer provinces cannot afford it. And so polluting industry moves from developed to developing China. Will China someday have islands of environmental splendor amid environmental squalor? If China does not pay attention to the problem of inequality, a vicious cycle of ecological decline could create inter-regional battles for resources and create tensions between the developed ethnic Han areas and the economically backward areas in which the minority people live. If economic development does not increase society’s ability to solve these increasingly serious social problems, then China will face a life and death crisis. China has a lower capacity than the developed countries to absorb environmental problems and problems of social inequality.

Rapid Development Makes Political Modernization Difficult

Political modernization has been much more difficult for developing countries than for the western countries which modernized much more slowly. Developing countries are faced with several crises simultaneously where western countries face only one crisis as a time. The result of the multiple crises developing countries face has often been severe instability. China has especially serious concerns since it is approaching its absolute limits in several areas ?resources, population and the environment. These pressures have become increasingly severe during the rapid growth of China’s economy.

PRC Sustainable Development Not a Luxury But a Necessity

Sustainable development is not something just for the rich countries. If there had never been a Rio Conference, China would have had to choose sustainable development. The excuses must stop. Some of the popular excuses for not taking sustainable development seriously include:

  • “Sustainable development is just a phrase made up to serve the power game of the great powers.
  • The western countries are afraid of China’s economic growth, so they trot out environmental issues to block it.
  • Eastern culture can solve any problem created by the West.
  • New technologies can solve any problem
  • I’m sorry, but that isn’t my field of research. [pp. 167 – 171]

Quick Fixes, Ineffective Policy, Shirking Responsibility

Short term, short-sighted fixes predominate in China. China’s dams are designed only to withstand the largest flood that comes in 10 or 20 years. Overdrawing ground water in water-short areas is another problem. Short-sighted policy making is very common in China. Water pricing is a classic example. Chinese water prices are far below cost and the failure to collect sewage fees means that once expensive water treatment plants are constructed, they are too expensive to operate. Short-sighted policy making and the failure to enforce rules is not a matter of the failure of individuals but of an entire system in which poor coordination and the avoidance of responsibility is inherent in the present system that encourages this behavior. [pp. 174 – 175]

When the Crisis Comes Along, Which Department Handles It?

Sustainable development is a trans-regional, cross-departmental, and cross industry problem. Yet in China sustainable development policies and enforcement regularly fall victim to regionalism, the narrow views of a government agency or a particular field. This makes it easy to ignore a large, uncertain problem or problems that cross ministerial lines. The Summer 1998 Yangzi River flood was one such case. Although some specialists, considering El Nino and heavy snows on the Qinghai – Tibetan Plateau, predicted the floods, there is very little money available for cross-disciplinary work that is invaluable in natural disaster prediction. Parts of important problems are handled by separate ministries that refuse to cooperate.

Officials Ignore Big Issues, Seek Influence, Foreign Trips

No one analyzes problems systematically. Many officials are obsessed with personnel problems, foreign trips and making an impression on the boss and so forget big cross-boundary issues. Foreign experts who helped draft “China’s Agenda 21 recall how dozens of ministries submitted separate work reports that were very hard to merge. Some people joke about this saying, “The people care about the big issues, the leaders work on small details? Important issues such as Yangzi River flooding risk estimates which require input from geologists, hydrologists, meteorologists and other experts from many different agencies are difficult to address. Many officials only want to report good news so they bury the bad news. Some newspapers love to get a foreigner to say how great China’s economic growth has been. All the while some other countries with problems much less serious than China, such as Japan, warn their people of the seriousness of the economic problems confronting their country. [pp. 172 – 178]

The Clash Between New Development Views and Reality

Sustainable development is much discussed by academics and the top leadership but it hasn’t reached the working level. The environmental protection bureaus at every level are still very weak in any confrontation with agencies and departments proposing development. This imbalance is much more pronounced outside of the big cities. Very often the environmental protection bureaus have no say at all in development projects.

Sustainable development has in practice been very often just a slogan. The division of labor between organizations means in fact a divorce between departments working on overlapping areas so that environmental protection work is ineffective. Yet the practicality of projects should also be considered. In some of the propaganda and implementation of sustainable development in China over the last few years it can also be seen that some proponents of sustainable development in China do not chose the most appropriate way to deploy resources. [pp. 181 – 183]

Some progress has been made. It was largely plant upgrades during the 1980s, particularly in heavy industry, that prevented Chinese pollution from increasing proportionately with economic growth. Cost-benefit analysis should be done to determine the most efficient way of reducing pollution.

Why Is Environmental Work Ineffective? Political and Economic Realities are Often Ignored

“Why are people and work units unwilling to do what needs to be done but are often quite eager to do what they shouldn’t do. This often happens not for scientific or material reasons but because social, political and economic realities are often ignored. In particular, the individual advantage-seeking behavior of people in society and the network of people’s relationships need to be better understood in this regard. Even if something makes sense economically, it may not be practical for reasons of political advantage. Take for example, the case of interest groups working against the public interest for their own private interest or the innumerable instances of interpersonal exchanges for private advantage.

[Note: Many books and articles have appeared over the last year about corruption arising from the structure of the political and economic system. See the press clippings at http://www.usembassy-china.gov/english/sandt/sandsrc.htm for examples. End note]

This ignorance of political and economic realities is a consequence of China’s long neglect of the social sciences. It shows the limits of making policy purely on the basis of technical considerations. In foreign countries expertise from both the natural sciences and the social sciences is applied to these problems. China is far behind in this respect. The big research projects focus too much exclusively on discussions among experts on the environment, ecology and energy efficiency. Yet problems of sustainability and development are in the end human problems. These problems must be addressed.? [pp. 184 – 185]

Plant Renovation is Expensive – Where’s the Money?

Foreigners don’t understand what a tremendous investment would be required to replace the heavily polluting industrial plants of China. And they are unwilling to help by transferring technology to China. China must finance these changes by the earnings of these plants. Unlike the Western countries during past decades, China cannot accumulate capital by sucking dry foreign colonies or by relying on cheap Middle Eastern oil supplies. Among the voices of those on the international scene calling for environmental protection there are some who want to stop China’s economic development. [p. 186]

Developing Countries Catch Up Amidst Environmental Crisis

The developing countries have higher and faster growing populations than the developed countries and a lower living standard. The developed countries are determined to achieve a developed country standard of living. Yet the environmental capacity of the world is limited and a global environmental crisis is already taking shape. Today’s developed countries already used up the most easily obtainable resources during their own path to development. So the conditions of development have already been irrevocably altered.

China Nears Outer Limits: Its Development Path Must Differ

China as a country that is nearing the absolute limits of that its resources and environment can support cannot just follow the same developmental stages that the developed countries of today followed. [pp. 186 – 190]

Pollute First, Clean Up Later: Good Excuse But We Better Not

The experience of the developed countries themselves demonstrates the Kuznets cycle ?that only when development reaches a certain point does the environmental protection capacity of a country become great enough to reverse environmental deterioration. When developed countries try to force developing countries to adopt strict environmental regulations, the developing countries can respond that by limiting our development, these restrictions will delay the development of a strong environmental protection capacity. “Yet the developing countries should also consider how new technologies and knowledge can help them take a short-cut and avoid the Kuznets inverted U-curve that shows pollution increasing with incomes but later declining with even higher incomes [p. 182]. The developing countries may be able to avoid repeating the pollute first, clean up later experience of the western developed countries.” [pp.197 – 199]

Conservatism and Inertia Block Life Cycle Costing

New production philosophies have appeared which recognize the interactions between the mode of industrial production, society and the economy. Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) can help a company reduce material inputs and move to clean production. This method requires closer cooperation and information sharing among suppliers since the manufacturer wants every part and every step of the production process. “The decision making process for this means of production extends to individual consumers and communities so the boundaries of the company are greatly extended. The greatest obstacles to the move to cleaner production are conservative attitudes and inertia in industry. [pp. 202 – 203]

Sustainable Development Means Rejecting Consumerism

For the developed countries, the switch to sustainable development involves changes in individual and social values and accepting standards of living lower than what they have already achieved. This collides with individualism and some other cultural values. The developing countries need to rid themselves of the very often expressed desire to “copy and import western technologies and make the westerners pay for it. Developing countries must reject the dream of developed country consumerism. Yet a drop in living standards can be avoided in the developing countries by more efficiency resource utilization. “Some countries try to solve their pollution problems by cleaning up at the end of the production process. But doesn’t work since technology can’t accomplish that. What is needed to create cleaner and higher efficiency processes at every step of the production process in China. This simply can’t be accomplished through foreign assistance. [p. 203]

The Multinationals: Key Support for Sustainable Development

Industrial development in the developing countries not only threatens the environment but this development can lead to transformations that can help solve the problem.?[pp. 203 – 206] Investments by foreign multinationals in the developing countries are the major source of capital for sustainable industrialization. In many cases the environmental standards followed by these multinational companies far exceed the requirements of the host developing country government. [p. 204]


China Searches For Solutions: Grave Concerns – Part 3

A February 1999 report from U.S. Embassy Beijing

Summary: Some areas, such as Benxi City in the Northeast, have cut pollution by involving the public. Every locality has a development strategy but these too often ignore resources, environmental capacity and markets. Pollution will continue to worsen if policy does not change and enforcement does not improve. China has good technology but can’t commercialize it. Solutions such as raising water and energy prices could sharply cut pollution and boost efficiency but official timidity sometimes blocks this solution. In part three of a summary translation of Grave Concerns, two Chinese Academy of Social Sciences Environmental and Development Institute researchers conclude that while no regrets policies are an easy first step, the next step must be to overcome special interests so that local and the interests of all society can be balanced and losers fairly compensated. Many lobbies and local interests oppose the necessary changes. Only through a widespread understanding of the hardships facing China and finding a way to harmonize individual interests with the long-range interests of everyone can these problems be solved.

Grave Concerns — Problems of Sustainable Development for China [Shendu Youhuan — Dangdai Zhongguo de Kechixu Fazahan Wenti] is a volume in the influential China’s Problems Series. “Grave Concerns” was published by Today’s China Publishing House in October 1998. Authors Zheng Yisheng [Standard Telegraphic Code: 6774 2496 3932] and Qian Yihong [STC: 6929 5650 4767] are the Vice Director and the Secretary-General of the Environment and Development Research Institute at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

The Center Relies on Public Opinion to Overcome Parochialism

Post comment: Environmental officials in the central government recognize the problems in enforcing laws at provincial and local levels and increasingly are depending on public opinion and an informed populace to help force polluters to obey. The central government actively supports environmental education efforts and publicizes environmental NGOs and local activists. Central government controlled media provide articles highlighting contributions of individuals and local groups on a daily basis. Success in overcoming narrow economic and parochial interests will, inevitably, be a long-term, difficult process. End comment.

Page numbers refer to the first edition of Grave Concerns published as a volume of the China’s Problems series by the Today’s China Publishing House [Jinri Zhongguo Chubanshe] in October, 1998.

Additional background information on Chinese environmental issues can be found among the ninety unclassified Embassy Beijing reports posted on the U.S. Embassy web page at http://www.usembassy-china.gov/english/sandt/index.html Some informal translations from the Chinese press bearing on the Chinese environment are available at http://www.usembassy-china.gov/english/sandt/sandsrc.htm


China Has Many Options

Careful selection of sustainable development options means looking at not just what is desirable but what is desirable over the long term and what is doable at present. Here are some examples of this in China today.

Air Pollution in Benxi, Liaoning

Benxi, an industrial city of 1.5 million people in eastern Liaoning Province, became known during the 1970s as a heavily polluted steel making center. Water pollution and air pollution from heavy industry were gradually brought under control during the late 1980s early 1990s. The determination of the people of Benxi that the pollution that threatened their lives and health must be reduced proved to be the critical driving factor in the changes. People reported pollution constantly to the city authorities. The authorities didn’t try to hide problems but actively criticized polluters and took pollution reduction goals into account in city planning. [Note: The willingness of local governments to be frank with the public about air pollution varies very widely. See the U.S. Embassy Beijing report The Fading of Chinese Environmental Secrecy End note]

Eco-Agriculture in Jingshan, Hubei Province

The development of eco-agriculture in Jingshan County in Hubei Province is another example. Incomes rose after reform began there in 1981, but just a few years later ecological damage, loss of soil fertility and erosion, and the damage to the forests had become severe. Maintenance of water conservancy systems declined, floods increased and state investment in agriculture declined. During the mid 1980s, changes in farming methods including promotion of organic fertilizers, aquaculture, and agricultural byproducts helped boost farmer incomes and cut losses to soil erosion by 80 percent.

The Shanghai Minxing economic development zone established in 1983 made clean manufacturing and environmental protection among its top priorities, including environmental impact analysis, planning for the processing of the wastes of each plant and environmental monitoring.

An Economic, Environmental No Regrets Policy

The right sustainable development policy must be a win-win no regrets policy which is beneficial both for the economy and for the environment. Sustainable development strategies must very greatly by locality to match very different local conditions. In some cities, environmental protection and clean production are an important tool for attracting foreign investment. Especially in rapidly growing new cities, environmental considerations can be integrated into the city plan and stricter management standards. Some of these cities apply stricter environmental standards than in other areas and serve as model cities for the rest of China. This is perhaps true nowhere more than in China. China is like a “little Earth” — in China there is every kind of geographical type and every conceivable stage of development. [pp. 206 – 218]

Nearly every city and region has a regional development strategy. Although these strategies have promoted economic development, they often ignore important issues such as resources and environmental capacity, and markets. How can so many regions leapfrog ahead of the rest simultaneously? During the early 1990s, many companies were losing money, there was considerable duplication of plant capacity and the ecology deteriorated (especially in places like the Huai River).

Xinjiang Cotton: A Shortsighted Agricultural Policy

The problem in some cases is policy. Cotton growing policy in Xinjiang is an example. For some year policy makers have pushed cotton production in Xinjiang as the region’s motor of economy growth. Yet agricultural experts warn that the ecology of Xinjiang is very fragile and that the biggest problem in Xinjiang is short-sighted agricultural policies. Examples include applying too much fertilizer year after year (up to 2700 kg. per hectare). This results in short-term gains but in soil and fertility deterioration over the longer term and a gradual decline in economic marginal return for cotton. The widespread use of pesticides killed some insect pests but created conditions for others to flourish. Thus for the last two years tens of thousands of people have had to hunt down cotton bollworms in the fields. Many agricultural projects compete for water. A new project upstream cuts off the flow downstream, turning a field into wasteland. [pp. 219 – 220] [For some background information on the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, see Xinjiang Reading Notes: Population, Economy, Environment, Minorities Policy ]

The World Bank’s Prescription for China

In September 1997, the World Bank released its report “Clear Water, Blue Skies” [Translator’s note: This report, part of the World Bank’s China 2020 series, [website: www.worldbank.org] was also published in the PRC in Chinese translation and were discussed in the Chinese media. End note]. The report concludes that if China does not make major changes in its environmental policy and in the forcefulness of environmental enforcement, it will not achieve its goals for air and water pollution reductions for the year 2010. No change in policy doesn’t literally mean no change but a policy of relying on market-driven changes and current environmental policy to improve environmental quality.

Profit-Seeking Drives Chinese Energy Efficiency Gains

For example, improvements in industrial energy utilization efficiency in China occurred as a result of companies striving to become more profitable. Between 1980 and 1995 the efficiency of Chinese industry per unit of production doubled. The World Bank concluded that this market-driven trend towards energy efficiency will not be enough to enable China to meet its environmental goals.

World Bank: Air and Water Pollution Will Worsen Through 2010

A World Bank study of 30 Chinese cities concluded that, if China’s present policies do not change, between 1995 and 2010 air pollution will worsen in most Chinese cities (excepting Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Wuhan which will improve significantly). Sulfur dioxide emissions will climb steadily. Carbon dioxide emissions will rise from 800 million tons in 1995 to 2.38 billion tons in 2010. Industrial pollution will become less important but the number of residential and consumer point sources of pollution will increase greatly through 2010.

The World Bank estimated the cost to human health from air pollution at 13 percent of Chinese GDP by 2010. The thirteen percent figure does not include other large pollution costs such as intelligence loss in children due to lead poisoning, acid rain, and water pollution.

Economic Solutions: Make Prices Reflect Costs and Scarcities

The energy conservation policies of the Chinese government have played an important role in energy conservation but are no longer suitable for the rising market economy. Chinese experts say energy pricing policy is the greatest shortcoming in China’s energy conservation policy. Current pricing policy does not reflect the sulfur and ash content of coal and many small mines ignore safety regulations and environmental damage and sell cheap and dirty coal. Administration intervention has kept the price of natural gas low (price subsidies for the chemical fertilizer industry and residential use) but at the expense of depriving that industry of the capital it needs to grow in order to replace coal. [pp. 226 – 227]

The report “Research on China’s Energy Strategy 2000 – 2050 [Zhongguo Nengyuan Zhanluue Yanjiu] in Section 60 “Evaluation and Suggestions for Chinese Energy Policy” concluded:

  • China is good at using administrative measures (energy quotas, project design, energy conservation demonstrations, etc.).
  • The energy pricing system is the weakest link in China’s policies and measures for energy conservation.
  • Demand side management is an important policy tool that still needs to be studied and implemented in China.
  • Relying on laws to conserve energy is one of China’s very weakest links. Law reflects the collective will over a fairly long period. It doesn’t change when personnel change and is relatively little affected by economic trends.
  • Ensuring that there are funds available for energy conservation is an essential energy conservation measure. [p. 226]

Higher Water, Coal Prices Can Cut Pollution and Waste

Water is one of China’s scarcest resources but prices have not been set at the level needed to support the supply and treatment of water. The result is tremendous waste of a scarce resource. In some areas the unwillingness of officials to “take the risk” of raising prices is based on any scientific principle or discussions with the people but just a bureaucratic attitude: “if I don’t try, I won’t fail”. [Translator’s note: The price of water in northern Chinese cities is gradually rising. Water in China’s northern cities costs 1 RMB per ton [USD 0.12 per ton], just one-fifth of the 5 RMB which Chinese hydrologists estimate as its average cost. The price of water in Beijing has doubled since December 1997. See the U.S. Embassy Beijing report PRC Water: Waste A Lot, Have Not — The Problem Is Policy, Not Technology End note] Water leakage from Chinese irrigation systems is 60 percent while the water re-utilization is half the rate of developed countries. [p. 227 – 228]

Some Chinese experts propose raising the price of coal (200 RMB per ton) to reflect the damage to health and the environment externalities which by themselves exceed 200 RMB per ton. Beijing is replacing coal with coal gas in many urban districts. The World Bank reports that if the costs assessed to air and water polluters were to be increased by five percent each year a sharp reduction in pollution could be achieved over the next two decades. If fees to water polluters were to increase by 10 percent annually, water pollution could be cut by 70 percent by 2020. [p. 228]

Vehicular emissions are a growing part of the problem. Small Chinese cars emit ten to fifty times the pollution of U.S. and Japanese made vehicles. Chinese auto emission standards for carbon monoxide are 40 times the U.S. standard and for NOx eight times. Even these standards are not vigorously enforced. [pp. 229]

World Bank Report Shortcomings: Ignores Bureaucratic Obstacles, Shortchanges Water Pollution

The World Bank report gave Chinese energy and resource economists the benefit of an outside opinion and outlined the consequences if China does not change its policy. The report has the strengths of being practical and making proposals that don’t call for everything to change all at once. “Yet the World Bank report also has shortcomings. For example it paid far more attention to air pollution than to water pollution. The report didn’t pay any attention to the coordination of policy within and among various departments. If this is not considered, any policy breakthrough not matter how good it looks from a social standpoint, cannot succeed.” Policies which do not mesh are ineffective.

Special Interest Groups: The One-Use Chopstick Lobby

There are interest groups behind many current policies. One-use only chopsticks are an example. Japan is often criticized in China for importing wood and not chopping down its own trees, but that evades the real question: don’t blame the Japanese but the Chinese who sell them the lumber! In China, there are many departments from production to processing to restaurants that will protect each other and resist any effort to ban one-use chopsticks. This just an example. In many problems there is a small group of people who vigorously resist changes that are in the interest of society. [pp. 236 – 240]

Desulphurization Is Tough If You’ve Got No Money

In January 1998 the State Council approved an acid rain and sulfur dioxide pollution control plan which raised the priority of sulfur dioxide pollution control. If China’s energy efficiency were to match that of the developed countries, China’s energy consumption would fall by one-third and sulfur dioxide emissions by one-quarter. Low electricity prices reduce the incentive for energy conservation. Desulphurization equipment on industrial plants are sometimes not used because the plant (and especially high power consuming plants such as aluminum smelters) doesn’t not want to pay for electric power and other operating costs of the desulphurization equipment. Thus the “sulfur dioxide control plan” which started out as an environmental plan was taken over by a special interest group for its own purposes.

China Has Good Technology But Can’t Commercialize It

Some say that the basic problem is that China doesn’t have good pollution control technology and foreign technology is too expensive. Prof. Hao Jiming of Qinghua University disagrees, saying “Chinese technology for coal combustion desulphurization technology is already basically mature.” He explains:

  • Plant technicians often don’t achieve the same results as environmental engineers because the technicians don’t have adequate training and a small plant is unwilling to purchase the necessary instrumentation. Desulphurization equipment is only turned on when inspectors come. Stopping and starting this equipment reduces its efficiency and shortens its life. There is much counterfeit equipment on the market, buyers want kickbacks and local governments interfere. All this gives Chinese equipment a bad reputation.
  • Chinese desulphurization technology does not lag far behind that of the developed countries. The biggest problem is the lack of operating experience in large projects for Chinese desulphurization equipment. Only through experience in big demonstration projects can Chinese domestic technology become mature enough for commercialization. China lacks a mature venture capital system and many local officials insist on foreign technology. This makes it very hard for Chinese technology to compete. [pp. 240 – 243]

The Power of the Special Interests Must Be Broken

It is very hard to draw distinctions between economic, resources and environment, and social policy on the one hand and sustainable development policy on the other. Sustainable development policy is formed during the process of transforming the present system to give higher priority to values of resources, the environment, and the individual interests of members of society in order to focus on sustainability. In order to achieve this, the current balance of interests in society must change. The first, easy steps are no regrets policies. Then come policies to increase the overall welfare at the expense of some members of society who should be compensated. Local interests do not necessary correspond to the interests of the whole and what is optimal today may not be optimal over the long term. [pp. 243 – 248]

Inertia is the Greatest Enemy

Sustainable development is the enemy of people who want to make quick profits at a high long term cost. It is also the enemy of inertia and ignorance. In China today breakthroughs are badly needed in areas such as resource and water pricing, financing waste water treatment, energy conserving and clean production technology, If upstream water use and soil conservation is ineffective, people downstream will suffer badly. Wildcat mining and illegal timber harvesting are repeatedly forbidden but still continue. China needs to establish policies to halt ecological destruction caused by pollution from the township and village industries; environmental damage from big engineering projects and the illegal conversion of agricultural land to other purposes; and the domination of the consumer market by producer rather than consumer interests.

Can A New Development Path Prevent Disaster for China?

Can China find a new path to development and avoid great losses and disaster in the coming years? These choices can only be made if the many millions of Chinese share an awareness of the dangers they face. This will also depend on a devotion to the public interest and knowledge of our situation. Our experience has certainly shown that it is only people devoted to the public interest who will make the right choices. [pp. 248 – 249]


PRC Environmental Woes Arise From System: Grave Concerns – Part 4

A March 1999 report from U.S. Embassy Beijing

Summary: Environmental degradation and the waste of scarce water resources reflect structural problems in China’s political and economic system. New policies are not needed since China has had good economic policies for over two decades. Better policies are lost in a black hole created by local governments and ministries that put their own selfish interests above the good of society. Corruption and blocking of environmental enforcement by local government, not inadequate policies, caused environmental degradation of the Huai River and of Lake Taihu, devastation of the virgin forests of Yunnan Province and the now annual drying up of the Yellow River. In part four of a summary translation of “Grave Concerns? two Chinese Academy of Social Sciences Environmental and Development Institute researchers conclude that only by overcoming the barriers between local governments and between and within government ministries and enforcing rules based on a proper understanding of the national interest can China’s environment and natural resources be saved.

Grave Concerns — Problems of Sustainable Development for China [Shendu Youhuan — Dangdai Zhongguo de Kechixu Fazahan Wenti] is a volume in the influential China’s Problems Series. Grave Concerns was published by Today’s China Publishing House in October 1998. Authors Zheng Yisheng [STC: 6774 2496 3932] and Qian Yihong [STC: 6929 5650 4767] are the Vice Director and the Secretary-General of the Environment and Development Research Institute at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Today’s China Books Controversial, Widely Available

Grave Concerns is the fifteenth volume in the China’s Problems Series published by Today’s China Publishing House under the sponsorship of former Chinese Academy of Social Sciences Vice President Liu Ji. Another book from Today’s China Publishing (not part of the China’s Problems series), Political China attracted much criticism from party ideologues for its tough criticism of China’s political system yet the book is still widely available in Beijing today. Outside Beijing, the conservative breezes are often weaker. Several books discussing the problems of the Chinese system have been great commercial successes and inspired many imitators including publishing houses in Inner Mongolia and Qinghai.

China’s Problems Policy Books Reflect Party, Government Think Tank Views, May Foreshadow Policy Changes

Books (especially the good stuff buried deep inside) are often much better sources of information and analysis than are Chinese periodicals which are monitored more closely by the authorities. While some of these books are hard-hitting, the China Problems series books are not produced by dissidents but rather by scholars who work in Communist Party and government think tanks such as Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Like the nationally circulated Guangdong Communist Party paper “Southern Weekend [Nanfang Zhoumou], the official connection makes these books more rather than less interesting. The October 1996 book Speaking Heart to Heart with the General Secretary written by a group of CASS scholars seems to have foreshadowed some of the initiatives of the Fifteenth Party Congress. Similarly, the fifteen books published thus far in the China Problems series may hint at changes to come.

[Note: Embassy Beijing has sent summary translations of two books in the China Problems Series: China Doesn’t Want to Be Mr. No (http://www.usembassy-china.org.cn/english/sandt/chimrno.htm) and “Competition in the Pacific?http://www.usembassy-china.org.cn/english/sandt/paccpca.htm) End note]

Page numbers refer to the first edition of Grave Concerns published as a volume of the China’s Problems series by the Today’s China Publishing House [Jinri Zhongguo Chubanshe] in October, 1998.

Additional background information on Chinese environmental issues can be found among the ninety unclassified Embassy Beijing reports posted on the U.S. Embassy web page at http://www.usembassy-china.org.cn/english/sandt/index.html Some informal translations from the Chinese press bearing on the Chinese environment are available at http://www.usembassy-china.org.cn/english/sandt/sandsrc.htm Several reports on new pathbreaking books available in Beijing is available at http://www.usembassy-china.org.cn/english/sandt/bjbkwrm.html


The Unavoidable Problem: The System

Problems built into the system itself cannot be ignored. Let’s look at the story of water pollution on the Huai River — a microcosm of China — to understand the conflict between the environmental protection and the economic development departments. Here we see the consequences of putting the interests of individual bureaucracies ahead of the public interest. During 1994 and 1995 repeated serious water pollution incidents on the Huai River resulted in tens of thousands of cases of contagious intestinal and skin diseases. This disaster resulted in the forced closing of many of the polluting plants. Looking more closely at the history of development and environmental enforcement along the Huai River pollution, we can see clearly that the problem wasn’t lack of good policy but that the policy was ineffective. [pp. 250 – 253]

Effective Policies Announced Early and Often But…

Important Huai River clean up policies preceding the 1997 pollution control committee approved by the State Council include a 1978 Huai River pollution control plan; a four province Huai River control commission set up in 1980; a four province Huai River water resources protection leading group established in 1988, a February 1989 order on preventing Huai River pollution issued by the State Council and four provinces; 64 pollution control projects worth 160 million RMB begun in 1990; and Huai River environmental protection surveys conducted in 1994. According to statistics from China’s Agenda 21 environmental white paper, by 1994 there were already four environmental laws, eight resource management laws, 20 environment and resource management regulations and 260 environmental standards. These already constituted a good framework for the protection of natural resources and the environment.

[Note: See for example the article examining the ineffectiveness of policy enforcement in the internal distribution edition of the Chinese Communist Party journal Fortnightly [Banyuetan] at Party Journal: More and More People Defy Central Government Notices End note.]

Good Policies Announced 20 Years Ago, Discussed Ever Since

We should know about all this so that no reader will think there wasn’t any policy or orders before the water pollution disasters of 1994. With all this in mind, it is hard to escape the feeling that all all the public discussion and the comments of experts on this topic are superfluous because a clear, reasonable policy for pollution control has already been in place for some time.

Why Was Huai River Policy Ineffective?

Administrative interference by local government often prevented environmental regulations from being enforced. Local government did not allow rules requiring that environmental protection be taken into account in the design, construction and operation of plants and did not allow local environmental protection bureaus to interfere.

[Translator’s note: Local government selects the personnel, funds, and provides “administrative guidance” to local environmental protection bureaus. Although the local EPB in theory takes environmental policy advice from the central government environmental protection authorities, in practice the will of the local government very often prevails over central government policy directives. End note].

  • In many areas, officials were concerned about pollution upstream but didn’t care about the pollution their area caused downstream.
  • The intertwining of government and the Communist Party and of government and business gave environmental protection officials many new difficulties. When environmental officials insisted on environmental protection rules be followed in plant design, construction and operation, officials would interfere in their dual status as local government and party leaders. When environmental officials fined a plant, plant managers would refuse to pay as both businessmen and as local government officials.
  • Another series problem is the absence at the grassroots level of the village and the township of any environmental enforcement organization capable of acting vigorously to protect the environment. Environmental enforcement personnel are few and standards are low. Problems of pollution which crosses the boundaries of provinces and counties cannot be addressed because there are no regional policies, laws and regulations. [pp. 250 – 256]

Chinese Policies Ineffective But Better Policy Not Needed

The heart of the discussion in this chapter is problems such as administrative intervention and problems arising from the system itself. We believe that the question of whether a sustainable development policy is possible for China rests on the solution of these problems. Why are policies ineffective? Why are environmental affairs not handled according to existing legislation? If we avoid addressing this question by a new set of policies, laws and regulations and a new method of directing environmental enforcement, this won’t have much effect on the “difficulty of implementing sustainable development”.

Better Policy Disappears Down the Black Hole of the System

This is because even a better thought-out, far seeing policy will lose its effectiveness in the “black hole” of the Chinese system just as they as we have seen in the ineffectiveness of China’s policies for the Huai River. To be very blunt, when I hear news reports of the leaders and cadres of the Huai River basin angrily cursing the polluters, calling them no better than drug pushers and murdering bandits, I get very complex feelings in my heart. Was it not those very same leaders who were praising as heroes of the “economic miracle” those very same people they curse today as “drug pushers and murdering bandits”?

1994 Huai River Disaster: Contagious Disease Hit 30,000

Behind the tremendous economic growth of the Huai River over the past 15 years is the rapid growth of the “fifteen small industries” such as small paper mills and small dying and tanning plants. For years the cancer rates of people along the Huai River were higher than elsewhere. Finally came the disaster of July 1994 that gave contagious intestinal and skin diseases to over 30,000 people.

Can’t Say We Didn’t Know, How Can We Make A Better System?

We should not forget, as we look over the lessons of the history of the Huai River, that we can’t say that “we didn’t know” what the consequences of heedless development would be. Nor can we just assign the blame to a few guilty individuals. What we need to do is figure out how to design a system that protects people’s knowledge and ideas that are in the long-term best interests of all of society rather than being excluded and suppressed. How can we harmonize the short-term interests of a locality with the long-term interests of society? [pp. 256 – 257]

Who Will Take Responsibility For Lake Taihu?

Lake Taihu is one of China’s five great freshwater lakes. At the heart of China’s fastest growing region, Taihu has the worst water pollution in China. Economic losses owing to water pollution are estimated at USD 600 million annually. Despite intervention by the central government in 1996, water pollution has continued to worsen. The relatively developed cities of Suzhou, Wuxi and Changzhou spend less than one percent of their GDP on the environment. Zhejiang local governments spend far less. Clean-up efforts are local and not coordinated. One sign of this poor coordination is the water quality at provincial borders which falls in the very worst category over 90 percent of the time.

Quarreling Cities, Coordinating Committees That Never Meet

The neighboring cities of Wuxi and Changzhou can’t agreed on clean-up plans. Changzhou says blocking the flow of some waters into the lake will stall the develop of its industry. The two cities argue even about basic monitoring data. Although Jiangsu Province has a plan for Lake Taihu through the year 2010, no decision has been made about this project that should be taken care of now. The State Council established a coordinating committee composed of the ministers of environment and hydrology together with leaders of the provinces and cities involved. Yet this committee has never held a meeting! Can the goal announced by the government to “Ensure that all the discharges in the Taihu River region meet environmental standards by 1998 so that the lake will be clean by the year 2000” be met? [pp. 258 – 259]

Clearcutting of Virgin Forests of Deqin, Yunnan Province

Xi Zhinong [Note: A 1999 USIA International Visitor. End note], a worker in the Yunnan Forestry Bureau, told Chinese environmentalists and the press that the habitat of the Golden Monkeys is threatened by the clear cutting of virgin forest. This finally got the central government’s attention. The Ministry of Forestry sent an inspection team and the leaders of Yunnan Province ordered a stop to the timber cutting and logging road construction in Deqin Prefecture. The cutting stopped for a time, but it didn’t solve the problem. A Green Camp composed of forty environmental volunteers went to study the “path to sustainable development in Deqin Prefecture”.

[See group leader Tang Xiyang’s open letter and report about the Green Camp ‘96 trip to Deqin, Yunnan Province as well as the November 1996 U.S. Embassy Beijing report Saving the Snub Nosed Monkey: Student Environmental Action in China ]

Yunnan Local Government Dependent on Logging For Income

Deqin Prefecture, with a per capita income of 480 RMB [USD 60 per year], is one of China’s poorest prefectures. Most of the inhabitants are minority people. Ninety percent of the income of the county government comes from logging so local officials estimate that the logging ban cost the county treasury 8 million RMB [8.3 RMB equals 1 USD] and the people who lost their jobs another 7 million RMB, and the province says that the central government should compensate the county for banning logging in this national level wildlife conservation area.

Drawing a Moral From Central Orders: Cut Your Trees Faster

Yet the State Planning Commission doesn’t have an item in its budget for such a payment. When the “people from Beijing” come, the local officials say, “Certainly, you are correct. But what would you do in our place? We have to make a living!”. The Golden Monkey habitat is still in danger. After the order came down to stop cutting in one place, cutting was intensified in other areas around the county. Neighboring areas seemed to draw this lesson: cut your trees as fast as you can. This seems to be true in adjacent areas of Tibet as well.

Local Forestry Bureaus Largely Escape Central Control

The Ministry of Forestry cannot control the actions of local government. [Note: After the March 1998 central government reforms, the Ministry of Forestry became the Forestry Bureau directly subordinate to the State Council rather than to a ministry. End note] Again we come to the contradiction between the central government and local government. During the early 1980s, the forest lands were divided into state forests and collectively-owned forests. Every level of government (regional and county) has its own forestry company which does logging in virgin forest on behalf of the state. There are many different kinds of excuses and deceptions used to do this: that the virgin forests in the nature preserves were once collectively-owned forest; by deceiving the weak local environmental protection offices, or by just claiming that the local government is in charge of the collective forests, logging goes on in protected areas. The market economy has raised the price of wood and local logging companies want to cut down the trees before someone else does.

Chongqing, Yunnan Forestry Bureaus Virgin Forest Logging

According to a May 1998 report from Friends of Nature member Tian Dasheng and Wu Dengming of Chongqing, cutting in many virgin forests in an area where the provinces of Sichuan, Guizhou meet Chonqing Municipality is not apparent from the road but if one climbs into the hills, large expanses of clear-cut forest land can be seen. One Chinese official said in mid 1998 that now is the third peak in timber cutting counting from [Note: the first peak during the Great Leap Forward that began in] 1958. The Central Television program Focus on August 2 revealed that Deqin Prefecture, Yunnan local government had resumed logging all the while receiving 11 million RMB annual subsidies from the central and provincial governments not to log.

The State Council issued an order banning illegal timber cutting on August 5, 1998. [pp. 259 – 262]

[Embassy Comment: Embassy officers traveling in Yunnan Province met academics who felt that the central government actions in Deqin made the situation worse. Other prefectures noted the subsidies paid to Deqin to stop logging and decided to start logging in their own protected areas in hopes of getting subsidies and buy-outs from the center to stop. Local reports indicate logging may have decreased immediately after the ban, but it is not clear it has stopped or what the long term results will be. End comment.]

The Drying Up of the Yellow River: Getting Worse Each Year

The Yellow River began drying up once a year in 1972. At first the river would dry up for only ten or twenty days, but this period gradually lengthened until it reached 136 days in 1996. The length of the dried out portion of the Yellow River also lengthened from 310 kilometers to 683 kilometers in 1995. At first the river would dry out in April; in 1990 it dried out in February. A new record was set in 1997. The river dried up on February 7 and water didn’t flow until August 6. But just 56 hours later, the river dried up and started again a total of eight times until September 3 when the regular flow resumed. Water shortages along the Yellow River already cause economic losses of 3.6 billion RMB (about USD 400 million) each year. [pp. 264 – 265]

Water Diverted From the Yellow River Exceeds Its Capacity

During 1990 – 1995, rainfall along the middle and upper reaches of the river was down 11 percent and along the lower reaches down 6 percent compared with the average of the 1950s. Some experts attributed this to El Nino and to the greenhouse effect. Over half of the Yellow River waters are used in irrigation — a much higher proportion than during the 1950s. In 1995 for example, 122 projects for diverting Yellow River waters had a combined design capacity of 4000 cubic meters of water per second. This is far higher than the amount of water the river can provide. Experts says that the amount of water the Yellow River can provide is 37 billion cubic meter but current water diversion projects already take up 40 billion cubic meters. Another reason for the water shortage is that the middle and lower portions of the rivers are short of water storage capacity. Yet the most important reason is the destruction of forests and vegetation along the upper and middle reaches of the Yellow River and with it the loss of much soil into the river. [pp. 265 – 266]

Effective Policies Long Proposed But Ignored

Chinese experts have long proposed policies to address these problems such as regional management of water use, raising water prices to encourage conservation, increasing storage capacity and strengthening measures to prevent soil loss along the upper and middle reaches of the river. Over the long term there is the south-to-north transfer of waters project [Nanshui Beidiao]. These policies have been discussed for years yet the situation gets steadily worse.

1987 Conservation Plan Ignored, Development Always Praised

In 1987 the State Council approved a government plan to coordinate water use along the Yellow River. During the decade since however, every province has fought to grab more water with no thought to conservation. The conservation plan for ten years has been just a scrap of paper. This is what is called a “tragedy of the commons” or in Chinese colloquial terms “if I don’t steal it first, someone else will.” [Bu qiang bai bu qiang] Taking water from the river is always praised as “a great economic achievement”. But how were these 122 projects for diverting the Yellow River waters approved? How did the Ministry of Hydrology implement the central government’s plan for sharing the river waters? What kind of coordination was there among the departments implementing these plans? How can an organization that has the authority to plan and manage the sharing of the river waters be created?

Not Just Poor Local But Also Poor Ministerial Coordination

It wasn’t just every feudal lord [note: refers to local governments. End note] acting on his own account that created this problem. The lack of coordination among central government ministries made things much worse. If we are to break down the walls that separate local governments, we will also have to break down the walls that separate government departments. For example, hydroelectric power generation by the electric power authorities will come into seasonal conflict with agricultural water use needs. This is a problem that cuts across ministerial lines. Despite the worsening of the drying up of the Yellow River, several provinces have announced plans to divert still more water! Yet diverting still more water is part of the central government’s plan to help some of the most impoverished people in China and to narrow the great regional gaps in living standards, and to help China’s minority people. Conflicts between the policies of central government ministries creates these problems. [pp. 264 – 267]

No Effective Water Management; Price Hikes are Needed

For example, only ten percent of the people in the Yellow River region live upstream but they use half of the irrigation water. Moreover, people in this region pay just one fifth to one tenth the national average water price and use water only one-third as efficiently as the average Chinese farmer. Water allocation in China today is what people call “management on the surface but in fact just the thievery allocation method”. If the price of Yellow River irrigation water were to be raised just to the average price of Chinese irrigation water, waste could be cut by one-third. [p. 268]

[Note: Water prices have already begun from a very low level. The average north China water price in early 1999 was 1 RMB (USD 0.12) per ton (or cubic meter), about double the late 1997 price. See the articles translated from the Chinese press Beijing Water Prices Raised Again to 1 RMB Per Ton End note].

Raising water prices is difficult but without it no water conservation policy can be successful. Chinese leaders such as Premier Li Peng at the November 1996 Central Economic Working Conference called the gradual establishment of a “user pays” water system essential. Yet no one dares put this into practice for fear of colliding with a constellation of special interests and political and economic questions. Who wants to raise the price of water and be accused of “adding to the farmers burden” or causing inflation? [pp. 268 – 269]

Water Subsidies Promote Waste of A Scarce Resource

As one expert said at the Working Conference, “Making effective use of limited resources is essential to the welfare of the entire society and is the true meaning of “virtuous government”. Yet insisting on providing subsidized water [fuli shui] only benefits a minority and sacrifices the interests of the majority and of society as a whole.” Yet as people get more and more worried about the Chinese water shortage, they put their hopes on the South-to-North water transfer project [Nan Shui Beidiao]. Very few people think of how the water will be paid for. Experts predict that a cubic meter of water delivered to Beijing will cost 8 RMB. Can that be done in today’s China which is unwilling to adjust water prices? When will the water price problem of China’s cities be solved. [pp. 268 – 269]

China Is Good at Diverting Streams But Not At Conservation

China’s water problems arise from being good at diverting water and weak at conserving water. From being strong at building big projects but weak at creating an effective system of administration. From being good at organizing a campaign but weak at harmonizing competing interests. All this characterizes an imbalance in the capacity of government. The drying up of the Yellow River is the result of these problems in the capacity of Chinese government. [p. 270]


Comment: Big Project Profits, Weak Central Regulatory Capacity

As a centrally planned economy, China has always favored big projects. Bit projects also provide opportunities to spread wealth and grant concessions to friends. At the same time, the weakening of the central government’s ability to impose fines and control the daily life at the individual level in the countryside makes it very difficult for the central government to raise water prices or to enforce a decentralized water conservation program.

No PRC Clean Environment Without Clean Government: “Grave Concerns” – Part 5

A March 1999 report from U.S. Embassy Beijing

Summary: Many ministries and local governments put their own self-interests ahead of the national interest. China in economic transition does not have a free market but a “market economy controlled by the administrative departments” that hinders sustainable development initiatives. The widespread falsification of statistics confirms the Chinese saying “officials make statistics and statistics make officials”. Wise government macroeconomic planning is essential for wise sustainable development. But this is impossible if, as many Chinese say, “the crooks and the cops belong to the same family”. Many good officials are fired for standing up for the public interest. In part 5 of a summary translation of “Grave Concerns”, two Chinese Academy of Social Sciences researchers conclude that “power” pollution is the worst kind of pollution. As long as power is above the law, the environment will suffer. Amidst the environmental gloom, however, are the many bright points of light in the rising generation who understand China’s deep structural problems and are determined to speak out and work for fundamental change.

“Grave Concerns — Problems of Sustainable Development for China” [Shendu Youhuan — Dangdai Zhongguo de Kechixu Fazahan Wenti] is a volume in the influential China’s Problems Series. “Grave Concerns” was published by Today’s China Publishing House in October 1998. Authors Zheng Yisheng [STC: 6774 2496 3932] and Qian Yihong [STC: 6929 5650 4767] are the Vice Director and the Secretary-General of the Environment and Development Research Institute at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Common Theme: Not Just Bad People or Policies But the System

The thread running through many of the China’s Problem’s series is that it isn’t just bad people, or bad policies. The problem is much deeper: the problem lies in the political and economic system. As Zheng and Qian remark in their book, the suppression of the social sciences in China until just a decade or so ago has made it hard to incorporate scientific understanding of society into policy making.

Amidst the Environmental Gloom, A New Generation With Its Own Explanation

A rising generation of Chinese sociologists, anthropologists and demographers linked to worldwide academic networks is now changing that, however. They are improving policy advice to the Chinese government. Many of the books in the China Problem’s Series were written by PRC government think tank researchers. Premier Zhu Rongji has recognized how the abysmal state of Chinese statistics drives down the quality of policy decision making. Addressing structural issues in the Chinese economic and political system (as we see in “Grave Concerns”) may make it possible for fundamental changes such as vigorous enforcement of environmental regulations at all levels and reducing the widespread corruption in Chinese society and government. The rise of a new generation that understands the problem, is moving into policy making positions, and is willing to speak out is one of the brightest spots in the Chinese environmental picture.

Chinese Academy of Sciences Study Parallels “Grave Concerns”

“Grave Concerns” combines high quality information and deep analysis. The book echoes many of the views of China’s leading scientists which Embassy Beijing Environment, Science and Technology officer has heard in conversations with Chinese scientists and read in scholarly books and periodicals. An example: “Status and Development Strategy of China’s Resources” [Zhongguo Ziyuan Taishi yu Kaifang Fangluue] published in December 1996 by the Hubei Science Publishing House. “Status and Development Strategy” is part of the Man and Nature series edited by then Chinese Academy of Sciences President Zhou Guangzhao. The authors, He Xiyu [STC: 0149 1585 0710] and Yao Jianhua [STC: 1202 1696 5478], who examine water, grassland and water resources, agriculture (including detailed studies of grain, cotton and sugar policy), and marine resources come to largely the same conclusions as the “Severe Hardships” authors.

Chinese Academy Study: Collective Property The Problem

This Chinese Academy of Sciences volume on environmental and natural resource economics, for example, in its conclusion “Resources Management” [p. 561 – 573] attributed much of the chronic waste of resources and pollution in China to the collective property system. In dispassionate academic language the message comes through clearly: the problem is the communist system. Under the collectivist ownership in which users do not compensate owners for the use of a resource, there is little incentive for anyone to play the owner’s role of conserving and investing in resources. The solution (p. 565) is to create a market and to allow the transfer of private property rights (or usage rights) to natural resources.

Scientists’ Criticism of Big Projects and Premier Zhu

“Status and Development” is less directly critical than “Grave Concerns” of big projects yet with a careful reading its message does gets across. For example, the chapters on water resources and energy do not mention the highly controversial Three Gorges Dam [pp. 555 – 556] The Three Gorges Dam, along with a planned south-to-north water transfer project [Nanshui Beidiao], is mentioned unfavorably in the chapter “Resources Development and the Environment”. Criticisms of the Three Gorges in the Chinese Academy of Sciences volume include the difficulty of settling people displaced by the Three Gorges Dam in other, already overcrowded areas; rapid silting up of the dam; increased pollution before the dam with the slowing of water flow rates among other problems. [Comment: Most recently reports in the Chinese press reflect concerns of Premier Zhu Rongji about the quality of the Three Gorges projects and other big projects. See the March 1999 U.S. Embassy Beijing report Three Gorges Project on the Defensive? Could Premier Zhu be listening to some of the scientist critics of the Three Gorges who have had to lie low while Li Peng was premier? End comment]

Officials: China Will Keep Old Names But Change System

Two Chinese government officials told Embassy Beijing Environment, Science and Technology officer that China is now moving towards a private property system but this can’t be said openly for political reasons. The officials said that in the traditional Chinese way of keeping the old names but gradually changing the meaning of the names, China would eventually switch to a private property system. [Comment: A change to a private property system would sap the already battered legitimacy of the Communist Party. The Communist Party in Chinese is literally the “collective property party” (gongchandang). End comment]

This view of the officials and the authors of the Chinese Academy of Sciences natural resources volume discussed above that the collective property system is at the root of many of China’s problems seems to be held fairly widely. According to a February 28 South China Morning Post article, Chinese economist Cao Siyuan, father of China’s Bankruptcy Law, prepared for the National People’s Congress a proposal that the Communist Party should change its name to the Socialist Party. Referring to President Jiang’s statement that achieving communism will take tens of generations, Cao proposed that the Party change its name so that people tens of generations in the future can decide for themselves whether to be communist or not. According to Cao, the name “Communist Party” (with its literal meaning in Chinese of “collective property) creates uncertainty about the safety of private funds so “bosses of private firms and top party and government officials keep assets offshore to provide an escape route”.

Radical Reinterpretation of Names Has A Long Tradition in China

Radically reinterpreting principles in the name of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” or other need of the present powers didn’t start in 1949. Keeping the old names while radically re-interpreting their meaning so as to use the authority of the ancients to legitimize innovations has a long tradition in China. Ancient Chinese philosophical and medical texts when compared with the widely differing commentaries on the texts written in different dynasties illustrate this. The famed Chinese political commentator Confucius 2500 years ago made the rectification of names (“zhengming” which means that that the names and their meanings should coincide. If not, the names should be rectified so that they do) the main theme in his philosophy in order to guard against this tendency in Chinese society and thought. Presumably Confucius would side with the Chinese economist Cao Siyuan’s modest proposal.

Page numbers in the summary translation below refer to the first edition of “Grave Concerns published as a volume of the China’s Problems series by the Today’s China Publishing House [Jinri Zhongguo Chubanshe] in October, 1998.

Additional background information on Chinese environmental issues can be found among the ninety unclassified Embassy Beijing reports posted on the U.S. Embassy web page at http://www.usembassy-china.gov/english/sandt/index.html Some informal translations from the Chinese press bearing on the Chinese environment are available at http://www.usembassy-china.gov/english/sandt/sandsrc.htm Several reports on new path breaking books available in Beijing is available at http://www.usembassy-china.gov/english/sandt/bjbkwrm.html


Systemic Problems: Divisions Among Regions, Ministries

  • “There is a big imbalance between the strong development departments and the weak environmental protection departments. As a result, China is still stuck in the stage of fixing problems after they occur rather than preventing pollution.
  • The division of labor among central government ministries is not a division but a divorce. Each department puts its own interests ahead of the national interest. Each department puts out contradictory orders over the areas over which they claim authority. The grassroots naturally find it hard to comply and a lot of important matters fall through the cracks.
  • Divisions among regions. Each local government sees its authority as being higher than China’s national laws. Conflicting national policies cancel each other out. Regulations intended to cover areas with multiple administrations fall into disuse.
  • The closer a matter relates to the whole society and the long term interests in China, the fewer people there are people who are responsible for it.” pp. 270]

In sum, the divorce among the elements of China’s administrative framework is incompatible with China’s sustainable development. This is the basic contradiction encountered in moving from ideas about China’s sustainable development to their implementation. [p. 270]

Deep Structure Impediments to PRC Sustainable Development

Why can’t Chinese government departments coordinate their policies? Why is it that local government can ignore national laws? These questions go to the heart of the deep structural problems China has. China doesn’t have a planned economy. It doesn’t have a market economy. It has a “market economy controlled by the administrative departments”. This transitory stage in China’s developments has serious disadvantages for China’s sustainable development. [p. 271]

Economic Behavior Driven by Need for Political Achievements

The problem of mixing of government and business not only affects the economy but damages sustainable development as well. As government participation in business grows, companies act more and more like government bureaucrats looking for short term political achievements. This seeking for short term gains during the term of a given bureaucrat causes ever greater problems. As one official said, “What a capitalist seeks is money in his pocket. What we want is an achievement we can write on a piece of paper.”

Why are the development departments so strong and the environmental protection departments so weak? The answer is the relative strengths of those departments is not determined by law but the will of the government leadership. Local government that lean towards development warn the local environment authorities “Don’t get in the way!” and even fire officials who dare to do their duty. Very few local governments give the environmental protection departments a veto power over development. Local governments often do not tell the environmental protection departments until it is well advanced. Their failure to give authority to the environmental departments shows what these local governments really think about sustainable development. [pp. 271 – 272]

[Note: Over the past year more and more articles in the Chinese press have noted the link between corruption and the structure of the Chinese political and economic system. The article The Pathological Expansion of the Selfish Interests of Government Departments and theThe Causes of the Pathological Expansion of the Interests of Government Departments appeared in Southern Weekend [Nanfang Zhoumou] a nationally-circulated Guangzhou Communist Party newspaper which is more critical than most. End note]

Faking Statistics: Officials Make Statistics and Statistics Make Official Careers

A study of the implementation of the Statistics Law carried out in late 1997 by the State Statistical Bureau, the Supervisory Department [Jiancha Bu] and the State Rule of Law Bureau found 60,000 instances of illegal statistics, half of which were deliberately falsified. Local officials falsify statistics to look better to superiors. Statistics for the township and village enterprises are often falsified. One example is how in late 1995, the fixed assets of the township and village enterprises was cut by 40 percent to the remove inflation from their statistics. [pp. 273 – 274]

[Note: Article denouncing the faking of statistics appear frequently in the Chinese press. An example is the article translated at Leaders Water Official Statistics — Only Official Careers Benefit ]

Government Administrative Power and Economic Advantage

The division of labor among government departments depends entirely upon the needs of society. But for various reasons these departments are increasingly concerns with their own bureaucratic interests. This creates a situation in which “the interests of the government department are placed ahead of the national interest”. This is seen in the power struggles between government departments and even in the exchange of power for money. The true work of government becomes a mere secondary matter. [p. 274]

Reform of the Government Itself Lags Far Behind

Yet reform of the government itself is the aspect of Chinese reforms that lags the furthest behind. Many government organizations are not really cutting personnel. They are just converting government functions into fee for service. The more obvious issues such as how to collect fees, licenses and spending money on big projects are getting attention. But what is in the end are the bigger and more important issues are being swept aside. These include establishing and then strengthening the rule of law, resolving conflicts of interests, and studying policies for handling potential future crises. [p. 275]

Not A Division of Labor But a Divorce: Chinese Walls Abound

Now for years people have been calling for the establishment of regional bodies with real authority to handle large regions such as river basins that cross administrative boundaries. If there is any response at all, it has been to set up some organization that has no real power. The basic problem is the so-called division of labor is really a divorce. This not only true between departments but also between divisions within a department. Each department has its own area to manage, each is subordinate to a particular province, city or county organization), each its own goals and responsibilities, and each its own separate source of power. Therefore is it any wonder that the great variety of uncoordinated policies, orders and directives are hard for units at the grassroots to implement?

Government Departments Have Become Mere Interest Groups

Where there is money to be made there is a great duplication in organizations — what the people call “Paying the water bill to twelve different departments”. Government departments have become interest groups first and public servants second. Better policies are not the answer. Unless the problem of government departments acting as interest groups is not addressed, any reform will just be a matter of departments negotiating how under the new, perhaps very different arrangement, “no department will be worse off than before” and the interests of the people and the long-term interests of society will come second. [pp. 275 – 276]

There Can Be No Clean Environment Without Clean Government

Honesty and sustainable development are directly related. Macro level adjustments and investment planning are indispensable methods for sustainable development. Yet if these powers are captured by a department or an individual to use as its own political or economic capital, much confusion will be introduced into the process. A big problem in China today is the environment in which public funds are used. A minority of the officials in some departments team up with criminals to exchange power for money. This is what the people call “the teaming up of government and business” or “the cops and the crooks are one family”. This behavior is a big enemy of sustainable development. [P. 276]

“Poverty” Pollution Bad, But “Power” Pollution is the Worst

“Poverty is the worst kind of pollution” expresses clearly the link between poverty and vicious cycles of ecological deterioration. But we should never forget the power pollution sometimes causes more pollution than anything else. There can be no clean environment without clean government. [pp. 274 – 276]

Excess Workers in Ministries Make Big Projects Attractive

There are many different organizations and many surplus workers in the Chinese government. The forestry workers attached to the government forestry departments and the construction project workers of the hydrological departments create built-in pressures to get capital and grab projects to create employment for all these people. Just for this reason Chinese government departments tend to focus on big projects rather than on enforcement of regulations and the establishment of a sound regulatory framework. Isn’t exaggerating the role of a department in sustainable development as a means of getting funds and power another way in which government departments act as interest groups?

Who Will Guard the Guardians?

If the behavior of government departments is to meet China’s sustainable development needs, the achievements of government departments will need to be evaluated objectively. The organization and arrangement of power within the government must be changed as well. Great objectivity will be needed for this. Yet the government, because of the “power pollution” discussed above, has already become a semi-public, semi-private interest group. In many areas “being responsible to the people” , like “sustainable development” itself, is just an empty word. “Being responsible for the interests of my department” would be the honest thing to say. China has many good, public-spirited officials but they are very often fired for being “someone who can’t get along” even though the official’s views are in line with the public interest, the law and sustainable development. Sustainable development depends upon the behavior of the government and without adequate supervision of the government there can be no sustainable development. [p. 276]

Power and Money Lead to Favoritism and Fake Statistics

Without an evaluation system free of power and money, sustainable development will have no meaning. Without proper evaluation departments will only report happy news and make no mention of the price paid in one area for progress in another or even falsify statistics. The statistics that some localities report on resources (forest, grassland and land) are data that is already over ten years old. Even worse is falsifying data from environmental monitoring stations. In many places the “leader is wise”. So with just a few words from the leader experts will write dishonest reports. The leader will use these reports and make bad policy decisions. Sharp eyes are needed to analyze the losses and benefits of policies to people in every sphere. Most of all, the legitimate rights of people must be respected. People who dare to speak the truth are not getting the protection they deserve.

If Power is Above the Law, The Environment Will Suffer

As long as power is above the law, Chinese laws on the environment, resources and population will not have much effect. The sharp rise in the pillaging of forest resources when the Forest Law was passed shows that during reform some departments will “rush to get on the last train” and increase their efforts to misappropriate public resources. Fellow Chinese, we must not let our limited natural resources be ravaged again as they were during the “Great Leap Forward” and the “Cultural Revolution”! [pp. 276 – 279]


PRC Sustainable Development Solutions: Markets, Rights and Democracy —“Grave Concerns” Conclusion – Part Six

A May 1999 report from U.S. Embassy Beijing

Rational pricing of water (now priced at about one-fifth real cost) and other natural resources, protection of individual economic rights and greater popular participation will help solve China’s sustainable development dilemmas conclude two Chinese Academy of Social Sciences researchers in the October 1998 PRC sustainable development book “Grave Concerns”. This report concludes a six part summary of “Grave Concerns”. As China celebrates the 80th anniversary of the May 4th movement student-led democracy movement, the conviction is spreading that not just science but also democracy is essential to the sustainable development of China. End summary.

“Grave Concerns — Problems of Sustainable Development for China” [Shendu Youhuan — Dangdai Zhongguo de Kechixu Fazahan Wenti] is a volume in the influential China’s Problems Series. “Grave Concerns” was published by Today’s China Publishing House in October 1998. Authors Zheng Yisheng and Qian Yihong are the Vice Director and the Secretary-General of the Environment and Development Research Institute at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. In this installment, a better translation of the title of the book is “Grave Concerns” used here vice “Severe Hardships”. The first five parts of this series are on the U.S. Embassy Beijing web page at http://www.usembassy-china.gov/english/sandt/index.html

Ranking the Obstacles to Sustainable Development in China

“Grave Concerns” provides not just a deep analysis of the problems of sustainable development but also ranks these problems.

Obstacle #1 The biggest obstacles are unrealistic economic goals defined in economic terms (GDP) which are then exaggerated at lower levels. Economic growth goals need to be relaxed, said Zheng. The development ministries such as the State Development Planning Commission, the State Economic and Trade Commission are much more powerful than the protective ministries such as the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA), the State Forestry Bureau (although some Chinese experts say that Forestry is more of a forest-exploiting than a forest-protecting agency.)

Obstacle #2 The second greatest obstacle to sustainable development is the private interest group-like behavior of ministries and local governments. This results in conflicting goals as each ministry and local government seeks its private advantage first and prevents a coherent policy from being implemented. This second obstacle is related to the weakness of law and the ineffectiveness of the central government in imposing policy upon different ministries and upon local government.

Obstacles #3 The third obstacle is the widespread corruption of Chinese government officials. This is closely related to obstacle #2 above. The perception of widespread corruption by government (that the government does not obey the law) probably also makes it harder to persuade Chinese people to comply with laws and weakens the authority of government generally.

Obstacle #4 The fourth obstacle is the poor quality of decision-making by Chinese government officials. This fourth obstacle is due to limitations in personal integrity, education and knowledge of many officials [Note: The Chinese term that expresses a person’s quality (suzhi) is a blend of personal integrity, education, and general knowledge. End note] but also to the poor quality of the statistics they base their decisions on. Some Chinese academic say that the elimination of the social sciences from university curricula in the early 1950s (but making a comeback today) has resulted in very narrowly educated officials and scientists who don’t understand the big picture. Premier Zhu Rongji’s government in 1998 launched a campaign still underway to stop the widespread falsification and exaggeration of statistical data that local governments send to the central government.

“Grave Concerns” and ‘Problems Series’: It’s the System

“Grave Concerns” is written for a Chinese audience and so focuses on problems rather than progress. China’s steady improvements in energy efficiency and declining pollution per unit of energy and industrial consumption are mentioned but not stressed. “Grave Concerns” is one volume in the China’s Problems Series written mostly by scholars at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. “Grave Concerns” shares the perspective of He Qinglian in her “Pitfalls of Modernization” [Xiandaihua de Xianjing] that China’s basic problems in the very structure of its political and economic system. This perspective is certainly not unique to these books: ESTOFF has heard the same refrain from Chinese officials, business people, and people in the street. This very broad consensus that the problem is the system is a very powerful and indeed a steadily growing force for change.

Popular Pressure Forces Change: Yes, In China Too

The authors’ calls for change driven by pressure from below may not seem realistic to the foreign reader. Yet radical changes in the Chinese system including the institution of the responsibility system were driven by pressure from below and later co-opted by local and national-level officials. The contract responsibility system began with the conspiracy of Anhui Province farmers to secretly divide collective lands and assign to individual farmers. The farmers were later supported by Anhui Province governor Wan Li and later in Sichuan Province by Zhao Ziyang. Only later did these reforms become the national policy promoted by Deng Xiaoping.

A central government official recently made the point to Embassy Beijing Environment, Science and Technology officer that pressures from below were co-opted by local and then national officials. The official said “in the late 1970s Chinese farmer would say “If you want rice, look for Wanli; if you want food, look for Zhao Ziyang” [Yao mi, zhao Wan Li; Yao zhao liang, zhao Ziyang”. Some Chinese historians argue that the farmers in Anhui Province were the first to demand change because Anhui Province suffered the most in the 1960 – 61 famine that killed 30 million people. In many instances it seems that Chinese leaders have preferred to call actions taken because of necessity and pressure from below as a brilliant innovation by the Chinese leadership.

Chinese economist He Qinglian, in her “Pitfalls of Modernization” [Xiandaihua de xianjing], widely considered one of the best Chinese books of 1998 and highly praised by professional economists, makes this same point [on p.85 in the first edition of January 1998 published by Today’s China Publishing House]. She writes “People who study the history of Chinese reform over the past 18 years find that China’s economic reforms were forced by pressures from below. Reform came when the government was unable to maintain the present order and had no choice but to give up some power. Eighteen years ago the farmers were unable to make a living; the Chinese government was forced to give up control and allow the farmers to implement the household responsibility system. When the government found itself unable to solve the problem of urban unemployment it was forced to allow private people to start businesses and to permit the establishment of the township and village enterprises.”

Genesis of “The China’s Problems Series” and “Grave Concerns

“Grave Concerns” as part of the China’s Problems’ Series which has attracted wide attention for its deep analysis of China’s political, economic, social and environmental problems. Today’s China Publishing House, the publisher of the series, also published “Political China”, an influential collection of essays calling for political and legal reform in August 1998. The China’s Problems series grew out of a 1996 conference that produced the twenty-seven essays that appeared in the April, 1997 book “The Critical Time: Twenty-Seven Problems of Contemporary China That Require an Urgent Solution” [Guanjiande Shike]. Today’s China Publishing House is part of the Wai Wenju [Foreign Literature Bureau] a government organization subordinate to the Foreign Expert’s Bureau that specializes in publishing foreign-language versions of Chinese government publications. When the Embassy EST section called Today’s China Publishing House in February 1999, they said at that time the publishing house had no plans for future books.

On Eightieth Anniversary of May 4th: Democracy and Science

Embassy Comment: “Grave Concerns” focuses on the social, economic and political aspects of sustainable development. Like science and technology, sustainable development is often viewed as a scientific or technical problem. China has many scientists and engineers in high positions from electrical engineer President Jiang Zemin on down. Deng Xiaoping’s statement that “science and technology is the first productive force” is widely quoted. The worship of science and technology [scientism] has been an important thread of Chinese communist ideology that perhaps goes back to Engels and his dialectics of nature.

The “information economy” [zhishi jingji] is now perhaps one of the top buzzwords of today’s China and the topic of dozens of books. Yet the problems (very low productivity, intellectual piracy that greatly reduces incentives for invention, barriers to innovation and spread of new technologies within China etc.) of science and technology are not merely internal to science and technology S and T but are rooted in larger problems of China’s social, economic and political system. It is this broader view which connects the big systems picture to the specific runs through “Grave Concerns”. The student movement of May 4, 1919 called for China to rely on not just “Mr. Science” but also “Mr. Democracy” to build a newer China. Eighty years on, these ideas are again gathering force from many ripples of individual initiative and energy that are combining into an increasingly more powerful force.

Page numbers in the summary translation below refer to the first edition of “Severe Hardships” published as a volume of the China’s Problems series by the Today’s China Publishing House [Jinri Zhongguo Chubanshe] in October, 1998.

Additional background information on Chinese environmental issues can be found among the ninety unclassified Embassy Beijing reports posted on the U.S. Embassy web page at http://www.usembassy-china.gov/english/sandt/index.html Some informal translations from the Chinese press bearing on the Chinese environment are available at http://www.usembassy-china.gov/english/sandt/sandsrc.htm Several reports on new path breaking books available in Beijing are available at http://www.usembassy-china.gov/english/sandt/bjbkwrm.html

A New Orientation for Reform

The deteriorating state of the Chinese resources, ecology and environment is a “tragedy of the commons”. Many people think that if “I don’t steal (public resources) first, someone else will”. The previous chapter showed the very sharp contradictions between sustainable development for China and China’s present system. We must focus our attention on the reform of China’s economic and political system. Our starting point is this: a good system cannot be one that encourages short-sighted economic activity and destroys the basis for the long-term sustainability of society.

The Problem is Not Technology But Economics and Politics

A practical sustainable development policy is one that is at once technologically, economically and politically practical. Very often the problem in China is not the lack of technology or of skilled people but an economic or political problem. Thus China’s technological potential is not being realized because of economic and political obstacles.

The Complexities of Sustainable Development in China

Sustainable development for China means assuring a decent living for its people and solving the problem of industrial pollution. This industrial pollution includes greenhouse gas emissions (a problem which the U.S. and other industrialized countries haven’t solved but are putting a lot of pressure on China to solve) and the steadily worsening acid rain problem caused by sulfur dioxide emissions. The developed countries are very concerned about these problems but much less about problems specific to the developing countries such as providing good drinking water to farmers.

Social, Environmental Cost Evaluation Weak in China

Sustainable development projects should include financial evaluations and social and economic feasibility studies. Environmental and social impact studies (that is the environmental and social cost to be paid for development) are often not done in China or are done in a very superficial manner. In some areas large sums are being spent on protecting wildlife even to the point of compensating farmers if a protected animal eats livestock. Laws and regulations to protect wildlife are improving but the overall the problem of local powerful people or organizations putting themselves above the law is still very common.

Playing Catch-up Before Markets Have Formed Can Bring Chaos

Chaotic, uncoordinated development in the developing countries is only to be expected since they are trying to copy the developed countries. In trying to copy another country, a country is not evolving organically according to its own conditions but trying to jump ahead. The developed countries want the developing countries to adopt advanced practices but sometimes they don’t consider that the developing country has not yet developed into a real market economy. There are practices which involves catching up and there are practices which are a new departure. Failure to distinguish between the two causes a lot of confusion.

Reject the “Only to Be Expected at this Stage” Excuse

The concept of accepting that countries at different stages of development have different responsibilities makes it possible to accommodate a variety of different viewpoints some of which are mutually contradictory. We reject both the overly idealistic approach of evaluating China’s situation which, from a foreigner’s viewpoint, would mean condemning nearly everything. But we also have to reject the mechanistic stages of development theory which can accept any idiocy and dishonest behavior with a casual “that is just to be expected in the initial stages of development”. We need to avoid the idea that one ministry or one part of society has the key to solving our problems. We need to be open to a wide range of ideas. [pp. 280 – 285]

Economic Methods Such as Pollution Permits Sometimes Best

Some people say that the market economy is the main cause of unsustainable development and the environmental protection must depend upon the government. These are misunderstandings. Very often economic methods such as pollution permits are the most efficient way to protect the environment. The basic nature of Chinese pollution is changing so economic methods are becoming more and more appropriate to the Chinese situation. Chinese pollution is becoming less big point source pollution and more widely dispersed non-point pollution. Just as the proportion of industrial pollution in Chinese pollution declines, pollution from daily consumption patterns is growing.

Chinese Water, Power Subsidies Perversely Encourage Waste

Markets and prices which incorporate externalities (the social cost of pollution) are effective in reducing pollution. In China subsidies for water and power result in much waste and inefficiency. And as a top priority, China needs to solve the destruction of the environment caused by low production efficiency. The developed countries plan their environmental policies so that they do not (especially in price structures) conflict with the competition of the free market.

Privatize Land to End China’s Big “Tragedy of the Commons”

The deterioration of China’s resources, environment and ecology can largely be traced to a “Tragedy of the Commons”. There are often calls to manage public property more effectively. But changing the property system or even privatizing collective property would be much more effective. The problem of the ownership of China’s environment and resources has three aspects: there is a confusion of responsibilities between different levels and the ownership is not clear; some areas need to make a new determination about which collectivity owns the resources; and the separation in fact if not in law between ownership and use.

The consequences of these problems of ownership can be seen in the ravaging of national parks. It can be seen in the local government leaders who appropriate collective natural resources for their own businesses. These is a steadily increasing competition between all levels of government and among ministries for these resources. Power brushes the law aside. Practical questions of ownership are decided by force. As long as the private and public property rights are not clearly separated and private property is not secure from misappropriation by the government, the market economy cannot become established and sustainable development will not be possible for China. [pp. 286 – 291]

Chinese Economics and Adam Smith

This book has stressed that the short-term interests of individual units should not harm the foundation upon which the welfare of society rests. Yet the welfare of the entire society is also built upon the respect for the interests of individuals. Adam Smith two hundred years ago explained how in a market economy each person seeking their own interests can objectively advance the interests of the whole society. Two hundred years of history demonstrate that the protection of autonomous and voluntary economic activities and of individual rights is an indispensable condition for prosperity.

China Suppressed Economic Freedom: Corruption the Result

Under the planned economic system China built many important projects but it suppressed individual economic rights and freedoms. China failed to create a contract-based economic system. Economic activities were supposedly in the interest of the whole, yet there was much laziness and doing business in the name of the whole but actually for a private interest. This not only sapped the vitality of the economy but also the protection of publicly-owned environment and natural resources weakened steadily.

But Be Aware of Market Limits — Political Reform Needed

Market principles are important yet many scholars in the U.S. and other developed countries caution that we must be aware of the limitations of the market as well. Not just creating a market economy, but also changing to a political system capable of guiding production in a socially responsible manner is needed. Some scholars are trying to find a third way that combines the market’s allocation of resources with the capacity of socialism to make policies for the whole and to allocate incomes. There are some who would rely on the market for everything — “a market economy” and others who see the market as a means “an economy with a market”. China cannot simply repeat the one hundred years the western countries spent to build the market capitalism of today. China not only has to try to catch up but also to try to come up with innovations as it creates its own market economy.

China Needs Effective Planning, Curbs on Selfish Interests

In the United States, the President’s Council on Sustainable Development concluded in 1995 that planning, predicting and preventing problems is much more effective than trying to solve them after the problems after they occur. China, a country where the rule of law hasn’t been fully established yet, needs planning even more. Creating plans that can actually be implemented will depend upon the solution of the problems of the divorce and barriers between local administrations, and upon the harmonization of strong market forces with the goals of protecting mountainsides and waters and alleviating poverty.

Macroeconomic Policy, Individual Initiative: A Both/And

There are no pure market economies and no purely planned economies. In the United States, the focus of environmental protection effort switched from government orders to economic methods to alleviate pollution. Economic methods such as pollution fees proved to be a much less expensive means of achieving the desired result. Macroeconomic policy is important for economic development. A market economy without planning and guidance or an economic plan that is not market-based will certainly fail. We have to get rid of the old habit of thinking “if it isn’t this, it must be that.” Macroeconomic planning and individual initiative and economic freedom are not either/or. They are both/and.

Popular Participation: Key to Sustainable Development

Popular participation is a fundamental principle of sustainable development. Corrupt local officials who ignore the rights of the people to make deals with outside developers cause many problems. Since both the law and supervision over government actions is weak, people have a hard time protecting their rights. Clear property rights, be they private property rights or collective rights, help protect the environment and natural resources. [pp. 292 – 303]

The public’s understanding of China’s environmental situation and participation in decision making is key. The solution can’t come from the government. Visitors from rich countries sometimes remark on the wastefulness of big Chinese banquets. Sometimes the people of the rich countries seem to be more concerned about economizing than people of a poor country like China. People need to adopt values of self-restraint. Laws can’t make officials honest. Only self-restraint on the part of officials can produce honesty in government. [pp. 304 – 310]

Many Citizens and Officials Are Dedicated to Conservation

Yet there are already many Chinese devoted to the environment and conservation. People like Zhita County, Qinghai Communist Party Vice Secretary Suonandajie who was murdered by poachers. Wildlife photographer Yang Qin during his travels noticed that the number of Tibetan antelope in Qinghai had declined steeply from his first visit to the area in 1986 and a 1993 trip. Large number of wildcat gold miners were stripping the deserted lands of vegetation and killing the endangered Tibetan Antelope. In August 1997, Yang Qin established the first Suonandajie Wildlife Protection Station at Kekexili. During the Summer 1998, the Forestry University student environmental group “Promise to the Mountain” [Shannuo Hui] went to the station in Kekexili to help in its wildlife protection work. [p. 314]

Non-Governmental Environmental Education Activities

During the 1990s several citizen environmental protection groups formed. Some groups go out to plant trees. The Friends of Nature has over 400 members who participate in tree planting campaigns as far away as Inner Mongolia and Shanxi Province. Beijing Global Village produces environmental education programs for Beijing Television and Chinese Central Television. China’s Agenda Twenty One as well as the Rio Declaration stress the importance of popular participation in sustainable development efforts. Some people say that these environmental groups are a luxury of the rich. Yet the individual members pay for their own expenses. Some criticize them saying “they are just copying the western environmental organizations”. That is not true. Chinese environmental NGOs are focus on severe environmental problems facing China today. Some NGO campaigns, such as the “Friends of Nature” campaigns to protect China’s virgin forests brought the situation in Yunnan and Sichuan to the attention of the central government. Environmental NGOs have great potential. They deserve more respect and support. [pp. 316 – 322]

About 高大伟 David Cowhig

After retirement translated,with wife Jessie, Liao Yiwu's 2019 "Bullets and Opium", and have been studying things 格物致知. Worked 25 years as a US State Department Foreign Service Officer including ten years at US Embassy Beijing and US Consulate General Chengdu and four years as a China Analyst in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research. Before State I translated Japanese and Chinese scientific and technical books and articles into English freelance for six years. Before that I taught English at Tunghai University in Taiwan for three years. And before that I worked two summers on Norwegian farms, milking cows and feeding chickens.
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