Must do better

New book dissects China’s environmental failings

Must do better

“To struggle against the earth is endless joy,” or so goes a line penned by young poet, Mao Zedong. Those words turned out to be prophetic. Many of Mao’s later policies led to desertification, deforestation and famine. The damage didn’t end with his death in 1976, although this time Mao himself can hardly be held up for retribution. According to Judith Shapiro it was what replaced him that has done the greater damage. “Globalised free-market capitalism [has become] an equal if not greater driver of environmental degradation than the Stalinist-style state,” she warns.

Shapiro first came to China as a master’s degree student in the late seventies, spending several years teaching English at the Hunan Teacher’s College in Changsha. The experience sparked a life-long interest in China and its environmental politics. As professor of Global Environmental Politics at American University in Washington, Shapiro later spent three years travelling the country before authoring Mao’s War Against Nature in 2001. Her latest effort – China’s Environmental Challenges – brings the story up to date.

The new book is a primer on the state of China’s environment, as well as its implications for the rest of the world. It outlines the major challenges facing the country, as well as the (often floundering) efforts of the state and civil society to provide remedies. Shapiro says time is running out. “The key question,” she writes, “is whether [China’s] unprecedented development will be ‘sustainable’… the window will not be open much longer.”

This is a global problem, not just a Chinese one, Shapiro warns. She is quick to remind readers that they share some of the culpability for the damage, recognising that consumers in developed countries have “displaced many of the costs and benefits of manufacturing onto China and the Chinese people.” Nor are all of the costs of environmental damage borne by China alone. Crucial to Shapiro’s thesis is that practically everyone has a stake in China’s sustainable development. “[A] nation’s environmental problems do not respect political boundaries,” she writes, pointing out that airborne mercury pollution regularly crosses the Pacific to the US and Canada.

“What China does affects global climate change, ozone depletion, biodiversity loss, desertification, acid rain, [etc…],” she warns.

China’s Environmental Challenges warns against putting too much faith in the notion that rising affluence will put sufficient brakes on China’s environmental destruction. In part that’s because action needs to be taken now, with Shapiro convinced that the planet is already at a “tipping point” moment. The problem is that she sees little prospect of the tough action required. Despite “having some of the most thorough environmental laws in the world”, Chinese officialdom has been ill-equipped to handle the policing of pollution. Power remains in the hands of provincial officials whose promotions depend on boosting economic activity. “[Local] governments are often funded by the same industries that the [Environmental Protection Bureaus] are supposed to regulate, leading to all kinds of perverse incentives,” Shapiro comments.

The staunchest supporters of pro-environment policies, on the other hand, tend to be non-governmental organisations (NGOs). But Shapiro points out that their work is fraught with danger and that environmental activists without political backing can pay a heavy price. She tells the story of Wu Lihong, an advocate for the clean up of Lake Tai, who was jailed for three years in 2007 “on a trumped-up charge of extortion and blackmail”. Others have been charged with “illegally obtaining state secrets”.

But Shapiro is neither a pessimist nor a proponent of going green at all costs. She insists that China has a ‘right to development’ and that developed nations must do their fair share to respond to the environmental challenges of industrial society. She even ends with a positive spin. “China could, indeed it must, be a modern laboratory for designing a new path,” she proposes, “and show the world a gentler, less destructive way of achieving high living standards and human development.”

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