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China Slowly Poisoning Its Great Power Aspirations


How polluted is a 19-mile stretch of the Fu River downstream from a local chemical plant in central China? Absurdly polluted. Toxic runoff killed approximately 100,000 kilograms of fish, environmental protection officials said today. NYT:

Tests conducted by environmental protection officials from Xiaogan City revealed ammonia concentrations in the river waters downstream from the plant were as high as 196 milligrams per liter. The World Health Organization notes that naturally occurring ammonia concentrations in surface water are around 12 mg/L, while the guideline for drinking water is that it contains around 0.02 mg/L.

Nearby (and downstream from the chemical plant) is the metropolis of Wuhan, home to 4.6 million people, almost double the size of Chicago. The plant, which produces chemicals used to make glass and fertilizer, has been cited for environmental violations four times since 2008. “Each time it was ordered to be corrected,” the director of an environmental NGO told the Times, “but this demonstrates that enforcement is way too weak and the cost of violations way too low.”

China’s deteriorating environment is perhaps the greatest threat the country faces in its quest to become a great power. Pollution in the cities is atrocious, large parts of the country are succumbing to desertification and deforestation, and industrialization has turned once-productive farmland into dead zones. Nearly one third of rivers monitored by the Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection are unfit for human contact. The Fu River, where the dead fish were found, flows into the Yangtze, a source of drinking water for millions of people.

There’s a lot at stake: China’s environmental disaster threatens “not only the food supply but the legitimacy of the regime itself,” the WSJ reported in a remarkable article in July.

[Dead fish in river image courtesy of Shutterstock]

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  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    The Government owns all the land, it’s like an entire nation filled with renters. The useful life of rentals (cars, homes, etc…) is a fraction of that of owners. This is why China is a filthy garbage dump.

    • Doug

      Most of the real estate leaseholds in China – for industrial properties and apartment and office blocks – are for 70 years. In economic terms, that’s pretty close to ownership of the fee and probably sufficient to create incentives to maintain the property. While state ownership of the fee simple interest creates lots of problems, that is probably not the major cause of environmental problems.

      • f1b0nacc1

        Your point is well taken, but I am still not sure that it is entirely appropriate here. In the time I spent in China, one of the things that struck me was the disconnect between the urban coast enclaves (where the idea of a 70 year lease is pretty close to ‘forever’) and the more traditional hinterland, where ‘forever’ is a lot longer. When you don’t have the notion of passing along your property to your descendents, the state of that property becomes a LOT less important…

  • Pete
  • Andrew Allison

    Pace my comment on another post that our foreign policy should be pragmatic, not idealistic; should we not be thankful that the only nation capable of challenging the US for supremacy is destroying itself.

  • lukelea

    Two non sequiturs, at least in my opinion:

    a) China’s deteriorating environment is perhaps the greatest threat the country faces in its quest to become a great power.”

    Name a great power that wasn’t a great polluter on its way up.

    b) “China’s environmental disaster threatens ‘not only the food supply but the legitimacy of the regime itself’ . . .”

    How can a government that bans the phrase civil society have any legitimacy to lose?

    • Doug

      If you spent any time in China talking with ordinary people, you’d find that most of them generally support the CCP and the Government. That support is based on the Party’s record in delivering economic growth in the past three decades. However, concern over environmental issues, in particular, those that threaten food safety, is growing. Deteriorating public health could at some point counteract the good will engendered by economic growth.
      On the other hand, as China grows richer it could start spending money on environmental protection, just as the US did in the 1970s.

      • f1b0nacc1

        The CCP has a great deal of credibility based upon its ability to deliver prosperity (and its ability to punish dissenters irrespective of prosperity), but what does that say about its long term legitimacy if there is a sustained economic slowdown, or even a downturn? If China grows old before it grows rich, things could get very ugly, very very quickly….

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