Special Reports
A Short History of China's Fragile Environment

World Environment News
July 18, 2007

Here is an overview of China's environmental history:


-- Harnessing nature for agricultural production was a key goal for Mao Zedong's
communists, who took power in 1949.

-- Workers were deployed to the countryside's newly collectivised farms during
the 1958-1960 Great Leap Forward. The now-discredited ideas of Soviet biologist
Trofim Lysenko were championed to boost harvests, and entire mountains were
moved by peasant labour for irrigation schemes.

-- Campaigns such as the "war on the four pests", to eliminate rats, flies,
mosquitoes and sparrows, took a toll as locusts ate grain crops, plunging parts
of China into famine.


-- China's late 1970s transition from a planned to market economy saw it open
its doors to industry, under an officially endorsed "development first,
environment later" policy.

-- Cars replaced bicycles as wealth grew in eastern seaboard cities that
attracted millions of migrants keen to "catch up" with Western economies. Power
plants, refineries and chemical factories sprouted. Plentiful, polluting coal,
which supplies about two thirds of electricity, fuelled the drive to modernise.


-- UN figures showing China is home to 16 of the world's 20 most polluted cities
raised alarm overseas. Worsening air pollution from factories and transport as
well as sand storms from the Gobi Desert have annoyed China's neighbours for

-- Inside China, natural disasters and several mid-1980s protests against dams
and power plants by disaffected villagers saw awareness rise about environmental

-- China's first legal green NGO, Friends of Nature, was founded in 1994, a
decade and a half after the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) became the first
conservation group to work in China in 1979.


-- Resource-based conflicts remain a sensitive subject for authorities who fear
protests over pollution might upset social stability by breeding discontent with
the ruling Communist Party.

-- China established the State Environmental Protection Administration in the
1990s and it now has several strict environmental laws. While critics say the
problem is enforcement, scandals such as the Nov. 2005 Songhua River disaster,
where chemicals poisoned the water supply for millions of people with
cancer-causing benzene, forced officials to be more accountable.


-- China says it has just as much right to develop its economy as rich nations,
pointing out that they also polluted their environments to grow. But adding to
tensions, environmental economists calculate the planet's finite resources mean
China's huge population cannot achieve a US-style lifestyle.

-- In early 2007, China set up a national body on global climate change and in
June it unveiled a plan for coping with global warming. But it also says rich
countries are mainly to blame for greenhouse pollution to date.

-- China is now the world's second top emitter of carbon dioxide after the
United States. Overseas critics say cutting carbon emissions is pointless unless
developing giants such as China and India agree to cuts under a new climate pact
to replace the Kyoto Protocol, whose first phase ends in 2012.


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