Special Reports
China's Pollution Problem Goes Global

By Jacques Leslie
Green Printing
January 2, 2008

Can the world survive China's headlong rush to emulate the American way of life?

Long before Mr. Zhang's crowning highway maneuver, I'd realized that his
flamboyant unpredictability was an asset. I'd hired him as driver and guide for
a three-day trip from Beijing to Inner Mongolia on the recommendation of a
Chinese environmentalist who'd enumerated all of Mr. Zhang's virtues except the
most important—his suppleness under pressure, which would enable us to overcome
the obstacles that are a constant feature of travel in China.

Of course, Mr. Zhang's chief qualification was that he was an environmentalist,
or, more precisely, a fellow environmental-disaster tracker. Now, having toured
choked rivers, depleted forests, and grasslands that had ceded to encroaching
deserts, we were near the end of our trip, with nothing in front of us but a
two-hour jaunt down the broad, brutish Beijing Badaling Expressway to the
capital. Ms. Lei, my delicate translator, had announced her wish to get back to
Beijing before her four-year-old boy went to bed, and we were running late. Mr.
Zhang's swashbuckling solution was a "shortcut": Instead of fighting his way
along the paved, but circuitous, road to the highway, he sped down a narrow dirt
path that held the promise of providing a more direct route. Within minutes he
was doubling back on himself, loudly grinding gears as he cut through
dust-shrouded cornfields and drought-stricken cherry orchards while peasants
leaped out of our way and into the foliage. By the time Mr. Zhang found the
expressway, the shortcut had cost us an hour.

I already knew that China's roads are some of the world's most dangerous. A
quarter of a million people die on them each year—6 times as many as in the
United States, even though Americans possess 18 times as many cars—and the
entire system is plagued with soul-withering traffic jams prompted by police
inspectors who extract "fees" from coal-truck drivers. Lines of trucks often
extend behind inspection stations for miles; truckers have waited in them for as
long as two weeks.000 And now we couldn't get on the expressway because traffic
was at a standstill behind a toll station. An abhorrer of inertia, Mr. Zhang cut
across six lanes to the only booth with a short line and cockily paid the toll.
For a moment we basked in his NASCARish dexterity. Then he slammed on the
brakes. In front of us, the road was clogged with coal trucks lined up behind an
inspection station far down the road. We'd been funneled into a classic Chinese

Unfazed, Mr. Zhang made a 180-degree turn and headed west on the eastbound
expressway. I braced for the inevitable crash. Then, just before we regained the
toll station, he swung right and headed for the center divider, past a gigantic,
disabled semi stuck perpendicularly to the flow of cars. The half-dozen
policemen who stood around the truck gave no sign of noticing us. Through a gap
in the divider, Mr. Zhang found an eastbound lane reserved for passenger cars
and turned into it; as we sped toward Beijing, we saw that the line of
motionless coal trucks extended for miles. Drivers dozed or ate dinner on top of
their cargo. On this tottering foundation, the world's most dynamic economy has
been erected. What globalization offers, it also takes away.


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