Special Reports
China's Pollution and the Threat to Domestic and Regional Stability

By Nathan Nankivell
January 11, 2006

[China's economic boom has an environmental dark side. While China's economy
continues to grow at a rate of more than 8% annually, as it has for more than
two decades, the country's environment and the Chinese people are paying a steep
price. China now boasts five of the ten most polluted cities in the world; 70%
of the water that flows through China's urban areas is unfit for drinking or
fishing; and severely degraded land or desert, which now claims 1/4 of China's
land, is advancing at a rate of 1300 sq. miles per year.

As Nathan Nankivell points out, the environmental crisis poses a challenge for
China's leaders on their own developmental terms. The environment is biting back
into economic growth: regions from Qinghai to Shenzhen, for example, face
significant costs to industrial production from lack of water; countrywide,
these economic losses totaled $28 billion in 2003 and the challenge is only
increasing. Overall costs to China's economy from environmental pollution and
degradation are estimated at 8-12% of GDP annually. Environment-related public
health is a second significant problem. Chinese officials have acknowledged, for
example, that 300 million people drink contaminated water on a daily basis, and
of these, 190 million drink water that is so contaminated that it is making them sick.

Finally, the failure of the government to redress its environment-related
economic and public health problems has produced widespread social discontent.
Environmental protests are a serious source of localized social instability that
in numerous, widely-reported cases over the past year alone, have turned violent.

For the rest of the world, how China responds to its environmental crisis has
enormous implications. Nankivell outlines some potential future scenarios that
suggest just how serious a threat China's environmental practices might be to
global security. Already, throughout Asia and beyond, China's contribution to
transborder air and water pollution provokes significant concern. Russia's harsh
criticism of China's handling of the recent transborder water pollution disaster
that poisoned the water for the twelve million residents of Harbin and many
others suggests the potential for international conflict. Globally, China is one
of the world's leading contributors to climate change, ozone depletion, and
biodiversity loss, and it is now in the early stages of following the United
States and other rich nations in a race toward mass automobile ownership whose
implications for air pollution and global warning are profound.

Can China change its environmental trajectory? There are some positive signs.
While quadrupling its GDP between 1980 and 2000, China's energy increased only
twofold, suggesting a recognition of improved efficiency. And the Chinese state
monitors pollution at 300,000 factories. Formally registered environmental
non-governmental organizations now total more than 2000 in China, and
environmental activists, with the help of the Chinese media and some outspoken
Chinese officials, are pressing for environmental impact assessments to be
openly conducted, bringing lawsuits against polluting factories, and even
attempting to halt mega-dam construction. In some wealthier Chinese cities, such
as Dalian and Shanghai, proactive leaders have increased the share of local
funds devoted to environmental protection. Nankivell calls for greater
assistance by the international community. In fact, international environmental
NGOs, foreign governments and international governmental organizations such as
the World Bank are all deeply engaged in contributing to China's environmental
protection effort. Indeed, by one account, international NGOs now account for as
much as three fourths of funding for environmental protection in China. It is
nevertheless difficult to escape the impression that, thus far, the combined
efforts amount to chasing a problem that is growing by leaps and bounds, and
that efforts to reverse the juggernaut appear rather like the application of
band aids over gaping wounds.

In the end, the possibilities for slowing and eventually reversing environmental
disasters will have to come through the concerted efforts of the international
community in combination with the agency of vigorous and informed states. In
China, as in the United States, Japan and elsewhere, the priorities of the state
will be crucial. But they will also reflect the pressures from the citizenry
under circumstances in which the gods of accelerated development and global
definitions of modernity (the private automobile most importantly) exercise
powerful sway. Critical gaps in China's domestic policy milieu will have to be
reversed, and fundamental decisions about national priorities will have to be
reconceived, if that nation is to avoid the crippling consequences of
environmental pollution and contributing massively to global warming. Chief
among these are corruption, low levels of investment in environmental
protection, a lack of incentives to do the right thing, still nascent practice
of the rule of law, a primacy on economic development, and poor transparency.

The issues, however, are hardly the responsibility of China alone as the United
States' rejection of the Kyoto environmental accords makes plain. Indeed, while
the United States is both the largest source of global warming and the major
obstacle to an environmentally responsible international policy, China has
emerged as an important ally in efforts to prevent the realization of meaningful
global standards to restrict greenhouse gases and address other global
environmental problems.

If not addressed, environmental challenges will drag China -- and the rest of
the world along with it -- deeper into an environmental crisis and further along
the path of Nankivell's dark scenarios. -- Japan Focus]

China's environment is edging closer to a condition of crisis with each passing
day. Pollution and environmental degradation have already left scars and will
continue to create problems as the situation worsens. While it may be possible
for China to mitigate the impact of environmental damage through coordinated
policies, effective spending, and sound future planning, Beijing is unable or
unwilling to prescribe such measures. As an undeniable fact on the ground, it is
imperative for prudent policymakers to consider the geostrategic implications of
not just a superpower, but of an environmentally-ravaged China as well.

There is little disagreement that China's environment is a mounting problem for
Beijing. The country produces as many sulphur emissions as Tokyo and Los Angeles
combined but with only a fraction of the vehicles; China is home to 16 of the
world's 20 most polluted cities; water pollution affects as much as 70 percent
of the country; air pollution is blamed for the premature death of some 400,000
Chinese annually; crop returns are steadily decreasing in quantity and quality
because of polluted land and water; and solid waste production is expected to
more than double over the next decade, pushing China far ahead of the U.S. as
the largest producer (The Economist, August 19, 2004).

While the general accessibility of this information is creating greater
awareness, trends indicate that pollution and environmental degradation will
worsen. Chinese consumers are expected to purchase hundreds of millions of
automobiles, adding to air pollution problems. Despite pledges to put the
environment first, national planners still aim to double per capita GDP by 2010
(China Daily, October 20, 2005). Urban populations are expected to continue
expanding, leading to the creation of slums and stressing urban sanitation and
delivery systems. Steadily richer Chinese will be able to purchase more goods
and consume more resources. The nation lacks a powerful national body able to
coordinate, monitor, and enforce environmental legislation: the State
Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) is under-staffed, has few resources, and
must compete with other bureaucracies for attention. The devolution of
decision-making to local levels has placed environmental stewardship in the
hands of officials who are more concerned with economic growth than the
environment. Finally, the deficiency of capital and the lack of will to promote
massive spending on environmental repair necessary to reverse more than two
decades of destruction are perhaps most indicative of the fact that
environmental restoration will not occur: estimates on the final cost of
environmental repair range into the tens of billions of dollars (Canadian
Security Intelligence Services Division; The Economist, October 20, 2005).

From the examples above, it is clear that China's environmental crisis will only
worsen before it gets better. SEPA's impotence, Beijing's contradictory policy
statements, expanding consumption, and a lack of funds to reverse already
serious problems all suggest that pollution and degradation will most likely
worsen in the decades to come.

Pollution, Unrest, and Social Mobilization

As the impact of pollution on human health becomes more obvious and widespread,
it is leading to greater political mobilization and social unrest from those
citizens who suffer the most. The latest statement from the October 2005 Central
Committee meeting in Shanghai illustrates Beijing's increasing concern regarding
the correlation between unrest and pollution issues. There were more than 74,000
incidents of protest and unrest recorded in China in 2004, up from 58,000 the
year before (Asia Times, November 16, 2004). While there are no clear statistics
linking this number of protests, riots, and unrest specifically to pollution
issues, the fact that pollution was one of four social problems linked to
disharmony by the Central Committee implies that there is at least the
perception of a strong correlation.

For the CCP and neighboring states, social unrest must be viewed as a primary
security concern for three reasons: it is creating greater political
mobilization, it threatens to forge linkages with democracy movements, and
demonstrations are proving more difficult to contain. These three factors have
the potential to challenge the CCP's total political control, thus potentially
destabilizing a state with a huge military arsenal and a history of violent,
internal conflict that cannot be downplayed or ignored.

Protests are uniting a variety of actors throughout local communities. Pollution
issues are indiscriminate. The effects, though not equally felt by each person
within a community, impact rich and poor, farmers and businessmen, families and
individuals alike. As local communities respond to pollution issues through
united opposition, it is leaving Beijing with no easy target upon which to blame
unrest, and no simple option for how to quell whole communities with a common

Moreover, protests serve as a venue for the politically disaffected who are
unhappy with the current state of governance, and may be open to considering
alternative forms of political rule. Environmental experts like Elizabeth
Economy note that protests afford an opportunity for the environmental movement
to forge linkages with democracy advocates. She notes in her book, The River
Runs Black, that several environmentalists argue that change is only possible
through greater democratization and notes that the environmental and democracy
movements united in Eastern Europe prior to the end of the Cold War. It is
conceivable that in this way, environmentally-motivated protests might help to
spread democracy and undermine CCP rule.

A further key challenge is trying to contain protests once they begin. The
steady introduction of new media like cell phones, email, and text messaging are
preventing China's authorities from silencing and hiding unrest. Moreover, the
ability to send and receive information ensures that domestic and international
observers will be made aware of unrest, making it far more difficult for local
authorities to employ state-sanctioned force.

The security ramifications of greater social unrest cannot be overlooked.
Linkages between environmental and democracy advocates potentially challenge the
Party's monolithic control of power. In the past, similar challenges by Falun
Gong and the Tiananmen protestors have been met by force and detainment. In an
extreme situation, such as national water shortages, social unrest could
generate widespread, coordinated action and political mobilization that would
serve as a midwife to anti-CCP political challenges, create divisions within the
Party over how to deal with the environment, or lead to a massive show of force.
Any of these outcomes would mark an erosion or alteration to the CCP's current
power dynamic. And while many would treat political change in China, especially
the implosion of the Party, as a welcome development, it must be noted that any
slippage of the Party's dominance would most likely be accompanied by a period
of transitional violence. Though most violence would be directed toward
dissident Chinese, a ripple effect would be felt in neighboring states through
immigration, impediments to trade, and an increased military presence along the
Chinese border. All of these situations would alter security assumptions in the region.

Other Security Concerns

While unrest presents the most obvious example of a security threat related to
pollution, several other key concerns are worth noting. The cost of
environmental destruction could, for example, begin to reverse the blistering
rate of economic growth in China that is the foundation of CCP legitimacy.
Estimates maintain that 7 percent annual growth is required to preserve social
stability. Yet the costs of pollution are already taxing the economy between 8
and 12 percent of GDP per year [1]. As environmental problems mount, this
percentage will increase, in turn reducing annual growth. As a result, the CCP
could be seriously challenged to legitimize its continued control if economic
growth stagnates.

Nationalists in surrounding states could use pollution as a rallying point to
muster support for anti-Chinese causes. For example, attacks on China's
environmental management for its impact on surrounding states like Japan, could
be used to argue against further investment in the country or be highlighted
during territorial disputes in the East China Sea to agitate anti-Chinese
sentiment. While nationalism does not imply conflict, it could reduce patterns
of cooperation in the region and hopes for balanced and effective multilateral
institutions and dialogues.

Finally, China's seemingly insatiable appetite for timber and other resources,
such as fish, are fuelling illegal exports from nations like Myanmar and
Indonesia. As these states continue to deplete key resources, they too will face
problems in the years to come and hence the impact on third nations must be

Territorial Expansion or Newfound Alliances

In addition to the concerns already mentioned, pollution, if linked to a
specific issue like water shortage, could have important geopolitical
ramifications. China's northern plains, home to hundreds of millions, face acute
water shortages. Growing demand, a decade of drought, inefficient delivery
methods, and increasing water pollution have reduced per capita water holdings
to critical levels. Although Beijing hopes to relieve some of the pressures via
the North-South Water Diversion project, it requires tens of billions of dollars
and its completion is, at best, still several years away and, at worst,
impossible. Yet just to the north lies one of the most under-populated areas in
Asia, the Russian Far East.

While there is little agreement among scholars about whether resource shortages
lead to greater cooperation or conflict, either scenario encompasses security
considerations. Russian politicians already allege possible Chinese territorial
designs on the region. They note Russia's falling population in the Far East,
currently estimated at some 6 to 7 million, and argue that the growing Chinese
population along the border, more than 80 million, may soon take over. While
these concerns smack of inflated nationalism and scare tactics, there could be
some truth to them. The method by which China might annex the territory can only
be speculated upon, but would surely result in full-scale war between two
powerful, nuclear-equipped nations.

While a significant concern, the larger and more realistic implication for
Western security analysts must be greater cooperation and a possible alliance
with Moscow. It should be assumed that China will court Russia or even pursue an
alliance with its northern neighbor to gain access to water, oil, and other
natural resources. Indicative of growing strategic cooperation include a number
of recent developments between the two countries, including a joint military
exercise and continued investment and work on an oil pipeline. Such warming ties
between Moscow and Beijing could threaten Western interests in the region and beyond.


Pollution and environmental degradation, not traditionally considered security
concerns, should be accounted for in security assessments of China and the
region. Social unrest, the potential for large-scale political mobilization, and
democratization are increasingly challenging CCP power and legitimacy. These
trends, when linked to political change, could lead to outbreaks of violence,
possible large-scale emigration, economic instability, and other concerns.

In facing such a serious problem, China would benefit from further foreign
assistance and expertise. As the health of China and its economy is inextricably
linked to all of the world's most developed economies, wealthy states and NGOs
should consider additional courses of action to help China form a credible
environmental movement supported by legal experts, academics and Party officials
sympathetic to change. Although not a complete solution, increased foreign
assistance may be a step in the right direction. Alternatively, and if left
untreated, China's environment will worsen and threaten stability in one of the
most populated and dynamic areas on Earth.


1. "China's internal challenges and their implications for regional stability",
APCSS, 25 February 2000.

Nathan Nankivell is Senior Researcher at the Office of the Special Advisor
Policy, Maritime Forces Pacific Headquarters, Canadian Department of National
Defence. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily
reflect the official policy of the Department of National Defence. He wrote this
article for China Brief, Volume 5, Issue 22 (October 25, 2005).


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