Special Reports
Dirty Cloud Forms Over Rising China Pollution Threatens Economic Triumphs

By Jim Yardley
October 31, 2005

The steady barrage of statistics trumpeting China's rise is often greeted
elsewhere as if the figures were torpedoes and the rest of the world a sinking
ship. Economic growth tops 9 percent! Textile exports jump 500 percent! Military
spending up! Manufacturing up!

The numbers inflame the exaggerated perception that China is methodically
inhaling jobs and resources and, in the process, inhaling the rest of the
planet. Burp. There goes the American furniture industry. Burp. Thanks for your
oil, Venezuela.

But one statistic offered last week by a top Chinese environmental official
should stimulate genuine alarm inside and outside China. The official, Zhang
Lijun, warned that pollution levels here could more than quadruple within 15
years if the country did not curb its rapid growth in energy consumption.

China, it seems, has reached a point familiar to many developed countries,
including the United States, that have raced headlong after economic development
only to look up suddenly and see the environmental carnage. The difference with
China is that the potential problems are much bigger, have happened much faster
and could pose greater concerns for the entire world.

"I don't think it will jump four or five times," Robert Watson, a scientist with
the New York-based Natural Resources Defense Council, said of the pollution
prediction by Zhang. "But it could double or triple without too much trouble.
And that's a scary thought, given how bad things are now."

China is the world's second-biggest producer of greenhouse gas emissions and is
expected to surpass the United States as the biggest. Roughly a third of China
is exposed to acid rain. A recent study by a Chinese research institute found
that 400,000 people die prematurely every year in China from diseases linked to
air pollution.

Nor does China's air pollution respect borders: On certain days almost 25
percent of the particulate matter clotting the skies above Los Angeles can be
traced to China, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA.
Environmental experts in California predict that China could eventually account
for roughly a third of the state's air pollution.

The air problem could become a major embarrassment if, as some experts believe,
Beijing does not meet its environmental targets for 2008, when the Olympic Games
will be played here.

For the Chinese government, the question is how to change a booming economy
without crippling it. President Hu Jintao has made "sustainable development" a
centerpiece of his effort to shift the country from unbridled growth to a more
efficient economy.

Hu and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao have repeatedly mentioned environmental
protection in speeches.

The political attention comes as environmental problems are begetting social and
economic problems. Violent riots have erupted in the countryside over
contaminated water, stunted crops and mounting health woes. In a handful of
villages, farmers have stormed chemical factories to stop the dumping of filthy
water. Roughly 70 percent of China's rivers and lakes are polluted. In cities,
people drink bottled water; in the countryside, most people are too poor to pay
for bottled water, so they boil polluted water or simply drink it untreated.
Public anger is also rising in cities. In some, air pollution is so thick that
on the worst days doctors advise, impractically, against going outside. Hundreds
of people living in the outskirts of Beijing protested recently plans for a
factory that they fear would inundate the neighborhood with pollution.

The severity of the situation has created an opening for environmentalists in
and out of the government. Environmentalism is a chic issue at universities.
Students participate in garbage cleanups and join the growing number of
nongovernmental organizations focused on pollution. The once-meek State
Environmental Protection Administration, or SEPA, has become more aggressive in
identifying and going after polluters and calling for reforms. But the political
and practical obstacles are formidable. Car ownership has become part of the
Chinese middle-class dream, and the car industry has become a major contributor
to tax coffers and a force in the overall economy.


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