By Gwyn Morgan, November 18, 2013
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau’s choice of China in response to the
question, “Besides Canada, which nation’s administration do you most
admire?” was astounding on many levels. One is China’s record of
persecuting its critics, including environmental activists. That makes
Mr. Trudeau’s reason for choosing China – “because their basic
dictatorship is allowing them to actually turn their economy on a dime
and and say, ‘we need to go greenest, fastest” – even more bizarre.
His utterances came in the same week as news reports that an
eight-year-old girl in Jiangsu province had become the youngest person
in the country to be diagnosed with lung cancer linked to air pollution.
Like hundreds of millions of other Chinese, that little girl is
breathing air with dangerously high carcinogenic levels, due mainly to
the burning of coal. China’s coal consumption has quadrupled since 1990
and is now almost equal to the combined total of all other countries.
And its coal is dirty, producing a toxic brew of particulates and gases.
January, parts of Beijing experienced particulate levels that were 40
times higher than the World Health Organization’s safety limit.
Recently, in the northern city of Harbin, visibility was reduced to a
few metres due to particulates. A study by the American National Academy
of Sciences concluded that air pollution in northern China reduces life
expectancy by more than five years. Yet, every week, a new coal fired
power plant starts up.
Cleaning up China’s air is a huge and
urgent challenge. But water may be its most intractable environmental
problem. Eighty per cent of its water is in the south where the mighty
Yangzi River flows. But half of China’s population and two-thirds of its
farmland is in the dry north, mainly in the Yellow River basin. The
Yellow River Conservancy Commission has found that, along one-third of
its length, the country’s “mother river” is too polluted for even
agricultural use. Water for agricultural irrigation is under severe
pressure, leading to unsustainable draws from regional aquifers and
dropping the water table by an alarming 300 metres in the past two
Rapid industrial growth in developing countries is
inevitably hard on the environment. But China’s “basic dictatorship”
administration that Mr. Trudeau admires has made the problem much worse
than it should have been. Corruption within the top ranks of the
Communist Party is legendary, but most decisions about industrial
development are made at the regional level. As a senior Chinese banker
told me during a business trip to the country, “China is mostly run by
The “mayors” include provincial and county party
secretaries, who often become wealthy by ignoring environmental edicts
issued in Beijing. While the central government has tightened stack-gas
cleanup requirements for new coal-fired power plants, many of those
startups are no cleaner than the old ones because local officials
pocketed bribes to look the other way. Worse are the factories that
contaminate farmland and pollute water supplies as corrupt local
officials collude with unscrupulous businessmen to avoid Beijing’s
The first Chinese protests against polluting power plants
and factories were crushed with an iron hand. But the growing numbers of
people who are farming contaminated land, drinking polluted water and
breathing toxic air is spawning widespread unrest that could threaten
the rule of the Communist Party.
Beijing seems serious about
attacking both the pollution problem and the culture of official
corruption and dysfunction that fuels it. But unless the central
government cracks down on a system that sees regional officials enrich
themselves by ignoring environmental laws, little progress will be made.
change in any organization must start at the core. Elimination of
regional corruption is high unlikely unless Premier Li Keqiang lives up
to his pledge to clean up corruption in Beijing. In the end, it is
people who will ultimately force the political elite to repent. It had
better happen soon. China’s environmental crisis is nearing the point of