Book Review: China's Environmental Challenges


China’s environmental story is full of contradictions. What does one make of a country where the government severely limits the freedom of NGOs, yet has some of the most thorough environmental laws and most sustainably-minded leadership in the world? A place where the opening of a nature preserve is celebrated with a banquet that includes endangered animals? A country that builds the most wind turbines—and burns the most coal?

Judith Shapiro’s readable new book, China’s Environmental Challenges, untangles these contradictions and provides a snapshot of China as it teeters on the edge of unprecedented ecological limits. Shapiro was one of the few Americans to enter China before relations between the two countries were normalized in 1978 and now teaches global environmental politics at American University. In the book, she looks at how national identity, government structure and civil society play into China’s approach to environmental issues.

By now, we’re familiar with news of polluted cities and “cancer villages,” enormous factories and contentious dam projects, rapid desertification and a growing middle class eager to model the West’s worst consumerist excesses. With news like this, one gets the impression that Chinese society is a monolithic ogre blindly pulling its people, and the world, toward environmental ruin.

But according to Shapiro, the country’s domestic realities and international relations are complex.
She reveals that China’s leadership under Mao Zedong was just as undeniably brutal to nature as it was to millions of Chinese during the “Great Leap Forward” (1958-1961): swaths of forests were felled for unusable steel smelters, sparrows were systematically killed as “pests” despite their important role in defending crops from insects, and ecologically-sensitive areas throughout the country were converted to  experimental farmland, leading to famine (Shapiro’s 2001 book Mao’s War Against Nature digs further into this period).

But China’s government has become increasingly more fractured and sensitive to environmental issues in the last few decades, just as the stakes have been raised. Echoing Jonathan Watts in When a Billion Chinese Jump, Shapiro writes that it’s not the national government, but an entrenched network of corrupt and uncontrollable developers and local officials, that are driving most of the country’s environmental problems today.  

A Factory on the Yangtze River / Wikimedia Commons
The same rich countries that lament China’s environmental record are far from blameless either. For decades, the US and Europe have displaced environmental harms to China, especially in the textile and electronics industries. Now China, with its rising economic prowess and disgruntled, savvy middle class, is exporting harms itself: to poorer areas domestically, and to Southeast Asia and Africa.

Though they’re hampered by repressive rules about activism and fundraising, Shapiro describes China’s community of environmental groups as large, active and, for the most part, respected. She delves into the contours of this community in what turns out to be the most encouraging part of the book.

Chinese NGOs have attended the last few UN climate negotiations to pressure their government and the global community to take bolder action on climate change. Famous journalists-turned-activists like Liu Jianqiang and the 2012 Goldman Prize winner Ma Jun are well-known for their publicizing environmental harms and challenging corporations and government projects.

Low estimates put the number of environmental protests at 5000 each year, many of them originating from the same middle class that fuels the country’s resource consumption. While the difference between human rights abuses and environmental damage isn’t as distinct as it might be in developed countries, Shapiro says environmental groups enjoy a greater level of freedom than other types of political organizations.

Protesting a Chemical Plant in Dalian, August 2011 (Getty)
Any hope of addressing China’s enormous environmental problems will involve strengthening this mostly feeble civil society sector, giving voice to the rural and minority populations most affected by environmental damage, and tapping into China’s home-grown notions of sustainability found in its religious and cultural traditions. With Western-style consumerism ascendant and free speech still stifled, the prospect of such a shift happening is slim, but the seeds of change do exist. One suspects that US leadership on climate change, which is currently lacking, may also influence China’s actions on the global stage.

Although Shapiro’s book is aimed at students (each chapter ends with discussion questions), general readers will find the book helpful when placing news items like the recent US-China clean technology trade tensions or friction over embassy smog reporting in context. Those wishing for more in-depth discussions on particular issues will need to look elsewhere.

It’s impossible to be a globally-minded environmentalist today without considering the role China plays. Shapiro rightly says that “it is within China that much of the future of the planet will be decided.” 

"The Most Fully-Realized American Place"

Last month I reviewed Taubman's new photography book Detroit: 138 Square Miles. In it, Jerry Herron describes Detroit as "the most fully-realized American place", a place created by leaving and forgetting, by immigrating "moment by moment to someplace we hadn't dreamed of yet", a place where we sacrificed the past for material plenty.

My friend Anoop (who used to live in Detroit) recently pointed me to this video which illustrates those ideas in a video format. On the one hand, Michigan occasionally seems like a mundane place to me (as the place we grow up often seems to be). On the other hand, stepping away for awhile, it really is an interesting, almost mythic place when viewed through the lens of industrial history:

China's Really Fast Trains

Shanghai Hongqiao Train Station by Sjekster. China is currently running the fastest passenger trains in the world here.
We were farther away from Beijing than New York is from Chicago, and yet while the normal Amtrak run from the Hudson to Lake Michigan takes 19 hours (though once, returning from a Bob Dylan concert, it took me three days, two of them stuck in a snowbank in northern Indiana), here in China this even longer journey could be measured in more appropriate units: it would take just 288 minutes. Four hours and 48 minutes. A quarter of the time it takes today to get to Chicago, and less than half the time that it used to take to get to Beijing… When she has finished building in 2012 what she began only in 2004, China will have more high-speed rail lines than the rest of the world put together.  
Vanity Fair, "How Fast Can China Go?"

(Not to ignore the fact that such privileges, like other things in China are the province of the wealthy few).

Tentative Environmental Victories in Bolivia and Burma

In 2005, Evo Morales campaigned on a platform of justice for indigenous communities in Bolivia but after recent police crackdowns on indigenous groups who were protesting a 200-mile highway project through the northern Amazon, his image has soured. The crackdown has been bad PR for Morales and on Monday he apologized for police behavior and said the highway plan was to be suspended until a "national dialogue" could be held on the issue. It's a tentative victory for the protesters, but they aren't holding their breath.

 
In another surprising victory last week, Burma (of all places) decided to halt construction of the Chinese-funded Myitsone dam on the the country's largest river, the Irrawaddy (the Sydney Morning Herald quips "Burma gives a dam‎"). Pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi cheered the decision after attending an art exhibit and book launch to save the river last month. China's leaders, naturally, are teed off. They signed a contract with Burma over the dam in 2009 and are asking them to recognize the "legal and legitimate rights of Chinese companies".

Why the apparent change of heart on the part of Burma's notoriously despotic leaders? Was it the instability of the region where construction was taking place? Burma's resentment of China's influence over the country? In any case, it's wild to hear President Thein Sein saying he acted "according to the desire of the people". Another video from Al Jazeera about why the dam was a bad idea:

Protesting Nuclear in Japan

Energy Shift Parade in Shibuya by SandoCap
It's heartening to see large anti-nuclear protests breaking out in Japan after the Fukushima disaster. It's as if people are drawing a line in the sand between what those in power tell us is a reasonable risk and the very fundamental things that allow us to live on this planet. This from The New York Times:
“I’m here for my children,” said Aki Ishii, who had her 3-year-old daughter in tow. “We just want our old life back, where the water is safe and the air is clean.” Her daughter wore a sign that said “Please let me play outside again.”       
Hiromasa Fujimoto, a rice and vegetable farmer, said it was his first protest, too. “I want to tell people that I’m just so worried about the soil, about the water,” he said. “I now farm with a Geiger counter in one hand, my tools in the other.”       
“It’s insane,” he added.
Meanwhile, NOVA's recent program Power Surge explains that China plans to build 400 nuclear reactors over the next 30 years. Yes, you heard correctly: 400 reactors.  One can only hope that the plants will have more structural integrity than all those schools in Sichuan that collapsed during the 2008 earthquake there. NOVA's producers aren't worried though. They're all "rah rah rah" about nuclear:

Watch the full episode. See more NOVA.

Sharing the Mekong

Just as Earthscan prepares to publish a new book, Contested Waterscapes in the Mekong Region, news came out this week that water levels in the Mekong River are the lowest they’ve been in 20 years. Fishing’s bad, irrigation sources are drying up and cargo ships have been grounded, according to Al Jazeera. In Southeast Asia, anger’s directed at Chinese hydropower projects further up the river while China asserts that climate change is causing the low water.

The Mekong River Commission is the regional body in charge of managing this shared resource, but China’s not a full member (nor, unsurprisingly, is Burma).