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.” 

Environmental News Roundup: The Philippines

Astronaut photograph of coal mine on Semirara Island, the Philippines
"Japan has allocated 9.24 billion yen in official development assistance (ODA) to the Philippine government’s forest management programs in Luzon and the Visayas, the Japanese Embassy announced." - Japan extends P5B aid to Philippines for forest management

"In 2002, 250 hectares were selected as the site for the development of Manila's first transit-oriented mixed-use central business district (QC-CBD). At the same time long-established informal settlements — some more than three decades old and home to more than 25,000 people — occupy much of the land earmarked for development." - An inside view of community organising in Quezon City's slums

"Philippine President Benigno Aquino III ordered security for mining companies beefed up Tuesday after raids by communist rebels shut down operations of the country's largest nickel producer and sent its stock plummeting... The rebels accuse mining operators of destroying the environment and exploiting workers." - Philippines beefs security after rebels raid mines

"Most people will have seen at some time, a depiction of one of the Philippines most famous sights, the 2,000 year old Rice Terraces in the Philippine Cordilleras. These too, have been severely damaged in major mudslides, when Typhoon Nesat blew across the Ifugao Province." - Flooding in S.E. Asia: Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam Philippines

"Chad Oppenheim unveiled the first certified “Green Project” in the Philippines, under the county’s own new green building rating system, BERDE (Building for Ecologically Responsive Design Excellence). As the first design under the BERDE rating system, the Net Lima, is one of three towers under construction at Net Metropolis." - Chad Oppenheim Selected to Design the Philippines' First Certified Green Project

"While rigid rules are imposed on environmental and social practices of large-scale mines, small-scale mines do not go through such stringent scrutiny. This has induced destructive environmental practices among some small mines, which impute a bad reputation on the entire industry, the chamber said." - DENR asked to regulate small mines

"Cambodia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam lose about $9bn a year, 2% of their combined GDP, due to problems caused by poor sanitation. According to the study, households in these countries see up to seven times their initial investment in basic sanitation improvements, such as building a pit latrine." - Facing up to the global water crisis

""If you put garbage in Salambao, Obando River, it will be like putting garbage in our plates, because this is where our food comes from," said Mercy Dolorito, former barangay chairman of Salambao where the 44 hectare landfill is proposed to be set-up." - Obando folk oppose landfill plan

"A lawmaker Saturday filed a bill seeking to promote agricultural and farming activities in highly urbanized areas, particularly Metro Manila. In House Bill 4750 to be known as the “Urban Agriculture Act of 2011,” ALE Party-list Rep. Catalina Bagasina said Metro Manila has a huge area where food production through agriculture can be pursued." - Urban farming in Metro Manila, Philippines sought

""We haven’t seen any progress as to the DENR’s effort to combat climate change, especially in reducing carbon emissions. Also, as long as we allow mining entities (which are dependent on HCFCs) to flourish in this country then this phase out plan will just go to waste," ICSC executive director Red Constantino said." - Philippines to cut imports of ozone-depleting substances by 2013

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:

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).