New York Times
October 30, 2005


By Jim Yardley

BEIJING -- 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 does not curb its rapid
growth in energy consumption and automobile use.

China, it seems, has reached a tipping 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, as is so often
the case, is that the potential problems are much bigger, have
happened much faster and could pose greater concerns for the entire

"I don't think it will jump four or five times," Robert Watson, a
senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said of
the pollution prediction by Mr. 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 already 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 United States
Environmental Protection Agency. 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 the
country's 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.
Mr. 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.

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. Last week, hundreds of people living in the Beijing
outskirts protested plans for a factory 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 for college students, who have participated in garbage
cleanups and joined the growing number of nongovernment 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.

Industrial pollution is difficult to control because local officials
often ignore emissions standards to appease polluting factories that
pay local taxes. SEPA has closed factories, only to see them reopen
weeks later. To make a serious reduction in air pollution, experts
say, tougher, enforceable standards are needed, and many factories
would need new pollution control equipment.

"There has to be the political will," said Steve Page, director of the
E.P.A office of air quality planning and standards. "The challenge
they face is how will these plants be lined up and told this will

Politically, the Communist Party has based its legitimacy on
delivering economic growth and understands that the boom cannot be
taken for granted: high growth is needed simply to keep unemployment
in check, and top leaders fear that a slowdown could lead to social
instability. Local officials are promoted, foremost, for delivering
economic growth. This is why environmental officials have pushed for a
new "green G.D.P.," which would alter how gross domestic product is
calculated to reflect losses inflicted by environmental degradation.

The party is suspicious of environmental groups because of the role
similar groups played in promoting grass-roots democracy in the
"color" revolutions of central Asia. Human Rights Watch reported that
some environmentalists were recently arrested.

But if there is resistance, there is progress, too. A law taking
effect next year will require that China produce 10 percent of its
energy from renewable sources by 2020. Fuel efficiency standards for
new cars are already stricter than those in the United States. At an
air pollution conference last Monday, environmental officials
solicited advice from their peers in Europe and the United States.

Mr. Page, the E.P.A. official, praised Chinese officials and said
China is considering the sort of regional pollution abatement
strategies used in the United States. "They are wrestling with a lot
of the same pollution problems that we wrestled with several years ago
and that, to some extent, we still are grappling with," said Mr. Page,
who attended the conference.

Ma Jun, an independent environmentalist based in Beijing, also praised
the efforts by SEPA. Mr. Ma said China's status as the "workshop of
the world" made it inevitable that its share of the world's pollution
would increase. But he also cautioned that too many government
ministries remained consumed by economic development. He said the
government also needed to recognize the "environmental rights" of

"The pollution problem," he said, "is very serious."

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company