The Chinese: from Yellow Peril to Green Peril?

The slandering of China as a sooty, smoggy ‘destroyer of the planet’ overlooks the sweeping historic benefits of Chinese growth.

Daniel Ben-Ami

Topics World

Try to visualise a huge city with a heavily polluted river running through it. Flushing toilets have only recently become widely available and as a result huge volumes of raw sewage are finding their way into the river. Unfortunately the river is also the city’s main source of drinking water. Water-borne diseases, such as cholera and typhoid, are common.

Then one summer it is particularly hot. The smell from the river is so foul that people begin to talk of what they call ‘the great stink’ in their native language. Politicians decide the situation is so bad that something must be done.

Any idea of where I’m talking about? Perhaps one of the 16 cities in China that ranks in the world’s top 20 polluted urban centres? (1) Or maybe somewhere in India or sub-Saharan Africa?

As it happens, my description is of London. Not London today but London in the mid-nineteenth century. Precisely 150 years ago, in 1858, London suffered what was called ‘the great stink’ (2).

I am not suggesting there is a precise analogy between London in 1858 and Chinese cities today. My point is that the prevailing cultural climate has a key influence on how we perceive problems and how we respond to them. The reaction of Victorian Britain to pollution in the Thames was to construct what at that time was one of the biggest civil engineering projects ever – London’s sewerage system. It was a huge ambitious project that reflected the self-confidence of the times.

London’s pollution problems also provided an impetus to the development of the germ theory of disease. Dr John Snow, a British physician, showed that water had carried the disease after an outbreak of cholera in Soho in 1854. Before that, the link between polluted water and disease was not understood. Many thought it was ‘miasma’, bad air, which played a key role in the transmission of disease. The key breakthrough in medical knowledge came about through a confident engagement with the problem of London’s pollution.

If Victorian Britain had been imbued with today’s culture of caution, it is hard to imagine what the response to these problems would have been. Perhaps flushing toilets would be banned or their use limited. Londoners would have to return to using cesspits rather than being connecting to the main sewers. Maybe strict curbs would be put on the growth of London as a city. Or perhaps strong-smelling substances would be used in an attempt to curb the miasma.

My counter-factual scenario on Victorian London’s response to the ‘great stink’ is, of course, imaginary. But my point is serious. Today, particularly in the West, we do not live in a world of self-confident responses to challenges. On the contrary, ours is an era of excessive caution. The typical response to problems is one of anxiety and restraint. For example, in relation to climate change, the most common arguments are about curbing individual behaviour and limiting carbon emissions. Proposals to adapt to the effects of climate change, for example by building modern flood defences, generally receive a low priority. Developing more high technology solutions, such as geo-engineering to modify the climate, is viewed with outright alarm (3). The implication is often that economic growth should be curbed rather than using the resources of a richer society to tackle the problems.

It seems to me that the same outlook informs the Western response to environmental problems in China. The problems that China has with pollution are viewed in an excessively fearful and cautious way. The fact that China’s population is so large, and its economy is growing so fast, makes the anxiety even greater. Instinctively, the reaction is that somehow China should curb its development rather than find bold solutions to its problems. The possibility that China could become a fully industrialised and urbanised society, with living standards akin to those in the West, has become the ultimate environmentalist nightmare. Whereas China under Mao was sometimes called the ‘red peril’, and before that was sometimes referred to by Western racists as the ‘yellow peril’, contemporary China is often viewed as a ‘green peril’.

As a consequence, the impact of economic growth is also viewed in a one-sided way. There is an over-emphasis on the problems that it can create, including pollution and inequality. Meanwhile, the immense benefits of growth in China tend to be under-stated. The fact that growth can and does lead to a better life for the mass of the population is virtually forgotten in the popular discussion. And the capacity of a growing, more prosperous society to solve the problems that are thrown up by its growth is also neglected.

In this essay, I want to:

  • Outline the problems that China faces in relation to pollution.
  • Note some of the key welfare benefits of economic growth for the Chinese people.
  • Discuss the relationship between economic growth and the environment. In particular, I want to outline the idea of the ‘environmental transition’.
  • Examine what I consider to be the mistaken notion that China will use up the world’s ‘scarce resources’.

Pollution problems

The key problems that China faces in relation to pollution are well known. They are discussed widely in the Western media and within China itself. Numerous reports have also studied the subject. Perhaps the most authoritative is the 2007 report produced jointly by the World Bank and China’s State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) (4).

* Air pollution: A combination of heavy coal use and a transportation boom are said to be devastating China’s air quality. Concentrations of particulates are increasing and these in turn are leading to a greater incidence of respiratory diseases such as asthma. Air quality in Beijing has also received particular attention in the run-up to this summer’s Olympics (5).

* Water shortages and quality deterioration: China’s heavy use of water for agricultural, domestic and industrial use is said to be leading to dwindling supplies. Ground water is rapidly running out and China’s wealthiest cities are said to be sinking as a result of subsidence. Water is also becoming increasingly polluted through hazardous wastes, fertilisers and pesticides (6).

* Desertification: Much of the country’s land is rapidly turning into desert. To quote one study by an environmentalist: ‘Desert expansion has accelerated with each successive decade since 1950. The Gobi is marching eastward and is now within 150 miles of Beijing. Some deserts have expanded to the point where they are starting to merge. Satellite images show the Bardanjilin in north-central China pushing southward toward the Tengry desert to form a single, larger desert, overlapping Inner Mongolia and Gansu provinces. To the west in Xinjiang province, two much larger deserts – the Taklamakan and the Kumtag – are also heading for a merger.’ (7)

* Acid rain: Sulphur dioxide emissions from coal use are leading to an increase in the acidity of rain. Agricultural land is being damaged and buildings eroded. Not only China but also its neighbours, including Japan and Korea, are suffering as a result (8).

* Climate change The alleged environmental impacts of China’s rapid growth are not confined to East Asia. China’s rapid industrialisation is said to be threatening the planet. Not only is China blamed for using vast quantities of natural resources – it is also said to be a substantial contributor to global warming.

The common conclusion from all this is that it would be better for the planet if China simply stopped growing. Environmentalists often put this argument explicitly. For example, Lester Brown, a veteran environmentalist commentator, recently argued: ‘The Western economic model – the fossil-fuel-based, auto-centered, throwaway economy – is not going to work for China. If it does not work for China, it will not work for India, which by 2031 is projected to have a population even larger than China’s. Nor will it work for the three billion other people in developing countries who are also dreaming the “American dream”.’ (9) In other words, he is arguing that China, and indeed the whole of the developing world, should not be allowed to enjoy Western living standards.

Most commentators do not put the case so explicitly. Sometimes they use words such as ‘sustainable’ or ‘sustainability’ as euphemisms for limiting growth. At other times they simply link economic growth to negative environmental effects, and let the reader draw his own conclusions. For example, in the latter part of 2007 the New York Times ran a 10-part series – complete with audio, video and interactive graphics – on how China was ‘choking on growth’ (10). The first piece argued: ‘China is choking on its own success. The economy is on a historic run, posting a succession of double-digit growth rates. But the growth derives, now more than at any time in the recent past, from a staggering expansion of heavy industry and urbanisation that requires colossal inputs of energy, almost all from coal, the most readily available, and dirtiest, source.’ (11)

At other times more explicit conclusions are buried in the midst of a mass of empirical material. For example, Elizabeth C Economy, one of the leading Western experts on China’s environment and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, has argued explicitly in Foreign Affairs that China needs to sacrifice economic growth in favour of environmental protection: ‘Why is China unable to get its environmental house in order? Its top officials want what the United States, Europe and Japan have: thriving economies with manageable environmental problems. But they are unwilling to pay the political and economic price to get there. Beijing’s message to local officials continues to be that economic growth cannot be sacrificed to environmental protection – that the two objectives must go hand in hand.’ (12) (Emphasis added.)

But are such arguments right? Should China sacrifice economic growth for the greater good of the environment? I would argue not. In fact, curbing growth is probably the worst thing that China could do right now.

Welfare benefits of growth

Before going on to the relationship between economic growth and the environment, we should remind ourselves of the benefits of growth to the Chinese people. Economic growth has brought huge gains to the Chinese people. China has gone from a society where the vast majority were dirt poor and rural in the late 1970s to one that is much more urbanised and wealthy today. Such a rise in living standards is an historic good in itself. And it also brings what economists call welfare benefits. To give a few examples:

– Extreme poverty has fallen tremendously: According to a joint study by the World Bank and China’s National Bureau of Statistics, extreme poverty fell from 53 per cent in 1981 to eight per cent in 2001. (About $102 per year in rural areas and $145 in urban areas at 2002 prices.) Mercifully the most extreme forms of poverty seem to be a thing of the past in China (13).

It should not be forgotten that such poverty had terrible consequences. For example, from 1959 to 1961, China suffered a great famine in which up to 30million people starved to death. I do not here want to go into the debate about the exact causes of the famine; but it is hard to imagine such a calamity occurring in contemporary China, since it is immensely richer than it was back then (14). The problems then were of a different order than those of today.

Although famine was perhaps the most terrible incarnation of poverty, it should be remembered that even routine poverty was tragic. As recently as 1978, China’s State Statistical Bureau estimated that 250million people, or 31 per cent of the rural population, lacked adequate food and clothing (15).

– Life expectancy has risen by several years: In 1975 the average life expectancy was 65.5 years for Chinese men and 66.2 years for women. By 2007 it had risen to 71.1 years for men and 74.8 years for women. So the average Chinese person lives several years longer than three decades ago (16).

– Infant mortality has halved: Infant mortality was between 40 and 50 deaths per thousand live births in 1980. By 2007 it had fallen to 22.1 per 1,000 (17).

From these relatively few statistics alone it should be clear that China has made enormous strides forward during the period of rapid economic growth since the late 1970s (18). Extreme poverty – including the scourge of famine – seems to be a thing of the past. The average person lives several years longer than before, and infant mortality has roughly halved. And all of this has happened despite the negative health effects of pollution.

Of course problems remain. China’s widening inequalities are often discussed – and they are certainly real – but it should not be forgotten that absolute living standards have risen. China is still relatively poor compared with the West. For example, America’s GDP per head is still about eight times the Chinese level. China is at about $5,500 per head versus $46,000 for America (19).

China needs to develop a lot more to be as rich as the West. Nevertheless, the Chinese economy has taken some huge, positive steps over the past 30 years, and the welfare of the Chinese people has improved enormously as a result.

The environmental transition

If we can agree that the Chinese people have benefited from economic growth, does it then follow that the goal now should be some kind of balance between the environment and economic growth? No; this is the wrong way to see things.

There is a common misconception that the more an economy industrialises the more polluted it becomes. It may be true that in the early stages of industrialisation pollution increases. But typically what happens is that as a society becomes richer, it also builds up more resources to deal with its environmental problems. It also tends to develop better technology than it had in the past.

This pattern has been called an ‘environmental transition’ (20). In the early stages of industrialisation, things get worse, but as time progresses the damage to the environment lessens. That is why the richer countries are typically less polluted than they were in the past. Britain is a good example of this trend. The Thames is far cleaner than it was 150 years ago, even though output has risen enormously since then.

There is no doubt in my mind that China can go through such a transition. More modern factories can reduce air pollution considerably. Cleaner energy can play a positive role. And technologies such as desalination can overcome any water shortages.

Admittedly, many concede there can be a transition in principle, but they remain worried about the scale and rapidity of Chinese growth. For example, in its ‘choking on growth’ series the New York Times argued that: ‘Britain, the United States and Japan polluted their way to prosperity and worried about environmental damage only after their economies matured and their urban middle classes demanded blue skies and safe drinking water. But China is more like a teenage smoker with emphysema. The costs of pollution have mounted well before it is ready to curtail economic development. But the price of business as usual – including the predicted effects of global warming on China itself – strikes many of its own experts and some senior officials as intolerably high.’ (21)

I would argue that, on the contrary, these factors could work to China’s advantage. The more rapidly China develops, the more resources it will have with which to tackle pollution. In addition, the fact that there are already lots of developed countries around should work in China’s favour. Much clean technology has already been invented, and China can utilise this. The question, then, is: how can such technology be transferred from the West to China?

Scarce resources

The argument about China using up the world’s resources is also misplaced. No doubt it is true that if China succeeds in developing to Western levels, it will use a huge volume of resources. But it is likely that, for several reasons, new resources will emerge to replace those that are used up (22):

  • As countries develop they tend to become more resource efficient: Fewer resources are needed for each unit of output. The developed nations, most notably Japan and Western Europe, use resources far more efficiently than China does. There is no reason why in the future China’s resource efficiency cannot match Western levels;
  • New sources of raw materials tend to be found: The commonly expressed idea that there are only a certain number of years of reserves of a given resource is misleading. As resources are used up, this generally provides an impetus for more exploration to find new sources of the necessary resource;
  • Substitute resources can be used: If a resource is becoming scarce it is often the case that a substitute resource can be found. For example, if oil is used up it can be substituted by other forms of energy;
  • New resources emerge: Perhaps the least understood point is that new resources emerge as society becomes more developed. Things that were not resources in the past become resources as a result of economic and technological development. For instance, uranium was not a resource until the mid-twentieth century. Before then, humans had no way of exploiting it; now it can be an immense source of energy.

No green peril

To conclude, it is clear that economic development has thrown up substantial environmental problems for China – but it is essential that these problems are discussed and dealt with in a balanced way. Economic growth has brought higher living standards and enormous welfare benefits for the Chinese people. It should also provide the means for China to go through an environmental transition in which the environment is reshaped to benefit its inhabitants.

The one-sided reaction to China’s economic development amongst Western observers says more about the West’s contemporary insecurities than it does about China. Western societies lack the confidence that they once had in dealing with the challenges they face. The portrayal of China as a threat to the global environment, a ‘green peril’, is a reflection of the West’s anxieties rather than an accurate description of contemporary Chinese society.

Daniel Ben-Ami is a journalist and author based in London. Visit his website here. This article is based on an introduction to a seminar on ‘Is China the new ‘green peril’ given to the China Development Society of the London School of Economics Students Union on 5 March.

(1) Elizabeth C Economy, The Great Leap Backward?, Foreign Affairs, September / October 2007

(2) For more on this see Professor Martin Daunton, London’s ‘Great Stink’ and Victorian Urban Planning, BBC

(3) See James Woudhuysen, Why greens don’t want to ‘solve’ climate change, 10 October 2007

(4) Cost of Pollution in China: Economic Estimates of Physical Damages, World Bank

(5) Trucks Power China’s Economy, at a Suffocating Cost, New York Times, 8 December 2007

(6) Water Environmental Situation and Pollution Control in China, Hong-Ying Hu and Yu-Dong Song. Report from World Federation of Engineering Organisations (PDF); For a profile of a Chinese environmental activist see Ma Jun, Time, 30 April 2006

(7) See extract from Outgrowing the Earth: The Food Security Challenge in an Age of Falling Water Tables and Rising Temperatures, Lester R Brown, WW Norton, 2005

(8) See Acid rain in China, Environmental Science & Technology, 15 January 2006

(9) See the summary of his lecture to the OECD on 2 February 2006

(10) Choking on growth, New York Times

(11) As China Roars, Pollution Reaches Deadly Extremes, New York Times, 26 August 2007

(12) Elizabeth C Economy, The Great Leap Backward?, Foreign Affairs, September / October 2007

(13) See Learning from Success, Martin Ravaillion and Shaohua Chen, Finance & Development, December 2004 (PDF), and by the same authors, China’s (Uneven) Progress Against Poverty, World Bank Policy Research Paper 3408. September 2004

(14) See China’s great famine: 40 years later, BMJ, 18 December 1999

(15) China Human Development Report 1997, UNDP, P27

(16) For 1975 figures see China Human Development Report 1997, UNDP, P25. For 2007 figures see The World Factbook, Central Intelligence Agency

(17) For 1980 figures see China Human Development Report 1997, UNDP, P27. For 2007 figures see The World Factbook, Central Intelligence Agency

(18) For an alternative set of comparative statistics see MDGs in China’, UNDP

(19) Both figures at purchasing power parity. See The World Factbook, Central Intelligence Agency on China and America

(20) See The Improving State of the World, Indur M Goklany, Cato Institute, 2006.

(21) As China Roars, Pollution Reaches Deadly Extremes, New York Times, 26 August 2007

(22) The first three are discussed in more detail in The Skeptical Environmentalist, Bjorn Lomborg, Cambridge University Press, 2001, p125-6

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Topics World


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