China’s Environmental Challenges

By Judith Shapiro

China’s huge environmental challenges are tied to domestic politics, rapid economic growth, and an intense phase of globalization. With rising wealth there is huge pressure for China to continue on its current path of rapid growth coupled with environmental degradation, both within and beyond borders. Below, Judith Shapiro suggests that globalization is the force behind many of China’s environmental problems, but also a source of hope and innovation.

China’s huge environmental challenges are tied to domestic political structures, rapid economic growth, and an intense phase of globalization in which the entire planet is involved. China has rapidly moved from being a less developed country to a transitional one to one that is already a superpower. The key question is whether this unprecedented development will be “sustainable.” In the Chinese context, the conundrum can be expressed: Can Chinese people alive today pursue healthy and meaningful lives without stealing resources from their children or from vulnerable populations within the country and abroad? Do the Chinese people have an inherent right to the higher living standards enjoyed in the developed world? To what extent are China’s environmental problems due to the rest of the world’s consumption patterns? Can Chinese cities improve their environments without shifting pollution to other, more vulnerable regions? Can China deal with the acute poverty in much of the country’s Far West, even as eastern parts of the nation grow richer? Can the planet survive such demand and conquest?

The dynamics of environmental injustice tend to push the costs of pollution onto the most vulnerable and politically weak. A well-organized anti-pollution push in one place can result in a factory opening somewhere else; pressure to clean Beijing’s air has shifted industry to outlying areas and diverted resources from other projects. Rural areas become dumping grounds for urban waste; poor countries bear the brunt of pollution for wealthy consumers. Broadly speaking, environmental harms tend to be displaced from wealthy areas to poor ones, even as resources are extracted disproportionately from remote and less developed areas to fuel economic growth for more developed countries, including China. As these tensions and contradictions become more evident in a shrinking, globalizing world of limited resources, they are focusing increasing attention on the challenge of achieving environmental justice while providing for the needs of the world’s growing population.

As China’s story tells us, there are signs of hope, but also room for despair. China’s demand for resources is being driven not only by domestic consumers but also by international ones. As the world’s manufacturing engine, China bears some of the pollution costs of the developed world’s overconsumption along with the consumption and waste generated by its own rising middle class. At the same time, China has only just begun to address the material needs of the impoverished periphery in the West. For these reasons, and despite strong environmental laws and regulations, Chinese citizens are swimming in a sea of toxic pollutants. Many rivers and lakes are unusable even for irrigation; air quality is dangerously unhealthy; desertification, erosion, and dust storms are depleting arable lands. Public health costs can be measured in early death, chronic disease, lost productivity, and diminished quality of life.

In only a generation and a half, China has undergone a transition that now touches every conceivable facet of the country, including the government, the people, civil society, and even intangible cultural characteristics such as identity and tradition. China’s rapid economic and much slower political “openings” have drastically changed the landscape, both physically and metaphorically, in ways that could not have been imagined a few decades ago.

China’s environment is beset by numerous interconnected and countervailing forces and pressures. At the heart of the country’s development is the struggle to bring wealth and comfort to more than one billion people, many of whom have lived in poverty for generations. One cannot overstate the pressure that this scale of poverty brings to leaders’ decision making. Certainly, China has been able to take advantage of globalization, becoming a manufacturer to the world and expanding its economy drastically. However, with this rising wealth, China’s new middle class now demands clean air and water even as its material desires spell trouble for the environment, a contradictory impulse that is not easy for government leaders to accommodate.

The “economic miracle” that raised incomes and the national GDP is now also a curse, as the state struggles to limit further destruction of China’s limited natural resources.

The primary response of the government to demands for better living standards has been liberalization and decentralization of economic controls, yet this causes an immense quandary for China’s authoritarian state system. The central government ceded some of its power in a bid to expand the economy; however, the “economic miracle” that raised incomes and the national GDP is now also a curse, as the state struggles to limit further destruction of China’s limited natural resources and begin to clean up the mess generated by decades of environmental abuse. Officials have recognized growing levels of environmental harm – stemming partly from a sense of lawlessness among middle-level officials and industrial leaders – and they have instituted world-class environmental regulations. But these laws are poorly enforced. This implementation gap stems at least in part from a political and social conflict between Western-style economic growth and a healthy environment.

The juggernaut that is globalization is the force behind many of China’s environmental woes. But globalization can also be a source of hope and a stimulus for innovation. China continues to make strides in developing and producing clean technology; in particular, it invests heavily in areas like solar and wind energy, clean car technology, and desalinization plants, positioning the country to reap even more profits in the global economy. Perhaps this represents an alternative, realistic path for the future development of China, one where economic and environmental incentives could align. We can see evidence that China is moving in this direction as Chinese civil society groups exercise their new rights to participate in environmental decisions, express their views in the media, and take part in demonstrations, even at times with the blessings of the government. But even as these civil society actors assume a more significant role, their size and effectiveness remain constrained. The Chinese Communist Party remains concerned about social unrest that could challenge central authority, so it closely monitors and controls modern social movements. The state is balancing the need for centralized control and the suppression of protest against the need for more public participation, more transparency, and greater reliance on the rule of law. NGOs must tread carefully, asserting their rights, voicing grievances, and lobbying officials and the media without angering the state so much as to provoke a crackdown.

A case can be made that the national government – or some parts of it – is inching toward a greater alliance with the green movement, as part of an overall trend toward an expanded civil society and rule-by-law. Top government officials have recognized that cleaning up the environment requires a combination of clear laws, transparent standards and practices, development of institutions, defined rights, a democratic process, encouragement of public participation, and engagement with the media. That said, additional reforms are needed to encourage such groups and give them more breadth, depth, clout, and legal protections. Western students, activists, organizations, and individuals can find more ways to engage with and support these groups, who have a tough task as they attempt to shift powerful forces toward a different path.

A long history of public distrust of central authority also frustrates the government’s ability to address challenges. The traditional practice of respecting hierarchies and of seeking relief through the influence of someone more powerful dates back to the time of the emperors and was exacerbated during the Mao years and during the reforms that followed. After 1978, when “getting rich” was embraced by Deng Xiaoping, the grip of the state relaxed. But there were few mechanisms to prevent China’s new entrepreneurs from saving money by exploiting resources and dumping wastes. In the old days it was the emperor who lived far away and was unable to enforce edicts. In the new China, it is the regulators who are distant and ineffectual. Even as law enforcement gradually improves, this dynamic still gives rise to intense pollution of public lands and waterways. Individuals and small factories are not the only ones to avoid regulation; some of China’s largest corporations have failed to conduct environmental impact assessments or obtain construction permits.

Asserting the rule of law and creating an ethos where Chinese citizens feel empowered to help preserve and enjoy a clean environment will require enormous effort. Ancient and traditional beliefs and institutions – Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism – may provide guidance. They speak to the need to promote sustainable relationships, harmony, and respect for the non-human world. But for young Chinese who find themselves cut off from the past, growing up in an intensely materialist and non-religious country, these traditions carry little weight. Fortunately, other traditions can be invoked. Environmental groups emphasize a love of nature for its own sake, encouraging nature walks, photography, tree planting, and preservation of wild lands, rivers, and animals. The desire to project China as a leading and positive force in the world is also a powerful sentiment that forms a patriotic identity. If these new convictions and older traditions are combined, could they prevail in the face of corruption, materialism, and a central government deeply suspicious of political and social movements? Some activists and officials suggest that it is possible, not least because the alternative is unsustainable.

Finally, we must consider the complex challenge posed by the East-West divide. Vast areas of western China, home to rural peasants and ethnic minorities, remain relatively untouched by the modernization and growing wealth of the East. People living in these areas remain excluded from much of China’s development, disconnected from the country’s gleaming cities and rise to prominence. The sheer numbers of poor give impetus to the state’s growth and development targets. But the poor tend to benefit least, as wealth trickles too slowly from the urban megapolis to the rural village, and income inequalities worsen with every passing year. When we take a closer look at these regions, we suspect that government attempts to “develop” infrastructure are often no more than strategies to extract natural resources at the expense of a disenfranchised population. Development campaigns, and even some environmental campaigns like the restoration of the grasslands, may result in the dislocation of minorities or enforced assimilation. Meanwhile, as environmental movements in the wealthy East grow stronger, much environmental harm is simply displaced to the periphery.

Through our buying habits, political action in our home countries, information sharing, and other choices, we can join with those in China working for a sustainable future.

The evidence presented here suggests that China, its government, and its people will have to grapple with a long list of questions as they attempt to build what they call a harmonious and sustainable society:

• What is the ultimate goal of China’s economic development model? Can the country afford a trajectory modeled on that of the West? Can the rest of the world afford that?

Where does the state fit into the picture of environmental governance? Does it have the political will or ability to eschew a develop-at-all-costs mentality?


What is the path for China’s homegrown environmental movement? Can it be inclusive without compromising values? Can it form useful relationships with the international environmental movement?


Can the Chinese people avoid the excesses of the Global North that displaced so much environmental harm onto the developing South?


Is China’s model addressing wider issues of injustice and oppression of poor, marginalized, and minority voices? Or is it contributing to further exploitation of those who live at the margins?


Where does the international community fit? Does the world have a responsibility to China and vice versa? If China is greening itself, is it doing so at the cost of vulnerable populations elsewhere in the world?


Answers will not come easily. Complex challenges within China overlap and intersect in ways that rule out quick fixes. As we have seen, there is huge pressure for China to continue on its current path of rapid growth coupled with environmental degradation, both within and beyond borders. The ability to shift course is constrained by historical and cultural baggage that puts the emphasis on global recognition and conspicuous consumption. However, there are encouraging signs that a shift is under way, with greater confidence in the legal system, increased public participation and information transparency, and broad recognition that development that chokes and harms is undesirable. Significant forces are working tirelessly for greater attention to and emphasis on sustainability, including within the Chinese state system.

As a planet, we are so intertwined that what happens in China not only impacts all of us, but what all of us do has an impact in China. Through our buying habits, political action in our home countries, information sharing, and other choices that we make every day, we can join with those in China working for a sustainable future. Yet if China’s policy makers, corporations, and politically powerful middle class, along with other global actors and each one of us through our individual decisions, continue to displace harms onto yet more vulnerable populations and future generations, then, joined together as we are, we will continue to accumulate a debt that can never be repaid.

Reprinted by permission of Polity Press. Excerpted from China’s Environmental Challenges by Judith Shapiro. Copyright 2012. All rights reserved

About the Author
Judith Shapiro was one of the first Americans to live and teach in China after the Cultural Revolution, and she has been deeply involved with the country ever since. Her many books include Son of the Revolution (Knopf, 1983, co-authored with Liang Heng), Mao’s War against Nature (Cambridge University, 2001), and China’s Environmental Challenges (Polity, 2012), upon which this essay is based.  She directs the Natural Resources and Sustainable Development MA Program at American University’s School of International Service in Washington, D.C. She can be reached via her website, www.judithshapiro.com.