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Modernizing China Confronts Environmental Woes

May 28, 2008 at 6:05 PM EDT
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Since undertaking market reforms in late 1970s, China has enjoyed an economic boom -- but the economic progress has also produced serious environmental damage and pollution problems. Margaret Warner reports on China's environmental woes and their impact on the run-up to the Beijing Olympics.
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RAY SUAREZ: Now, a two-part look at environmental problems, overseas and at home. We start with a report from Margaret Warner in China, looking at that country’s massive pollution problems.

MARGARET WARNER: Deng Xiao Long and Shen Xiao Mei have been fishing on Tai Lake for their entire 23-year marriage. China’s third-largest freshwater lake provided an abundant daily catch and drinking water for 6 million residents of the nearby city of Wuxi.

They used to make a good living at it, but no more.

DENG XIAO LONG, Fisherman (through translator): Do you know why is it so hard to fish now? Because of the chemical elements in the water. If fish smell the chemicals, they flee. They run away. They run to somewhere better.

MARGARET WARNER: This lake bank used to be rich with shrimp, Shen says, but in recent years many shrimp came up dead.

It’s no wonder the shrimp died: This is one of the rivers that feed the lake, carrying water that’s turned nearly opaque from chemical byproducts dumped by factories upstream.

Early last summer came the wake-up call: Blue-green algae in the lake mushroomed out of control. Wuxi’s drinking water turned toxic.

ZHU TIEJUN, Jiangsu Environmental Protection Department (through translator): Last summer, the tap water supply for Wuxi was spoiled. For three days, the residents of Wuxi had to buy bottled water to drink.

MARGARET WARNER: Zhu Tiejun, deputy director for environmental protection for Jiangsu province, remembers his boyhood days when the lake was so clean he could drink from it.

He was part of the emergency response when the crisis hit last summer. It included diverting part of the Yangtze River into Tai Lake to flush it out. Then, local officials took steps to try to avert the same situation this summer, when the warm weather returns.

ZHU TIEJUN (through translator): We shut down 2,100 seriously polluting factories and small-scale enterprises. Since then, six industries have not been allowed to establish in the Tai Lake region, like manufacturing, brewing, dying and printing.

Businesses wield great influence

Shen Ziao Mei
Fisherman
The chemical factories make big money, so that's why the government protects them. They don't care about us fishermen.

MARGARET WARNER: But Deng and Shen say the cleanup campaign also victimized poor people like them. Last November, the government ordered all fishing suspended on the lake. Faced with the loss of their livelihood, Deng took a job for $11 a day at the steel plant that looms above their boat mooring.

SHEN XIAO MEI, Fisherman (through translator): The government tells us we've fished too much, and that's why the water has become bad. But it's the fault of the chemical factories. The chemical factories make big money, so that's why the government protects them. They don't care about us fishermen.

MARGARET WARNER: Environmental official Zhu concedes many factory owners successfully resist closure or cleanup, often abetted by economic development officials in the provincial government itself.

Looking out over Tai Lake, where this summer's algae crop is already starting to blossom, Zhu says Wuxi's experience carries a larger lesson for China.

ZHU TIEJUN (through translator): We are a developing country, and we need that development. But at some point, we have to tackle environmental protection. If there's only economic development at the price of the environment, the public will not be satisfied.

Coal, cars main culprits

Sun Weide
Beijing Organizing Olympic Committee
I think it has been challenging, you know, it's very challenging, very challenging to improve air quality. But I think we have been making progress.

MARGARET WARNER: What's happening on Tai Lake is a vivid illustration of what is happening across China, as this country's rush to bring greater prosperity to more of its citizens runs up against the limits of nature.

Six hundred miles north, in Beijing, elderly residents still practice early-morning tai chi in outdoor parks, despite the pollution mist around them.

The capital used to be known as a city of open skies and seas of bicycles. Today, its wide streets are clogged with cars and haze, and many of its power plants and factories still burn China's most abundant energy source: coal.

Now, with the Olympic Games just weeks away, there are still questions about whether the air will be clean enough for the world's top athletes to perform.

To win the bid seven years ago, the Chinese government promised a green Olympics, and it has taken some aggressive steps. Foul diesel buses have been replaced by natural gas-powered ones. Many coal-burning power plants and factories have been converted or moved out of town.

But in 12 days here, we saw blue sky only once. And Beijing Olympics organizers can't guarantee the air will be pure enough without resorting to some radical, last-minute measures.

SUN WEIDE, Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games: Obviously, I think it has been challenging, you know, it's very challenging, very challenging to improve air quality. But I think we have been making progress. And, more importantly, you know, we have also drafted a contingency plan to ensure clear air during the games' time.

MARGARET WARNER: That contingency plan: temporarily shut down many factories just before the games begin and order one-third of Beijing's 3.5 million cars off the road.

There's a lot at risk not only for athletes, but for ordinary Chinese and the world, in this country's spreading environmental morass. One unpublished World Bank study estimated that some 750,000 Chinese die prematurely each year from pollution.

And last year, China overtook the U.S. as the world's biggest CO-2 emitter, spreading the problem beyond China's borders.

Why is newly modernizing China repeating the same mistakes the U.S. and other early industrialized countries made?

The answer is rooted in China's drive to pull more of the countryside's rural poor out of poverty. That drive has led to rapid industrialization and pell-mell growth.

But it's not just polluting enterprises that cause environmental damage. So do ordinary Chinese who achieve middle-class status and want the energy-consuming lifestyle that comes with it. Some of them spent Monday afternoon checking out new luxury cars at a dealership on the outskirts of Beijing.

Zhang Li Fan is making enough money customizing cars to afford a car of his own for the first time, and he's ready to spend up to $30,000 for it.

ZHANG LI FAN, Car Customizer (through translator): It is convenient, you know what I mean?

MARGARET WARNER: Newly affluent Beijingers like him are the reason the city is adding 1,000 new cars a day to its roads. Zhang is aware of the pollution that causes, but it doesn't dissuade him.

ZHANG LI FAN (through translator): Of course it would be good if there were no cars on the street and no one bought cars. Then the air would be great.

Growth and social stability

Yang Chaofei
Ministry of Environmental Protection
Pollution can cause public protests on the street. That would pose a threat to social stability. So, in short, I think it's a rather serious threat to China.

MARGARET WARNER: Belatedly, China's central government has recognized the environmental cost of its poorly controlled growth. At least that's what one senior official at China's Ministry of Environmental Protection says.

YANG CHAOFEI, Ministry of Environmental Protection (through translator): Pollution poses a threat to human health; that's very obvious. It also poses a threat to sustainable development. It's worsening the scarcity of resources.

And, lastly, pollution can cause public protests on the street. That would pose a threat to social stability. So, in short, I think it's a rather serious threat to China.

MARGARET WARNER: In 2006, the party leadership announced ambitious new plans to cut GDP-adjusted energy consumption 20 percent and pollution emissions 10 percent by 2010.

But as Wuxi showed, resistance from the same party's provincial officials, local industries, and a party-run court system make the new goals hard to achieve.

Several environmentalists told us off-camera that it's the same grow-at-all-costs mentality, often coupled with corruption, that's no doubt to blame for the shoddy school construction in the earthquake region.

MA JUN, Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs: We copy the Western laws and regulations, but they're not properly enforced.

MARGARET WARNER: Ma Jun, head of an environmental NGO in Beijing, says that's because most local party officials care only about boosting economic growth, in part because party promotions depend on it. Ma takes on industrial polluters, Chinese firms, and multinationals by collecting publicly available emissions data, then naming and shaming the offenders on his Web site.

MA JUN: This is the China water pollution map we've developed. You know, people can click on the map and get into different provinces. You've got the info on the water quality, the amount of discharge, and a list of polluters.

MARGARET WARNER: But Ma concedes citizen activism has a long way to go in a one-party state whose government distrusts challenges to its authority.

MA JUN: We've got to realize China has been ruled top-down for thousands of years, so there's a lack of tradition on public participation. At this moment, the trust between the government and the NGOs are still not quite -- you know, is still slim.

MARGARET WARNER: Ma says that environmental NGOs have to constantly re-assure the government that they have no political agenda.

His caution is not without reason. After our boat ride with the Wuxi fishermen, they were quizzed by local officials. And one prominent Tai Lake environmental activist is now in jail.

Renewables may offer hope

Zhang Jin Feng
Environmentalist
You can see this water. It's among the cleanest in Beijing, but it's still pretty dirty. There are a lot of polluted rivers around Beijing.

MARGARET WARNER: Yet near the shores of the same lake is a hope for China's environmental future: this high-tech facility in the renewable energy field. The company is Suntech, the world's third-largest manufacturer of solar panels.

SHI ZHENGRONG, CEO, Suntech: This part, actually, we tried to make individual cells into solar panels.

MARGARET WARNER: It's the brainchild of founder and CEO Shi Zhengrong. He's become a billionaire by marrying first-world technology with developing world labor costs.

SHI ZHENGRONG: This is the future for the world, not just China. We're facing resource depletion and an energy crisis. And as we know, the oil crisis has already hit $126 a barrel, where it keeps going up. So we have to find some alternative energy like solar very, very quickly.

MARGARET WARNER: Yet 90 percent of Suntech's sales are overseas, where the cost of solar is heavily subsidized. Now Shi is lobbying the Chinese government to do the same.

He's also trying to persuade local party officials that they can grow their economies just as fast, but more cleanly, if they foster more businesses in the clean energy field.

SHI ZHENGRONG: You know, we need to change the way of growth, because that's a policy. You know, all (inaudible) government tries to do, we have to change the pattern of economic growth.

MARGARET WARNER: As Beijing rushes to complete its crash cleanup for the Olympics, one man leads weekend nature awareness tours for fellow enthusiasts. On this day, Zhang Jin Feng is inspecting a mini waterway in a downtown park.

ZHANG JIN FENG, Environmentalist (through translator): You can see this water. It's among the cleanest in Beijing, but it's still pretty dirty. There are a lot of polluted rivers around Beijing.

MARGARET WARNER: Zhang's low-key campaign may seem like a drop in a very polluted ocean, but efforts like this may help Chinese citizens and their government recognize that the price of heedless growth is too much for China and the world to bear.

RAY SUAREZ: You can watch all of Margaret's stories from China and learn how athletes are adjusting their training for the pollution. Visit our Web site at PBS.org and scroll down to NewsHour Reports.