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Will China Face an Environmental Meltdown?

How much will China's environment be damaged in case of an economic meltdown?

June 15, 2004

How much will China's environment be damaged in case of an economic meltdown?

Let’s assume that well below the 7% that some analysts predict necessary to maintain social stability, China’s economy slows or even experiences a significant downturn.

Local officials are likely to continue to favor economic development at the expense of the environment in an effort to preserve social stability.

As a result, China’s air quality does not improve, as the country continues to rely on older, more inefficient polluting technologies and automobiles.

Water pollution increases throughout the major river systems. And, most important, investment in waste treatment or new conservation efforts diminish as a short-term outlook prevails.

Especially in the already economically hard-hit areas of northeast China and the interior provinces, massive layoffs in the state-owned enterprise sector and growing problems with environmentally and economically induced migration would also challenge the ability of local governments to provide work for the people.

The social welfare system is overwhelmed as continued corruption drains local coffers and impairs the development of a functioning pension system.

There are frequent demonstrations, which often turn violent. The outlook for improved quality of life is bleak.

Positive environmental trends in forestry and agricultural practices are reversed as logging bans are ignored and farmers attempt to eke out a living on increasingly degraded land.

In the “Go West” effort, environmental and economic exploitation prompt not only growing political disaffection, but also increased violence and protests against domestic and international businesses perceived to support such policies.

International business stops investing and withdraws from the interior, which is now viewed as politically unstable.

The West-East pipeline becomes a target of sabotage. Weaknesses in the banking infrastructure and law enforcement deepen as Chinese officials seek any means to keep local industry afloat.

After making small gains in the rule of law, courts are increasingly reluctant to press enterprises to adhere to environmental protection laws for fear of promoting further social unrest.

Corruption continues to erode economic institutions and leadership credibility as Chinese citizens believe they have no recourse for justice.

Unwilling to risk massive layoffs, Chinese officials backtrack on WTO commitments in an effort to preserve Chinese industries.

Bureaucracies are given greater latitude to develop regulations that impede the access of foreign companies to China’s market.

Foreign investors respond by denouncing Chinese practices, further contributing to international friction and trade disruptions.

Fewer environmental benefits are also felt due to a slowdown in the influx of foreign technology and increasing acceptance of poorer environmental practices.

Gains for China’s industry come largely in the highly polluting textile, toy and tin mining industries.

Few benefits are reaped in the expected area of agriculture, as China resists opening its market to large-scale grain imports promised in its WTO accession agreement.

In such a time of domestic stress and leadership vulnerability, the environment is not likely to receive much positive attention.

More likely, the public security apparatus would increasingly scrutinize the work of NGOs and independent lawyers for the political content of their work.

Peasant and worker unrest would be managed through repression and, perhaps, through the projection of an external threat or a manufactured crisis in the Taiwan Straits to rally nationalist sentiment and deflect attention from the country's economic woes.

Despite all these actions, China might still collapse or be driven by wide-scale civil strife.

Regime-threatening protests emanating from China’s minorities – especially the Uighurs in Xinjiang and Tibetan independence advocates or from a combination of striking laborers, peasants and urban intellectuals – are all within the realm of possibility, especially as China’s leaders struggle to enforce WTO strictures.

In this scenario the environment could be one of many causes espoused by the protesters. An environmental disaster of significant magnitude, like a collapse of the Three Gorges Dam, could easily serve as the trigger for such protests — a giant symbol of the corruption, lack of transparency and limited political participation of China’s current system.

Reproduced from Elizabeth Economy, The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenge to China’s Future. Copyright © 2004 by Cornell University. Used by permission of the publisher, Cornell University Press.