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China’s ‘Pollution Diet’: a touchstone for the national modernisation project

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In Brief

In September, the State Council decided to implement what is said to be the toughest action plan ever to combat air pollution. China’s 338 county-level cities must reduce airborne particles of 10 microns or under by 10 per cent compared to 2012 levels within five years. In designated regions such as Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei, particulate matter up to 2.5 micrometers (PM 2.5) — which is principally responsible for causing lung cancer and asthma — must be reduced by 25 per cent.


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Further, PM 2.5 must be reduced in the Yangtze Delta by 20 per cent and in the Pearl River Delta region by 15 per cent. The plan is backed by an estimated US$277 billion of investment in the environmental protection industry.

According to World Bank estimates, 16 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities are in China. A 2010 study linked 1.2 million premature deaths to the country’s air pollution. Even the drastic measures in preparation for the 2008 Beijing Olympics only had limited and temporary effects. Since then, air quality has further deteriorated. In February 2013, the Ministry of Environmental Protection rated the capital city China’s ninth worst in terms of air pollution.

The reasons for this failure to improve air quality are twofold. First, despite talk of the need to protect the environment, economic growth has consistently been of paramount importance, and economic performance is still a major benchmark for promotion in the Communist Party hierarchy. Second, the lack of transparency about environmental issues inherent in the political system means that any change in the actual situation cannot be independently verified. This is symptomatic of the general problem with the fight against environmental degradation, and has led the Party to give the media and environmental NGO’s some leeway for reporting on cases of extreme pollution.

In theory, these obstacles should be removed because top leaders support the current plan and failure to adhere to it should therefore have political consequences. First, the stringent targets are assessed against a performance system that involves the Party’s powerful Organisation Department, and failure to achieve the targets will therefore adversely affect party members’ careers. Second, the plan prescribes the disclosure of PM 2.5 readings in all county-level cities by the year 2015.

China’s development model has been acknowledged as unsustainable. However, the debate about development has primarily revolved around the middle-income trap, and the transformation from export-oriented industrial manufacturing to domestic consumption-oriented growth of the service sector. Contrary to its original meaning, ‘sustainable’ is being used as a synonym for ‘continuous’ rather than socially and ecologically sound development. Premier Li confirmed this in his address to the World Economic Forum in Dalian last month. Break-neck economic growth no longer seems fashionable, yet target growth rates are still central to official policy and discourse — and the constant target of 7 per cent economic growth per annum remain primary drivers of the behaviour of leaders.

Equally revealing is the emphasis on urbanisation as a growth engine. Even though some negative aspects of the last decade’s urbanisation drive have been acknowledged, the target of an increase in the urban population by another 310 million by 2030 is still being actively pursued. The reason is that China has a lower share of urban dwellers in comparison with developed countries. Therefore, urbanisation is seen as a necessity for modernisation.

The success of ‘Japan Inc.’ in the post-war period has encouraged the belief, inside and outside the country, that the eventual success of China’s modernisation drive will be unimpeded by social and environmental problems. However, quantitative economic growth in Japan came at high social and environmental costs. Protecting people’s health was second to boosting macroeconomic indicators. The crucial turning point became known as the ‘Pollution Diet’. The passing of a series of laws by the parliament in November 1970 heralded a trend that eventually led to the drastic improvement of what was at that time the world’s worst air quality.

Now China has reached that same point, and decisive changes are imperative. This is because increased GDP growth rates will be meaningless if current patterns of environmental destruction as apparent in air and water pollution are to continue. Apart from the fact that polluted air and water cannot be used in the production process, sick people cannot form the basis of a ‘moderately well-off society’ and a ‘rejuvenated’ nation as they are the proclaimed national objectives. An observer noted that ‘unlike other badly-needed reforms in China, which often meet strong opposition from powerful interest groups, improving air quality has the support of everyone; after all, officials and billionaires need to breathe, too.’

Therefore, the success of the action plan to combat air pollution represents nothing less than the ultimate test for China’s development model. If it were to fail, the very economic and political foundations of China’s path to modernity need to be questioned. Given the current worldwide fascination with China’s rise, such a failure would force the rethinking of contemporary economic policies beyond China.

Christian Wirth is a Research Fellow at the Griffith Asian Institute, Griffith University.

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