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Green World, Many Dreams
by Vieno Vehko
2008-06-01 10:31:11
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A little Chinese history: on September 12, 1979, Zhang Changlin was working in a local chemical factory in Suzhou, Jiangsu province. He accidentally forgot to shut off a flow valve before leaving work; consequently, 150 tons of wastewater, 30 percent of which was liquid sodium cyanide, poured into the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal overnight.

This highly toxic chemical can severely damage the eyes, skin, respiratory tract and oral and gastrointestinal tracts. More than 1,000 people were recruited to clean up the pollution but the official press reported that luckily nobody was injured in the accident. The chemical factory had 34,800 RMB in economic losses, a massive number at that time. Poor Zhang was sentenced to two years in jail for violating hazardous material regulations.

Interestingly, the next day, September 13, 1979, China passed its first ever draft of the Environmental Protection Law of People's Republic of China. Because no environmental impact laws existed prior to the accident, Zhang was later declared guilty in accordance with Article 115 of the Criminal Law, a statute that had been published but not yet implemented.

Earlier, in 1972, the UN Conference on Human Environment was held in Stockholm, Sweden. China attended, and enthusiastically carried through with the country's first National Environmental Protection Conference in Beijing in August 1973. A draft regulation on environmental protection was drawn up and passed. It was regarded as China's first administrative regulation on environmental issues after the People's Republic of China was founded in 1949.

From 1973 to 1977, the government implemented other pertinent regulations to control industrial wastewater, solid waste and noxious waste generated from gas. Laws focused on eliminating chimney soot. Regulations for timber cutting and illegal wildlife trafficking, as well as offshore pollution, radioactive waste and rules to ensure the purity of drinking water were all passed. The Bohai Sea and the Yellow Sea had their waters officially monitored as well.

In March 1978 environmental issues entered the Constitution of the People's Republic of China via the National People's Congress. By the end of 1978 the Constitution had added the following writ: "The State protects and improves the living and ecological environments, and prevents and remedies pollution and other public hazards from affecting the environment. The State ensures the rational use of natural resources and protects rare animals and plants. The misappropriation or damage of natural resources by any organization or individual by whatever means is prohibited."

Unfortunately, Communist China has a rather poor history of preserving and protecting the environment. (Mao, like Stalin, was notoriously known for his attitude of conquering and subduing nature.) Consequently, China experienced natural disasters from 1959 to 1961; the environmentally oblivious Great Leap Forward (1958-1959) didn't help things either, and the horrific "Cultural Revolution" all placed heavy human suffering and environmental burdens on the Chinese people and their land. Despite new fancy sounding laws current economic development has not slowed this negative trend.

Even though the environmental law implemented in the late 70's defines the fundamental need for coordinated development between economic development, social progress and environmental protection, and defines the rights and duties of governments at all levels, all units and individuals with regards to environmental protection, it has not been strong enough to implement positive actions. Over 600 other laws have been passed since then - laws on water pollution, air pollution, solid waste, marine environment, forestry, grasslands, fisheries, wild animals and agriculture. But growth and greed fuel social stability, holding the jobs for the powers that be. Simply stated, ecological principals and tree huggers have no politically redeeming qualities.

China, a global success regarding economic growth, with continual double-digital GDP growth for decades, is a global disaster regarding the environment. Water pollution, toxic spills, unregulated factory wastes – these problems are so common that no one raises an eyebrow when yet another story appears. The ubiquitous "guan xi" system – the network of interconnected relationships between people in government, business and personal relationships, has engendered vast corruption that generates massive profits for those inside the network. Businessmen greasing palms among friends in high places spurs economic growth while ruining the ecology. By ignoring expensive regulations profits remain at all time highs: environmental issues simply cost too much and among friends they can be ignored, just like taxes, bribes, and other silly things. A horde of rapacious entrepreneurs is in league with powerful bureaucrats and they're all focused on short-term profits rather than long-term sustainability.

The Chinese government, like any other bureaucracy, recognizes this. Experts have been blaming and re-evaluating capitalist models, and, in 2006, a plan was made. China's 11th Five Year Plan set ambitious energy conservation and environmentally friendly goals, cutting energy consumption per unit of gross domestic products (GDP) by 20 percent, and reducing sulphur dioxide emissions and chemical oxygen demands by 10 percent from 2006 to 2010. This Plan was gussied up and reiterated in 2008 during the annual Party Congress.

Whether the authorities can manage to maintain the blistering economic growth while guaranteeing green businesses and lifestyles looks pretty dim to me, sitting on the top floor of my government office building and watching another smoggy sandstorm hit Beijing. Like toothless old dogs, these laws are very broad and very weak; although finely worded they encourage rather than require businesses to regulate pollution and implement pro-environmental practices. Moreover, the country's "old boys network" has not disappeared; in fact, the rich are getting richer at an amazing rate while global resources are becoming scarcer.

My gut says: 'save the planet real-time' is running out. Unless China passes and enforces laws that carry ecological clout the nation will continue business as usual, spewing out toxic wastes, dirty water, and hazardous substances - until the tipping point has passed and everybody, rich or poor, Chinese or Western, dies as a result of some kind of environmental degradation. And finally, I find China's Olympic motto: "One World, One Dream" rather offensive. If anyone ever asked me my choice would be something more ecologically friendly and culturally accommodating: "Green World, Many Dreams."

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Emanuel Paparella2008-06-01 19:06:30
Quite perplexing indeed. A country that is still politically driven by a Marxist (and Western) ideology proclaiming distributive justice has ended up embracing a sort of backward kind of capitalism which, while increasing its overall wealth and material prosperity, remains generally contemptuous of justice toward the environment and irresponsive to the original spiritual heritages of its people (remember Tibet?) and free speech; in effect it is now ferociously competing with Western capitalistic countries for mere materialistic economic goals at the expense of spiritual goals. Like them, it may ultimately be building upon sand. The ironies of history!

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