Book review: China's Environmental Challenges by Judith Shapiro

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 03 December, 2012, 6:37pm

China's Environmental Challenges
by Judith Shapiro
Polity Press

This is a well researched and balanced book about one of the great issues of our time - what the world's second-largest economy and biggest emitter of carbon dioxide is doing to its environment and that of the world.

The answer is complex and contradictory, with responsibility lying with those abroad who consume goods made in China as well as with the government and people of the country.

Judith Shapiro, an American, is well qualified to write the book. She first came to China in 1979, the year her government established diplomatic relations. She has written two other books on the mainland. An academic, she teaches in the Global Environmental Politics programme at American University in Washington, DC.

She finds much to praise. "China is doing much more on climate change than it is required to do under international law and during 2011 negotiations in Durban took a pro-active and constructive position to pressure developed countries to do more."

But there is a wide gap between the good intentions and well-written legislation of Beijing and implementation in cities and towns which put GDP growth above every other goal.

An academic study found 459 "cancer villages" - poor farming communities where highly polluting industries are concentrated. In Huangmengying in Henan province, out of a population of 2,400, 118 died between 1994 and 2004, half of cancer; 80 per cent of young people are constantly ill.

Legal redress is difficult, especially in courts controlled by local governments which want the jobs and revenue from polluting factories.

Environmental NGOs have grown rapidly, led by Friends of Nature; it was founded by Liang Congjie, grandson of Qing reformer Liang Chi-chao and pioneer of environmentalism in China. He died in 2010. Other remarkable individuals have continued his work, such as Ma Jun, who wrote China's Water Crisis on pollution in the Yellow River.

Citizen protest has grown, with examples of successful cancellations of polluting factories in Xiamen, Dalian and, most recently, Ningbo.

The saddest stories concern Inner Mongolia and Tibet, where Beijing has confused civil efforts to protect the environment with protests against its rule and plans to colonise both regions with Han settlers. Tibetans do not mine, for religious reasons. But Beijing wants to exploit the 126 minerals found there. A hydropower station at Yamdrok Yumtso, a holy lake believed to contain the spirit of Tibet, is guarded by 1,500 PLA soldiers. Its dam will provide electricity for Lhasa which is becoming a Han city.

The South-North Water Transfer Project, a highly controversial and technically difficult engineering feat, will have major ecological impacts on the Tibetan plateau and rivers such as the Mekong and Salween that drain into Southeast Asia.