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China’s Belated Spring Cleaning

China’s Belated Spring Cleaning

Historically, Chinese reform has been a byproduct of constraint. As James Kynge wrote in his book “China Shakes the World”, the country’s initial openness towards capitalism did not stem from a well-orchestrated strategy, but as a means to combat high unemployment and a payments crisis brought about by excessive spending in an attempt to jumpstart China’s manufacturing industry. Funding for the $12 billion investment was expected to be generated through an ambitious project – drilling in search of oil deposits – yet results were meager at best. As a result, part of the expenditure was postponed, yet the money already spent left behind a significant deficit.

In order to avert a full-blown crisis, Deng Xiaoping was forced to implement a radical strategy: farmers were allowed to work the land in smaller groups, while leniency was shown towards companies that were not exactly socialist and state-owned upon closer inspection. Productivity rose (crop output grew by roughly a quarter in 6 years) and there was less pressure on the state to provide jobs to a numerous population. The blind eye towards rule-bending allowed the inclusion in the workforce, through minor business ownership, of people who were unable to get a job as a consequence of their poor academic records.

More recent endeavors are no exception – the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, recently repealed a provision barring presidential tenures longer than two terms and is now expected to openly exercise lifelong rule over China. Following the dissolution of presidential term limits, he has set in motion a series of measures meant to strengthen his position at the helm of the country, or at least to reduce dissatisfaction in areas of concern to the general public, as a means to prevent the erosion of the population’s support. The Chinese leader seeks to tackle environmental pollution, financial misappropriation and corruption. 

The burden of pollution 

With regard to the former of the three, the literature is exhaustive: China is unquestionably notorious for its disregard for the environment, its economic expansion coming at the expense of air quality and water contamination, a cost which China willingly shouldered as a form of increasing its considerable cost advantage. The Economist quoted German scientists at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research stating that 90% of plastic waste contaminating oceans were carried through ten rivers, eight of which were in Asia, the remaining two in Africa, while the Yangtze River was singled out as dispersing 1.5 million tons of plastic debris a year.

The Chinese leader seeks to tackle environmental pollution, financial misappropriation and corruption.

According to the New York Times, the Ministry of Environmental Protection will be replaced by the Ministry of Ecological Environment, a body having a more extensive mandate, responsible with ensuring the control of greenhouse gas emissions and the protection of water ways. The change is perceived as welcome, given the bureaucracy of the former institution, derived from a poor division of tasks, which were frequently assigned to multiple structures in the Ministry.

In addition, urban planning, land use, as well as rights to water, grassland and forests will be managed by a new body, the Ministry of Natural Resources. Discontent is pervasive in this particular area, when considering tensions between farmers and developers. Natural resources have been mismanaged to the extent where their exploitation endangers human life. James Kynge recalls in “China Shakes the World” visiting the Anyuan coal mine – the birthplace of Mao Zedong’s revolutionary fervor. Having depleted the resources of the mine, it was derelict, yet its exploitation had left severe consequences on the landscape: “Large urban precincts had begun to sink into the disused pits and mineshafts that had provided the town with its livelihood for a century. In some areas, the thin slivers of land that had concealed gaping subterranean holes had suddenly given way, causing the buildings they had supported to tumble into them. In other areas, schools, hospitals and houses were slowly and unevenly subsiding into the earth like ships listing at anchor.”

Natural resources have been mismanaged to the extent where their exploitation endangers human life.

The reform is not without fault. In an attempt to reduce its use of coal, China has restricted by decree its use in heating. Armed with coercion methods such as fines or other retributions and driven by quantitative objectives established by Beijing, officials in the North China province Shanxi have forced the local population to replace coal stoves with gas furnaces, a greener, yet significantly more expensive alternative. Reporting by The New York Times revealed that some locals were distraught to learn that the gas would cost them up to 60% of their wages, while others ended up shivering in the cold due to excessive zeal that led some officials to remove the old heating equipment before the gas furnaces could be installed. Even those who could afford heating their homes with gas and had received the new furnace before the cold hit the region ended up suffering, due to an insufficient supply of gas which also raised prices further. Authorities were forced to decriminalize the use of coal until a solution could be found. 

On the agenda 

Despite these setbacks, support for environmental improvement is high. Kynge wrote about pollution having permeated every aspect of the Chinese people’s lives: food is contaminated, new diseases arise, air pollution gives way to respiratory issues, waterways dry out. Nevertheless, for an economy as large as China’s, such decisions can become significant externalities for other countries. On January 1st, 2018, China stopped the import of 24 types of waste, most notably plastic, which is now accumulating in the exporting countries’ ports. Limited recycling capacity in the West means that the plastic may take the way of landfills until a solution is found – the processing capacity of China is unparalleled at this point in time, leaving Western companies scrambling for an alternative. However, the Asian Tiger is far from becoming self-sufficient in its domestic plastic industry, according to The Financial Times. The publication cites the CSPA in claiming that “domestic waste comprises only a quarter of recycled inputs to China’s domestic plastic industry, meaning companies will face a shortfall in supply, potentially pushing up prices. […] As a result China’s larger recycling companies are in the process of moving production to Southeast Asia”.

On January 1st, 2018, China stopped the import of 24 types of waste, most notably plastic, which is now accumulating in the exporting countries’ ports.

Critics highlight the fact that quantitative targets have been decided upon without a preliminary impact assessment and thus policies may be misdirected. The undertakings do not entail the regulation of the widespread use of ammonia-based fertilizers that may be responsible for up to 20% of the smog China is aiming to reduce, and harmful particle emissions are to be decreased to seemingly arbitrary levels. Like homes in Shanxi, small business are falling under the incidence of regulators who crackdown on minor business that generate dismal levels of emissions. While it is unclear what the economic impact of the measures will be, the apparent success story of Beijing’s pollution reduction is encouraging and hope exists for cleaner growth across the country, so long as it is not achieved by simply moving the sources of pollution around.



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