The Coal Monster: Pollution Forces Chinese Leaders to Act


The burden of their projects is overwhelming. The new leadership wants to transform China from a primarily agrarian and industrial country into a high-tech and service nation. At the same time, it intends to boost affluence and promote urbanization in order to come to grips with the country's wealth disparity and population growth. If they achieve all of these goals, Xi and Li will leave behind a different China.

The challenge and the need to break with the past are especially evident in environmental policy. About 750,000 people die as a result of air pollution in China each year. Many of the country's rivers are so polluted that authorities do not permit residents to even touch the water, not to mention use it to irrigate fields.

Fruit and grain grown in the country's contaminated and over-fertilized soil contains massive amounts of pollutants. They also unsettle consumers in the West, who now import a large share of their tomatoes, apples and other food products from China.

Xi and Li now seem to have recognized just how serious this problem is. For months, they have invoked China's "beautiful environment," a phrase Xi used in his inaugural speech in November. "We must act," says Li -- and he clearly means it. Indeed, China's environmental policy has developed into a question of national security -- not because the government is particularly farsighted, but because its power is on the line.

The success or failure of Beijing's new leadership will likely have a ripple effect well beyond China's borders. "If Xi's dream for China's emerging middle class -- 300 million people expected to grow to 800 million by 2025 -- is just like the American Dream (a big car, a big house and Big Macs for all) then we need another planet," New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote in October 2012.

Poisonous Policies

China has become the world's largest CO2 polluter, emitting close to 10 billion metric tons of the greenhouse gas each year. The environment crisis is no longer a Chinese tragedy; it's a global fiasco.

"I hope the day will come when all you can see from Tiananmen Gate is a forest of tall chimneys belching out clouds of smoke," Mao Zedong said in 1949, as he gazed out at Tiananmen Square. Mao subscribed to a simple image of humanity and nature and, as with everything in his life, he was ruthless in putting it into practice. Between 1958 and 1961, he had millions of small blast furnaces built to press ahead with Chinese steel production.

The project was accompanied by the "Four Pests Campaign," in which the Chinese -- from 5-year-olds to the elderly -- were told to destroy rats, mosquitoes, flies and sparrows, which were allegedly harming the young People's Republic by eating grain seeds.

To kill the birds, citizens kept flushing them out until they fell from the sky in exhaustion. But then people died, perhaps in even greater numbers. Some 30 to 45 million perished in a famine, which was partly triggered by insects that would otherwise have been consumed by sparrows.

Mao's successor, the reformer Deng Xiaoping, broke with China's planned economy. He gave the leaders of individual provinces the authority they needed to develop their regions on their own. But what proved to be a blessing for the economy became an assault on China's natural environment.

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