The Middle Kingdom’s dilemma (part one)

Can China clean up its environment without cleaning up its politics? The government wants civil society’s help and has created an opening for green groups. Still, reports Christina Larson, activists and scientists are on unpredictable ground.

In January 2007, a geologist named Yong Yang set out from his home in China’s western Sichuan province with five researchers, two sport utility vehicles (SUVs), one set of clothes, several trunks of equipment for measuring rainfall and water volume, a camping stove, a rice cooker, canned meat, more than 60 bottles of Sichuan hot sauce, a digital camera, a deck of cards, several compact discs of Tibetan music, and as many canisters of fuel as his team could strap to the roofs of their SUVs.

No roads cross the part of China to which Yong was traveling, so he also brought topographical charts and satellite photos of the region. His final destination, deep in China’s wild western frontier, was the unmarked place on the Tibetan plateau from which the Yangtze River springs.

For several weeks, the two vehicles followed the Yangtze west, as the river turned from running water to ice. The thermometer became useless when the temperature dipped below the lowest reading on its scale. Occasionally they spotted an antelope, and once wolves devoured their fresh yak meat. As they climbed in elevation, tracing the course the Yangtze had cut through the Dangla Mountains many millennia ago, the air grew thinner and the wind fiercer. When the ground rose too steeply into the surrounding peaks for the SUVs to maneuver along the riverbanks, they drove on the frozen river itself, though this approach was not without its perils.

About a month into their trip, on the auspicious first day of the Lunar New Year, Yong heard a great crunching sound as his front and then back tires slid through the ice, trapping his vehicle midstream. Fortunately, the vehicle wasn’t too far submerged, and the backseat passengers managed to clamber out and signal to the second SUV. With a rope tied to the rear bumper, they dragged the vehicle from the frozen river, with Yong still in the driver’s seat, transmission in reverse.

Yong, who is 48, and his companions made it safely out of the river. But since then he’s continued to travel, in many senses, on thin ice. A vital question had propelled his journey up the Yangtze: the Chinese government is embarking on the most colossal water-diversion project ever attempted, and Yong had taken it upon himself to discover whether it would work.

Water is an unevenly distributed resource in China. Traditionally, the south has been lush while the north has been a land of dry tundra and frozen desert. In 1952, the Chinese leader Mao Zedong conjured a solution to this inequity: “Southern water is plentiful, northern water scarce,” he said. “Borrowing some water would be good.” Ever since, China’s leaders have dreamed of diverting water from one of the country’s great rivers to the other—from the southern Yangtze River into the northern Yellow River. (To fathom the scale of this undertaking, imagine watering the southwestern United States by diverting the Mississippi River into the Colorado River.)

In recent years, the scheme has become increasingly appealing to Chinese authorities, as water shortages in northern cities have become more and more dire. In 2002, China’s highest executive body, the State Council, converted Mao’s grandiose notion into a plan known as the South-to-North Water Transfer Project.

Construction on two sections of the project has already begun, but the most ambitious stage is scheduled to begin by 2010. This phase will divert water from the Yangtze in southwestern China to the north, across mountains that rise to about 4,575 metres above sea level. The entire project will cost at least an estimated US$60.4 billion, and has aroused intense opposition because it is expected to displace hundreds of thousands of people and devastate fragile ecosystems.

Between January and March of last year, Yong’s team traveled more than 25,750 kilometres in the Yangtze River basin, threading every bend in the western reaches of the river. The previous summer they had driven roughly the same route, so they could compare water levels in different seasons. On both trips they collected data on rainfall, geology, receding glaciers and other trends that affect the volume of water in the river. Yong had learned from firsthand experience that for about four months each year the upper Yangtze is a ribbon of ice; only an engineering miracle could transport the frozen water north.

After he spent the summer and autumn compiling data and circulating it among several dozen peer-researchers for feedback, he found more reasons to be sceptical of the ability of the project to live up to the government’s vision. The bounteous stream of Beijing’s imagination became, in Yong’s careful calculations, a trickle.

The fact that Yong is free to conduct such inquiries at all says much about the recent political evolution of China. Fifteen years ago, the government wouldn’t have tolerated public questioning of large-scale infrastructure projects. But in recent years, criticism from independent scientists and environmental organisations has prompted the government to postpone two planned western dam projects. In September 2007, officials even acknowledged that unsound planning for the controversial Three Gorges Dam project had created a potential environmental “catastrophe”.

China’s leaders know that a rapidly deteriorating environment could stall the country’s economic miracle and ignite political unrest, and so they’re experimenting with limited openness to help avert these hazards. It remains an open question, however, just how much impact Yong will be permitted to have. His midwinter expedition was only the first stage of his odyssey into uncharted terrain.

On my first visit to Beijing, in spring 2007, I wheezed all the way from the airport to my hotel. The thick smog hid any hint of direct sunlight, and for a week I didn’t see my shadow. When I returned in mid-October, the city appeared to be a changed place. I was surprised to see clear blue skies. Skyscrapers were visible from a distance, not shrouded in haze. There were other changes, too—swept sidewalks, a sudden absence of bootleg DVD hawkers, more policemen on the streets.

A week later, the city looked, sounded and smelled like its familiar self again. The street vendors were back, along with the kerbside cobblers and the men waving Bourne Identity 3 DVDs. The skies were gray, the sun obscured, and cigarette butts and orange peels once again speckled the sidewalks.

The temporary makeover had coincided—not accidentally—with the Seventeenth National Congress of China’s Communist Party, the meeting of party leaders that happens once every five years and attracts numerous domestic and international visitors. During the congress, the central government — eager to punctuate its new talk of environmental protection with some proof of its commitment — had directed its might toward cleaning up a targeted area for a discrete period of time, reportedly putting regional factories and Beijing’s public vehicles on a compulsory holiday.

The results were eerily impressive. (Expect an encore for the 2008 Summer Olympic Games.) But the greater significance of this fleeting transformation was that it exposed the limits of the party’s power. The central government can clamp down abruptly and indomitably, but it can’t do so everywhere, all the time.

As I wrote in the Washington Monthly last summer (see “The Great Leap Forward”), China’s political leaders have embraced the environmental cause in recent years, not out of sentiment or idealism, but as a matter of survival. China’s environment is becoming so degraded that it risks choking off the country’s booming economy: western nations baulk at buying mercury-contaminated grain, while water shortages threaten Chinese paper mills and petrochemical plants.

Also at risk is the country’s political stability: “mass incidents” triggered by land seizures and polluted rivers are becoming increasingly common (see “Pollution Revolution”). But while the central government has issued stern directives aimed at reducing air and water pollution, it lacks the means to enforce them. That’s because, in order to promote economic growth over the last three decades, Beijing has gradually relinquished certain types of authority to provincial governments.

The result has been dramatic gains in the country’s gross domestic product (GDP), with new factories multiplying across the countryside. However, provincial autonomy also has enabled local officials to ignore cumbersome central directives, including regulations on matters ranging from food safety to environmental standards.

Understanding their diminished ability to enforce green statutes locally, China’s leaders have turned cautiously to civil society for assistance. Since 1994, Beijing has empowered nongovernmental groups to expose polluting factories. Today there are more than 3,000 citizen green groups in China. In 2003 and 2004, the government enacted laws requiring environmental impact assessments and citizen input on major public works projects. (These measures took effect shortly after construction commenced on the first two phases of the water transfer project.)

In 2005, China’s first national public hearing—over the fate of the Old Summer Palace—was broadcast on national television. Progressive environmental officials are introducing the concepts of “public participation,” “hearings” and “rights” to the public. Environmental lawyers are litigating China’s first successful class-action lawsuits. Compared to a decade ago, the situation is remarkable.

Still, there are limits to the government’s spirit of reform, and perhaps some in the party feel they’ve been moving too fast. The government does want citizen groups to help combat pollution, and it has created an opening for them to do so. But political power in China is still wielded behind closed doors, and that opening can constrict without warning when an activist crosses the agenda of an influential official. It is within this unpredictable sphere that Yong Yang is attempting to operate.

Next: Epic consequences ahead

Christina Larson is an editor of the Washington Monthly.

Reproduced with permission from the Washington Monthly.

Copyright © 2008 The Washington Monthly