The Middle Kingdom’s dilemma (part two)

In China today, environmental advocacy is perceived differently by the government and the public – and it fluctuates with the political tides. Christina Larson reports.

[Reproduced with permission from the Washington Monthly]

Last October, I spoke with geologist Yong Yang, in Beijing. We first met last spring in western Sichuan province. He had thick black hair and hadn’t shaved for a day or two. He was dressed in a black jacket, a gray sweater, and black jeans. Despite his rugged appearance and the adventurous nature of his research, his eyes seemed more sad than rebellious. “I am not against the government,” he explained, snuffing out what was likely his sixth or seventh cigarette of the evening. “What I want is to get the facts.”

In Yong’s hotel room, we hunched over his laptop computer to look at slides from his trip in early 2007. [For several weeks, he and five researchers had followed the Yangtze River west – as it turned from running water to ice — to the unmarked place on the Tibetan plateau from which the river springs.] There were photos of his SUV crashing through the ice; of someone pouring hot water from a tea kettle to defrost the engine’s water tank; of Tibetan herders who offered Yong and his colleagues meat and milk along the way.

Then Yong opened up a spreadsheet. On one side was a series of estimates, based on Yong’s research, of the volume of water in the Yangtze. On the other side were the official estimates prepared by the Chinese government’s Yellow River Conservancy Commission (YRCC). The government data was supposed to be secret, but Yong had obtained it from a network of friends and former colleagues inside the government.

Yong found that the official figures were often “way off”. In one section of the river, the government’s plans call for diverting between eight billion and nine billion cubic metres of water north each year. However, Yong’s research—supported by 30 years’ worth of reports from hydrology monitoring stations—indicates that the average annual water flow for that section includes a low estimate of seven billion cubic metres.

This means that when the river flow is low, the government would be hoping to divert an amount of water greater than the total volume in the river. Moreover, no sound engineering plan should call for redirecting all of the water in a river, since downstream communities, including Shanghai, will still depend upon the Yangtze for agriculture, industry and hydropower.

Yong is not alone in doubting the feasibility of the final section of the South-to-North Water Transfer Project. More than 50 scientists in Sichuan contributed to a 2006 book, South-to-North Water Transfer Project Western Route Memorandums. The collection of scientific articles and reports raises serious concerns about construction at high altitudes, seismic stability, pollution in the Yangtze, climate change (the river’s volume is expected to diminish as the Tibetan glaciers melt) and the potential for reduced river flow to shut down hundreds of downstream hydropower stations, perhaps inflicting power blackouts on millions of people. According to one former government researcher, there are even critics within the Ministry of Water Resources (MWR).

Why are the official projections so fantastically optimistic? Yong, who once worked as a government scientist in the Ministry of Coal Industry, thinks he has some idea of how the numbers were produced. “The government, they will make a goal,” he explained. “Then their researchers think their job is just to say it works. Everybody will just say the good word, and try to find data to support it,” he said, shrugging. “It’s not a very scientific way of doing research.”

Yong says he has asked the Yellow River Conservancy Commission how they arrived at their figures, but staff members have refused to respond. “They just emphasise that there won’t be much problem,” he said. No matter whose figures are correct, what worries Yong most is that there is no independent system in place to determine whether such a colossal and disruptive undertaking will work.

Yet informed sources say many entrenched interests have a reason to hope that construction proceeds. This bureaucracy has been replicated in affected provinces, creating hundreds of titles and salaries dedicated to moving the project forward. Five state banks have major investments in the plan, and expect loans to be repaid when water user fees are assessed. The two companies with multibillion-dollar contracts to build the early phases of the project are hungry for more. Yet the environmental impact assessment required by the 2003 law has still not been released, and the real deliberative battle over the project remains invisible.

The perennial unreliability of information pervades all aspects of China’s environmental protection system, from water management to pollution control. Dr Zhao Jianping, sector coordinator for energy in the World Bank‘s China Office, for example, told me he was dubious of the government’s ability to achieve its goal of having 15% of China’s energy come from renewable sources by 2020. Having looked at the official plans, he told me that Beijing’s characterisation of the potential of wind energy was somewhat realistic, but the discussion of biomass potential was, in his judgment, wishful thinking.

“In most other countries, you do the analysis first, then set goals,” he said. “In China, you set the goal first, then you do the research and set the policy to try to achieve it.”

Similarly, Yang Fuqiang, vice president of the Energy Foundation, a research center and partnership of major international donors, told me about Beijing’s efforts to stem rising coal consumption. To monitor progress, the central government relies on local cadres to report the number of new mines, but these officials often give faulty estimates—either for lack of accurate information or out of a desire to please Beijing.

“Collecting reliable data is a major challenge,” Yang said. There are no independent watchdogs to verify official statistics, which, unsurprisingly, often turn out to be wrong. In 2003, Beijing went back to review prior estimates of annual coal consumption, and discovered that its estimates for 2000 had failed to account for 50 million tonnes of coal burned—”a rather large oversight,” Yang remarked.

Optimists say that what China needs most is more technical training for its officials: to ensure that regional administrators are better equipped to count coal mines, and local lawyers and judges understand the nuances of new environmental laws. China does need those things. But others are beginning to think that further changes are needed, too.

One person who has helped fund Yong Yang’s research is Dr Yu Xiaogang, founder of the nonprofit organisation Green Watershed. Yu is also the architect of the greatest success story of Chinese environmentalism to date. In 2004, he coordinated opposition to a proposed series of dam projects on China’s last wild river, the Nu. (Activists and scientists presented convincing evidence that the dam would have had a ruinous effect on local communities and ecosystems.) After a sustained campaign, premier Wen Jiabao personally suspended the project, pending a new environmental impact assessment.

When I visited Green Watershed’s offices in western Yunnan province, Yu surprised me when he said that his success was only temporary. “There will always be another dam proposal, another financier,” he explained. He said he wants a reliable process for gathering public and expert input while plans are being drafted, not when the bulldozers are ready to roll.

“What we have got to do,” Yu said, “is change the system.” The veteran environmentalist Wen Bo also told me: “For China’s environment to improve, I think the political system needs to change.”

In the United States, the popular and political momentum for creating our modern environmental apparatus was inspired by the work of a scientist, Rachel Carson, who challenged conventional wisdom and official policies governing the use of pesticides. After the US Congress passed a series of landmark environmental laws in the 1970s, independent environmental lawyers ensured that those statutes were upheld by suing the government when it failed to enforce legislation such as the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act.

When Washington has dragged its feet, independent scientists and reporters have uncovered White House obfuscations and pushed for government action. Every industrialised country – apart from Singapore – that has cleaned up its environment has done so with the help of civil society and a free press.

In countries where the government hasn’t been able to control pollution, environmental crises have sometimes helped spur momentum for broader political change. Two decades ago, many in eastern Europe had grown resigned to life under a repressive government. That changed on April 26, 1986, when a nuclear reactor exploded at the Chernobyl power plant in the Ukraine (in the former Soviet Union), sending vastly more radiation into the air than an atomic bomb.

Downwind, in Poland and Slovenia, uproar over nuclear reactors and official secrecy (the state presses initially refused to report on the disaster) provoked the first mass anti-government demonstrations.

China’s leaders are aware of these historical parallels. David Lampton, the director of the China studies program at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), explained Beijing’s conundrum: “The Chinese are caught between the logic of what they know they need to effectively implement environmental policy, and the fear of whether these groups could become the opening wedge to political liberalisation.”

During my time in China, I often found myself wondering whether Beijing’s experiment could succeed. Can a limited form of public participation help avert environmental ruin?

Perhaps China will, once again, elide the apparent contradictions of its environmental politics in the same way that it has somehow melded capitalism and communism. Or perhaps smoggy cities, dwindling water supplies and peasant protests over pollution will force the party to accept greater political openness. Or perhaps the environmental activists themselves will call for it. Whatever happens, the consequences will be epic. If China continues on its current course, within twenty-five years it will emit twice the carbon dioxide of all the OECD countries combined. The Middle Kingdom’s dilemma is ours, too.

Christina Larson is an editor of the Washington Monthly.

Reproduced with permission from the Washington Monthly.

Copyright © 2008 The Washington Monthly