As China Roars, Pollution Reaches Deadly Extremes
BEIJING, Aug. 25 — No country in history has emerged as a major industrial power without creating a legacy of environmental damage that can take decades and big dollops of public wealth to undo.
But just as the speed and scale of China’s rise as an economic power have no clear parallel in history, so its pollution problem has shattered all precedents. Environmental degradation is now so severe, with such stark domestic and international repercussions, that pollution poses not only a major long-term burden on the Chinese public but also an acute political challenge to the ruling Communist Party. And it is not clear that China can rein in its own economic juggernaut.
Public health is reeling. Pollution has made cancer China’s leading cause of death, the Ministry of Health says. Ambient air pollution alone is blamed for hundreds of thousands of deaths each year. Nearly 500 million people lack access to safe drinking water.
Chinese cities often seem wrapped in a toxic gray shroud. Only 1 percent of the country’s 560 million city dwellers breathe air considered safe by the European Union. Beijing is frantically searching for a magic formula, a meteorological deus ex machina, to clear its skies for the 2008 Olympics.
Beijing will be clear as a bell for the Olympics because China has the political power (and will) to do what is necessary for a fortune-cookie international event. They are not about to be embarrassed by smog. If it takes shutting down Beijing for six weeks ahead of the games, so be it.
Less apparent is what will be done long-term to control a coal-based economy. China has darkened as it produces for export, but its wealth will spur internal markets and the environmental problems associated with that are far more politically sensitive to solve.
May you live in interesting times is a Chinese saying and they seem about to live them.