Chinese Environmentalism: Prestige Over People?

Why China needs democracy to consolidate its environmental gains.


In the Western imagination, China is as much an environmental basket case as it is an economic miracle. Its prosperity, we are told in one account after another, has been purchased by a wholesale destruction of its air, rivers, and forests. Hence, during my first visit there—a 12-day trip ending this month—I was expecting a filthy, Dickensian nightmare—the kind that existed in 19th-century industrializing England, and that still exists in the urban slums of India, my native country.

Imagine my surprise then when I found nothing of the sort. To be sure, I was on something of a luxury trip for journalists, carefully choreographed by the China-U.S. Exchange Foundation. My experiences were hardly representative of what ordinary Chinese encounter, especially in the rural areas of Western and Central China where I did not go. But I traveled to four cities, some by (high-speed) rail. And unless somehow someone managed to prettify vast swaths of the countryside for our benefit, I couldn't help but think that, by any properly historically calibrated yardstick, the real story in China is not of environmental degredation, but of environmental progress.

Still, China does have an environmental problem. But it stems from its moribund political system—not its growing economy.

The worst pollution I encountered, apart from sporadic piles of rubbish in heavy-construction towns we passed on our train journeys, was some morning smog in Yiwu—a 2 million-strong "fourth tier" city south of Shanghai that is the commodities hub of the country. Meanwhile, Dalian, a lovely coastal town of 6 million north of Shanghai, is a ranking tourist destination in no small part due to its blue skies and clean air that the city seems dedicated to maintaining. Shanghai, with an elegant new skyline and balletic freeways that surpass even most First World cities, itself is far from environmentally shabby.

But the city that wins the prize for the most dramatic environmental transformation is Beijing. Some of my fellow journalists noted that during previous visits, they had to beat back the urge to don a face-mask before venturing outdoors. But this time the city's legendary smog was barely visible.

None of this should come as a huge surprise, although it is contrary to the thinking of Western environmentalists for whom economic growth equals environmental havoc. The reality is that, as economies advance, their environment naturally improves. Rising productivity reflects an ability to extract more from less, something that automatically leads to resource optimization.

Indeed, thanks to technological advances and rising energy efficiency, China at the turn of this decade had three times better resource utilization than in 1978. This is not to deny that modernization and growth can generate new forms of pollution. But these are less injurious that the old. And as people get wealthier, they invest more in environmental improvements—trees, pollution-control technologies, more expensive but cleaner-burning fuels. It is no coincidence that richer economies are also by and large cleaner—and that as China's economy gets richer it also gets cleaner.

But the problem is that authoritarian governments have a well-known tendency to pursue status and legitimacy through massive public building projects. They build grand monuments, skyscrapers, or space programs. China does all of this but has added something new to the annals of autocracy: showy environmental projects. Call it prestige environmentalism. Beijing's remarkable metamorphosis is the clearest example of that.

This kind of environmentalism has major dangers. For starters, there is no upper limit to the ambition of an elite unencumbered by cost-benefit considerations. The official price tag for the Beijing Olympics was $44 billion—the highest in the history of the Games—three times greater than what Athens spent for the 2004 Olympics and twice what London plans to spend on the 2012 Olympics.

England has already declared it cannot justify to its taxpayers during hard economic times anything on the grand scale of China's investment. Likewise, China has pumped in somewhere between $45 billion and $80 billion for the current world's fair, the Shanghai Expo, while the U.S. couldn't even get Congress to authorize $60 million for its truly pathetic—or, as one of our Chinese hosts euphemistically put it, "simple"—pavilion.

But the bigger danger of prestige environmentalism, Chinese-style, is that it favors visible, important areas that help showcase the country over the invisible, unimportant ones that don't, thereby distorting the allocation of environmental resources from where they are most needed to where they draw the most attention. Authorities reportedly diverted 80 billion gallons of water—equal to the annual consumption of Tucson, Arizona—to Beijing for the Games from nearby provinces, some of which had to reportedly shut down factories and stop farming. This is remarkable for a country in which some areas face chronic water shortages and lack access to clean drinking water.

Likewise, to deliver on promised air pollution targets for the Games, China employed resources that might have been better used to, say, build sewers in rural areas. Instead it engaged in a massive beautification program for Beijing—planting millions of trees, not to mention mounds and mounds of gorgeous roses—to stop the wind that brings dust and pollution from the plains. It also went after polluting factories and power plants, the main cause of Beijing's bad air. But no one in China really could tell us what exactly happened to those factories. Some said they had been permanently shut down, others said they were relocated. If they were relocated, does it mean they are polluting elsewhere? And shutting them down couldn't have been good for the workers if they had to return to their villages, where they would be exposed to far worse traditional forms of pollution, such as poor sanitation and bad indoor air from burning coal and wood.

Chinese leaders insist that they want a "market economy with Chinese characteristics" that delivers better living standards to all—not just a few. But the Beijing Olympics shows that this is not easy to do in the absence of a democracy, even when well-meaning elites, who say many of the right things, are in the rulers' seats. That's because elites by their very nature are divorced from the real life concerns of ordinary people. In the West, there is an institutional check on their ambition; their agenda is only one among many that a democratic polity, where ordinary folks can assert themselves politically, has to balance.

Indeed, there is not a single city in the West that could have pulled off Beijing's extreme environmental makeover, no matter how badly an environmental elite wanted it—one reason why its members such as Thomas Friedman have now openly started admiring Chinese authoritarianism.

If China wants to articulate its own environmentalism, it ought to accept not the goals and assessments of the Western environmental movement, which itself is not always in touch with reality and has little appreciation for risk trade-off, but something else that's Western: democracy. Only when its economic liberalization is followed by political liberalization will China be able to articulate an environmental agenda with a pace and path in sync with the core needs of its people. This agenda might not earn it rave reviews on the world stage. But it will be more authentic—and useful.

Shikha Dalmia is a senior analyst at Reason Foundation and a biweekly columnist at Forbes. This column originally appeared at Forbes.

NEXT: Kane!

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  1. How could a country full of Maobamas ever have an environmental problem?

    1. “Once again the animals were conscious of a vague uneasiness. Never to have any dealings with human beings, never to engage in trade, never to make use of money? had not these been among the earliest resolutions passed at the first triumphant Meeting when Jones was expelled?”

  2. Contrary to the thinking of Western environmentalists for whom economic growth equals environmental havoc, the reality is that as China’s economy advances, its environment will naturally improves.

    Uh, bad timing for this article.



      1. I really think that people are starting to oversell the “catastrophe” in the gulf. It already looks like BP will be paying for the cleanup, plus paying damages to economic victims at a cost of below 10 billion dollars. Even if BP had to take out a 15 billion dollar loan to take care of every victim and every dollar of environmental damage they could shrug it off. However, a natural disaster such as Hurricane Katrina cost the government, civilians, and insurance companies hundreds of billions of dollars. There is nothing you can’t do this friday because of the BP oil spill, and even if you are one of the few that this spill will be effecting, you’ll probably be cut a check.

        1. They won’t come close to paying for the full costs they have inflicted upon us. For example, how much of the presidents time have they wasted. What is the going rate for such executive consulting? A million per hour is probably about right. Has Obama billed them yet? The governments involved should bill every hour any government employee spends on this mess to BP, with a fat premium attached. Same for any non-profits down there. What is the going rate for an expert on removing oil from near-dead birds? Markets should be rewarding such unique skills…I would say these people should be billing just like lawyers.

          Of course, every business that was negatively affected needs to be compensated. How much business did the travel agent in Alaska lose when one of his potential customers decided not to book a trip? Oh, wait…we can’t count all these pinhead angels, now can we?

          BP will never pay for more than a fraction of the damage it caused.

          1. The rest of the country should be paying BP for distracting the president; ditto for any bureaucrat that is kept from their solitaire games and porn-surfing.

  3. Speaking of Mao:

    The New York Times’ obituary Saturday for Manhattan Project physicist turned Maoist Joan Hinton, by William Grimes, left out her Maoist beliefs…. And the obituary itself completely omitted the deadly nature of Mao Zedong’s totalitarian regime. In 1948, alarmed at the emerging cold war, she gave up physics and left the United States for China….”I did not want to spend my life figuring out how to kill people,” she told National Public Radio in 2002….She and her husband remained true believers in the Maoist cause. “It would have been terrific if Mao had lived,” Ms. Hinton told The Weekend Australian in 2008 during a trip to Japan. “Of course I was 100 percent behind everything that happened in the Cultural Revolution — it was a terrific experience.”

    1. I was, like, totally behind slanty-eyed Stalin all the way!

    2. Poor poor Joan, she worked for decades trying to get China’s then state owned dairy industry to improve quality by diktat and appeal to patriotism to no avail, then bitched like crazy that when Kraft came in to produce yogurt that all the farmer’s were clamoring to improve quality and to meet their standards. Totally upset her whole world view (ok, no nasty comments about melamine here).

      1. A true humanitarian. Right up there with Mother Teresa.

  4. “Contrary to the thinking of Western environmentalists for whom economic growth equals environmental havoc, the reality is that as China’s economy advances, its environment will naturally improves.”

    Let us hope your grammar parallels that improvement.

  5. Every inch forward China makes is a repudiation of everything everyone here believes.

    Even if the progress can be shown to be via capitalistic processes, that just forces the question: if capitalism can defy nominal communism in China, are you gonna try to tell me it can’t break through the iron fist of healthcare reform or environmental regulation in the US?

    Entrepreneurship should be able to handle changes in the environment such as these, especially if it can handle one-party rule in a communist state, don’t you think?

    1. Every inch forward China makes is a repudiation of everything everyone here believes.

      No, not really. Show me where anyone here claimed that growth is not possible in oppressive environments.

      1. Mostly the claim is that growth is depressed by taxing billionaires a few extra pennies.

        1. Depressed growth is not the same as zero growth.

        2. If you start at really, really poor due to repressive policies, then ease up a bit on the repression and improve to just really poor, then yes, you can have rapid growth in a repressive regime.

          But the growth is NOT due to the repression, but to the easing of it.

        3. Mostly the claim is that growth is depressed by taxing billionaires a few extra pennies million.

          I’ve never really liked you, Tony.

    2. If Tony had a brain, he’d take it out and play with it.

    3. As a 15 year resident of Beijing and a die hard libertarian, I get to see a lot of ironies, and I get to see where individual efforts succeed and top down planning fail very vividly. One thing I love is the vital chaos that is China today. And I agree with Tony’s point that entrepreneurship and capitalism can break through all the top down regulation.

      Beijing is still a lot more polluted than Shikha makes it out to be (she must have visited when the winds are favorable). The nature of the pollution has changed tremendously and is now primarily due to vehicle emissions combined with construction dust rather than coal as in the past. The Clean Tech investment boom here reminds me too much of the crazy dot com boom days, but having said that…I am sure there will be some positive outcomes.

      1. I just spent a few days in Beijing and had a sore throat the entire time from the dirty air. I went to Shenyang after that and had no problems. I don’t think the air was much cleaner there though; I had probably just adjusted to it.

        1. It could have been the dirty air, or could have been something you caught on the airplane coming over. I wouldn’t know as I guess I have adjusted and am a smoker to boot. Shenyang is less polluted now due to rust belt factors (old industries being shut down), but in general is considered to be more polluted than Beijing. Weather is a big factor everywhere when it comes to the amount of air pollution one experiences on any given day.

      2. I thought a lot of the problems in Beijing stemmed from screwing up the surrounding countryside, enlarging desert areas, and increasing sandstorms.

        1. That is part of it for sure Astropud, and while it is not widely known, this actually started with the end of the Qing dynasty when Chinese farmers were allowed to migrate into pastoral grasslands and in their arrogance towards the pastoral types managed to burn out the soil. Mao’s policies during the Great Leap Forward didn’t help much either. Desertification is a major problem throughout northwestern China and Beijing is actually semi-arid and really shouldn’t be supporting the large population that exists here.

          China’s places tremendous faith in engineers and the govt. is made up of them (unlike the US where is it primarily lawyers). The nature of both professions are inclined to a belief in the power of man and ideas over nature.

    4. You are aware, fool, that the Chinese have about a 1,500 year head start on every other modern civilization? They were making paper and reading and writing while Europeans were squatting in mud huts wearing goatskins.

      The fact that they could totally blow that massive head start, and be seen as catching up Real Soon Now(TM) to a country founded from their point of view a mere eyeblink ago tells you all you need to know about the glorious “successes” of communism.

      Well, the imploding population, life expectancy, and national income aside from oil of Russia would tell that story, too. Er…and the failure of Afrosocialism. Venezuela.

      But what’s somewhat charming about folks with your delusion is how unaffected they are by any amount of grotesque if not bloody failure. No problem! Like Annie, they sing There’s Always Tomorrow! and a chance to Do It Right This (Roughly The Eleven Billionth Since The Crusades) Time.

      If only you could bottle that impermeable optimism. I would sell better than crack, the effects of which it actually mimics in some sense.

      1. um… was anybody here promoting communism? or central planning? or statism? or are you just singing your cliches to yourself? Does Tony have a history here? cuz I don’t see where he was supporting communism in what he wrote. He was pointing out that Capitalism and Entrepreneurism can work to improve people’s lots even in a “nominally” communist one party state, and I agree with him wholeheartedly. It is more in spite of than as a result of whatever fools are running the government.

        Communism, socialism, progressivism etc. in my book is very evil, but it also wasn’t the only source of China’s falling behind if such a thing can even be measured! You might want to start with reading a bit of Chinese history and even better yet, history of Chinese science. To begin to understand that, read all nine volumes of Joseph Needham’s Science & Civilization in China which tried to grapple with what happened.

        1. Tony is a hardcore statist troll. With a long annoying history.

          1. ah.. no wonder…

        2. “Does Tony have a history here?”

          Yes, a long one. He is the crazy, gay auntie locked up in the attic.

    5. My belief that you’re a waste of air isn’t affected by PRC economic development.

      Oh, and begone, Troll.

    6. Slavery also tends to boost your economy a bit.

  6. Every inch forward China makes is a repudiation of everything everyone here believes.

    The progress that China is making is due to making tiny incremental steps closer to greater freedom. The improvement in their economy is due to a slight loosening of the authoritarianism you prefer.

    The progress repudiates the ideals of Progressives.

  7. I’m appalled at the left’s increasing–and increasingly open–love affair with totalitarianism.

    1. Like that’s new?

    2. It is appalling and is also predictable, at least it is open now. The right also envies totalitarianism as well. Statists in their arrogance and by nature love the idea that they can implement all their plans for the “betterment” of society without obstruction from those who might not agree.

      1. I think the right in the U.S. has helped take us down the path to tyranny, too, but I don’t think they view it in quite the warm and fuzzy way the left seems to. The right’s problem, it seems to me, is that they want to be authoritarian on things like some morals and foreign policy, but expect that kind of unlimited power to stay in those boxes. Nor do they anticipate what the left will do with that expanded power, despite years of evidence.

        1. All true. But the left particularly has always loved your Stalins, Maos Castros and Chavez’s.
          The Right seems to gravitate toward fantasy types rather than real world monsters.

          1. They were pretty big on Pinochet and Papa Doc.

            1. and Franco and Mussolini and Hitler too

    3. I think a lot of it is a perfectly normal and human fear of chaos. We want to be able to control our environment. Unfortunately, this includes ideas and behavior of others.

      1. They need to learn Freedom-fu.

    4. Since it’s an increasingly open love affair, I presume you can name one liberal who’s championed or advocated for totalitarianism in the past 100 years. Tom Friedman doesn’t count.

      1. You’re joking, right?

      2. Off the top of my head

        Tom Friedman-yes he does

        Walter Duranty-propagandist for Stalin

        Mark Lloyld-likes Hugo Chavez’s media policy

        Cass Sunstein-finds the concept of “voluntary” to be complicated, and thinks the government should infiltrate conspiracy theorist

        Anita Dunn-favorably quotes Mao

        Noam Chomsky-killing fields denier and met with Castro

        Sean Penn, Danny Glover, Naomi Campbell and other hollywood retards who defend Chavez

        Countless dipshits who wear Che shirts

        1. also Van Jones and Peter Singer.

          1. Can’t forget FDR internment of Japanese either.

            1. Ramsey Clark, Attorney general for LBJ, legally and rhetorically defended both the persons and regimes of Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic.

  8. Had the pleasure of visiting mainland China on business. Our customer took us to dinner one night to a very nice restaurant.

    The entrance to the parking lot at the restaurant was guarded by an armed soldier. Our host had to show is communist party identification to get us in.

    Chia is still communist. Mid-level managers in “private” businesses are still party officials. They are a least a decade behind Russia in regards to loosening up party control of the economy. On the other hand, Russia is backsliding so quickly, the China may actually become more open than Russia by default.

    Fuck anyone that thinks we should look to China for inspiration.

    1. I totally agree with not looking to China for inspiration, but the rest of what you wrote is pure BS, probably because you don’t even speak Chinese. Armed soldier guarding a restaurant???? most likely a security guard. And communist party ID? (never seen one in my 15 years here). Party officials in private businesses? perhaps but not prevalent and certainly not amongst middle management. I know because I run and executive search firm here and I have studied China since 1970. But I am beginning to think that folks here don’t really want to look past ideological blinders.

      1. Only two trips to Guangzho. Our host was unavailble to meet with us the first trip over due to mandatory meetings required for party officials (his explanation).

        I can’t say that I know as much about China as Russia, but I recognize an official army uniform when I see it. And our host did give us a very brief explanation that the restaurant was restricted access.

        Did not see a lot of caucasian faces during the afternoon we spent shopping in downtown. Perhaps China is a little bit different outside Beijing.

        Que sera sera.

    2. Chi[n]a is still communist. Mid-level managers in “private” businesses are still party officials.

      Assuming you didn’t mean those hair-growing toys, is it hard to get into the Communist Party in China? If not, what’s the big deal about the mgrs. being party officials? So in addition to whatever else you do in the biz, you pay party dues and they give you a title commensurate with your station. That all?

  9. As Shikia says, she saw what she was supposed to see.


    Evidently she didn’t go to places like this. The whole article was kind of naive, “like, golly I didn’t see anything!!”

    China is no worse than any other country that was in a similar position in the past, but because of the huge scale on which they do things, the amount of damage can be huge.


    Libertarians have a habit of thinking, “well as long as the system provides comfort for the managers, and the traveling elite, who cares about the poor people downstream?

    Incidentally, the Gulf Spill is nothing compared to Nigeria:


  10. This is pretty Chinese too:

    Laura Dieckman was just 12 when her parents let her leave home to work full time for Scientology’s religious order, the Sea Organization. At 16, she married a co-worker. At 17, she was pregnant.

    She was excited to start a family, but she said Sea Org supervisors pressured her to have an abortion. She was back at work the following day.

    Claire Headley joined at 16, married at 17 and was pregnant at 19. She said Sea Org supervisors threatened strenuous physical work and repeated interrogations if she didn’t end her pregnancy. She, too, was back at work the next day.

    Two years later she had a second abortion, this time while working for the church in Clearwater.

    A St. Petersburg Times investigation found their experiences were not unique. More than a dozen women said the culture in the Sea Org pushed them or women they knew to have abortions, in many cases, abortions they did not want.

    Some said colleagues and supervisors pressured them to abort their pregnancies and remain productive workers without the distraction of raising children. Terminating a pregnancy and staying on the job affirmed one’s commitment to the all-important work of saving the planet.

    “You just have a way of thinking,” said Sunny Pereira, who was 15 when she entered the order. ”It all has to do with the Sea Org and what we’re trying to accomplish. Everything that is a distraction is scorned.”

    According to those speaking out, women who didn’t schedule abortions were shunned by fellow Sea Org members, called “degraded beings” and taunted for being “out ethics,” straying from the order’s ethical code.

    Some were isolated, assigned manual labor and interrogated until they agreed to abortions, said church defectors, including men whose wives got abortions.

    The church denied all their accounts.


  11. “You are aware, fool, that the Chinese have about a 1,500 year head start on every other modern civilization?”


    Galileo, Kepler, Copernicus, Newton, Dalton, Boyle, Tartaglia, Descartes, Mozart, Bach, Cauchy, Euler, Faraday, Gauss, Huygens, Hooke, Brahe……….

    It’s not clear how much of a head start it really was.

  12. Libertarians have a habit of thinking, “well as long as the system provides comfort for the managers, and the traveling elite, who cares about the poor people downstream?”

    No. See Kelo, et als.

  13. This is a fascinating piece, in that its facts are 100% accurate and yet its conclusions completely unsupported. It is indeed true that developing countries tend to be environmentally less friendly than developed nations, since cheaper technology tends to be more polluting.

    Unfortunately for Shalmia’s argument, one could grossly reduce China’s per-unit pollution and still end up with environmental problems, because there are simply a ton more people in the country. This is particularly problematic when it comes to wildlife management (take the Chinese predilection for shark fin soup or rare animal medical derivatives). China’s environmental problem is indeed a serious one, and is likely to require behavior modification in addition to economic prosperity. (Note that democracy would still be a nice idea – it just doesn’t follow that it would cure this problem very well.)

  14. The reality is that, as economies advance, their environment naturally improves

    What an amazing sentence….so many lies wrapped in so few words.

    Let me fix it for you:

    The reality is that, as economies advance, their environment gets worse, but them some elements recover partially as they become even further advanced. However, some elements continue to worsen indefinitely.

    Yes, richer societies generally begin to clean up some of the more visible messes they make, such as flaming rivers and choking smog, but other problems, such as climate change, habitat destruction and fragmentation, mass extinction, fishery collapse, and a general build-up of synthetic chemicals and plastics in the environment have not been successfully addressed, and are getting worse by the day. Additionally, it is patently obvious that these problems didn’t exist in the first place until economies advanced enough to cause these problems. Saying we have made a few steps forward after having made a hundred steps back, and during a time which we also took a few dozen new steps back, is hardly reassuring.

    1. It’s not easy being green.

  15. WAIT A MINUTE: I’ve lived in China about 3 years and cannot agree with anything here, especially in regards to environmental improvement you insist is going on in China. Yes, Beijing improved a bit, but this was only because of the Olympics and the politicians didn’t want to deal with the embarassement of the grey skies that they normally have. It’s the only place I can think of that has improved in any way. In most places, you’re lucky to have a blue sky.

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  18. Mostly the claim is that growth is depressed by taxing billionaires a few extra pennies. buy tools sale

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