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.