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China’s pristine rise to ‘power’? Implications for Asia’s political and ecological footprint

Updated On: Jun 09, 2006

The World Environment Day, a 34 year-old United Nations tradition observed on June 5, is an occasion for sombre environmental accounting in Asia, where biodiversity meets wanton industrialization to persist in confounding the environment-development nexus.

The spotlight is on China, for bearing great onus for the global commons as an economic and political power with a giant ecological footprint.  A White Paper released by the Information Office of the State Council (China's Cabinet) on June 5, painted a grim picture of ecological problems plaguing the nation in spite of unprecedented efforts to protect the environment under the broadened agenda of economic development à la the Five-Year Plan, along with a decade of the biggest spending (952.27 billion yuan (S$187.23 billion) between 1996 and 2004) and clean-up efforts in the nation’s history.

Premier Wen Jiabao’s Government Work Report last year witnessed the inclusion of environmental protection as a primary policy objective, and received hearty accolades from the National People's Congress. In the same year and until the present however, high-profile ecological disasters have been crippling the nation’s people and prompting social unrest.  

Last year posted 51,000 pollution-related disputes, an increase by nearly 30 per cent a year. Millions were denied access to water in pollution incidents in Harbin, Guangdong and most recently Sichuan. Beijing experienced the worst sand storm in three years. The State Environment Protection Administration received 49 reports of environmental accidents since January this year, as Premier Wen stunned the nation with the government’s admission that the Tenth Five-Year Plan targets for environment protection were not met. To top it off, the World Bank black-listed 16 cities in China as the world's 20 most polluted.

The pressure to meet the target of quadrupling the size of the economy between 2000 and 2020 as a yardstick for national progress and prowess has incurred nature’s wrath in other ways that run counter to the country’s economic imperatives, by reducing around 10 per cent of the country’s GDP annually through clean-ups and other socio-economic impacts.

The ‘greening’ of China’s policy initiatives is indicative of the government finally heeding the wake-up call to reconcile environment with development. But recent initiatives such as imposing a tax on chopsticks, creating a green GDP index (to account for economic impact on the environment), and promising a green 2008 Olympics have been regarded by many as ambitious and misguided.

China’s sustainability efforts have also been overshadowed by its thirst for ‘power’, conceived in both political and environmental terms, and embodied within its resource diplomacy, as can be seen in the recent East China Sea spats with Japan, and high profile global energy shopping sprees that included a major uranium deal with Australia for nuclear development and which sought to threaten US hegemony. At the domestic level, China received further boost in ‘power’ through completing the construction of the world's largest hydropower project – the Three Gorges Dam – with a price tag of US$25 billion and similarly hefty costs of displacing about 1.3 million people, and possibly incurring environmental consequences in future.

Contradictions in China’s rise to ‘power’ in the form of ecological crises and social unrest serve as useful lessons for the rest of Asia, such as Southeast Asia, where countries face similar environmental problems. Vietnam for example, observed World Environment Day by increasing forest cover through the five million ha reforestation programme to overcome desertification of around 7.85 million ha. The Philippines witnessed the filing of a new resolution to assess the enforcement of Republic Act 7942, the Philippine Mining Act of 1995. 

The most biodiverse countries in the region, Malaysia and Indonesia, are exhibiting similar symptoms as China, and may face major crisis if remain unchecked. In late April, Malaysian PM Badawi lamented the monetary loss of the country’s natural resources that could otherwise be used to support the vision of attaining developed country status by 2020. As China’s largest timber supplier, Indonesia has almost 60 million hectares of damaged land and an annual deforestation rate of three million hectares due to illegal logging and forest fires. Promising efforts have been made however, since President SBY declared war on haze on International Earth Day two months ago, prompting new aid efforts from the US.

The rise of China also possesses environmental and geopolitical impact upon the Asean nations, as recent trends reveal great stress on the latter’s biodiversity resources through illegal timber trade to satisfy the former’s import demands. China’s incessant energy deals worldwide have also charted the way for the region – gripped by the global oil price hike – to follow suit through alternative energy (nuclear and biofuels) efforts. US counter-hegemonic efforts and the Middle East have also demonstrated new interest in the region.

Sources:

The polluter pays: how environmental disaster is straining China's social fabric (Financial Times (London, England), 27 January 2006)

'Environment' is still a dirty word; Shenzhen a prime example of how hard it is to implement premier's pledge (South China Morning Post, 28 February 2006)

China slaps tax on chopsticks to save trees (The Independent (London), 23 March 2006)

China Role Seen in Illegal Timber Trade (The Los Angeles Times, 29 March 2006)

US, Indonesia agree to fight against illegal logging (Antara, 5 April 2006)

Wen urges nationwide attention to pollution; Local officials will be held responsible for the quality of the environment (South China Morning Post, 19 April 2006)

Worsening pollution raises fears of disorder in China (The Irish Times, 21 April 2006)

Yudhoyono wants to declare war on haze (The Straits Times, 24 April 2006)

Abdullah laments cost of damage to environment (AP/The Star, 27 April 2006)

Questions still dog Three Gorges Dam (Reuters/ The Straits Times, 15 May 2006)

Growth push takes toll on environment (South China Morning Post, 17 May 2006)

Green GDP stays on agenda of environmental watchdog (South China Morning Post, 26 May 2006)

Environment in the spotlight (Vietnam News Service, 31 May 2006)

Degradation causing ecological disasters: Environmentalists (Jakarta Post, 5 June 2006)

Cayetano hits mining firms destroying biodiversity (The Manila Times, 6 June 2006)

China's growing ecological mess (The Straits Times, 6 June 2006)

It's ecology v economy, China warns (The Australian, 6 June 2006)

Green crisis wipes 10pc off GDP; White paper warns conflict between the economy and environmental issues must be addressed (South China Morning Post, 6 June 2006)