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China: economic powerhouse, environmentally unsustainable - part one

By Pan Yue - posted Tuesday, 24 July 2007

China’s development has had a tumultuous history. Now is the time for a fair and sustainable model of growth.

What do we mean by the phrase “green China”? We mean a China that is sustainable, democratic, fair, harmonious and socialist. This conclusion has been reached after many years of struggle. Each word is the distillation of the blood, sweat and tears of several generations. We want to build a green China because green is the colour of life, of sustainability. For something to be called “green” it has to be sustainable - and currently China has yet to achieve sustainability.

The model of economic development that we are currently pursuing is unsustainable. Our energy consumption per unit of GDP is seven times that of Japan, six times that of America, and even 2.8 times that of India. China’s labour productivity is less than 10 per cent of the world total, and yet our emissions are over 10 times higher than the global average.


China’s current supplies of energy and natural resources are unsustainable. Soil erosion and water loss mean that in the last 50 years, the area of habitable land has halved. We currently have 45 main sources of minerals, but in 15 years only six will remain. Within five years, 60 per cent of our oil will be imported.

China’s environment is unsustainable. One-third of China's land mass is affected by acid rain. Over 300 million rural residents have no access to clean drinking water. One-third of urban residents breathe heavily polluted air. Thanks to the traditional model of economic development - which is energy intensive, heavily polluting and relies on high levels of consumption - China has become the world's largest consumer of water, largest emitter of waste water and one of the three areas in the world worst affected by acid rain.

Our current society is unsustainable. In 2003 China crossed a “safe boundary” on the Gini coefficient - a measure of inequality of distribution of income - which means that China was classified as having “very unequal wealth distribution”. The World Bank has said that no other country has seen such a large income disparity emerge in just 15 years. For so long we criticised capitalism for being unsustainable, unfair and unequal, but if our socialism cannot solve problems of social inequality, then how can we claim our system is superior?

We have arrived at this point because we made biased decisions when choosing development strategies. In the 1950s we imitated the Soviets by developing heavy industry. This may have laid the industrial foundation for New China, but it was not entirely appropriate for a country that is rich in labour but lacking in natural resources. In the 1980s we turned in another direction, and learnt from Europe and the US by stimulating economic growth with energy-intensive production and consumer lifestyles. This extensive model of economic growth seeks to maximise production levels and profit, but overlooks how resources are used - and the damage done to the environment.

Before the reform period we followed an exclusively political model, with class struggle as our guiding principle. We were unable to complete the transition from revolutionary party to ruling party, and instigated one political movement after another.

In the 25 years since the reforms, China has followed an exclusively economic model. We are widely recognised as having achieved an economic miracle, but we have paid an enormous price.


There has been a flaw in our thinking: the belief that the economy decides everything. If the economy is booming, we thought, political stability will follow; if the economy is booming, we hoped, people will have enough to eat and live contented lives; if the economy is booming, we believed, there will be money everywhere and materialism will be enough to stave off the looming crises posed by our population, resources, environment, society, economy and culture. But now it seems this will not be enough. When these crises really hit us, a little economic success will not be nearly enough to deal with them.

Development is a good thing in itself. But it must be integrated development across all areas, not just economic development. Only all-round, co-ordinated development is a good in itself. We have always taken “development” to mean economic development alone, and this to mean the simple accumulation of wealth. As a result, the pursuit of wealth has become the sole aim of society.

In theory, the value of all resources is determined by the market price, but the latent value of scarce resources such as land, water, the environment, and biodiversity has been ignored. Many social resources have been absorbed by projects designed to help people “get rich quick”. Blind investment, continual rebuilding and a lifestyle based on massive consumption have built up an enormous financial risk.

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First published as "Green China and young China - part one" in Chinadialogue on July 17, 2007.

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About the Author

Pan Yue is deputy director of China's State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA). Part of a new generation of outspoken Chinese senior officials, Pan has given rise to a tide of environmental debate, attracting enormous attention and controversy.

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China: economic powerhouse, environmentally unsustainable - part two - On Line Opinion

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