The Asian Century 11.

            After the collapse of Communism in the Soviet Union in 1989, other countries that believed in centrally-planned economies had a Road to Damascus experience.[1]  The scales fell from their eyes: adaptation to capitalism and the global market offered the only path to political survival for the elite.  China and India embarked on this path with energy and determination. 

            Along with forced-draft industrialization came an amazing amount of pollution.  For example, both steel and cement, two mainstays of China’s economic progress, burn huge amounts of carbon.[2]  Local governments have encouraged industrialization though their sponsorship of Town and Village Enterprises (TVEs).  The TVEs have long enjoyed a high level of freedom from any meaningful regulation.  The coal mines and smelters they operated spewed pollutants[3] into rivers, waste land, and the air.  The concentration of China’s population in the great river valleys and along the coastal plain concentrates pollution in those areas as well. 

            The auditor could add to the price of progress the price of the fruits of progress.  China had 5.5 million privately-owned automobiles in 1995; now it has 194.5 million.  Mountains—literally–of garbage pile up in unofficial garbage dumps around cities. 

For a long time, the Chinese government shrugged it off as the price of progress.  Then the public health effects aroused protest and criticism.  Myriad statistics suggest that the Chinese are being poisoned by their own success.  The infertility rate for couples has risen from 3 percent in 1995 to 15 percent in 2018.  Lung cancer deaths rose by 465 percent from 1973 to 2013.  Life expectancy in the more industrialized areas is 3.1 years less than in less industrialized areas. 

Eventually, the Chinese Communist Party and the government that fronts for it began to take the problem seriously.  By this point, however, immense damage had been done and much of China’s economic success was founded on polluting activities.  Both changing course for the future and cleaning up the legacy of the past will load heavy burdens on China. 

For one thing, there are the economic costs.  Shifting from burning coal and oil will require developing “fracking” for natural gas as a reasonable alternative until renewable energy becomes a reality.  Shifting from heavy industry to technological and service industries will require development of an appropriate labor force, while leaving large numbers of discontented coal miners and steel workers in its wake. 

For another, there are the political problems.  Local governments are going to have to manage the reality of angry workers and angry industrialists.  But local governments seek to evade the dictates of the central government.  Officials in one province responded to an order from Beijing to limit their steel production by continuing to produce at a high level, then trying to hide the extra 50 million tons of steel.[4] 

Then there is the possibility that China will seek internal unity through a nationalist foreign policy.[5]  With any luck, the latter is alarmism and pessimism.  With any luck. 


[1] Yanzhong Huang, Toxic Politics: China’s Environmental Health Crisis and Its Challenge to the Chinese State (2020), reviewed by Walter Russell Mead, WSJ, 11 November 2020.. 

[2] For example, half of China’s blast furnaces produce one-fourth of the world’s steel. 

[3] These include lead, cadmium, mercury.

[4] That’s more steel than all of Germany—a one-time world leader—makes in a year. 

[5] Volker R. Berghahn, Germany and the Approach of War in 1914 (1973). 

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