Chinese Environmentalism: Prestige Over People?

From Reason Magazine:

…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 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 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 , 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.

June 15, 2010, 10:57 AM
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