Pollution Effects Glaring, But Can China Adapt?

A new summary of scientific data indicates that outdoor air pollution led to 1.2 million premature deaths in China in 2010, according to The New York Times’ Edward Wong:

The data on which the analysis is based was first presented in the ambitious 2010 Global Burden of Disease Study, which was published in December in The Lancet, a British medical journal. The authors decided to break out numbers for specific countries and present the findings at international conferences. The China statistics were offered at a forum in Beijing on Sunday.

“We have been rolling out the India- and China-specific numbers, as they speak more directly to national leaders than regional numbers,” said Robert O’Keefe, the vice president of the Health Effects Institute, a research organization that is helping to present the study. The organization is partly financed by the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the global motor vehicle industry.

What the researchers called “ambient particulate matter pollution” was the fourth-leading risk factor for deaths in China in 2010, behind dietary risks, high blood pressure and smoking. Air pollution ranked seventh on the worldwide list of risk factors, contributing to 3.2 million deaths in 2010.

Wong adds that premature death calculations are “politically threatening in the eyes of Chinese officials,” who have redacted related sections from previous reports. However the reports continue to add up. Several recent studies have also firmed up the link between pollution and birth defects in China.

Indeed, pollution has loomed larger as a threat to Communist Party legitimacy this year – air pollution in Beijing reached record levels in January and thousands of dead pigs were found floating in rivers near Shanghai in March, prompting concerns over water pollution. An aniline spill in Shanxi province in January also caused the contamination of the water supply in a handful of cities, underscoring the growing dangers of China’s polluted rivers.

While bureaucratic infighting may complicate the government’s push to address the problem, Beijing’s government announced last week that it would spend $16 billion over three years to improve sewage disposal, garbage treatment and air quality in the capital city. Still, structural roadblocks exist that may hamper the chances for serious reform. With state-owned enterprises among China’s biggest polluters, and local governments hesitant to do anything that would threaten growth, environmental protection continues to take a backseat to profits. Citing the case of Fujian-based state-owned mining giant Zijin Mining, Reuters details China’s “losing battle” against powerful state-owned polluters:

China has the laws, but its ability to enforce them is weak, especially in the face of giant firms that pour millions into otherwise bereft local government coffers. Critics say Beijing also lacks the will to tackle the problem.

Like many state-owned firms, Zijin is more than just an enterprise, and has benefited from a vast state support system giving it access to cheap credit and a blind eye when it comes to pollution. Its dominance of the local economy also means that many officials think that what’s good for Zijin is generally good for the community at large.

The situation is made worse by the fact that state firms like Zijin were carved out of mining bureaus and never quite lost their role as arms of the government, maintaining old relationships and channels of communication as well as running hospitals, schools or retirement homes. For many residents seeking to complain about pollution, it is often difficult to see where the company ends and the state begins.

“The problem tends to involve the capture of the government by various interests – these problems are exacerbated when the company actually is the government,” said Alex Wang, professor at Berkeley and an expert in China’s environmental legislation.


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