China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2020/Jan

Development and the environment in China

Environmental problems and the climate crisis gained the spotlight again when 16-year-old Greta Thunberg was named Time magazine’s 2019 Person of the Year. But she also attracted criticism from some people who are individualistic and concerned more about economic interests, including the United States’ president, Donald Trump. What is the scenario of development and environmental problems in China?

In the past 40 years, China has experienced rapid economic growth, turning it from an impoverished communist state into the world’s fastest-growing economy. It now boasts the second largest economy globally and is approaching high-income country status. It has transformed from an economy with basic agriculture and technology to a global manufacturing powerhouse, with an economy driven more by consumption and services.  

Poverty levels in China have fallen significantly. In the rural areas, people living below the national poverty line have decreased from 250 million people in 1978 to 30 million at the end of 2017. The country is advancing toward its goal of eradicating absolute poverty by 2020. Meanwhile, the Chinese government has also committed to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

However, has China’s fast economic growth been translated into human development and an eco-friendly environment? Or does rapid development lead to uneven wealth distribution and more environmental problems?

As John Paul II stated in his social encyclical Centesimus Annus, “a type of development which did not respect and promote human rights—personal and social, economic and political, including the rights of nations and of peoples—would not be really worthy of human person” (CA, 33). 

This is because “God gave the earth to the whole human race for the sustenance of all its members, without excluding or favouring anyone” (CA, 31). 

In 2018, at the China Development Forum in Beijing, Takehiko Nakao, the president of the Asian Development Bank (ADB), praised China’s achievements over the past 40 years as phenomenal. But he also pointed out some challenges that it has to consider in future development. One of these is about inclusiveness. 

He suggested that China has to ensure that the entire population is able to enjoy the fruits of growth more equally, especially relating to the gap between urban and rural area development. More effort should be put into education and skills development, without neglecting gender equality, in order to achieve inclusive growth.

Industrial development and water pollution

Another challenge is tackling climate change and promoting a better environment. Nakao suggested that China is, in many respects, championing a green economy and is a crucial player in global efforts to mitigate climate change. However, more effort should be put on controlling water pollution and improving air quality. 

He promised that the ADB would support projects on water resource management in the Yangtze River Economic Belt and improving air quality in the Greater Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei area.

These comments coincide with other research findings. According to a new international research study published in the Science Advances journal in 2019, for decades pollution in China has paralleled economic growth, but this connection has weakened in recent years. 

The study, conducted by researchers from five countries, shows that environmental pollution in China as a whole has begun to decline, but that greenhouse gas emissions have continued to increase. 

The study also found that China stands with respect to the Sustainable Development Goals in terms of reducing regional division, urban-rural gap, social inequality and land-based impacts on oceans. Progress has been made in health care provision, poverty reduction and gender equity in education, while income disparity continues between regions and with rural-urban populations. 

Thus, there is an urgent need to solve major problems such as increased greenhouse gas emissions and inequality of income.

To promote economic development in the past decades, China developed industrial parks and set up special economic zones in coastal open cities and free port areas. Many industrial parks have achieved economic benefits and even become regional image projects. 

However, the rapid development of industry has also aggravated the deterioration of the ecological environment. It is imperative to maintain a balance between economic benefits on the one hand and the ecological and social benefits on the other hand.

“Everything is interconnected, and that genuine care for our own lives and our relationships with nature is inseparable from fraternity, justice and faithfulness to others” (Pope Francis, Laudato Si’ (LS, 70).

In a report released by Greenpeace China and the Ecological Environment Research Institute of Nanjing University (Yushui), since 2015, China has introduced a series of policies, such as the Water Pollution Prevention and Control Law to improve the industrial wastewater treatment. 

However, up till 2018, the Central Ecological Environmental Protection Inspector Group announced that nearly 90 per cent of the provinces and autonomous regions in the country have problems in the management of wastewater in industrial parks and the resulting excessive discharges have had an undesirable effect on the ecological environment around the parks.

Due to the lack of construction funds, problems relating to land acquisition, demolition and planning, many industrial parks have built sewage pipe networks in phases, which make it difficult to meet the demand for management of wastewater by all enterprises in a short period of time. 

In fact, according to a report released by the World Health Organisation in 2014, about 70 per cent of rivers and lakes in mainland China are heavily polluted by industrial waste and untreated sewage. 

Soil pollution

Nevertheless, in China, the most serious environmental problem is not water or air pollution, but soil pollution. According to a report in the Economist, at least 16 per cent of China’s land is polluted, much of which are agricultural land, containing toxic metals such as lead, cadmium and arsenic. The farmland that grows crops also contains toxins. Due to the lack of monitoring by the government, toxic foods are spreading all over China, damaging people’s health. 

Land pollution is a more serious and difficult to tackle ecological problem than water pollution and air pollution. Once the toxin is mixed into the soil, it can remain there for thousands of years and is difficult to remove.

Pope Francis said, “The deterioration of the environment and of society affects the most vulnerable people on the planet” (LS, 49).

One example is the farmland in Hunan. Due to perennial mining of the yellow mine in Baiyun Township, Shimen County, Changde City, and the poor environmental facilities, it was discovered in 2016 that 8,000 hectares of farmland and nine square kilometres of water and soil had been seriously polluted. 

What is more worrying is that villagers and retired workers who live in the mining areas are suffering from arsenic poisoning due to pollution, leading to dark spots or white spots on their skin, accompanied by pain, itching, weakness and other symptoms. 

Later, it even led to ulceration and suppuration. Hundreds of people, directly or indirectly, died of arsenic poisoning. Several hundreds of people are still struggling with the pain of arsenic poisoning and face death at any time.

Earlier in 2013, Liu Zhu and her team from the non-profit organisation, Hunan Zhuguang (Twilight) Environmental Protection, have engaged in land and water pollution inspection and prevention work. They travelled to various villages in Hunan and obtained 164 samples of soil and rice, conducted heavy metal testing and prepared a detailed investigation report on heavy metal pollution in Xiangjiang River. 

It was found that one of the soil samples with heavy metals exceeded the standard 715 times. The report caused widespread concern. 

However, the Hunan Provincial Environmental Protection Agency sent a letter to Liu’s group, pointing out that the investigation was unscientific. But some experts argued that the survey was a serious one with evidence.

Attention from the government

Undeniably, in recent years, along with the development of the economy, the protection of the environment has received increasing attention from the government. The “protection of the environment” has been designated a basic national policy. 

In January 2017, a national environmental protection work conference was held in Beijing by the Ministry of Environmental Protection. Premier, Li Keqiang, gave instructions on environmental protection work: “We must focus on promoting the continuous improvement of the atmosphere, water and soil environment, especially the smog problem about which the public is most concerned for a long time. It is necessary to carry out scientific and in-depth analysis of the causes and components, drawing on the experience of various parties and adopting more effective measures to achieve more effective and obvious results.” This is very true. These words must be put into action.

Several times, the president, Xi Jinping, also emphasised the importance of building an ecological civilisation. He gave a keynote speech at the National Environmental Meeting in May 2018, linking environmental protection with the sustainable development of the people of China and modernisation. 

We see common ground on caring for the environment between the Church and the Chinese government. In April 2018, the Vatican was invited to join the Beijing International Horticulture Exhibition. The main theme of the Expo was Live green. Live better. The Holy See Pavillion developed its own space around the sub-theme Home of Hearts, with the aim of promoting the messages expressed in Laudato Si’.

Integral ecology

Economic development is important. So is human development and caring for the creation. Pope Francis insists that we are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature (LS, 139).

“We can no longer speak of sustainable development apart from intergenerational solidarity. We realize that the world is a gift which we have freely received and must share with others” (LS, 159). Policy-makers should always bear this principle in mind. 

Mary Yuen