Press & News
China's Boom Brings Fear of an Electricity Breakdown (published July 5, 2004 New York Times)
They also represent an acknowledgment that whether measured in use of resources, or increasingly, in use of capital itself, the very economic model that has given China growth rates that are the envy of the world is wasteful in the extreme.
According to Zhang Jun, a prominent Chinese economist who has made a comparative study of China and India, China consumes 3 times the energy and 15 times the amount of steel as its neighbor, even though the Chinese economy is only roughly twice as large, and is growing only about 10 percent faster than India's.
Part of this picture comes from an intensive focus on manufacturing and exports, which many economists say has led to overindustrialization and empty growth. A lot of the responsibility for wastefulness can be laid to duplication, with each province - and indeed many city governments - simultaneously pushing for the same kind of growth, based on industrial parks and manufacturing zones. The municipalities that boast of becoming China's Silicon Valley, to take one common example of this trend, are almost too numerous to count.
"China will definitely be facing a huge, huge challenge in a decade or so if the growth patterns don't change," said Dr. Zhang, who is the director of the China Center for Economic Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai. "Ours is an extreme case of the East Asian model, and we are coming quickly toward the limitations in terms of the way we use energy, in terms of the environment, and even in terms of labor."
Dr. Zhang said the government had invited him and other economists to tour the provinces and lecture local governments on these realities in the hope of readjusting priorities, to little avail.
"What we are facing is decentralization and the birth of developmental government in China," Dr. Zhang said. "The local officials all say they understand the new perspectives, but that it has nothing to do with them. They all say, 'My job is to look after local economic development.' "
The toll on China's environment from this growth-at-any-cost strategy has been truly alarming. China's official development goal is to build what the government calls a well-off society by the year 2020, yet today the very growth that makes such dreams permissible has left China with 16 of the world's 20 most polluted cities, according to the World Bank.
Using standards that are relatively lax when compared with those of the United Nations, the Chinese government itself reckons that fewer than half of the country's cities have acceptably breathable air.
The government also says that 90 percent of urban residents face serious water pollution problems. By another estimate, 700 million Chinese must make do with contaminated drinking water. Even the country's seas are increasingly under siege from industrial pollution and are regularly choked by red tide infestations.
If the country's galloping energy needs have caught people's attention throughout China, mobilizing resources to protect the environment has been far more difficult.
"There is nothing about China's environmental situation that is not critical," said Jiang Jilian, a member of Friends of Nature, a private Chinese environmental group. "The government may have a sense they should do more about this, but they still have another priority - economic development."