Seeing China Clearly — Through the Smog

Orville Schell has been writing about China for decades, and is probably the ideal person to answer questions about China and global warming, being both a China scholar and a good reporter. His answers to questions from readers of the New York Times are long, so I’m going to post most of them below the fold, but excerpt the crucial point, in his first answer:

Instead of seeking out a common remedy whereby the US might lead the
world in searching for and then formulating some plan to pool resources
and allow China to continue to develop, albeit in a “clean” manner
while still limiting both conventional pollutants and carbon emissions,
the US has used China’s obduracy to opt out of any solution altogether,
including the Kyoto Protocols.

The result is that while the US hides behind China, China hides
behind the US. We find ourselves in a world where the two largest
polluters are sitting the game out, even as our common globe becomes
increasingly warmed, with all the attendant consequences.

Today we have answers to your questions from Orville Schell, the
author of nine books about China – including “Virtual Tibet,” “Mandate
of Heaven,” “Discos and Democracy” and “To Get Rich Is Glorious.”
Earlier this month, Mr. Schell traveled to China and met with Chinese
experts and officials to discuss global warming.


Given that the greenhouse gases from the large number of coal
fired power plants China plans to build in the coming years will
counteract many of the efforts by the industrialized world to reduce
its CO2 emissions, have you seen any evidence of Chinese officials
making attempts to curb the number of coal fired power plants that are
scheduled to be built in the next decade or two (or move towards
cleaner coal technologies)? — Lou Miller



This question gets to the heart of several matters.

Of all the environmental problems which confront China, there is
none greater than that presented by the country’s abundance of coal. On
the one hand, this bounty of coal has provided China with an ready
source of energy with which to stoke its extraordinarily rapid economic
growth rate (10-11% annually). Indeed, some 70% of China’s energy is
derived from coal. And, because China is no longer self-sufficient in
petroleum supplies – those felicitous days ended about a decade ago –
it is ever more dependent on coal – on soft, dirty bituminous coal at
that. Moreover, as the cost of oil rises, China becomes even more
reliant on coal, especially in such industries as electrical power,
cement, aluminum, and steel, which are all very energy intensive. (And
approximately nine times less energy efficient than Japan and four to
five times less efficient than the US).

To feed all this new development, China has recently been building
in the neighborhood of one new conventional coal-fired power plant
every week. (Never mind all the cement, steel, aluminum, etc. plants
that are also coal fired.) And, it has been very difficult for the
Central Government in Beijing to control this proliferation, because
the logic of every region is that it will find a way to build as many
power plants as it needs to compete with every other region, never mind
if the Central Government disagrees and has not authorized them to do
so. In this new world of hyper-development kultur where economic growth
trumps just about everything else, and certainly trumps environmental
imperatives, it is very difficult for Beijing leaders to slow down this

What is particularly depressing about this state of affairs is that
each of these new “conventional” coal fired power plants will be
operating for another thirty to forty years. Most will not easily be
retro-fitted with conventional pollution controls, much less carbon
capture. So, we not only see China writing a scenario for it’s
short-term environmental fate with these plants, but also for the
globe’s long term fate.

There are two problems with coal:

First, it produces myriad forms of “conventional” pollutants such as
sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide (the famous SOX and NOX twins);
mercury; and much particulate matter.

Second, the mining and burning of so much coal also produces and
abundance of green houses gases such as carbon dioxide and methane.

While there are remedies (albeit, ones involving an added cost) for
the former, there are as yet no practical or cost-effective ways to
“capture” and then “sequester” carbon. So, carbon and methane continue
to spew into our atmosphere adding to the “green house effect” with
which everyone is becoming increasingly familiar through films such as
Al Gore’s informative “An Inconvenient Truth.”

Chinese officials at the national level are becoming increasingly
aware of this double barreled dilemma. But while they have begun to
take measures to deal with the problems of “conventional pollutants”
from the burning of coal, they have as yet eschewed responsibility for
the problem of greenhouse gases. They argue that since the West’s
“historical” contribution to the world’s “carbon load” is far more than
China’s, and since the West had a right to “develop” during the
Industrial Revolution, therefore China now must also be afforded an
equal right to give its people a better material life.

In essence, the Chinese have thrown the issue back on the developed
world, saying, “It is not fair to penalize our development as a remedy
for your past indulgences.”

There is a certain logic to their argument. We would like to see a
parity in solving the problem today, but they look at our historical
account and see a pattern of excessive abuse and would like to be given
the same rights… even if it melts the polar ice caps.

Instead of seeking out a common remedy whereby the US might lead the
world in searching for and then formulating some plan to pool resources
and allow China to continue to develop, albeit in a “clean” manner
while still limiting both conventional pollutants and carbon emissions,
the US has used China’s obduracy to opt out of any solution altogether,
including the Kyoto Protocols.

The result is that while the US hides behind China, China hides
behind the US. We find ourselves in a world where the two largest
polluters are sitting the game out, even as our common globe becomes
increasingly warmed, with all the attendant consequences.


Dear Mr. Schell, Did you get a sense from talking to the
leadership and people of China that they are waiting for the U.S. to
take serious action on global warming before they themselves will? Does
not the overwhelming pressure to keep the economy growing forestall any
serious action on climate change? Would U.S. action have any effect at
all? — Andrew McKeon, carbonRational



There is a frightening and ineluctable logic to the idea that economic
growth rates should only measure economic growth, and not the damage to
the resource base or natural environment that sustains that growth. The
equivalent in the world of industry would be a factory that decides to
slowly feeding its own combustible infrastructure piece-meal into its
furnaces to keep that plant working. This is hardly a long-term

Indeed, in China a recent experiment conducted by the State
Environmental Protection Administration to assign “green GDP” ratings
to enterprises and areas was halted because local officials did not
want to have the environmental costs of the industries made public and
pressured the Central Government to stop the effort.

China’s dilemma is this: Even as its national leaders become
increasingly enlightened about environmental issues; as certain
industries, economic sectors and regions manage to make encouraging
progress on certain environmental fronts (ie. reforestation); as
environmental NGOs and civil society organizations proliferate; as
corporations become more mindful of the risks to their “brands” of bad
environmental coverage; as international exchanges in technology
continue to grow; and as new technologies are discovered and come on
line, the overall situation still gets worse. Why? Because each
isolated example of progress is equalized, even super-ceded by, the
massive amount of new aggregate development and growth. So, even as
China tries to move forward through better environmental practices, the
sheer volume of new development sets it ever further back.

What is needed is global leadership. This is a roll that the US has
traditionally played. But, with the US government relying on
scatter-shot technological solutions rather than seeking to lead a
global full-court-press to remedy such problems as climate change, the
world is left in a leaderless state of feudal disarray.

Sun Yat-sen once described China’s state of disunity at the
beginning of the 20th century as being like “A dish of loose sand.” His
metaphor pretty much describes the global efforts on the climate change
front today: Much is happening, but we have no global leadership, no
one to put up an umbrella over all the efforts that individuals are
valiantly trying to make.

My own view is that concerted US action, taken in concert with
China, could have a huge effect. (Look at the way in which the world
rallied to heal the ozone depletion problem). But, short of such US
leadership, it is hard to see China rallying on its own anytime soon.
Why? because it perceives any unilateral action as being too costly and
endangering the high levels of economic growth the Chinese Communist
Party deems as necessary to maintain social stability.

However, while it is a somewhat remote dream, one can imagine a
scenario in which both the US and China could manage to join forces
through a new alliance to begin leading the world out of this abyss.
One can also imagine a vibrant new economy growing out of the research
and development, technological solutions and manufacturing of the new
hardware which would be necessitated by any solution to the climate
change problem.

This is to say that China may be suggestable. But to cooperate, its
leaders will need encouragement, help, technology and a sense that the
problem is not being unfairly off-loaded onto them, just at the moment
when it’s long-denied time in the sun of consumer culture is

You ask, “Would U.S. action have any effect at all?”

I would like to think it would. I would like to think so, because
without it, I do not frankly see a solution. It will not do to blame
China. Our only salvation will be in finding some new ways to work
together, and doing so with a great sense of new urgency and
willingness to commit substantial resources, time, energy, money and
technology. Compared to global environmental issues, issues over
Intellectual Property, re-evluation of the renminbi, human rights,
Taiwan and the arms race, etc, seem quite parochial.

If global warming is, indeed, as much of a threat as it now appears
to be, I would like to think that a common effort was both possible.
For, I am not sure we have any alternatives.

All that is missing from this equation is leadership.


Are scientists working on global climate change in China able to
publish their results or speak publicly about the topic without
restraint or fear of reprisals from the Chinese Government? — Terrence


As you well understand, there is a very important “ecology” in any
country’s efforts to deal with environmental problems. This “ecology”
centers around the health of key aspects of an open society, especially
the media and civil society. These are crucial links of information
feed-back loops that are crucial not only in keeping a government (and
a citizenry) informed about such things as new scientific research,
emerging technology, and, most importantly, new environmental problems
as they arise. Earlier in the week Elizabeth Economy wrote about these
essential elements in a country’s early warning, environmental response
mechanisms quite lucidly. Without them, a country can be something like
a very inflammable, wood-framed house in which the owner has turned off
the fire alarms.

Of course, no country has a completely free and open press, as we
have frequently come to realize about our own country’s media. If there
is not a censorious state at work where leaders find certain kinds of
news and views unwelcome, then there is often a censorious marketplace
at work in which advertisers do not welcome the coverage of certain
kinds of topics because it disturbs consumers and harms sales. China
most certainly has a Party controlled media, which can, and frequently
does, limit what is covered, especially if it involves high leaders or
interpretations that make the government as a whole look too
neglectful. However, as China has become increasingly marketized, the
press has begun to find itself increasingly having to answer two
masters: the state and Party and the marketplace. It is form of double
jeopardy for which, having hoped that the market would be a force for
liberation, many Chinese are incompletely prepared.

But, having said that, one must acknowledge that more and more good
reporting is appearing in the Chinese press, and it includes an
encouraging amount of detailed coverage of science and technology,
especially when happenings in these fields interface with investment
possibilities and business. (The mantra of Chinese society is now
“development,” a word that is repeated more frequently than any other
in the Chinese language.)

And, in an ancillary area, one must also acknowledge that NGOs have
become become increasingly numerous and active. Like the media, they
tend to be relatively independent societal institutions. While not
entirely unwelcome, NGOs still exist in positions of some ambiguity in
Chinese official society. While they do have the virtue of more greater
independence than state organizations and official NGOs (know as
GONGOs, or Government Organized Non-Governmental Organizations) this
also works against them. Precisely because they are more independent in
nature, the are less controllable, and thus more threatening to the
Party and State, which seeks to control, or oversee. as many sources of
information as possible. Thus the government, which cocks a wary eye in
the direction of any institutions not fully under its control, has
quite intentionally denied civil society institutions the kind of clear
legal standing that would help protect it against official predations.
(Unofficial religious groups live in this same world of official
ambiguity). For instance, the National People’s Congress has repeatedly
failed to pass laws and regulations that would give NGOs a clear way to
register officially and thus be protected if and when they get in
trouble with higher-ups.

On the other hand, if one compares the state of environmental
awareness of high-ranking leaders in China – people such as Premier Wen
Jiabao, President and Party Chief Hu Jintao or several others on the
Polituro – one would have to say that they probably possess a more
evolved level of environmental consciousness and concern than leaders
in Washington today.

So, China’s problems of environmental awareness are not so much at
the top, as they are in the US, but in the provinces and regions where
the word from the top must finally be made flesh and where decisions
actually have to get enacted. Because of economic pressures, all too
frequently policies, laws and regulations promulgated in Beijing are
ignored in the provinces.

In the US, of course, the situation is reversed. The pyramid is, in
effect, up-side-down. While Washington is far less activist and willing
to remedy environmental problems, the states and governors have evinced
far more interest, eagerness and activism, so that in many cases they
are way out in front of leaders in Washington.

This is just a long-winded way of saying the while writers,
reporters, scientists and others of their ilk do have relative freedom
to publish and be heard on broadcast, there are still great limits as
to what can be said. Those limits involve criticizing ranking leaders,
the system of government or making the whole edifice of Party control
look too negligent. What leaders worry about are reports that might
cause disaffection, lead to protest and destabilize the country.


It is a fact that coal-powered power plants produce a large
portion of the energy need for China’s economy. However, another fact
totally ignored in today’s NYTimes article is that large numbers of
hydroelectric power plants are also being built in China. Chinese
government has set a target to generate 20% of electricity from this
renewable source. One good example is the three-gorge power plant.
Hydroelectric power plants do not generate CO2 and other pollutions,
they are very green.
I am not surprised that hydroelectric power plants are not mentioned at
all in the article. One of the reporters for today’s NYTimes article,
Mr. Jim Yardley, is biased on this issue. He has published a negative
and distorted article on the impact of building river dams on China’s
To the panel, I would like to raise the issue of hydroelectric power
plants. To me the answer seems to be obvious, it is environmentally
friendly except for some fish. But on overall hydroelectric power plant
should provide a good partial solution to China’s energy need because
only about 25% usable hydro-resources are used in China. — Erick Lin


You are quite right, Erik, hydro-electric power is clean and renewable.
But hydro still provides a relatively small portion of China voracious
appetites for power, while nuclear, wind and solar have even smaller
shares of the whole.

And, as we have learned in the instance of the Three Gorges Dam,
there can very often be very deleterious effects to disrupting river
systems with large, or even small-scale dams and hydro-electric
projects. Not only are such projects expensive and their construction
potentially environmentally perturbing, but they often require hundreds
of thousands of people to be moved. Then, of course, they also can end
up destroying scenic and wild river systems. This would be the case on
the Nujiang, or Angry River in Yunnan Province, where thirteen dams are
now planned on one of China’s most beautiful and last wild river
systems. If the damns, which would supply much needed clean power, go
forward, they would represent an irretrievable loss to one of the few
still un-despoiled natural ecosystems in this otherwise environmentally
stressed country. Fortunately, for the moment, Premier Wen Jiabao has
put these damns on hold while further studies are undertaken.

The well-known Three Gorges Dam has been very controversial. It will
produce a welcome amount of clean power for Central China. However,
there have been some real trade-offs. The new lake that has been
created in the old Yangtze River bed up-stream from the dam, and which
reaches all the way back upstream to Chongqing, is now filled with
water that is very seriously polluted. Because municipal sewage
treatment plants in cities along the river and its upstream tributaries
are not tertiary; because the treatment of industrial effluent in the
same watershed is far from adequate; and because now the flushing
action of the river is now so much diminished, China finds itself with
a polluted lake that is well over three hundred miles-long.

Moreover, the effects of this project will not be limited just to
the Yangtze River Valley, because with the construction of the
South-North Water Transfer System – a $50 billion project that is
building three canals from the Yangtze to the Yellow River to irrigate
the parched North China Plain and Beijing – China will now see that
large-scale transfer of toxic water from South to North. This
grand-scale scheme, which is, in effect, a re-plumbing the whole of
China by hooking its two major river systems up cannot help but have
unknown consequences.

There is another quite terrifying prospect for China’s rivers.
Almost all major river systems in China – The Yangtze, Yellow, Mekong,
Salween, Brahmaputra, Ganges, just to name a few – find their
headwaters on the Tibetan Plateau where the annual glacial melt is now
reported to be over 7% due to climate change. One of the most serious
consequences of this fact will be that the river systems of Asia that
rise in the Himalayas will lose their sources in less than two decades.
If this time-table table remains accurate, it would be very ill-advised
for China to invest in a lot of hydro-electric power facilities,
because the actuarial table on them would be extremely short.

One other interesting phenomenon in the world of hydroelectric power
in China is the development of small scale private dams. I had a
student here at UC Berkeley working on this and what he found was that
in water-rich provinces like Zhejiang, some very enterprising
entrepreneurs were putting up private dams and selling power locally.
Such efforts have their virtue, but with environmental regulations and
enforcement being what they are in China, it would not be surprising if
many of these wildcat projects had serious deleterious effects on local

So, the bitter reality for China is this: Hydro-electric power
sounds wonderful, and is clean. But in China, Coal is still king, and
will remain so for the foreseeable future.


You’re one of the principal chroniclers of the growth of what
might be called a “middle-class sensibility” in China. Elsewhere, that
phenomenon has brought with it a rising demand for cleaner air, water
and industries. Is it your impression today that the broad middle class
in China is on the same course — moving away from a tacit acceptance of
environmental degradation in exchange for ever-increasing material
prosperity? — Frank Viviano



Frank, I think China is in something of a tipping point moment on this
question. Clearly, Chinese have enjoyed being able to materially
improve their lives these past two decades. And, after having been
materially starved for so long under Mao, they have done so with great
gusto. But now, many Chinese are beginning to ask both “meaning of
life” and “quality of life” questions. Now that they have all the
necessities, and even certain unnecessary bourgeois affectations, they
are beginning to wonder what life is all about. And, besides such
things as the recrudescence of religion, they are beginning to wonder
what happen to the sun, the sky and nature. They are also beginning to
be very worried about pollution, toxic water, contaminated food and the
effects of these on their children.

I think the leadership is well aware of this incipient concern, and
that the environment could become a major cause of unrest. Indeed,
already, there have been numerous cases of protest and even violence
that have centered around environmental pollution issues, such as the
location of new plants by residential areas, mining disasters and toxic

So, I think the middle class will become more and more connected to these issues and less and less supine.


After reading this sad story, I really feel hopeless for China’s
situation. There are increasing gaps between the coast area (developed
regions) and the inland area (developing / under developed). Will the
poor be poorer, rich be richer? It may be possible to keep regions like
Shanghai or Beijing clean, while for inland regions which are producing
energy and resources for those developed regions in China, I can’t see
the future for the people there.

Some leap-frog effect was expected to happen in China, based on
lessons western nations learned during their industrialization process
50 or 100 years ago. However, facing the compressed pressure from
economic development, local pollution and global climate change at the
same time, China is facing the challenges western nations haven’t met.
Western nations had a long period of time, 50 to 100 years to solve
those problems one by one (industrialization, urbanization, local
environment improvement and current global climate change). But for
China, all those need to be solved at the same time. Is it a mission
impossible, dear Mr.Schell? — Ying Hua / Xiaodi


Ying Hua, your question allows us to step back and, instead of looking
at China’s situation success by success and problem by problem, to look
at it in a macro sense.

China has undeniably created something of a development “miracle” in
terms of GDP, per-capita income and raising the standard-of-living of
tens of millions of ordinary Chinese. But it comes as no surprise to
you that there has also a darker side in this impressive record of
progress. One aspect of darkness is the staggeringly high environmental
cost China has had to pay for its development, which we have already
discussed at some length. Another is the yawning gap between rich and
poor that has developed so that China, once the most egalitarian
country in the word (albeit, a poor country), is now one of the most

Deng Xiaoping once said that “It is alright for some people to get
rich first,” implying that these nouveau riche would pave the way for
others to follow. Or, as China’s most famous essayist and short story
writer, Lu Xun, once wrote, “Hope is like a path. In fact, even though
there is no path, once many people have trod there, a path appears.”
So, we may hope that more and more people will be able to trod the path
to riches in China.

Alas, in China, as in the US and elsewhere around the world, the
process of national enrichment has almost never involved a simple
elevation of the many. It has also involved an ever greater
de-lamination between the standards of living of the rich and poor.
And, it is always the poor that bear the brunt of the down-side
consequences of even a rising tide that has been calculated to raise
many boats. They suffer the worst environmental consequence, living
standard, health care etc as well as the indignity of seeing themselves
falling ever farther behind the wealthiest members of society.

So, it is an inescapable part of marketized life that as a middle
class forms and the rich grow richer, and all too many of the poor
remain poor.

Chinese government is quite aware of this dilemma, as well as how
easily such a disparity leads to disaffection and protest. Indeed, this
malady was, of course, exactly where Mao Zedong came in to make his
“class analyses” and to start his revolution during the Kuomintang era.
And so, the leadership has, in fact, begun a considered effort to move
industries into the poorer hinterland, even to buddy up poor inland
counties in provinces such as Shandong with richer coastal counties.

The real macro problem is that it will be impossible for China, and
the world, to sustain the rise of 1.3 billion Chinese to the same
standard of living enjoyed by Americans without over-burdening our
already exhausted planet with too much resource extraction and
pollution. And so China finds itself on the horns of an almost
insoluble dilemma, namely, how can it keep developing and not destroy
itself and the world? One thing is certain, it will not be able to
remedy this problem on its own. It will need help.

So, it seems to me that the only conceivable answer to this global
dilemma is through some realignment and reorganization of how we
structure the world and its resources… In other words, a major
revolution in which rich and poor countries find the will to
collaborate and cooperate in ways that maximize the possibilities for
development, while minimizing the environmental costs.

This is admittedly something of an idealist’s dream, and not
particularly likely to come about. But since we are all now in this
together – Americans and Chinese do, after all, share the same
atmosphere – there are not a great number of choices.

Finally, all that one can say about the threat of carbon emissions,
green house gases and global warming and climate change is that China’s
entry into the developing world changes the paradigm of globalization.
Whether Americans and Chinese like each other or not; whether our
governments have major disagreements and argue over contentious issues
with each other or not; or whether we view each other as military
“competitors,” or even enemies, or not, what happens in China will now
affect what happens in America and elsewhere around the world. In
short, we cannot escape each other. Like the famous Ming Dynasty novel,
“All Men Are Brothers,” we are now all inseparable.

So, China does not have 50 to 100 years to both develop and solve
the environmental consequences of all that development. But then,
neither does the world. We simply have to start looking at this
problem, and China, in different manner and our own presidential
election would not be a bad place to start this discussion. Frankly
speaking, it is quite shocking that no candidate has yet really joined
the issue of our relations to China, much less what we as a nation
should do about global climate change.


What portion of all the pollution generated in China stems from
the manufacture of products created solely for consumption in China?
What portion of all the pollution generated in China today is a result
of products being manufactured for US and European Markets? Here in the
US it’s almost impossible to buy anything made in the US anymore. But
it’s not just our manufacturing that’s been “off-shored” to China, its
our pollution that has been off-shored to China. If American products
were manufactured in America their manufacture would require far less
energy (because of our advanced, and more expensive production
techniques), and would generate far less pollution since we have
rigorous laws to protect the environment. China does not yet have those
laws, and so the American producers flock there to exploit underpaid
labor, to exploit a country whose government is not enforcing the few
weak environmental protection laws, or labor protection laws, that it
has enacted. Don’t Chinese realize that their country has become the
dumping ground for the wealthy nations’ pollution? — Thomas Laird


Tom, you have pointed out something that is often missed in the
scramble to criticize China and to blame it for “stealing American

While it is true that a large quotient of American manufacturing has
fled to China where labor costs are cheaper and unions less fractious,
it is also true that we have managed to export huge amounts of
pollution, the by products of any consumer society such as ours. So
while our industries have packed up and left, so have the smokestacks,
outfall pipes and industrial waste dumps. As we have become a service
and information economy, China has become a free-fire zone for
conventional industries which produce toxic air, water and other
wastes. But, the advantage to the US (and other developed countries) of
off-shoring all this pollution has been considerable.

However, as we begin to understand that here on our ever shrinking
planet, pollution exported to one country does not obey the laws of
sovereignty, and has a tendency to migrate – especially in our
increasingly globalized world – we are coming to realize that even if
China should welcome our polluting industries for its own developmental
reasons, we never quite escape the consequences of manufacturing so
much stuff we really don’t need.

So, dust and particulate matter from Mongolia and coal-fired plants
in China are now appearing on the West Coast of America in the form of
huge plumes of pollutants borne around the world by the jet stream;
contaminated food processed in China is killing pets in America;
poisonous tooth paste is laying people low in Panama; and toxic trains
are being gnawed upon by toddlers in Moline, Ill.

There is a kind of commons at work here, for better or ill. But, it
might behoove Americans to look at the balance sheet of lost jobs as
having both plusses and minus:

The minuses are that we lose industries and jobs, a process which is
very traumatic for the communities which depend on the, The pluses
include the fact that someone else (in the short run) has to deal with
all the pollution in keep our Wal-Marts and Home Depots effulgent with
goods every conceivable kind of low-cost good.

Published by Kit Stolz

I'm a freelance reporter and writer based in Ventura County.

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