A Massive Destruction of Nature: China's Ecological Crisis

— George Fish

The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenge to China’s Future
by Elizabeth C. Economy
A Council on Foreign Relations Book, Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2004. 350 pp. $29.95 hardcover

Elizabeth C. Economy, C.V. Starr Senior Fellow of the Council on Foreign Affairs, opens her book on China’s ecological crisis with a graphic first chapter depicting the late July, 2001 pollution crisis affecting the Huai River. This major waterway in central China runs through the city of Nanjing and empties into the East China Sea by Shanghai.

When more than 38 billion gallons of highly polluted water was flushed into it, the Huai River literally turned black, agriculture and fishing were devastated, pollution-borne disease became rampant with incalculable longterm effects. The Huai’s water was rendered unfit even for industrial use and agricultural irrigation, let alone human and animal consumption.

Response by Chinese officialdom to this crisis of the Huai River, as had been true of other environmental crises in the past going back to the days of Mao, was slow, hesitant and half-hearted, and the fate of the Huai River and its fertile Basin still remains much in doubt.

One positive change was that the loosening of political controls in post-Mao China did enable more publicity and direct protest on this crisis by the populace than had been previously allowed, albeit still only within the confines allowed by China’s authoritarian leadership and political structure.

But as Ms. Economy points out in much detail in The River Runs Black, major ecological crises and deterioration of the environment engendered by the Chinese leadership’s vigorous pursuit of its definition of “economic development” not only goes back decades, but continues. Whether the deterioration of the Chinese environment by this “economic development” will be addressed, much less remedied, is very much in doubt.

Pretty words and initiatives from the top are frequently rendered meaningless by local and provincial officials bent on maintaining their “developmental” prerogatives; and despite some political openings, the workers, peasants and intellectuals are still expected to remain cowed and acquiescent to the authorities.

Threats to Life and Growth

China’s Gross Domestic Product has grown rapidly—with the Peoples Republic of China abandoning its previous economic autarky and now actively “opening up” to the worldwide capitalist market, and with industrialization and new economic projects advancing at a pell-mell pace.

The very viability and sustainability of this economic growth is now thrown into question, however, by the toll it has been allowed to take on the natural environment. As Ms. Economy states on the first page of this book: “Today, the environment is beginning to exert its toll on the Chinese people, impinging on continued economic development, forcing large-scale migration, and inflicting significant harm on the public’s health.”

Indeed, early in The River Runs Black Ms. Economy lists several concomitant ecological problems that have been engendered by this frantic, supposedly non-ideological emphasis on “economic development.” Nature’s casualties include the rampant and recurring flooding of the Yangtze and other major rivers; spreading desertification, with deserts now covering one-fourth of China’s land mass and steadily eating up more and more of China’s arable land, and causing the skies around Beijing and other northern cities to darken from recurring dust storms; severe and growing water shortages; dwindling forests, with much of the still- remaining forest areas continuing to dwindle due to illegal logging; and a massive and still-growing human population, the world’s largest population in any one country occupying an arable land mass that was never very large to begin with, and one which continuing pollution and environmental degradation continue to erode.

Ms. Economy is somewhat of a free-market meliorist, although far from being a devotee of an unregulated market economy. While acknowledging that Chinese “economic reforms” since 1976—which turned Chinese economic growth toward market forces and integration into the world capitalist economy no matter what the social costs—are a major contributor to China’s current ecological crises, she also thinks that this same dominant market-oriented approach can also be the means by which China can solve its ecological crisis.

What’s absent from Ms. Economy’s calculation as a solution to China’s ecological crisis is a popular response, culminating in thoroughgoing economic and social revolution, save in her wish for a more extensive non-ideological democratization of China’s authoritarian political structure. She conceives a “non-ideological,” technocratic approach that sees the world capitalist market economy, and China’s participation in it, not only as a perpetual “given,” but also a godsend both for China and the world.

A Market Fix?

In this regard, she sees funding by the IMF, World Bank and foreign capitalist investors for certain environmental protection measures and in providing China with non-polluting technology, accompanied by a more serious approach to environmental regulation by Chinese officialdom, as worthwhile all in themselves, and markets as a non-ideological technical tool to deepen responsiveness to ecological considerations.

In this, Ms. Economy stands apart from the obsession of the Chinese “economic reform” leaderships from 1976 on, from Deng Xiaoping up to and including the current leaders, President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, who used and continue to use markets as means to promote economic growth as an almost exclusive end in itself.

It wasn’t until over two decades after the “economic reforms” began that independent agencies for environmental protection were even brought into existence within the Chinese governmental bureaucracy. Prior to that, environmental protection was always under the control of the ministries for economic development and foreign trade, and remains subject to their objections.

At various United Nations conferences on the environment, the Chinese delegates always insisted that international concern over Chinese pollution and environmental degradation was a ploy by Western economically-developed nations to stymie the Third World’s economic development and keep it dependent. While Ms. Economy too readily dismisses these Chinese objections out of hand, failing to note the half-truth involved that Western capitalist economic growth produced the initial world pollution crisis in the first place, she is right to note that it was only from the 1992 Rio de Janeiro conference that China’s leadership took world concerns about Chinese pollution and environmental degradation seriously.

Grassroots Green Activism

Ms. Economy also documents extensively and favorably China’s growing Green movement, a grassroots movement of citizens and NGOs that has been allowed to exist, sometimes with official approval and sometimes officially harassed, which has spearheaded public awareness of China’s ecological crisis and even engaged in action against some of the more flagrant environmental abuses.

Politically, this Green movement runs the gamut from the studiously apolitical, who emphasize recycling and other ameliorative measures, to activists who link official Chinese neglect of the environment to the lack of democracy within the Chinese political process itself, a process still very authoritarian despite official moves under Hu Jintao toward “transparency” and a considerable loosening up since the days of Mao Zedong.

Ms. Economy also notes that neglect of the environment in the name of economic growth not only predates the “economic reforms” of 1976, or even the rule by Mao and the Chinese Communist Party after the 1949 Revolution, but is also a theme with deep roots in traditional Chinese culture and ethos itself.

Despite Taoist and Buddhist conceptions that emphasized humans living in harmony with nature, the reigning Confucian ethos saw nature as only a tool to be used by humans as they saw fit to advance their desires, humans as active and nature as only a passive vehicle. This Confucian ethos was given a Communist face under Mao, and continued after the “economic reforms” of 1976.

Concern in Chinese thought for the environment, then, is generally a new phenomenon in a culture that is over 4,000 years old; and such concern is by no means widespread, not only among Chinese officialdom, but among the Chinese people themselves.

All the above, which I’ve presented in outline, is richly specified, detailed and documented by both English and Chinese-language sources and interviews with key actors in The River Runs Black. It is also presented in a way that makes understanding accessible to the non-specialist in Chinese affairs as well as being informative to the specialist.

A Wider Perspective

In a fascinating next to last chapter, Ms. Economy parallels China’s ecological crisis with similar ecological crises that developed in both the command economies of “already existing socialism” in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, and in the developed capitalist economies of East and Southeast Asia (South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Malaysia and Singapore).

She roots the emergence of these crises in the paths of economic development chosen by elites unaccountable to their publics in both cases. She notes that, as with China today, the command “socialist” economies of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union and the free-market developed economies of East and Southeast Asia shared an ongoing lack of transparency, democracy and political participation by their ordinary citizens in economic policy and development decisions.

As in China, unchecked pollution and environmental degradation went unaddressed until it reached catastrophic proportions, because both the “socialist” and capitalist elites favored and were beneficiaries of economic growth that was preoccupied solely with GDP and the “success” of industrial projects, and could not be held accountable by ordinary people who also supposedly “benefitted” from such preoccupation. Interestingly enough, Ms. Economy gives us much detail on how the Green movements of Eastern Europe undermined the whole stability of “already existing socialism.” As involvement in supposedly apolitical environmental concerns was the only form of political participation allowed, within these environmental movements political desire for other changes fermented surreptitiously.

Ms. Economy sees similar processes ongoing in Green movements in China today, where some environmental activists are openly tying the continuing ecological degradation to political questions of democratization and popular participation.

Uncertain Prospects

In her final chapter, Ms. Economy outlines three possible scenarios for China’s ecological future, all of which she sees presently as equal possibilities. The first is continued deepening of ecological degradation in the name of promoting economic development, until the degradation itself slams the brakes on such development, perhaps with irreversible ecological damage.

The second is a “greening of China” with a deepening ecological consciousness finally being able to make itself felt in a democratized Chinese political and economic process, perhaps with the spreading success of local green initiatives such as those of the Mayor of Shanghai, who has led successful efforts to transform this sprawling, heavily polluted largest city in the world into a Green City.

The third scenario is continuation of the present uneasy status quo, where ecological concerns are pressed only hesitantly and half-heartedly by the officialdom against the claims of “economic development” at all costs, and the public voice remains muted. What then does the ecological crisis in China richly detailed in The River Runs Black mean for us, socialists oriented toward rank-and-file democracy? First of all, we note that ecological concerns do not separate themselves from social, economic and political concerns, and are not fully addressed apart from them.

Thus, the hoped-for Greening of China is inseparable from carrying through socialist measures in China under the auspices of the Chinese workers, peasants and left intellectuals themselves. This is not a Greening that can, or will come through capitalism.

An Uneasy Hybrid

This must lead us of the left now to address what is the nature of the present regime in China. In the view of this writer, that nature is still up for grabs, for China is now in an unstable halfway house. Leading market socialist theorist David Schweickart sees China today as an “authoritarian market socialism,” while to Maoists and some other non-Maoist theorists of the left (for example, Zhang Kai in Against the Current 113) China has already “restored capitalism.”

This writer sees China today as essentially an authoritarian economic hybrid of the type that prevailed in the “New Democracy” period of the Chinese Revolution, 1949–1953. It is a mixed economy of both public and private economic enterprises, albeit one which has “opened up” to the world capitalist market instead of making a virtue out of the autarky forced upon it by Cold War hostility and isolation.

Indeed, the “opening up” of China by the Chinese leadership was also concomitant with the “opening up” to China by the Western capitalist powers, who wanted to integrate China and its vast market potential into the world capitalist market system.

Suffice it to note here that, while the State Owned Enterprise sector of the Chinese economy continues to shrink as these firms are sold off, most of them were inefficient economic liabilities to begin with. Further, the majority of Chinese firms are cooperative joint-stock enterprises with the workers in such firms being stockholders themselves, and all foreign investment ventures in China still require partnership with a Chinese entity.

Certainly, there’s much that smacks of capitalist exploitation in what the Chinese officialdom calls “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” But, to this writer, calling China “capitalist” on that account is akin to declaring Sweden “socialist.”

In any case we “socialists from below” have never regarded state ownership in itself to be the defining characteristic of socialism. Socialism for us has always involved a whole panoply of liberatory relationships, economic to be sure, but also social, cultural and political. We uphold what Marx and Engels expressed in the Communist Manifesto as characterizing socialism, that it means a social arrangement where “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”

Stalin repudiated this, and canonized the notion that socialism meant only one thing, “correct economic relationships,” and too many anti-Stalinist socialists swallowed this nostrum as uncritically as the Stalinists. Indeed, as we consider for example the infamous pet project of the Chinese leadership, the Three Gorges Dam project to create a massive reservoir and hydroelectric power generation by a damming of the Yangtze River that destroys both invaluable Chinese cultural legacies and the environment—a project meeting with indignation from Chinese and non-Chinese alike—we do look most askance at the “economic reforms” pushed by the Chinese leadership.

But we also look most askance at Maoists such as Robert Weil in his book Red Cat, White Cat, while critical of Chinese “economic reform, extolling the supposed “moderate economic growth” under the leadership of Mao Zedong. Long before the Three Gorges Dam even got underway, Mao-led “economic reform” meant gargantuan monstrosities as well, authoritarian politically-manipulated violent lurches such as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.

These disasters not only failed to produce “economic growth,” “moderate” or otherwise, but left economic, political and social chaos and dislocation in their wake. We as socialists committed to rank-and-file democracy and participation do not limit ourselves to embracing one or the other unacceptable “mainstream” paradigm as the only ones possible.

We reject both the idea that “socialism” is something handed down from leaders at the top, and also the doctrine that economic development can only take place under capitalist auspices. And in our rejection we note that yesterday’s top-down “socialists” in Eastern Europe and Russia became tomorrow’s capitalists. The question of China’s direction is an important one for us, both practically and theoretically, for it does raise questions both practical and theoretical about the viability and feasibility of any form of collective ownership, not just those of a socialism which is inherently democratic.

So we must, indeed, follow developments in China closely. And from this, we look with interest indeed at the ecological crisis in China and the emerging Green movement there. Not only for China but in all our political work, we call and work for the Redding of the Green and the Greening of the Red. In this work we will find Elizabeth C. Economy’s The River Runs Black valuable and informative.

ATC 116, May–June 2005