On a global level the economic miracle that is modern China is far more involved than immediately apparent.
Like the NIMBY affluents they are, the developed world has been happy to let China become the nineteenth-century Pittsburgh of the world, hosting nasty, smelly polluting facilities and shipping the products out.
China has become so good at being the forge of the world, the rate of pollution is literally breath-taking.
But just as the speed and scale of China’s rise as an economic power have no clear parallel in history, so its pollution problem has shattered all precedents. Environmental degradation is now so severe, with such stark domestic and international repercussions, that pollution poses not only a major long-term burden on the Chinese public but also an acute political challenge to the ruling Communist Party. And it is not clear that China can rein in its own economic juggernaut.Free-trade foes should ponder how much we want those dirty jobs back. While employment for undereducated Americans was a godsend when our industrial age was dawning, pushing Americans to get more education and shift to non-manufacturing jobs isn't all bad either. Our economy demonstrates this positive aspect of globalization.
Public health is reeling. Pollution has made cancer China’s leading cause of death, the Ministry of Health says. Ambient air pollution alone is blamed for hundreds of thousands of deaths each year. Nearly 500 million people lack access to safe drinking water.
Chinese cities often seem wrapped in a toxic gray shroud. Only 1 percent of the country’s 560 million city dwellers breathe air considered safe by the European Union. Beijing is frantically searching for a magic formula, a meteorological deus ex machina, to clear its skies for the 2008 Olympics. [More of a brilliant NYT article]
But factories and power plants have to be somewhere, and I think China is awakening to the fact that what we have really outsourced to them is our environmental problems.
It has implications for their ag sector as well.
Perhaps an even more acute challenge is water. China has only one-fifth as much water per capita as the United States. But while southern China is relatively wet, the north, home to about half of China’s population, is an immense, parched region that now threatens to become the world’s biggest desert.
Farmers in the north once used shovels to dig their wells. Now, many aquifers have been so depleted that some wells in Beijing and Hebei must extend more than half a mile before they reach fresh water. Industry and agriculture use nearly all of the flow of the Yellow River, before it reaches the Bohai Sea.
The surge in US pork exports to China that experts attribute to Chinese swine disease problems and Beijing Olympic stage-dressing could be just the first indicator of an important trend. We saw something like this as the Soviet ag sector crumbled, but this time the customer is loaded with cash.