China choking on economic success

By John J. Metzler, BENNINGTON, VT., Special to The China Post

China’s rapid economic growth has happily brought many material benefits to a people deserving of prosperity after the initial decades of communist mismanagement and misrule. Still today, up to 750,000 people annually may be dying as victims of the industrial success as an ironic byproduct of the widespread pollution which literally is suffocating and choking the mainland. And in the best traditions of the People’s Republic, information about pollution’s brutal human cost has been air-brushed from a World Bank report as to avoid “social unrest.” The report, “Cost of Pollution in China,” has been significantly edited at the request of the Chinese government. According to the Financial Times of London, “Missing from this report are the research project’s findings that high air-pollution levels in Chinese cities is leading to the premature deaths of 350,000-400,000 people each year. A further 300,000 people die prematurely each year from exposure to poor air indoors, according to advisers, but little discussion of this issue survived in the report because it was outside the ambit of the Chinese ministries which sponsored the research.” The newspaper adds, “Another 60,000-odd premature deaths were attributable to poor-quality water, largely in the countryside, from severe diarrhea, and stomach, liver and bladder cancers. The mortality information was “reluctantly” excised by the World Bank from the published report, according to advisers to the research project.” Three-quarters of a million people are dying from pollution, (in the old days Maoist purges and land ‘reform’ easily reached those numbers), and it’s the usual yawn, yawn!

According to the Financial Times, China “engineered the removal of nearly a third of a World Bank report on pollution in China because of concerns that findings on premature deaths could provoke ‘social unrest.’” Given the tinderbox of social problems in rural and urban China, the Communist Party fears that even seemingly non-political issues can quickly flash up into conflict. In light of the ruler’s historic fear of chaos, there’s a perverted logic in preserving the status quo of silence. But at what cost? Beijing’s Marxist mandarins are masters at censorship, or what is more politely called “responsible or patriotic reporting.” Since London’s Financial Times broke the sordid story, there’s naturally the impulse of the ruling Communist Party to whitewash the findings. This is expected. What should hardly follow seems to appear that the World Bank has kowtowed to these political pressures.

While communist China has operated with a culture of cover-ups, corruption, and crony capitalism, within the one-party state rule, there remain serious socio/economic pressures for change. Now in the countdown to the Communist party congress in October, PRC leader Hu Jintao has appointed two non-party ministers to the government. Both the Health Minister and the Science Minister are European-trained and not party members, meaning they have no formal access to the inner sanctum. Thus while Beijing can claim some political reform, the fact remains that the new ministers, both in sensitive portfolios, can be easily sacked as fall guys. Given that China has sixteen of the world’s most polluted cities, these findings in themselves should prove little surprise. Even Hong Kong, which returned to Chinese rule a decade ago, now has a growing pollution problem. Sarah Liao, Hong Kong environment secretary told the Economist, “The sea breeze often used to save Hong Kong from the effects of filling the atmosphere with so many pollutants … we have got to the stage where we are swimming in a constant chemical soup.” Despite the genuine social and economic reforms over the past twenty years, the People’s Republic’s political system remains authoritarian. Environmental issues remain very sensitive for the leadership, who use unchecked economic growth in some provinces as a tradeoff for the unchallenged political mandate by a communist party comprising fewer than 5 percent of the population. While fully aware of the need for a cleaner environment, Beijing views pollution issues as having the political potential to promote a questioning of the central authority and prompt unrest. Given the number of people dying from this pollution, the rulers have good reason to fear. John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He can be reached at