While swapping notes on China’s latest “airpocalypse” a few days later, Hal Harvey, the American chief executive of Energy Innovation, who is working with China’s government to try to get its air quality back under control, asked a powerful question: “What if China meets every criteria of economic success except one: You can’t live there.”
Indeed, what good is it having all those sparkling new buildings if you’re trapped inside them? What good is it if China’s rapid growth has enabled 4 million people in Beijing to own cars, but the traffic never moves? What good is it if China’s per capita incomes have risen to a level affording tens of millions of once-poor peasants diets rich in milk and meat, but they can’t trust the labels? What good is all that rising GDP, if there is no clean air to breathe?
China has built amazing hardware in 30 years — modern cities, roads, airports, ports and telecoms — bringing more people out of poverty faster than any country in the history of the world. The Chinese have much to be proud of. Every healthy economy, though, depends on a healthy environment. China will stall if President Xi Jinping and his government do not now build the software — the institutionalized laws, courts and norms — that can ensure that all this growth will not be undermined by an epidemic of despoiled land and dirty air.
That is easier said than done. China is a one-party system with multiple, competing interests inside. More enlightened party leaders in Beijing may declare, “We have to clean this up,” but they still have to get the local bosses — whose bonuses depend largely on generating economic growth — “to assert environmental interests at least as strongly as economic interests,” said Harvey.
Peggy Liu, the founder of JUCCCE, is working with Chinese consumers, producers and bureaucrats to define and implement a more sustainable “Chinese dream” that must be different from the American dream of a house, a car, a yard and a throwaway economy for all. I think building the institutional support for a sustainable Chinese dream is the most important thing Xi can do.
“China doesn’t have to have rivers that run bright red with industrial waste, or our lakes and beaches smothered by thick, green algae, or 18,000 dead virused pigs floating down the Huangpu River,” Liu recently wrote. “We shouldn’t have to check our air quality index app on our phone every day to determine whether we should let our children outside to play. There shouldn’t be any more Chinese children who, when they go abroad for the first time, ask: ‘Mommy, why is the sky so blue?’”
“China can be better than this. China needs to carve our own unique way to a thriving life and stable community — a path that is a sustainable path. If we don’t do this soon, we will end up with a China Nightmare. And there’s no escaping that a China Nightmare is a global nightmare.”