WASHINGTON – What is most remarkable about the almost historic “smog crisis” enveloping China is that all the state media and the authorities talk about it candidly and openly, almost emulating the “glasnost” days of the declining Soviet Union.
China’s moment of truth
I do believe that the unprecedented levels of smog in Beijing and in practically all large metropolitan areas in North Eastern China may represent an unprecedented “moment of truth” for the citizens of China, for the economy and for the Communist Party that is responsible for having pursued a “growth at all costs” strategy, regardless of environmental consequences.
Well, the fine outcome of 30 years of unrestricted growth is literally “Hell on Earth”. If you cannot breathe the air in the brand new cities you’ve built, who will want to live there? What’s the use of 10% growth year after year, if the outcome is an unlivable environment?
The environment is a serious matter
In China these days “the environment” is not a concern for sophisticated intellectuals worried about the welfare of spotted owls or romantic tree huggers. It is about basic quality of life. Levels of smog several times above hazardous thresholds are not just a passing inconvenience. They become a serious crisis, an issue of public health (or lack thereof) affecting tens of millions.
Telling the truth
That said, what is truly intriguing regarding this unprecedented smog crisis is that the Chinese media, having abandoned the traditional reluctance to give and seriously discuss bad news, plunged head on into this air pollution story with uncharacteristic zest. There is almost total openness about the scope and seriousness of the problem and all the questions that it raises about China’s economic development model.
Segments of “Dialogue”, (a TV show on the English language CCTV), dedicated to the smog issue could have been produced by American or European media. The discussion was open, real data cited and clear calls for radical change made.
All guests on the TV show commented on the fact that the Chinese Government at last started publishing real data about air and environmental quality, so that the public can have a good idea of what is actually going on.
This is truly remarkable. While the Chinese media do not call 30 years of unchecked, runaway development a “failure”, the implication is obvious that the model adopted and followed in order to produce growth was and is deficient. An economic strategy that produces air tens of millions of people should not breathe cannot be that good.
Now the people know
So far, so good. The environmental degradation issue is out there. It is also clear that it has been caused by unchecked economic growth. The extent of the damage is no longer denied or camouflaged with false or incomplete data. The media discuss all this. The public gets it.
But then what? It is clear that there is no quick fix for any of this.
The only way to get to a substantially improved environment is to close down or substantially upgrade/retrofit old manufacturing facilities and power plants. This would entail massive investments in what is now the world’s second largest economy. This is capital that will be diverted from productive activities.
The political cost of going green
It would be wise for China to “go green”. The point is that it is difficult and extremely expensive; while it will take years before tangible results will be achieved. And, while there will be huge benefits for the general population, the price of this gigantic policy shift will include a lower rate of growth, meaning fewer Chinese escaping poverty or a very low standard of living.
Looking ahead, the real question is whether the Communist Party can manage all this, while retaining its prestige and power intact. I doubt it.