human rights, trade deals, secret campaign contributions and, most recently, stock market crashes -- these are the issues that come to mind when Americans think of China. But so far we have overlooked what may be the real China problem: the environmental catastrophe rapidly unfolding there.
China's environmental disaster threatens not only the Chinese people -- who are dying in the hundreds of thousands every year from staggering levels of air and water pollution -- but all humanity. With its gigantic population and booming economy, China can single-handedly guarantee that climate change, ozone depletion and other deadly hazards become a reality for people the world over.
In the back of our minds, Americans may suspect that China is an environmental wasteland -- after all, we know what happened in the Soviet Union. But the truth has yet to be revealed in all its ghastly vividness, not least because of China's restrictions on foreign journalists. I recently spent six weeks traveling unmonitored throughout China, interviewing everyone from senior government officials and scientific experts to unpaid workers and newly prosperous peasants. Everywhere, it seemed, the land had been scalped, the water poisoned, the air made toxic and dark.
Five of the 10 most air-polluted cities in the world are in China, and one of every four deaths is caused by lung disease. Yet coal consumption will triple over the next 25 years, making China the world's leading greenhouse gas producer and all but dooming global efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by the 60 to 80 percent recommended by U.N. scientists.
Moreover, China's infamous "one-child policy" has been withdrawn for fear of social unrest, and population growth is out of control. China claims it has 1.22 billion people -- nearly one of every four humans on earth -- but the true number is surely higher and growing by 15 million people a year. These people understandably want to join the global middle class, with all that entails: cars, air conditioning, jet travel, closets full of clothes and dire ecological consequences.
China's government admits that its factories and smokestacks must be cleaned up, but it fears that doing the right thing environmentally would be political suicide. The problem is that faithfully implementing China's environmental laws would mean closing thousands of factories and throwing tens of millions of people out of work, and the Party's tattered legitimacy might not survive that. The transition to a private market free-for-all has caused much more social unrest than most outsiders realize, including numerous riots in recent months. Thus even top environmental officials accept that economic growth must take precedence over environmental protection for years to come.
"You cannot stop a billion people," says one advocate who regrets the losses China's rapid growth will cause to ecosystems around the world. But the scope of those losses can be influenced -- if swift, decisive action is taken. Beginning with this week's summit meeting in Washington between Chinese President Jiang Zemin and President Clinton, the Chinese environmental crisis must be elevated to the highest level of importance in the world's dealings with China. With (self-interested) help from the United States, Japan and other wealthy nations, a program to install efficient equipment and processes throughout China's energy system could reduce its energy consumption by 50 percent. But there is no time for delay or half-measures. As a government scientist in Chongqing, perhaps the world's most polluted city, told me, "It is never too late to learn, but it is very late."