Why China’s an Environmental Disaster Area–and Why that Won’t Change Anytime Soon

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Two prominent economists, Zheng Yisheng and Qian Yihong, have written a piece that, as straightforwardly as anything I’ve seen written by academics or policy wonks here in China, gets at exactly why it’s so tough to make any progress reconciling economic growth with the environmental catastrophe unfolding in this country. I’m going to reprint their four main points here; but effectively, three of the four amount to: corruption, corruption and corruption.
If anyone out there can make a credible argument that this is, even in some small way,starting to change for the better, I’d love to hear it.

Ranking the Obstacles to Sustainable Development in China

Obstacle #1 The biggest obstacles are unrealistic economic goals defined in economic terms (GDP) which are then exaggerated at lower levels. Economic growth goals need to be relaxed, said Zheng. The development ministries such as the State Development Planning Commission, the State Economic and Trade Commission are much more powerful than the protective ministries such as the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA), the State Forestry Bureau (although some Chinese experts say that Forestry is more of a forest-exploiting than a forest-protecting agency.)

Obstacle #2 The second greatest obstacle to sustainable development is the private interest group-like behavior of ministries and local governments. This results in conflicting goals as each ministry and local government seeks its private advantage first and prevents a coherent policy from being implemented. This second obstacle is related to the weakness of law and the ineffectiveness of the central government in imposing policy upon different ministries and upon local government.

Obstacles #3 The third obstacle is the widespread corruption of Chinese government officials. This is closely related to obstacle #2 above. The perception of widespread corruption by government (that the government does not obey the law) probably also makes it harder to persuade Chinese people to comply with laws and weakens the authority of government generally.

Obstacle #4 The fourth obstacle is the poor quality of decision-making by Chinese government officials. This fourth obstacle is due to limitations in personal integrity, education and knowledge of many officials [Note: The Chinese term that expresses a person’s quality (suzhi) is a blend of personal integrity, education, and general knowledge. End note] but also to the poor quality of the statistics they base their decisions on. Some Chinese academic say that the elimination of the social sciences from university curricula in the early 1950s (but making a comeback today) has resulted in very narrowly educated officials and scientists who don’t understand the big picture. Premier Zhu Rongji’s government in 1998 launched a campaign still underway to stop the widespread falsification and exaggeration of statistical data that local governments send to the central government.

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