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China Exports Environmental Problems


China has not only become a top exporter of toys and textiles, but also of environmental problems. Countries in the region and beyond are increasingly affected by the negative side effects of China's rapid economic growth.

An explosion at a chemical plant in Northeast China in November not only poisoned a river that provides drinking water for millions of Chinese, but also sent a poisonous slick flowing across the border into Russia a few weeks later.

China is paying a high price for its rapid economic growth. An estimated 70 percent of the country's rivers are polluted, the air quality in its cities is among the worst in the world, and its deserts are expanding rapidly due to land abuse, industrialization and urbanization.

The country trails only the United States in its emission of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas thought to be contributing to global climate change.

Increasingly, even as it becomes one of the world's leading exporters of manufactured goods, China is also becoming a leading exporter of pollution. May Ng, director of the environmental organization Friends of the Earth in Hong Kong, puts the situation in graphic terms.

"First of all, [in] the recent years, the sand storms due to desertification from Mongolia has been affecting not only the capital Beijing, it has also blown all the way over to Japan and Korea, and there has been some real concerns from the other countries," said May Ng. "Secondly, most of the rivers are connected - for example [the] Nu Jiang from Yunnan flows down to Burma, Laos and Cambodia, and this Songhuajiang River flows from Harbin to Russia. So through rivers, upstream, downstream, there is definite impact."

Air pollution does not respect national boundaries, either. One of the region's most pressing cross-border concerns is acid rain, caused by emissions from China's coal fired power plants.

Hong Kong residents were still able to enjoy clear skies in the 1990s. Now, thanks to filthy air drifting across the border from China, the city's skyscrapers can often be seen only through a veil of smog.

Kevin May of the environmental organization Greenpeace says that while Hong Kong is partly responsible for its own air pollution, most of the filth comes from China's neighboring Guangdong Province.

"Guangdong is the most industrialized province - the world's factory - and because the environmental standards have not been upheld, we can feel it, particularly in winter time," he explained.

China's ferocious appetite for natural resources is having a more indirect but still serious environmental effect in other parts of Asia. In the past few years, for example, the country has become the world's second largest importer of forest products.

Beijing banned most of its own logging in the late 1990s, believing growing deforestation was a key factor behind large-scale flooding in the country. At the same time, domestic demand for wood products grew as Chinese became wealthier, and sought high quality decorations for their homes and offices.

China buys most of its wood from Russia, but also buys from such countries as Burma, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Greg Clough is a spokesperson of the Center for International Forestry Research in Bogor, Indonesia. He says that while China's huge demand for timber has created jobs in the region, the massive logging comes with serious social, economic and environmental costs.

"This demand is encouraging corruption, for example, illegal logging," he said. "It is undermining good governance, costing countries billions of dollars in lost tax revenue. And of course the loss of the world's tropical forests does have severe environmental costs, for example the loss of rare species."

May Ng of Friends of the Earth says environmental issues are a time bomb that could lead to conflicts between China and its neighbors. She says Beijing has not yet sufficiently realized how important environmental conflict can be in international relations.

"I think China is now so bad that it is more worried about cross-provincial or cross-township pollution, without even sparing time to look [at] cross-border neighborhood countries' pollution," she said.

Ng believes political stability in the region is dependent on ecological stability. She says Asian governments need to join forces to prevent environmental hazards - similar to the joint efforts being used to combat bird flu.