China’s Airpocalypse
As much as China needs environmental reform, it also needs political reform.

Smog has inundated the Beijing region in recent weeks.


Jillian Kay Melchior

These improvements have had a dramatic effect on the Chinese lifespan. When China began following the “capitalist road” in 1978, the average life expectancy was 66.5 years, according to the World Bank. By 2010, after three decades of economic development, that number had risen to 73.27 years, more than a 10 percent increase. And it’s notable that these gains have happened even as China has become more polluted.

It’s true that the environmental damage takes a grave toll. The World Bank estimates that pollution in China causes 750,000 premature deaths each year. That’s an incredible statistic, but it has to be paired with another: The World Bank also finds that 170 million Chinese (about 13 percent of the population) are living on $1.25 or less per day, and that only India has a population that is more impoverished. As these millions wait for their initiation into the middle class, raw poverty remains the biggest obstacle to their physical well-being. Pollution in China comes at an economic cost, too — around $100 billion a year, by the World Bank’s 2007 reckoning. But that’s still less than 6 percent of the country’s GDP.

“Sometimes the gains really outweigh the problems,” says Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations and a visiting professor at Nanjing Medical University. “But we may fail to recognize that the Chinese leaders’ economic policies might also be responsible for many of the social woes and health crises that China now is facing. Of course, there’s the issue of how to measure this social cost of development, and unfortunately, so far, we don’t have a reliable indicator to measure what is the total gain, what is the total loss, and which one is greater.” Absent such a clean calculation, the best solution would be to allow the Chinese people to decide for themselves. But China’s authoritarian system prevents them from doing so.

In liberal democracies, voters can weigh economic development against environmental protection at the ballot box. But in China, economic development has become the government’s best claim to legitimacy, which explains why Beijing is so sensitive to environmental criticism. Even at a local level, the speed of economic development is the standard used to measure officials’ performance and determine their promotions.

China’s legal system also contributes to its environmental problems. In countries with an independent, fair judiciary, citizens can sue and seek compensation when irresponsible development hurts them. But in China, the courts are explicitly a tool of the Communist government. To make matters worse, many corrupt cadres have a financial stake in the companies that harm the environment most. Citizens who petition for redress stand little chance, and in some instances they’re punished for filing suit.

Furthermore, the government owns all the land in China, though citizens can own property rights to businesses and homes constructed upon it. That government ownership makes it harder for citizens to be stewards of the land. This is not to say Chinese don’t feel pride in their land — frequent uprisings about forced evictions demonstrate their deep connection with their home plots. But when property is publicly owned, individual responsibility is eroded.

Dirty air is an easy metaphor for dirty governance, and this week’s Airpocalypse is the visible, breathable evidence of all these problems. To be sure, China needs environmental reform. But until it is accompanied by political reform, China’s most vulnerable citizens will have the most to lose.

— Jillian Kay Melchior is a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. She has traveled extensively in China as a Robert Novak fellow with the Phillips Foundation.