News Analysis: China’s Pollution Poses Grave Threats to Asia’s Stability By NATHAN NANKIVELL Pacific News Service

Friday January 13, 2006

As pollution and environmental degradation in China worsen, the Communist government has been unable or unwilling to prescribe measures needed to address the problem. This inability carries grave consequences, threatening stability not only in China, but also the region. 

There is little disagreement that China’s environment is a mounting problem for Beijing. According to an Aug. 19, 2004 Economist report, China produces as many sulfur emissions as Tokyo and Los Angeles combined; it is home to 16 of the world’s 20 most-polluted cities; water pollution affects as much as 70 percent of the country; and air pollution is blamed for the premature death of some 400,000 Chinese annually. 

In spite of greater awareness, pollution and environmental degradation are likely to worsen. Chinese consumers are expected to purchase hundreds of millions of automobiles. Despite pledges to put the environment first, national planners still aim to double per capita GDP by 2010. Cities will grow, leading to the creation of slums and stressing urban sanitation and delivery systems. 

The nation lacks a powerful national body able to coordinate, monitor and enforce environmental legislation: the State Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) is under-staffed and has few resources. 

To address the problems, it will take an aggressive effort by the central government to eliminate corruption, establish the rule of law and transparency, incentives and investment. As it stands, decision-making falls to local officials who are more concerned with economic growth than the environment. 

As the impact of pollution on human health becomes more widespread, it is leading to greater political mobilization and social unrest. There were more than 74,000 incidents of unrest recorded in China in 2004, up from 58,000 the year before. While there are no clear statistics linking protests, riots and unrest specifically to pollution issues, pollution was one of four social problems linked to disharmony by the Central Committee. 

Pollution issues unite communities and impact rich and poor, farmers and businessmen, families and individuals alike. As local communities respond through united opposition, Beijing is left with no easy target on which to blame unrest, and no simple option for how to quell whole communities that have a common grievance. The steady spread of new media like cell phones, e-mail and text messaging prevents authorities from silencing and hiding unrest. 

Moreover, protests serve as a venue for the politically disaffected, who may be open to other forms of political rule. Social unrest could challenge the Communist Chinese Party’s (CCP) total political control, thus potentially destabilizing a state with a huge military arsenal and a history of violent, internal conflict that cannot be ignored. 

While unrest is the most obvious example of security threats linked to pollution, the cost of environmental destruction could also begin to reverse the blistering rate of economic growth that is the foundation of CCP legitimacy. Estimates maintain that a 7 percent annual growth is required to preserve social stability. Yet the costs of pollution are already taxing the economy by 8 and 12 percent of GDP per year. As 

environmental problems mount, this percentage will increase, reducing annual growth. As a result, the CCP’s legitimacy could be undermined. 

While many would welcome political change in China, especially the implosion of the Party, it must be noted that such an event would most likely be marked by transitional violence. Though mostly directed toward dissident Chinese, violence would affect regional security through immigration, impediments to trade, and an increased military presence along the Chinese border. 

On the international scene, China’s seemingly insatiable appetite for timber and other resources, such as fish, is fueling illegal exports from nations like Myanmar and Indonesia. As these states continue to deplete key resources, they too will face problems in the years to come. 

Pollution, if linked to a specific issue like water shortage, could have important geopolitical ramifications. China’s northern plains, home to hundreds of millions, face acute water shortages. Growing demand, a decade of drought, inefficient delivery methods and increasing water pollution have reduced per capita water holdings to 

critical levels. Although Beijing hopes to relieve some of the pressures via the North-South Water Diversion project, it requires tens of billions of dollars and its completion is at best several years away and at worst impossible. Yet just to the north lies one of 

the most under-populated areas in Asia, the Russian Far East. 

Russian politicians already allege Chinese territorial designs on the region. They note Russia’s falling population in the Far East, currently estimated at some 6 to 7 million, and argue that the growing Chinese population along the border, more than 80 million, may soon take over. Any attempt by China to occupy Russian territory would 

certainly lead to full-scale war between two powerful, nuclear-equipped nations. 

Realistically, China would probably embrace greater cooperation and a possible alliance with Moscow to gain access to water, oil and other natural resources. Recent accords between the two countries include a joint military exercise and continued investment and work on an oil pipeline. Warming ties between Moscow and Beijing could threaten Western regional interests. 

In assessing security issues in China and Asia, it is essential to consider the environment. Social unrest, the potential for large-scale political mobilization and democratization are increasingly challenging CCP power and legitimacy. These trends, when linked to political change, could lead to outbreaks of violence, possible large-scale immigration and economic instability. 

Wealthy states and NGOs should consider helping China form a credible environmental movement supported by legal experts, academics and Party officials sympathetic to change. Although not a complete solution, increased foreign assistance may be a step in the right direction. Alternatively, China’s environmental degradation, left unchecked, is a threat to one of the most populated and dynamic areas on Earth. 


Nathan Nankivell is a senior researcher for the Canadian Department of National Defense. The views in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the department.