Ecological Crisis in China

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Currently, China is experiencing an unprecedented economic growth, which commenced during the 1980s. China’s economy is estimated to grow at about 10% annually, with some coastal areas experiencing an economic growth of about 20% annually. Since the 1980s, China’s Gross Domestic Product has increased nearly nine times. Moreover, poverty has reduced significantly coupled with an improvement in the quality of life in various ways such as an increase in the life expectancy, improvements in health, and a reduction in mortality rates. China’s case has been dubbed as one of the most remarkable stories of national and human transformation in the history of mankind. However, there is a serious problem behind this success – a growing ecological crisis threatening to overturn bulk, of not all of the economic progress. The environmental problems in China have reached a crisis point and need to be addressed urgently. Currently, only 50 percent of the land in China is cultivatable, which is small for a country holding 20% of the global population. To worsen the situation, the Maoists completed ignored the environment, and the present regime, although informed of the crisis, is not in a position to address the problem. In this paper, the history of the environmental crisis in China is trace including the various perspectives on the issue. Possible solutions to the crisis are also presented.

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History of the Ecological Issue

Whereas the reforms initiated in the past three decades have resulted in a dramatic increase in the scope of the environmental crisis in China, the problem is a culmination of centuries of environmental pollution and degradation. Economy (2011) alludes that there are records indicating environmental protests dating back to the early 19th century as a result of water pollution. Moreover, there are records dating back about 100-200 years indicating areas that were resource-rich in fish and are currently resource-deficient due to overfishing as well as population pressures. There is no doubt that centuries of war resulted in significant impacts on the environment since armies stripped forests to obtain fuel, or extracted ores to develop spears and armors. Furthermore, during the past 25 years, economic reform has resulted on considerable detrimental impacts on the environment. Essentially, the various regimes and generations have inherited environmental problems from their predecessors.

Many authors agree that, whereas the economic boom in China has hastened resources and land devastation, the roots of the ecological crisis can be traced back centuries before. Dynastic leaders who embarked on consolidating territory and developing the economy of the country often exploited natural resources in such a manner that resulted in natural disasters and famine. Shapiro (2016) argues that the current ecological crisis in the country is not attributed solely to the present day policy decisions, but also due to institutions, approaches and attitudes that have grown in the course of centuries.

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It was not until during the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment that the country started establishing environmental agencies. China sent a delegation to the conference in Stockholm; however, the country’s ecological situation was already wanting. The economic reforms initiated during the 1970s played a pivotal role in encouraging the development of industries in rural areas, which further magnified the problem. Deng Xiaoping, the then Chinese leader, initiated numerous reforms aimed at increasing township and village enterprises (TVEs), and decentralizing authority to the provincial levels. As of 1997, TVEs contributed about 33% of China’s GDP. However, monitoring local governments were a challenge, and they rarely maintained environmental standards. Currently, the transitioning Chinese economy is primarily driven by large enterprises owned by the state; thus, it is still difficult to enact and enforce environmental policies in an economy whereby emphasis is placed on achieving economic targets and environmental concerns overlooked.

The environmental problem has gradually evolved to reach a crisis point. The indicators of the ecological crisis in China are everywhere. Currently, China is the largest greenhouse gases emitted in the world, surpassing the US in 2007, and accounting for 27% of global emissions during 2014. Concerns have also been raised regarding water pollution and depletion, which remains one of China’s biggest ecological challenges. In this regard, severe shortages have been documented in the country due to contamination as well as overuse. An estimated 70% of China’s water supplies serves agriculture whereas 20% goes to the coal sector. About two third of cities in China experience severe water shortages. The cost of the ecological crisis cannot be ignored. Shapiro (2016) argues that environmental damage poses a considerable growth to the growth of China. The environmental toll is also evident in public health, with air pollution resulting in about 1.2 million people dying prematurely every year. The impacts of the environmental degradation are also felt beyond China’s borders, with countries like South Korea and Japan expressing concerns relating to acidic smog and rain. Other indicators of the crisis include greenhouse emissions, particulate matters and sulfur dioxide levels reaching life-threatening levels. Other evidence of an ecological catastrophe in China include the expansion of desert coverage, drying up of waterways, food contamination, emergence of new diseases, sinking of cities and towns due to the depletion of ground water, and disappearance of forests.

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Different Perspectives on the Issue

The ecological crisis in China is primarily an issue of ecological sustainability versus economic growth and development. China currently facing a dilemma of choosing between economic sustainability and environmental sustainability. Some authors have argued that the two are mutually exclusive and cannot be achieved simultaneously. In this regard, the most common view held in China is economic growth, as evident by the emphasis on achieving economic growth, even at the cost of ecological degradation. Shapiro (2016) argues that in China, priority is given to economic sustainability, and that environmental restrictions are perceived as a burden to businesses. Therefore, ecological concerns should be sidelined in order to achieve economic growth. The prioritization of economic growth has been justified on various accounts. For instance, Galli, et al. (2012) points out that, in China, industrialization is prioritized because of the need to support the growing populations; as result, the country is less concerned about the distant future. It is considered unfair for developed countries to demand China to limit its growth due to the problems caused by developed countries. There is widespread belief among the business class in China that industrial economies like the US relied on polluting industries to build their wealth.

The other school of thought advocates for ecological sustainability in order to achieve economic growth. Those ascribing to this view maintain that the economy is reliant on the natural environment to provide resources. Therefore, the natural environment can only fulfil its mandate when it is well taken care of. They believe that environmental sustainability and economic growth can coexist, and support each other, rather one progressing at the expense of the other. This view is less dominant in China, although recently, environmental preservation movements have emerged in China pressuring the government to exercise environmental responsibility while pursuing economic growth.

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As it stands, China is yet to fully resolve the ecological crisis it is currently facing. A positive trend is that the current regime is aware of the crisis and is concerned about the need to adopt prudent measures before it develops into an environmental catastrophe. The Chinese government has adopted a number of measures. First, the government has introduced a concept of “baseline” or “red line” in the exploitation of ecology environment, and resources. Therefore, the government has established an upper-limit for the exploitation of the resource and has published guidelines relating to the environmental quality baseline. This measures are expected to facilitate an improvement of the environment conditions. The red line for environmental protection seeks to contain the current momentum observed in environmental exploitation. The government has also initiated ecological civilization reforms that focus on addressing the relationship between nature and human beings, and changing the ecological ideologies that are deeply rooted in China. Currently, it is still premature of the measures adopted by the Chinese government will be effective in reversing the crisis.


The survival of China depends considerably on economic growth, even it comes at the cost of the environment. The environmental crisis is something that has developed gradually over the centuries and inherited among generations. The crisis was only hastened by the recent economic boom. It is also evident that the ecological crisis in China is chiefly an issue of ecological sustainability versus economic growth and development, with China leaning towards the latter. The government has acknowledged the issue and initiated measures to help in reversing the crisis such as setting limits for resources exploitation and ecological civilization reforms.

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