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Inertia Sets In in China

Mark Elvin

The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenge to China's Future. Elizabeth C. Economy. xvi + 337 pp. Cornell University Press. 2004. $29.95

China's environmental problems are in the news. As I drafted this review, the disastrous situation with pollution and health care in the People's Republic was being reported on the front page of the Sunday New York Times (with the headline "Rivers Run Black") and in The Economist. A critical appraisal of the problems and of the efforts being made to remedy them is needed. In principle, therefore, Elizabeth Economy's new book is a welcome addition to the works on a slightly earlier period by scholars such as Vaclav Smil, Richard L. Edmonds, Judith Shapiro and many others.

How useful is it? The River Runs Black is in effect several studies woven into one: (1) an overview of the impact of recent economic growth on the environment; (2) a history of the creation of an official environmental bureaucracy and its operations since the end of the 1970s; (3) a sketch of the new environmental activists since the 1990s and of the role of China's special brand of government-organized nongovernmental organizations; (4) an analysis of the impact on environmental policy and technology of China's diplomatic and business relations with the world outside (with the World Trade Organization, for example); (5) comparisons with somewhat similar situations elsewhere in the world; and (6) some guesses at possible futures.

These components differ greatly in quality, relative to what could have been done with the topics. In summary, the first is sadly inadequate; the second is enlivened by some excellent passing comments but is too often inconclusive and is marred by occasional major gaps; the third (which consists mostly of biographies of activists) is journalistic but is readably and engagingly done; the fourth, although commendable for not trying to force clear-cut judgments on the reader, is—perhaps necessarily, given the subject—a confusing tangle of specifics; the fifth is best described as "worthy"; and the sixth begins with some sharp and, in my view, accurate judgments (for example, "the economic costs of China's environmental degradation are rising sharply") but degenerates into three inadequately conceptualized scenarios. This is not really a book for the general reader, but professionals actively engaged in the field will need to be familiar with it.

Let me try to justify these conclusions in terms of the sources on which the book is, and is not, based. The main foundations are press and press-type materials in English and secondary works in English; only here and there have Chinese materials been consulted. But the Chinese-language materials on the effect of recent economic growth on the environment (item 1 above) are now voluminous. For example, on the shelves near me is a 42-volume series, published by the Environmental Sciences Press in 1995, on the environmental situation in each province, with extensive statistics, and with additional volumes on such topics as forestry, mining, soils and water resources. There is also an extensive scientific periodical literature in Chinese, which is mixed in quality (at least in the one subfield with which I have a modest familiarity, historical hydrology and hydraulics) but crucial. None of this material features anywhere. An illustration of how it matters is that Economy overlooks the key long-term danger to the Three Gorges Dam. In the middle section of the gorge, the rock formation has historically been liable to massive slip­pages when heavily permeated with water from exceptional precipitation, and the water level at this point is scheduled to be raised about 90 meters above its present height. An analysis of this danger is, so far as I know, accessible only in the Chinese scientific literature.

Economy also fails to use valuable materials in Chinese pertaining to the earlier part of the history of the environmental bureaucracy—for instance, the five-volume Collection of Reference Materials on the [Draft] Law on the Environment published in Beijing in 1982. One of the reasons this matters is that the key bureaucratic player in the early part of the process, Li Chaobo, is very prominent in those materials but has since been airbrushed out of the historical record. There is also a small but useful Chinese-language periodical literature on politics that features both some serious contributions on how to reconcile swift economic growth with environmental safeguards and some striking pro-environment cartoons—one I recall shows fish swimming underwater with raised umbrellas to ward off the rain of filthy garbage descending on their heads.

Economy does not mention, let alone use, remote sensing analysis, which is vital for estimates of the acreage of farmed land or the extent of "forest cover" (an elusive term that needs, but does not receive, precise definition). Nor is her appraisal of her sources stabilized by fieldwork, although she has conducted interviews with some of the main players in environmental protection. The usefulness of personal familiarity with at least sample areas can be illustrated from my own ­experience. Before doing fieldwork in the upper part of the Lake Chao catchment two years ago, I had the impression from my reading that the summits of the mountains were stripped bare of forests. (Chinese colleagues later confirmed that deforestation of the summits had indeed occurred.) I was thus astonished on arrival to see the extent of successful reforestation. Of course, precious habitat had gone, and endless stands of same-species and same-age trees and bamboos were a poor substitute for what had been there before. But there was little doubt that the situation had been turned around—in good measure, it seems, by the "campaign" approach that Economy describes as being mostly of little effect. Even reasonable generalizations like this last one thus need refining to bring out nuances. The campaign was covered in some detail in the Anhui provincial press, in Chinese, and here again is a major neglected source, newspapers. The task, though, of wading through environmental articles that have appeared in Chinese papers is now so great that—to be fair—to do the job properly the author really would have needed a substantial team to back her up.

This said, Economy has a nice eye for paradox. Thus the collection of fees for breaches of environmental rules has created a financial incentive for Environmental Protection Bureaus to allow problems to persist. The flood of timber imports into China has not helped protect domestic forests but has, by forcing down the price, driven Chinese loggers to increase their output. At such moments the book is usefully mind-opening.

Overall, though, what we have in front of us for the first two components is not a systematic synthesis of available research and a substantial investigation of major Chinese sources. Rather, with only marginal exceptions, it is the report of an anglophone policy analyst. The reliance on the stringing together of snippets from what are mostly ephemera or semi-ephemera is unavoidable in the sphere of current politics and international relations (the later part of the second component and all of the fourth). But there is no systematic examination of the ideological or partisan biases that typically tend to affect these items—which is disturbing. The reader's main frustration, though, is a by-product of the author's careful laying out of this unsatisfactory data: Too often, one has no idea of the take-away message. Thus on page 106 we learn that in the late 1990s the State Environmental Protection Agency's "enforcement capacity during the late 1990s began to be enhanced," but on page 107 we are told that at the same time "maneuverings . . . diminished SEPA's ability to coordinate high-level environmental policy and stretched its capacity very thin," and its staff was cut in half. On pages 112-113 we learn that sometimes the courts can be used to enforce environmental law but that often they cannot. The presentation of the scrappy evidence is properly done, but as this creation of a patchwork album goes on and on, it is often all but impossible to draw any clear inferences as to how the trends are moving and why.

The three future scenarios offered at the end are "China Goes Green," "Inertia Sets In" and "Environmental Meltdown." The first is a sadly unconvincing vision of continuing growth creating "more challenges for the environment"; those challenges would be contained simply by investing more in protection (which would lead to "tens of thousands of model environmental cities") and by achieving greater democracy. The second scenario is mistitled: The fine print describes a regime concentrating on dynamic system maintenance in a situation that is far from stable, responding only to internal and external pressures for change to the extent it thinks necessary for preserving its power. In the third scenario, economic growth slackens and the destructive focus on short-term considerations intensifies, with adverse social and political effects. The second scenario is in my view by far the most likely, essentially because it requires the lowest level of conflict with powerful vested interests

Scenario creation can be helpful in forcing us to distill the essence of our understanding of a situation. When we engage in it, we need to distinguish between robust processes and critical ones—in other words, between those with a strong capacity to self-stabilize even when pushed far from equilibrium and those (much rarer and harder to foresee) in which small inputs can trigger disproportionately huge effects. Making such tough distinctions well could have helped produce a much more challenging conclusion.—Mark Elvin, Chinese History, Australian National University, Canberra

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