The economic boom Deng Xiaoping sparked in 1980 brought millions out of poverty and turned China into the world’s factory. However, by following in the footsteps of many western countries that opted to “pollute first and clean up later,” China built its economic success on a foundation of ecological destruction. This environmental destruction is threatening the economy, human health, and social stability, as well as potentially causing irreparable damage to the water, soil, and forest ecosystems.

China’s weak enforcement of environmental laws is also leading to natural resource destruction well beyond its borders. China already consumes more energy and emits more greenhouse gases (GHG) than any country except the United States. It is expected to surpass the United States in GHG emissions by 2009. The expansion of China’s power plants alone—562 new coal-fired power stations by 2012—could nullify the cuts required under the Kyoto Protocol from industrialized countries.

Water pollution has turned many of China’s rivers black and threatens the river systems of its neighbors. China’s dams (for hydropower) and fishing industry (China is the world’s leading exporter) are also major contributors to pollution and resource depletion. Meanwhile, a domestic ban on timber cutting has pushed Chinese to log other endangered forests to supply its furniture companies.

The U.S. government should consider:

  • Recognizing the progress China has made in some ecological realms, such as clean coal, sustainable urban transport, and renewable resources.
  • Increasing the amount of support for China’s environmental programs. Right now the civil society sector provides much more assistance to China.
  • Partnering with China to address mutual energy problems as a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as well as build confidence and trust.

To read the full article, see China’s Filthiest Export.

Jennifer L. Turner directs the China Environment Forum and edits the China Environment Series at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The China Environment Forum recently initiated a new China Environmental Health project with Western Kentucky University. She can be reached at Juli S. Kim is a former program assistant for the China Environment Forum and now works at Conservation International and can be reached at

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