Today, German Chancellor Angela Merkel encouraged China’s Premier Wen Jiabao to do more to stop climate change. “The Chinese wish, like all people, for blue skies, green hills and clear water,” Wen said at a joint news conference in Beijing. Then, the “People’s Premier” told the Germans—and by implication, everyone else—to mind their own business. He essentially said that China must finish its industrialization before it can consider minimizing its impact on world climate. “China has taken part of the responsibility for climate change for only 30 years while industrial countries have grown fast for the last 200 years,” he said.
China does not have a severely degraded environment—the world’s worst—because it is industrializing. And it’s not because of a shortage of money—China possesses the world’s largest pile of foreign currency reserves, now in excess of $1.3 trillion. Nor is it due to a lack of technology: China already possesses much of the know-how, and foreign governments and companies are tripping over themselves to supply what it does not now have.
The country has polluted its land, water, and air because its political system has prevented its disgusted and frustrated citizenry from stopping the damage. The Communist Party’s bottom-up patronage system rewards economic growth at any price, providing an incentive to dump raw sewage, scatter industrial waste, and release toxic smoke. Beijing’s leaders are afraid that an economic slowdown will lead to the collapse of the one-party state.
Wen Jiabao can, of course, put off the German chancellor for the moment. but the People’s Premier one day will have to listen to his own people. According to Zhou Shengxian, Beijing’s top environmental official, Chinese people took to the streets an astonishing 51,000 times in 2005 to protest environmental degradation. In other words, during that year the Communist Party failed almost a thousand times a week to mediate conflict between ordinary citizens on the one hand and polluting factories and colluding local governments on the other.
There is, however, hope in China. Either Mr. Wen will figure out a way to clean up the nation’s environment—or the Chinese people will. I’m betting it won’t be Wen.