March 7, 2005
“The Chinese Miracle Will End Soon”
The world has been dazzled in recent years by the
economic strides being made by China. But it has come
at a huge cost to the country’s environment. Pollution
is a serious and costly problem. Pan Yue of the
ministry of the environment says these problems will
soon overwhelm the country and will create millions of
SPIEGEL: China is dazzling the world with its booming
economy, which grew by 9.5 percent. Aren’t you pleased
with this speed of growth?
Pan: Of course I am pleased with the success of
China’s economy. But at the same time I am worried. We
are using too many raw materials to sustain this
growth. To produce goods worth $10,000, for example,
we need seven times more resources than Japan, nearly
six times more than the United States and, perhaps
most embarrassing, nearly three times more than India.
Things can’t, nor should they be allowed to go on like
SPIEGEL: Such a viewpoint is not exactly widespread in
Pan: Many factors are coming together here: Our raw
materials are scarce, we don’t have enough land, and
our population is constantly growing. Currently, there
are 1.3 billion people living in China, that’s twice
as many as 50 years ago. In 2020, there will be 1.5
billion people in China. Cities are growing but desert
areas are expanding at the same time; habitable and
usable land has been halved over the past 50 years.
SPIEGEL: Still, each year China is strengthening its
reputation as an economic Wunderland.
Pan: This miracle will end soon because the
environment can no longer keep pace. Acid rain is
falling on one third of the Chinese territory, half of
the water in our seven largest rivers is completely
useless, while one fourth of our citizens does not
have access to clean drinking water. One third of the
urban population is breathing polluted air, and less
than 20 percent of the trash in cities is treated and
processed in an environmentally sustainable manner.
Finally, five of the ten most polluted cities
worldwide are in China.
SPIEGEL: How great are the effects of this
environmental degradation on the economy?
Pan: It’s massive. Because air and water are polluted,
we are losing between 8 and 15 percent of our gross
domestic product. And that doesn’t include the costs
for health. Then there’s the human suffering: In
Bejing alone, 70 to 80 percent of all deadly cancer
cases are related to the environment. Lung cancer has
emerged as the No. 1 cause of death.
SPIEGEL: How is the population reacting to these
health problems? Are people moving to healthier parts
of the country?
Pan: Even now, the western regions of China and the
country’s ecologically stressed regions can no longer
support the people already living there. In the
future, we will need to resettle 186 million residents
from 22 provinces and cities. However, the other
provinces and cities can only absorb some 33 million
people. That means China will have more than 150
million ecological migrants, or, if you like,
SPIEGEL: Hasn’t your government tried to get pollution
Pan: Yes it has, and in some cities such as Beijing
the air quality has, in fact, improved. Also, the
water in some rivers and lakes is now cleaner than
it’s been in the past. There are more conservation
areas now and some model cities that focus
specifically on environmental protection. We are
replanting forests. We have passed additional laws and
regulations that are stricter than in the past and
they are being more rigorously enforced.
SPIEGEL: But the economic growth fanatics in Beijing
will still likely carry on just as before.
Pan: They’re still playing the lead role — for now.
For them, the gross domestic product is the only
yardstick by which to gauge the government’s
performance. But we are also making another mistake:
We are convinced that a prospering economy
automatically goes hand in hand with political
stability. And I think that’s a major blunder. The
faster the economy grows, the more quickly we will run
the risk of a political crisis if the political
reforms cannot keep pace. If the gap between the poor
and the rich widens, then regions within China and the
society as a whole will become unstable. If our
democracy and our legal system lag behind the overall
economic development, various groups in the population
won’t be able to protect their own interests. And
there’s yet another mistake in this thinking…..
SPIEGEL: Which one?
Pan: It’s the assumption that the economic growth will
give us the financial resources to cope with the
crises surrounding the environment, raw materials, and
SPIEGEL: Why can’t that work?
Pan: There won’t be enough money, and we are simply
running out of time. Developed countries with a per
capita gross national product of $8,000 to $10,000 can
afford that, but we cannot. Before we reach $4,000 per
person, different crises in all shapes and forms will
hit us. Economically we won’t be strong enough to
SPIEGEL: You have advocated the introduction of the
so-called “green gross domestic product.” What does
Pan: It is a model that also takes into account the
costs of growth, like environmental pollution for
example, and is a topic we are discussing with German
experts. We want the performance of functionaries to
not only be measured in terms of economic growth but
also in terms of how they solve environmental problems
and social issues.
SPIEGEL: Does your agency even have the ability to
clamp down on environmental criminals?
Pan: We recently shut down 30 projects, including
several power plants — one of those at the Three
Gorges Dam. The companies involved failed — as
required by law — to review what effect their new
investments would have on the environment.
SPIEGEL: But 26 other projects were allowed to carry
on. They only had to pay small fines — peanuts
compared to the billions that were invested.
Pan: Unfortunately, that’s true. Which is why our laws
and regulations need to be reformed. Even though we
have little power, we will close down illegal
projects, including economically powerful steel,
cement, aluminium, and paper factories. And we will
ignore the agendas followed by influential officials
SPIEGEL: Many environmental offenders have fistfuls of
cash or are taking advantage of their political
Pan: My agency has always gone against the grain. In
the process, there have always been conflicts with the
powerful lobbyist groups and strong local governments.
But the people, the media, and science are behind us.
In fact, the pressure is a motivator for me. Nobody is
going to push me off my current course.
SPIEGEL: China lacks a grassroots, environmental
movement. So far, the citizens have very little
opportunity to stand up against questionable projects.
Courts sometimes don’t even accept the suits that the
people are filing, and voicing opposition is not
Pan: Political co-determination should be part of any
socialist democracy. I want more discussions with the
people affected. However, I am not one to put on a
show just to look democratic to the outside. We need a
law that enables and guarantees public participation,
especially when it comes to environmental projects. If
it’s safe politically to get involved and help the
environment, then all sides will benefit. We must try
to convince the central leadership of that.
Translated from the German by Patrick Kessler
Andreas Lorenz – DER SPIEGEL
March 7, 2005