Emily Walz is a writer, editor, and policy researcher specializing in U.S.-China affairs, soft power, and the intersection of politics and art. She is a 2015 SAIS M.A. graduate and a 2013-2014 alumna of the Johns Hopkins University - Nanjing University Center for Chinese and American Studies.

China’s economic reforms and rapid growth beginning in the latter half the 20th century have been hailed as miracles transforming the socialist planned economy into a new capitalist-oriented powerhouse. While development has helped lift many out of poverty, with this burgeoning economic growth have come costs obscured by GDP measurements. Specifically, pollution and environmental degradation have impacted the health and quality of life of the Chinese people. Some studies suggest the effect may be so large as to negate the positive effects of economic growth on gross national income (Xu 2014). This impact is particularly pronounced in rural inland China, which has lost out on many of the benefits of development, and where environmental degradation has joined with other facets of inequality to further disadvantage marginalized communities. 

A Steady Slide
Following China’s opening to the world politically and economically in the late 1970s, its cheap labor, lax environmental standards, and efforts to attract foreign direct investment led to a manufacturing boom in the 1980s. Multinational firms flocked to East and Southeast China, forming partnerships to produce goods that were primarily consumed elsewhere. Like earlier industrializing nations, China chose to “pollute now and clean up later,” tacitly acknowledging that environmental degradation would be an acceptable and perhaps unavoidable price to pay for modernization. Inevitably, “a national policy that relies on a raid of natural systems structures economic growth on ecological decline,” a Faustian bargain with consequences that continue to unfold (Muldavin 1997). 

In recent years, China’s rural environmental problems have become increasingly visible, from polluted air and waterways, to grassland desertification and mountain erosion, to “cancer villages” where alarmingly high numbers of inhabitants suffer from physical ailments linked to chemical exposure. Pointing to the range of outcomes of unrestrained development, a study on the well-being of rural Chinese elderly notes, “the lack of enforced environmental regulations has generated a variety of environmental problems such as serious shortages of drinkable water, clean air, and arable and forested land,” which impact all of China, but are magnified in its most vulnerable populations (Yeatts et al 2014).

Environmental degradation in the name of development is a top-down mandate that pre-dates the Reform and Opening policies of 1978. Maoist-era policies that encouraged transformation of “wastelands” (in reality, delicate ecological areas) into agricultural fields often served to destroy local ecosystems and irreparably damaged once-viable grazing lands and mountainsides, harming both the non-agricultural communities dependent on them and increasing broader problems like desertification, soil erosion, river silting, and flooding. Environmental degradation in the post-Mao era is not a new issue; it has simply intensified. 

Geospatial Divides: Compounding Rural-Urban and Coastal-Inland Inequalities
These patterns of development-based environmental degradation have correlated with a marked increase in inequality since the Mao era. Inequality in China is often explained in terms of either rural-urban geospatial divides, or on a regional level in terms of “the widening gap between the coastal provinces and the inland provinces,” but the reality is that these two divides coexist and compound (Zhang and Zou 2012). Wealth centered in cities depends upon the extraction of raw materials, a process that primarily worsens rural inland environments. These materials are then used for production that pollutes air and waterways, the effects of which tend to also be magnified in rural areas where regulation is lax. Rural areas in the wealthier coastal provinces typically fare better than rural areas in the impoverished inland and wealthier provinces tend to see greater urbanization, ensuring that “the widening rural-urban inequality is translated into the rising regional inequality” (Zhang and Zou 2012 125-126). Those in the rural inland are the worst off, benefiting neither from the spillover effects of a more uniformly prosperous region nor from the economic activity of an urban center.

Image 1, “Annual Rural Income By Province” Source: Matt Schiavenza, “Mapping China's Income Inequality” in The Atlantic, September 13, 2013.

Image 1, “Annual Rural Income By Province” Source: Matt Schiavenza, “Mapping China's Income Inequality” in The Atlantic, September 13, 2013.

In debunking the theory of absolute convergence of economies, which postulates that lower-income countries and regions will grow faster and thus catch up to their wealthier counterparts, Qinghua Zhang and Heng-fu Zou cite a 2003 study suggesting instead a “conditional convergence,” where different areas end up on different tracks, and do not necessarily need to converge at all. Since the Maoist era, the government of China has enacted policies that politically and economically privilege the populous-dense urban areas at the expense of rural areas and their residents. The result has been a form of structural violence, whereby these residents are systematically denied economic and educational opportunities and civic rights. One of the most profound instruments of this kind of structural violence is the hukou system of household registration, which ties people to government-assigned locales, assigns a designation of either “agricultural” or “non-agricultural,” and distributes benefits based on that status, traditionally favoring urban residents. Access to public education, health care, and other city services is thus extremely limited for economic migrants moving to urban centers outside of their hukou designation, thereby limiting mobility.

The individual inequality enforced through the hukou system is mirrored in government policies affecting local governments and development policies. China’s high degree of decentralization of services and tax collection means that local administrations in relatively poorer areas struggle to provide equivalent benefits to their residents as the tax-rich cities. Lax central oversight combines with limited incomes to induce local leaders to turn a blind eye to firms polluting in their jurisdictions for the sake of the economic activity these firms bring. 

Much of the raw material-intensive production in China relies on extraction from the resource-rich rural inland areas – the so-called hinterland – and the transport of these materials to boom areas on the Eastern seaboard. Indeed, in rural China, the wealth of mined materials is primarily captured by the state, corporations, and migrant Han workers who have moved to the region temporarily (Zhang et al 2008). The current structure is one in which “the wealthier regions (particularly in the eastern portion of the country) use the hinterlands in ways that structurally limit potential of these areas for meeting the real needs of the majority of their own populations,” an outcome that is also motivated by the desire to bring the fractious border provinces under firmer central control (Muldavin 1997). Rather than converging on an inevitable path to parity with the wealthier coast, these inland regions are experiencing a resource curse. Despite the natural riches of China’s less-developed regions, per capita consumption has grown more slowly in provinces with abundant resources than in their resource-poor counterparts. The western regions appear to be converging on a lower-income equilibrium, left far behind the eastern average (Muldavin 1997).

The most existential manifestation of the environmental degradation threat is the health cost to China’s inhabitants. The rural inland poor are both more likely to contract pollution-linked illnesses and are least able to afford and access treatment. According to the 2003 National Health Survey, “30 percent of poor households identified large health-care expenditure as the reason that they were in poverty” (Zhu and Wan 2012 96). 

Perhaps the clearest link is in the water, where pollution rates are now believed to be the highest in human history (Ebenstein 2012 187). There is a significant and traceable link between contaminated water and the incidence of cancer, a newly troubling concern for China and now the country’s leading cause of death (Ebenstain 2012 citing Chinese Ministry of Health 2008). Between fertilizer overuse and manufacturing plants’ wastewater dumping, measurements dating as far back as 2006 suggested that approximately 70 percent of China’s river water was unsafe to drink, even though many rural farmers still relied on them (Ebenstein 2012).  Rural inhabitants often have the misfortune of living downstream from manufacturing plants, which are not linked to any improvement in those communities’ material lot. In 2016, China’s own Ministry of Water Resources tested the groundwater from more than 2000 wells in four major river basins, finding that 80 percent was unsafe even for human contact (Xia 2016). The tendency of rural residents to pull their drinking water from shallower wells means that in this area, too, they are further exposed to the effects of industrial contaminants and agricultural runoff than their urban counterparts, who draw their drinking water from deeper wells.

A Rising Tide Does Not Lift All Boats
The once-conventional wisdom that growth would bring prosperity to the furthest reaches of China is challenged by the record of the past few decades. It is now clear that deliberate redistribution programs are necessary to address the most firmly entrenched forms of poverty. Meanwhile, the once-touted solution of industrial development has become part of the problem, as China’s capacity for industrialization has outpaced its capacity to handle the accompanying waste, with the effects falling heaviest on those least able to protect themselves (Zhu and Wan 2012). The poorest are more likely to live in isolated and sparsely populated rural inland areas where natural environments are deteriorating. In these areas, public infrastructure such as tap water filtration systems are rare, private solutions such as individual home filters are cost-prohibitive, a restrictive registration system disincentivizes relocation, and few to no job alternatives are to be found.

While national-level policymakers have called for environmentally-sensitive development, this appears to be more dream than reality. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) tackling environmental problems were once robust actors, but in the wake of Xi Jinping’s crackdown, they have been operating in diminishing numbers inside China (Ford 2015). As long as standard economic measurements treat the environment as an externality, it is hardly surprising that national leaders also ignore pollution in favor of growth. Pushing for the widespread adopting of “green GDP” measurements would highlight upfront the reality that development can cost a locality and a government more income than it generates. It is clear that the pursuit of growth is a powerful incentive that leads to the many interlocking patterns that together depress the livelihoods, health, and well-being of the many societies’ most vulnerable. Until then, this pattern of sacrifice is likely to repeat itself.  


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PHOTO CREDIT: "China landscape" by Gustavo M from Flickr Creative Commons is licensed under CC BY 2.0.