In China, a Green Awakening

A man pushes aside blue-green algae on Tai Lake in eastern China. A thick muck of the algae fed by chemical runoff has developed on the lake.
A man pushes aside blue-green algae on Tai Lake in eastern China. A thick muck of the algae fed by chemical runoff has developed on the lake. (Associated Press)
By Ariana Eunjung Cha
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, October 6, 2007

WUXI, China -- One morning this summer, residents of this eastern city awoke to find that their beloved Tai Lake had turned rancid. The water was filled with a bloom of blue-green algae that gave off a rotten smell. It was not only undrinkable; it was untouchable. Few living things stirred in the water.

For almost three decades, the city had welcomed some of the world's biggest polluters. Churning out paper, photographic film, dye, fertilizer, cement and other products for the global marketplace, the businesses helped make Wuxi into one of China's wealthiest industrial cities.

They also poisoned the province's vast network of lakes, rivers and canals. In late May, when the toxic sludge reached Tai Lake, which is the main source of potable water for Wuxi's 5.8 million residents, people turned on their taps and got only sludge.

City officials decided they'd had enough. In a series of radical proclamations that sent shudders though the business community, Wuxi declared itself a newly reformed green city.

By September, the city had closed or given notice to close more than 1,340 polluting factories. Wuxi ordered the rest to clean up by June or be permanently shut down. The actions were applauded by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, who has vowed to use economic incentives and punishments to aid in environmental protection and resource protection. Last week, China's State Council approved an environmental plan that includes reducing major pollutant discharges by 10 percent by 2010. Plagued by water shortages, choking on dusty air and alarmed by a sharp increase in pollution-related diseases and deaths, China has been searching for years for a way to fix its environment without hurting its economy. China has closed vast swaths of polluting factories in the past, only to reopen them when unemployment rose too high.

Elizabeth Economy, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of "The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenges to China's Future," said this time "the commitment, the profile, the energy behind the state's environmental protection efforts far exceeds anything we've seen in China's history.

"It's not about new ideas, but about enforcement. . . . What is changing are the incentives or disincentives."

On the other hand, Economy said, it remains to be seen whether local officials will follow the central government's lead. "They have never had the bottom-up pressure that makes them change their practices, nor a top-down mechanism for providing the right incentive to make it easy to do the right thing," she said.

This year, some cities are taking measures that show that their officials are beginning to make the environment a higher priority than raising the gross domestic product, a fundamental shift in thinking for a country that can attribute much of its early development to being the place to which others outsourced their pollution.

In recent months, the State Environmental Protection Administration has armed local governments with a new set of tools for punishing polluters. Banks now have the right to deny loans to polluting companies. Officials are able now to force violators to issue humiliating public apologies in newspapers or television announcements detailing their crimes. And utility companies are empowered to raise electricity, gas or water rates for companies that consume too many resources.

The result has been devastating for a growing number of companies.

In Heilongjiang province in the northeast, officials this month announced that they had kicked out 100 polluting enterprises that were sending industrial runoff into a river that empties in Russia. In Shanxi province, the country's largest coal-mining area, officials have closed down most industry in a county whose outdated machinery polluted waterways. And in Inner Mongolia, the government closed a production facility for one of China's biggest companies, Mengniu Dairy, because it had been operating without wastewater processing facilities and discharging waste into the Yellow River.

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