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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Policy and Effect in China

Air Date: Week of

In recent years, China has loosened much of the control it held over it's population. No longer are people required to stay in certain parts of the country or work certain jobs. Those changes have boosted China's economy but also may have worsened environmental problems. Host Steve Curwood speaks with Prof. William Alford, head of East Asian Legal Studies at Harvard University.


CURWOOD: China's environmental problems aren't limited to farmlands. Cities and towns have been hit hard by air and water pollution, and other problems linked to its huge population and red-hot economic growth. In fact, according to William Alford, Director of East Asian Legal Studies at Harvard University, by loosening central control and letting millions flock to overcrowded cities, the Chinese government may have worsened environmental problems.

ALFORD: Chinese cities are terribly congested and typically filled with enormous environmental problems. For example, some scholars have estimated that the rate of particulates and of SO2 in the air in major Chinese cities is 10 to 20 times what it is in major American cities. The problems of water pollution in virtually all of China's major cities are enormous. Problems of overpopulation and the environmental difficulties ensue from that are great.

CURWOOD: Does China have an overall environmental plan? Do they worry about this kind of thing?

ALFORD: Yes, China does have a plan. China took part in the Rio Conference; it's developed its agenda for the next decade in the environmental area. There is a raft of environmental legislation. But there's great difficulty in implementing that, in part because it's attention at the center level with China's great desire to develop economically, rapidly.

CURWOOD: So is it possible to have this kind of development and take care of the environment with China's system of government and organization?

ALFORD: Well, they're trying to do it. Officials at the very highest levels of the Chinese government often have both mandates. For example, a man named Sung Chen, who is a state counselor in charge of environmental issues, the highest official in China with an environmental mandate, also is in charge of what's called the State Science and Technology Commission, which has as its purpose advancing China's science so that China will be able materially to move ahead rapidly. So he embodies the tension, that one individual. Whether they can do it is a different question. I frankly am very skeptical. I think the government is not structured adequately in terms of democratic participation in particular to allow for meaningful protection of the environment.

CURWOOD: Is there a chance that the Chinese people themselves are going to force the government to respond to environmental problems?

ALFORD: Well, I think that's already beginning to happen. China's environmental problems at the local level are legion. Problems of air quality, water quality, of hazardous waste and so forth. And what's beginning to happen, what you read in the Chinese newspapers, groups of citizens out in the countryside, exasperated at their inability to affect change in a constructive fashion, at times taking the law into their own hands: beating up cadres, breaking into and closing down factories.

CURWOOD: Now, in Eastern Europe we saw people organizing around environmental concerns and this ultimately led to the Velvet Revolution, to the change of government. Is something in the works like this in China?

ALFORD: Well, China now has some of its very first non-governmental organizations addressed to issues of environmental quality. But they're very modest and starting very slowly. The Chinese government, to some degree, is aware at fairly high levels of the process that you've just described that occurred in Eastern Europe and of a comparable process that occurred much closer to home in Taiwan, where initially citizens organized around issues concerning the environment, discovered that the organs of state were not responsive to their legitimate complaints, and then broadened their demands from just the environment to transforming political (persons?) more generally.

CURWOOD: And if history is any guide, this means then that some kind of change in how China governs itself is on the way?

ALFORD: Well, I think eventually that will happen, and I think will be necessary at some level before environmental issues are dealt with in a really systematic fashion.

CURWOOD: What should the United States be doing to help China? It seems we have a lot of environmental technology that we'd like to export. I mean, they've got money and problems, we've got the solutions. What's standing in the way?

ALFORD: Well, I think our government needs to be much more imaginative and proactive than it has been in facilitating the export of American goods and technology in the environmental area. We need to be willing to spend some money, or offer incentives whereby they can acquire this technology at lower prices in return for, again, making efforts to be stricter in the enforcement of their environmental laws or do other things that we think constructive. It does seem to me this could be structured much more than has been as a win-win situation. But that will require leadership on our country's part.

CURWOOD: William Alford is director of East Asian Legal Studies at Harvard University and a professor of law. Thank you, sir.

ALFORD: Thank you very much, Steve, it's a pleasure to be here.



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