Mon 31 Oct 2005
Filed under: News,Opinion
Hu Jintao, the Chinese president, and other Communist party leaders have argued convincingly that they need to address China’s severe environmental and social challenges as well as simply promoting economic growth. Desertification, water pollution and urban smog make the idea of greening China both laudable and long overdue.
Beijing, however, must now accept that it has international as well as domestic responsibilities when it comes to the environment. While China is not uniquely selfish in environmental matters, it is so large and populous, and its industrial economy so hungry for natural resources, that its reckless abuse of land, sea and air is particularly damaging for other countries.
Several environmental controversies show the need for a change in the attitude of the Chinese government. In a compelling report recently published, Global Witness, an independent pressure group, shows how Chinese logging companies are plundering the northern forests of Burma in collusion with the Burmese military junta and ethnic militias and with the connivance of Chinese authorities.
About 98 per cent of those timber exports to China are illegal under Burmese law, but the Burmese people are not the only victims of Chinese greed and criminality. China also imports large quantities of illegal timber from west Africa, Brazil, Russia, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Solomon Islands. Much of the wood is made into furniture for re-export to the US and other markets. Beijing banned the cutting of old-growth trees on Chinese soil seven years ago, but has simply transferred the problems of scarcity and over-exploitation to its neighbours.
Hence the unease in Indonesia over an Dollars 8bn deal with China for a palm oil plantation in Borneo that would be two-thirds the size of Belgium. Oil palms flourish in the lowlands, but the fact that most of the land earmarked for the project is at higher altitudes has aroused suspicions that the project is more about gaining access to valuable timber than producing palm oil.
China’s contribution to regional air pollution is another problem. The autonomous territory of Hong Kong is blanketed with toxic smog from the factories of Guangdong province with increasing frequency. Although Guangdong has agreed on a plan to cut emissions by 2010, there is little sign that the province or the central government is taking action to ensure the targets are met. Acid rain, the result of Chinese air pollution, damages buildings as far away as Japan.
The Chinese authorities have the audacity to boast of a “Green Olympics” in Beijing in 2008. But until they enforce environmental laws with the same vigour they now apply to political dissidents, their Asian neighbours will continue to distrust China. Economic growth has rightly made China more powerful. Now Beijing must learn that power requires responsibility.