The BBC recently ran an article about the so-called “cancer villages” in south China, the victims of China’s rapid industrialization and poor pollution controls. The drinking and irrigation water for these villages in Guangdong Province are being polluted by mining waste upstream. In the village of Shangba, scientists have found high levels of poisonous heavy metals in the water. According to the article, “250 people from the village’s population of 3,000 have died of cancer since 1987, although statistics in China are often unreliable.” In the broader picture, “some 320 million people drink polluted water every day” in China.
This is but one manifestation of the incredible gap between rich and poor in China (and in most other developing nations). The gap in per capita income between urban and rural residents in China increased by more than a factor of 6 between 1990 and 2003, according to the UNDP (http://www.undp.org.cn/downloads/nhdr2005/06chapter2.pdf). Living in Beijing, I might as well be in a completely different country. Of course Beijing has its own share of serious environmental and public health problems, notably its air pollution, but these problems are much more similar (albeit more extreme) to those that would be faced in urban areas in developed nations. With most of the external costs of China’s mining and heavy industries borne by the rural areas, it is no wonder that urbanization is occurring so rapidly in China.
China has a long way to go to solve such problems. Despite the Chinese government’s goal of a “harmonious society” it is failing at implementing regulations regarding mine safety and environmental controls, and it is also failing at improving energy efficiency of heavy industries. Corruption is a serious problem in improving mine safety and pollution controls; because many local officials own stock in the coal mines, they tend to look the other way when mines try to cut costs. The government is aware of this problem and is working to punish corrupt local officials; as of the end of 2005, it was estimated that “some 3200 of the estimated 4578 officials who had shares in coal mines(totaling some … US$80.5 million) had retracted these stakes” (http://www.worldwatch.org/node/58). Despite this, China still faces the larger problem of having a rapidly growing economy based in large part on the inefficient use of coal. This month it was revealed that China failed to meet its stated goal in the 11th Five Year Plan to reduce energy intensity by 4% in 2006; instead, energy intensity continued to increase. (http://www.spiegel.de/international/0,1518,459155,00.html) Without a more concerted effort to control pollution and regulate industry (perhaps even at the expense of economic growth!) I don’t see any possibility for the rural and urban areas to form a “harmonious society.”