- The Washington Times - Monday, November 7, 2011

After two decades of nonstop development that devastated the environment in many areas, Chinese leaders now say they want to clean up and restore the nation’s fabled rivers and ancient lands.

To that end, Beijing’s latest economic program aims to establish a new generation of advanced-technology industries like medicine and social media that tend to pollute less than traditional industries like steel and autos.

China also is targeting green technology as a new area for development in industrialized cities like Hong Kong, Shanghai and Ningbo, both to address domestic pollution problems and to tap into the burgeoning export market for clean technologies in the West.

The new emphasis on the environment represents an about-face for a country where pollution is rampant and industrial cities often are rated among the dirtiest in the world by the World Bank.

“Everyone knows we’ve enjoyed rapid economic growth. But we’re paying a heavy price for that — pollution,” said Jia Xiudong, senior fellow at the Chinese Institute of International Studies, a Beijing-based think tank.

Chinese leaders appear to be several steps behind the citizenry, who in opinion polls have voiced grave concerns about the environment. In a survey by the Economist magazine last year, 54 percent of Chinese citizens cited air pollution as the thing they would like the change the most in their lives, and 53 percent cited it as one of their greatest concerns about the future.

“Decades of pell-mell growth has decimated China’s environment,” said Joe Quinlan, an analyst with the German Marshall Fund. He said the epidemic of water pollution has contributed to a shortage of clean tap water in two-thirds of China’s 660 cities.

“The lack of clean water and the deteriorating environment have become a social and political lightning rod, with the number of pollution-related protests rising steadily over the past decade,” he said.

Trailing the hype

Despite some hype in Western media that China already is gaining an edge in pollution-control technology, for the most part the environmental-cleanup business here is just getting off the ground.

Until recently, corporate executives say, enforcement of environmental laws was almost nonexistent, and the ability to dump untreated waste onto land and water as authorities looked the other way was seen as a drawing point for manufacturers.

But that approach left a legacy of rivers choked with filth, toxic dumps that threaten public health, and smog-laden air that hovers suffocatingly over cities and clouds the view.

China’s leaders are beginning to regret their reckless neglect of the environment during years of rapid development when their priority was to create millions of manufacturing jobs to stave off mass unemployment and poverty. Now, they appear to be selectively starting to enforce the environmental laws.

But as in so many other areas, Chinese leaders eschew what they describe as “expensive” environmental-control technology available for purchase from the West, and instead are encouraging less costly solutions made at home.

Home-grown solutions

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