Hot on the heels of January’s record-shattering air pollution levels in Beijing, China’s commercial capital of Shanghai has witnessed its own environmental crisis, with thousands of dead pigs turning up in the city’s waterways. China’s major cities have long been notorious for their high levels of air and water pollution, but such visible signs of threats to human health are thrusting environmental hazards into the public eye like never before. The Chinese government has taken some steps to address public concern at these hazards, but if either history or the experience of other countries is any guide, Beijing needs to take public opinion seriously to avoid future environmental crises.
High levels of pollution are a fact of life in modern China, particularly for urban residents. For several days in January, Beijing’s Air Quality Index topped 700 on a scale that maxes out at 500. Levels of water pollution are even worse: A World Bank study found that only 57 percent of wastewater is treated in China, despite massive investment in water treatment plants, and China’s own Ministry of Environmental Protection has concluded that 70 percent of major waterways are heavily polluted. The effects of pollution have even seeped into the country’s subsurface, with more than half of monitored wells being deemed unsafe to use for drinking water.
China’s government likes to point out that these high pollution levels are a side effect of the country’s economic success, and that Western cities like London and Los Angeles experienced their own long struggles to clean up their air and water. As China gets richer, the storyline goes, it will devote greater resources to cleaning up its environment, just like the West did. Indeed, the Chinese government has allocated tens of millions of dollars to control air and water pollution and tried to tighten enforcement of environmental laws. At the 2010 Shanghai Expo, the government even touted the county’s coming “Low Carbon Future.” But what Beijing’s narrative of environmental destruction and resurrection misses is that in the West, environmental protection is very much a matter of people power.