James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne.
James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.
Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.
Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
Everyone "knows" that China is badly polluted. I've written over the years, and still believe, that environmental sustainability in all forms is China's biggest emergency, in every sense: for its people, for its government, for its effect on the world. And yes, I understand that the same is true for modern industrialized life in general. But China is an extreme case, and an extremely important one because of its scale.
Here are two simple charts, neither of them brand-new but both easily comprehensible, that help dramatize how different the situation is there. The first, by Steven Andrews for China Dialoguevia ChinaFile, compares official Chinese classifications of "good" air conditions with those in Europe or North America.
Here is the point of this graphic: The green and yellow zones in the left-hand column, showing official Chinese government classifications, are for "good" or "OK" air—while those same readings would be in the danger zone by U.S. or European standards. When you're living in China, it's impossible not to adjust your standards either to ignore how dire the circumstances are, so you can get on with life, or to think that any day when you can see across the street is "pretty good."
The scale for all countries stops at 250 (micrograms per cubic meter). Everyone who has spent time in Beijing or other bad-air cities knows what it is like with readings of 500 or above. Even Shanghai had a 600+ "airpocalypse" this past winter. No one now alive has experienced anything comparable in North America or Europe, except in the middle of a forest fire or a volcanic eruption.
Here's the other chart, comparing the 10 most-polluted Chinese cities with the 10 in America. It is from The Washington Post a few weeks ago:
The U.S. readings on this chart show something about challenges in the Central Valley of California, which is where six of the seven most-polluted cities are. (And the other is Los Angeles.) More on that shortly, in our American Futures series. But the scale difference of Chinese pollution is sobering. Even the worst American cities would be in the tip-top most excellent bracket in the chart at the top.
More sobering still: Air pollution, while the most visible (literally), is not the most serious of China's environmental problems. Water pollution, and water shortage, are worse.
Protests on Tuesday in Maoming, in Guangdong province in southern China, against a proposed new chemical plant. (
Here is a crude but effective classification scheme that I have used in distinguishing different economic systems. It is between "efficient" levels of corruption in government and business, and "inefficient" corruption.
Through its era of fastest post-war growth, Japan was highly corrupt. Twenty years ago, authorities raided the home of the party boss Shin Kanemaru—and found gold bars and other loot worth something like $50 million. Yet in Japan, and South Korea and Taiwan and even Malaysia, the corruption was efficient. Bridges cost too much and enriched local barons, but they got built. Factories jacked up prices thanks to cartel rules, but they ran and kept people at work. Anybody who has studied the economic/political history of Chicago or Los Angeles will recognize versions of this bargain.
On the other side were countries like Indonesia under Suharto, or the Philippines under Marcos, or North Korea under the Kims, or a lot of others you can think of, with inefficient corruption. The people who could, looted so much that there was not enough left over to keep the system running.
Either sort of corruption has a self-reinforcing nature. When an efficient system is running smoothly, officials have a stake in its long-term survival, which allows them to keep taking their cut. Thus they steal but don't loot. But when an inefficient one is deteriorating, all involved have an incentive to grab everything in sight while the grabbing is good.
Through its 30-plus years of economic modernization, China has seemed to stick to efficient levels of corruption. Connected families got very rich, but most families did better than they had before.
An increasingly important question for Xi Jinping's time in office, which bears on the even more urgent question of whether China can make progress against its environmental catastrophe, involves the levels and forms of Chinese corruption. Has it begun passing from tolerable to intolerable levels? If so, does Xi Jinping have the time, tools, or incentive to do anything about it? Will exposing high-level malfeasance—like the astonishing recent case of Zhou Yongkang, who appears to have taken more than $14 billion while he held powerful petroleum and internal-security roles—encourage the public? Or instead sour and shock them about how bad the problem really is? Is it even possible to run a government and command a party while simultaneously threatening the system that most current power-holders have relied on for power and wealth?
These are yet another set of Big Questions for and about China. Recent useful readings on the theme:
1) Timothy Garton Ash on "China's Gamble of the Century." Thirty-plus years ago, Deng Xiaoping tightened up politically but overall did so toward the end of enacting economic reforms. Xi Jinping is tightening up politically. This piece examines the possible ends.
2) The views of former President Jiang Zemin on the same topic, as reported by Jamil Anderlini and Simon Rabinovitch in the FT and as shown by the headline below:
3) A big piece by Jonathan Ansfield on the front page of the NYT on Tuesday, about the drive against high-level corruption inside the People's Liberation Army, which itself is far more impressive as a business empire than as a fighting force. This is a detailed and enlightening story on an effort whose success or failure will be important in a variety of ways. As the story puts it:
[Xi's] goal, military analysts said, is to transform a service larded with pet projects and patronage networks into a leaner fighting force more adept at projecting power abroad and buttressing party rule at home, while strengthening his own authority over the army.
4) An op-ed in the WSJ by Desmond Tutu and Jared Genser about the ongoing struggles not simply of Liu Xiaobo, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 while serving a long prison term for "subversion," but also of his wife Liu Xia (below). Even as her health deteriorates, she too remains effectively imprisoned under a form of house arrest. E.g.:
Despite living in the middle of one of the busiest and most populous cities in the world, Liu Xia, a poet and a painter, is cut off and alone. Chinese security officials sit outside her front door and at the entrance to her apartment building.
5) An essay by Perry Link in the NYRB called "China After Tiananmen: Money, Yes; Ideas, No." Sample:
At a deeper level, though, Chinese people (like any) do not feel secure in a system built on lies. The wealthy send their money abroad—and their children, too, for education. In 2013 several surveys and reports showed sharp increases in the plans of whole families, especially among the wealthy, to emigrate, and there is no reason to think that poorer people would not follow this trend if they had the means.
6) Reports like this one from Reuters on the ongoing protests in China against environmental hazards and despoliation. Christina Larson also has a (paywalled) article in Science about farmland in China rendered unusable by pollutants, especially heavy metals.
For now I am not trying to weave these into a larger prospects-for-China assessment. (I did attempt something like that in the second half of China Airborne.) But individually and as a group, items like these suggest the scale, complexity, and importance of the changes the Chinese leadership must undertake.
Exposing corruption without delegitimizing the very system that still runs the country; changing the military without alienating it; controlling disastrous pollution without too noticeably slowing the economy; allowing the growth of civil society quickly enough to satisfy the public but gradually enough not to frighten the party—the obligation to do all these things at once, and more, and fast—makes the challenges for European or U.S. leaders look like easy tasks.
Updates from Greenville and "the upstate" of South Carolina coming soon. In the meantime, selected China readings:
1) "Is China the Next Mexico?" Atlantic readers know Jorge Guajardo and his wife Paola Sada as former Guest Bloggers in this space. In China they have been known in recent years as the face of Mexico, since from 2007 through 2013 Jorge was the Mexican ambassador there. (That's him at the right, in a news picture during a tense Mexican-Chinese moment five years ago.) Now they are living in the United States, where Jorge has delivered a puckishly provocative speech.
Its premise is not the tired one of whether Mexico might become the "next China" but rather the reverse: whether China has the hope of going through the political reforms that have transformed Mexico since the end of one-party rule. Very much worth reading, for its "who should be learning from whom?" approach. I hope they are studying this in Beijing.
Disclosures: Jorge and Paola Guajardo are close friends of our family. Also, the venue for the speech was the School of International Relations and Pacific Studies (IR/PS) at the UC San Diego, where I have visited many times and feel part of its diaspora.
2) "A Field Guide to Hazardous China Cliches," by Benjamin Carlson in Global Post. Anyone writing or talking about China gets used to a certain rodomontade. China has not simply been around for a long time. It has a "5,000-year history," which must be referred to in exactly those terms. (I burst out into admiring laughter when, with my friend Michele Travierso, I walked into Turkey's pavilion at the Shanghai World Expo in 2010. The introductory plaque said something like, "For 6,000 years, civilization on the Anatolian plain..." ) China was not simply buffeted by the decline of the Qing dynasty at just the time of European colonial expansion. It suffered the "century of humiliation," which explains and excuses any touchiness now.
Ben Carlson, a former Atlantic staffer now based in Hong Kong (and a relative of mine), has a very nice brief checklist of these and other phrases to be aware of and avoid—or at least to surround in protectively ironic air-quotes if you have to utter them. As with one of the phrases he saves for later discussion: "Hurting the feelings of the Chinese people." Again very much worth reading.
3) "In China, Watching My Words." From Helen Gao—a Beijing native, Yale college alumna, and recent Atlantic staffer—a very eloquent NYT essay on how she has adjusted what she allows herself to say since moving back to China. This piece has gotten a lot of attention, and deserves it.
4) "China's International Trade and Air Pollution in the United States." Here is the full-text version of a scientific study mentioned in an Atlantic Cities item recently. Most press coverage emphasized a kind of ironic backflip whammy: U.S. factories had outsourced much of their production to China. And—ahah!—the pollution was blowing right back across the Pacific to get them. (I discussed the ramifications of this coverage in an On the Media segment with Bob Garfield today.)
To me the real impact of the study was in charts like the ones below. Here is what they show, for the pollutants sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxides. (There are similar ones for CO2 and other pollutants.) In the left-hand column, that China is putting out a lot more than America is; and in the right-hand column, that the U.S. puts out more per capita, though by a declining margin. The middle column is the important one, showing that per unit of output, Chinese factories are still grossly more polluting than those in America (or Europe or Japan). Thus the economic logic of outsourcing, which is powerful, has also made the world's output more environmentally damaging than it was before.
This is a big gnarly issue, which I've tried to deal with here and here and here. But the importance of this study, in my view, is underscoring how important it is to the entire world to clean up those Chinese factories.
5) Pollution take 5.5 years off every person's life. The study above got headlines for concluding that Chinese pollution (some driven by serving export markets) added one extra day, per year, to Southern California's smog burden.
A study a few months ago by a Chinese-American team calculated that for the 500 million residents of Northern China, pollution was already taking five and a half years off the average person's expected life span. This is a genuine public-health and political emergency.
6) The missing 1 trillion (or 4 trillion) dollars. Not to dwell on the negative, but reports here, here, and here detail some of the ways in which the people running China have tried to insulate themselves and their children from the environmental and other effects of actually living there. These reports are not positive indicators—any more than if the Obama family was moving all of its assets out of the U.S., to protect the daughters' future prospects.
7) Let's be realistic about China's ambitions, and problems. My line all along has been: Take China seriously, but don't be afraid of it. Take it seriously, because what happens there affects the entire world. Don't be afraid of it, because it has problems that already-rich and stable countries can barely imagine. More on this theme from the China Daily. And an interesting twist from Global Times. (Both papers are state-controlled; GT is often more fire-breathingly nationalist.)
8) To end on a positive note, a Chinese lower-pollution car.
That is all. Another Reader coming shortly, on Iran and related topics. Then: the story of Greenville, Greer, and environs.
Have been off the grid for several days, seeing sights like the one above: flooded farmland this past weekend in the Missouri River basin just west of St. Louis. Herewith a series of sky-related updates.
1) 'The Plane Was About to Crash.' Except it wasn't. Margaret Sullivan, public editor of the NY Times, takes another look at the fantasized New York Times Magazine story whose author, Noah Gallagher Shannon, I interviewed last week. Good to see an official response.
2) Paragliders vs. Bulldozers, Round 2. In March I mentioned the showdown between, on the one side, the adventurer / hang-glider / paraglider community that has viewed a particular mountain near Salt Like City as one of the best soaring spots in the world, and on the other side a minerals company that is beginning to dismantle that very mountain to turn it into construction gravel. Earlier I quoted one of the gliders about the site, which is known as Point of the Mountain:
Hang-gliding and paragliding are still relatively unknown to the public. Imagine general aviation pilots losing Oshkosh, surfers losing Maui, climbers losing Yosemite, skiers losing Vail... much of the general public would grasp the significance. The Point is like that for free-flight pilots.
The anti-bulldozer group has now produced another video (original one here) arguing that the mountain-removal work is creating a new dust-borne silicosis threat to residents in the area. The video below has some dramatic footage, and its main argument is this: Until now, most of the mining in the area has been at ground level or below, in pits. This new work involves bulldozing away the tops of mountains, which allows far more dust and pollutants to be carried away by the usually fierce local winds, much of it blown straight toward major cities. Judge for yourself:
For the record, after the first episode I asked the company for its reply but so far haven't heard anything.
3) Yeshivah of Flatbush vs. Southwest Airlines. Two weeks ago I mentioned the latest frayed-nerves-while-flying episode, in which 100-plus high schoolers from Yeshivah of Flatbush were ordered off a Southwest Airlines flight because, according to the crew, they were refusing to sit down, turn off cell phones, and generally behave. Or maybe this was an act of anti-Semitism.
At the request of Yeshivah's leaders, the school's executive director, Rabbi Seth Linfield, conducted an inquiry into what happened. One of the school's alums sent me the report (which is available publicly, in PDF form, here) with this note:
All students and alumni (myself included) were just sent this thorough report on the YoF deplaning incident. You may find it interesting. The story seems to be of another massive overreaction; however, Linfield sounds evenhanded in terms of trying to understand the reasons for that overreaction...
One more thing: Although a puff piece, it's also more thorough than I imagined. The story rings true to me, anyway, and I don't say that about everything I've ever received from an alumni association, much less this one.
The report really is an interesting addition to the literature of "the way we live now, miseries of travel dept." Two illustrations from its tick-tock reconstruction:
6. By all accounts, the gate area before boarding was chaotic. Flight 345, the first flight out from New York to Atlanta on Monday morning, is essentially a "commuter" flight. Southwest/AirTran had significantly overbooked flight 345, with at least 50 passengers, many of them full-paying frequent fliers, told that they could not get off the standby list and would have to wait for the next flight at 8:10am. [JF note: This flight was scheduled for 6:00am. After the students' eviction, the wait-list passengers were able to get on the plane.]
7. At approximately 5:30am, the 101 students, accompanied by seven chaperones, began to board the plane. The seven chaperones had a median experience of 15 years in leading student trips. One of the chaperones is a military veteran with special forces training. Another one is a certified EMT.
27. One student suggested to CNN and in social media posts than anti-Semitism may have animated Southwest's decision. That assertion was repeated in many media outlets and seemed to be the primary driver of the story's "pickup."
28. We categorically affirm that anti-Semitism did not play any role in Southwest's decision, however misguided it may have been. When our chaperones spoke with CNN, they expressly noted this point. This is the position of Yeshivah of Flatbush and its trustees, officers and faculty.
4) Solar Impulse. I've meant to say something about the heartening cross-country flight of this solar-powered craft over the past month. You can read a nice Washington Post appreciation here, and see more at the Solar Impulse home site. And here is a nice video:
The downtown view on May 5, 2013, at 5pm China time:
This item's headline is of course an homage to the official slogan of the 2008 Beijing Olympic games: Beijing huanying ni, 北京欢迎你. Beijing Welcomes Youis also the title of Tom Scocca's very good book about the Beijing of the Olympic era. For me it's now time for another brief immersion.
For those who are wondering: this is a view to the northwest from the Beijing Hotel, just west of Wangfujing. The famous tiled roofs of the Forbidden City are about 1 mile away from where I'm standing. If you could see them, you would see them over to the left in this shot.
[Widespread Chinese ignorance of the "June 4 1989 episode"] reminded me of something another teacher told me. She had asked her students from China if they had heard about the death by starvation of 30 to 40 million people during the so-called "three years of natural disasters" in the early 1960s. Her students responded with stunned silence, as if she, a teacher in Hong Kong, was brazenly fabricating history to attack their mother country.
2) Christina Larson, in Bloomberg Businessweek, about new evidence on the birth-defect epidemic being caused by pollution in China. Sample:
In the U.S., for every 10,000 live births, there are 7.5 infants with neural tube defects. In Shanxi province, that number is 18 times higher: 140 infants....
Over a 10-year period, the researchers gathered placentas from 80 stillborn or newborn infants in Shanxi with the disorder. Based on their analysis, they confirmed that those infants had been exposed in utero to significant levels of pesticides, industrial solvents, and especially polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are released into the air when fossil fuels are burned.
4) A Xinhua report saying that March in Beijing -- when we were there -- was the smoggiest in modern history.
And this is without even getting into the dead pigs, the new cases of "bird flu," etc. China is a big, exciting country. But it has very serious problems, and different problems from those in the Western world just now.
Bonus, these are not about China but among the offerings not to miss from the Atlantic recently:
A) Matt O'Brien on why David Stockman's "sky is falling" recent piece was so wrong-headed;
B) Robert Vare with an extended appreciation of Michael Kelly;
C) John Gould on why the return of Hannibal Lecter is more interesting than you might expect; and
D) - Z) Ta-Nehisi Coates's reports from Europe and Conor Friedersdorf's reports from all over , both too numerous to itemize with links right now but worth seeking out.
1) Nuke risk. Self-explanatory from the headline below, in China Dialogue:
A little bit of the rationale, via a comparison with Japan (which of course had a mid-scale nuclear disaster two years ago):
Chinese nuclear technology can be regarded as approaching global levels, with similar design, safety and operational standards. But to reduce costs, Chinese designs often cut back on safety. In the past, earthquake-resilience was lower than in Japan, for example. China also has much less experience of this sector than Japan.
Qian Shaojun, a member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, has repeatedly said that nuclear safety relies on experience - you cannot claim something is safe until it has been operating for a certain number of reactor years. Japan has at least 10 times as many reactor-years of experience as China.
2) Dead pigs. Also from China Dialogue, this expansion on the incredible dead-pigs-in-the-river story. This news was just breaking while we were in Shanghai early this month. I've avoided saying anything because ... what can you say? But the story adds detail:
"Dead pigs have always ended up in Shanghai. This time they just went there by river, instead of by truck," said one Shaoxing pig farmer, pointing at a porcine corpse.
Yes, of course, the pigs are by definition dead before they end up on a dinner table. But the story suggests that the cause for the riverine dumping is a crackdown on letting pigs who died from disease into the normal meat supply.
FWIW, from the Atlantic's former staffer Yuxin Gao, a commemorative cake:
3) Chengguan. Everyone who has lived in a big Chinese city has seen and probably grown to fear or resent the chengguan, 城管, the blue-uniformed quasi-police "urban management" squads that do a lot of the roughing-up enforcement of vendors, migrants, squatters, and others on the wrong side of the law. A horrific video on China Smack shows a member of the chengguan being bludgeoned to (brain) death by a villager incensed that they were interfering with his (illegal) construction project. If you think that China is a perfectly under-control society, you could pass up the video itself, but you will find the comments instructive.
Short version: a unique natural mountain configuration has made a site in Utah the best place in America for one particular pursuit. The pursuit is paragliding, and the location, Point of the Mountain south of Salt Lake City, has a very unusual combination of topography and natural windflow that makes it a perfect soaring spot. Point of the Mountain has attracted devotees from around the world, as shown below, and built a substantial tourist economy. But to get more gravel, a mining company has for the past ten days been bulldozing away the very ridgeline that is the basis for this world-renowned activity -- as if earth-movers started chewing up a famous skiing slope or dredging sand from Malibu or Waikiki. It's the familiar story of mountain-top removal mining, in a new setting with new effects.
Now the details. Matthew Amend, of Seattle, a glider pilot, sends this report:
Point of the Mountain is a paragliding and hang-gliding site located on a ridge just a few miles south of Salt Lake City. More free-flight pilots have earned their wings there than any other site in the USA. It has been such a part of the culture there for decades that it was designated as a Flight Park years ago, but that apparently is of no concern to a mining corporation which-- with no warning-- began strip-mining the site a couple days ago....
The bulldozers are just enormous. People woke up in the morning and saw the mountain had literally changed shape overnight. Hang-gliding and paragliding are still relatively unknown to the public. Imagine general aviation pilots losing Oshkosh, surfers losing Maui, climbers losing Yosemite, skiers losing Vail... much of the general public would grasp the significance. The Point is like that for free-flight pilots.
To me it's another demoralizing example of "Capital don't give a sh*t". It's not that capitalism as we practice it immoral or evil, any more than a swarm of locusts is. It's just amoral and relentless, remorseless. I've come to think of capitol as being like Plutonium: incredibly powerful and useful, but it needs to be carefully managed and contained, and for God's sake don't allow madmen to get their hands on it.
Well, as if you need me to tell you that. You've experienced what it's done to China's air, water, and soil.
Here's a dramatic video made by people appealing to stop the strip-mining, and here's a petition [new link here] to local authorities and the mining company, Geneva Rock. The petition has now reached its target number of signatures, but its argument is very interesting and depressing. UPDATE There's anew petition still looking for signatures. Local news coverage is here, and here is a friends-of-the-mountain link.
This is far from the biggest environmental choice or crisis America faces, but it symbolizes the many others constantly going on. You can fill in the rest of the argument and implications yourselves.
By the way, the Geneva Rock company is privately owned by a local Utah family, and it prides itself on its commitment to sustainability. Eg: "Sustainability means building for today and tomorrow without depleting future resources. Geneva Rock Products, Inc. seeks to balance the economic, social and environmental impacts of construction today with the understanding that such work will have an effect on the future." Its spokesmen have even said that they want to consider the gliders' concerns. I've asked the company about the latest showdown and will report back when I get their response.
There's no longer any surprise in noting that China has grave environmental problems. For the record, I am sticking with my claim that the simultaneous degradation of air quality, water quality, water supply, food safety, soil quality, and other environment-related variables is the main challenge to China's continued development. And of course the global effects of China's rise to wealth -- through atmospheric emissions, pressure on natural resources, acceleration of deforestation and over-fishing, market demand for ivory and other body parts of endangered species -- are urgent issue to be resolved with the rest of the world.
The news to me for the day is a site that pulls together relevant pollution readings for cities all across China. Here, for instance, is the almost unbelievably hellish current reading shown for the city of Tangshan, which is in Hebei province near Beijing and has been best known as the site of a disastrous earthquake in 1976:
How I am judging hellishness: Two days ago in Beijing, the AQI readings were in the 350ish "hazardous" zone. That was considered very bad when we were living in Beijing in 2009 and 2011. It's also the level at which I usually can feel the pollution, in the form of a chronic headache and a layer-of-something in my throat and lungs. Earlier this year, during the "Airpocalypse" in northern China, the readings in Beijing and other cities were previously unimagined 700s or above. At face value this Tangshan chart shows something over 1000.
My main purpose for now is to highlight the AQICN site; if you go here, for the Beijing readings, you'll see links to other provinces and cities, and an explanation of what is being measured. Thanks to @pdxuser and Mark MacKinnon for pointing it out.
I mentioned yesterday that while the Chinese hacking story was, deservedly, getting headlines, the Chinese government's decision to impose a kind of carbon tax could be the more important long-term news.
There's a very good assessment by former Atlantic guest blogger Ella Chou at Dance to the Revolution of what this new policy will and will not mean for China and everyone else. Here are your talking points for the next time this topic comes up at a dinner party:
Environmental carnage of all sorts is a truly major emergency in China, both in the short term [Beijing at right] and as a potential limit on the country's development;
Chinese emissions are a problem not just for its own people but also for the world. It has now overtaken the U.S. as the biggest carbon emitter; most of the coal that is burned anywhere on Earth is burned in China.
Contrary to what you might think, China's economy is relatively less efficient, and more polluting, than those of rich countries. It takes more energy to heat and cool the standard Chinese building than one in Europe or the US; Chinese farmers use more water, fertilizer, and pesticide per unit of output than is typical even with mechanized farming in the US; Chinese factories put out more air and water pollution per dollar of production than rich-country counterparts. On a per capita basis, the Chinese economy uses less energy than America's. On a per dollar (or per RMB) basis, it uses more. Simplest way to remember this point: China's economy is nowhere near as large as America's now, but it puts out more emissions.
China's pollution problems are a subset of the larger structural challenge for the Chinese economy -- in a way that is well explained at Dance to the Revolution. For more than thirty years price controls have been set to speed/subsidize the growth of huge export-manufacturing industries, and to increase farm output. Thus all these things have been kept artificially cheap: coal and gasoline; fertilizer, pesticide, water; plus financing itself, and use of the environment as a free good. Because they're cheap, companies and farmers have of course used these things freely and often wastefully.
Everyone in the Chinese economic world knows that the country is not going to move out of cheap-workhouse status, toward the realm of "real" rich-country corporate power and prosperity, unless (among other changes) it begins removing these price distortions. So that's the significance of a modest carbon tax, beyond its limited immediate environmental effect. It's part of the effort to "rebalance" the Chinese economy by removing some of its most distorting factors.
Bonus diplomatic-leverage point: Chinese officials have long used U.S. inaction on climate and carbon-tax issues as a rationalization for not taking steps of their own. On average, we're still quite a poor country, the spokesmen would say. If the rich U.S. can't "afford" to deal with emissions, how could we? Now the country is taking this carbon-tax step for reasons of its own reasons -- as a way to deal with pollution and as another step in un-distorting the economy. But as a bonus it gets talking points to prod the US to do its part.
1) Chinese hacking, as reported in the lead front-page story of today's NYT (and a fascinating story in Bloomberg Bus Week). Is this really something new? Or merely our old friend "threat inflation,"* cued both to the impending sequestration menace and last week's SOTU mentions of new efforts in cyber-security?
We're all working with limited info, but at first impression this reads to me like something new, specifically in the degree of traceability to the Chinese military.
Here's the background: Through the years, anyone who's looked into this topic has gotten used to threat inflation -- but also the reverse, in the form of caveats and cautions about how much is unclear. Yes, public and private facilities in the U.S. and elsewhere are subject to nonstop electronic probes and assaults. Yes, a lot of the attacks seem to come out of China. Still, I've heard time and again how hard it is to tell how much reflects "coordinated" military actions and how much is from on-their-own hackers, rival corporations, or ordinary profit-seeking crooks. Apart from China, there's plenty else to worry about. When I did an Atlantic article about the problem three years ago (source of the illustration above), this is what I heard, emphasis added:
Next, the authorities stressed that Chinese organizations and individuals were a serious source of electronic threats--but far from the only one, or perhaps even the main one. You could take this as good news about U.S.-China relations, but it was usually meant as bad news about the problem as a whole. "The Chinese would be in the top three, maybe the top two, leading problems in cyberspace," James Lewis, a former diplomat who worked on security and intelligence issues and is now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in Washington, told me. "They're not close to being the primary problem, and there is debate about whether they're even number two."
Number one in his analysis is Russia, through a combination of state, organized-criminal, and unorganized-individual activity. Number two is Israel--and there are more on the list. "The French are notorious for looking for economic advantage through their intelligence system," I was told by Ed Giorgio, who has served as the chief code maker and chief code breaker for the National Security Agency. "The Israelis are notorious for looking for political advantage. We have seen Brazil emerge as a source of financial crime, to join Russia, which is guilty of all of the above." Interestingly, no one suggested that international terrorist groups--as opposed to governments, corporations, or "normal" criminals--are making significant use of electronic networks to inflict damage on Western targets, although some groups rely on the Internet for recruitment, organization, and propagandizing.
I agree that there's a lot we still don't know; I'll also say, having seen more of the "Chinese cyber-threat" reports than most people, that this one seems more specific** than before, and the flow of recent evidence has pointed increasingly to China. It's worth reading the whole story, and the underlying Mandiant report. Also see Evan Osnos's good run-down of reasons to think this could be something new.
Two other points of context:
First, before any readers in China write in to inform me, of course the U.S. government has its own extensive cyber-teams. In this as in most other military areas, I would assume that its capabilities are far ahead of the PLA's -- and no U.S. official I've asked has ever led me to think otherwise.
Second, the Chinese embassy's earnest but boilerplate response is one more reminder of the uneven level of everything involving China, including savvy in dealings with the outside world. We're told that the technical probes being sent out are extremely sophisticated. On the other hand, the language of the diplomats traces back to the era of "resolutely condemning" foreign hegemony etc:
Contacted Monday, officials at the Chinese embassy in Washington again insisted that their government does not engage in computer hacking, and that such activity is illegal .... [JF note: pirate videos are also "illegal" in China. So is speeding, bribery, etc.]
''Making unfounded accusations based on preliminary results is both irresponsible and unprofessional, and is not helpful for the resolution of the relevant problem,'' said Hong Lei, a ministry spokesman. ''China resolutely opposes hacking actions and has established relevant laws and regulations and taken strict law enforcement measures to defend against online hacking activities.''
2) The real problem for, and with, China. My friends at Danwei have a report, drawn from the Chinese media and Chinese studies, showing that groundwater in nearly all Chinese cities is polluted, and that in about two thirds of them it is "severely" polluted. That is what the big Chinese headline below says.
To put this in context:
Environmental disaster is the gravest threat to China's continued
development. That's according to me, but it is not some wacko view.
The Chinese government is trying very hard to deal with these
problems, and is even unleashing the press to do more. The question is
whether anyone can do enough, fast enough.
This latest report closes a circle. The air that people breathe in many Chinese cities has become dangerously polluted.
Their food supply is subject to constant contamination scandals. Now it appears that not merely stagnant ponds but the water people draw from deep underground is already
tainted. This is a giant problem -- for them, and for everyone.
I mention this because I worry about it and its implications a lot more than whatever the Chinese cyber-sleuths might have in mind, damaging as the cyber-assaults can be.
* For the record: I am not suggesting that the NYT reporters, whom I know and respect, are "inflating" anything. But it is a reality that certain reports, interviews, disclosures come into reporters' hands at some times -- and not at others.
** Eg, this part of the NYT story, about a building in Shanghai that by chance I have seen, though I have not gone inside. (I'll look for it when I'm there next month):
Mandiant [a security firm] discovered that two sets of I.P. addresses used in the attacks were registered in the same neighborhood as [the military's] Unit 61398's building....
"Either they are coming from inside Unit 61398," said Kevin Mandia, the founder and chief executive of Mandiant, in an interview last week, "or the people who run the most-controlled, most-monitored Internet networks in the world are clueless about thousands of people generating attacks from this one neighborhood."
ChinaFile is a new venture by the Asia Society, for which the Atlantic will be a partner and to which I will be one of many contributors.
The discussion today genuinely is worth noticing. It's about the reasons for, and likely consequences of, the "Airpocalypse" that is now evident through so many big Chinese cities. For reference: That's our old neighborhood in Beijing, in a picture shot from a 30th floor window last week.
The long introductory post by Alex Wang, whom I knew in Beijing when he represented the Natural Resources Defense Council there, and who is now at UC Berkeley, sets out all the reasons why the current emergency matters for China and the rest of the world. Other contributors elaborate on some of the even worse ramifications, and possible responses.
As I argued last month -- here, here, and here -- the nearly unendurable conditions that Chinese growth has brought to many Chinese people represent a kind of challenge that the system and its leaders have not reckoned with before. Apart, of course, from the effects on the rest of the world. I think you'll find this discussion valuable and clarifying, if not exactly encouraging. (I have a cameo entry at the end, saying essentially what I've just said here.)
Last week I mentioned the effects that China's latest pollution emergency was having on Chinese citizens and foreigners living there. Here's a picture posted on Twitter just now from a friend in Beijing, showing the view from the 30th floor out toward our former neighborhood.
Some related notes that have come in, about a problem increasingly recognized inside China as a national emergency. From a reader in the United States:
I work in international adoption. One of the biggest changes in the last ten years is the precipitous drop in the number of infants with no identified medical needs available for adoption from China. This is a hugely contentious topic within the adoption community, and I'll spare you most of it.
However, along with the disappearance of children with no identified medical needs, we have seen a huge increase in the number of children with identified medical needs. Every month, I place children (from 9 months to 14 years) who have cleft lip and/or cleft palate; missing fingers, hands, toes, parts of arms or legs; malformed internal organs; genetic disorders; etc.
While any country with a population as large as China's will have some number of children born with birth defects, there are persistent rumors that the horrendous pollution in China has led to a huge increase such births in China. This, combined with the one-child policy, has led to orphanages being filled with special needs children, some of whom have very complex and difficult medical needs. In addition, children remaining in families often have less obvious medical issues that affect their ability to live full lives.
[I wonder what] effect that this is going to have on China as it continues to develop....
I lived in [a former Soviet bloc country] in the early 90s. Environmental degradation was a huge issue, and one that everyone I met, whatever their politics, agreed had contributed to the collapse of the communist system. I bet the party officials in Beijing know that very well.
From another reader, this link to an article on the possible relationship between certain forms of pollution and autism. And from a technically trained reader who has been living and working in China:
I suspect that breathing and eating all that heavy metal as children growing up would definitely retard brain development....
It is not hard to believe, if the vegetables they ate spent the entire season grown in soil and air laden with heavy metals, the water they drank is contaminated with metals and VOCs [Volatile Organic Compounds], and the air the breath is full of PM2.5 dust which can pass through the alveoli sacs into the blood stream, and through the blood/brain barrier, directly into their growing brains. Certainly, we are aware of how heavy metals retard brain development...
One must wonder, in addition to mild retardation, what other personality disorders can result from this disruption in normal development of the brain, from birth onward. Are they building a society where certain psychological disorders are the norm? Are we seeing this mass disorder and mis-diagnosing it as just the modern Chinese culture?
To be entirely clear here: I don't personally know whether heavy-metal and other pollutant burdens in China are in fact causing birth defects and cognitive disorders. I'm not in a position to judge the scientific literature. But I do know that the pollution level in China is terrible; that (even) the Chinese press is sounding the warning about the effects; and that in other parts of the world toxins have of course been shown to cause physical and mental defects and diseases. This is a very big problem in China, perhaps even bigger than people there yet know.
If you don't have time to watch all 30 minutes of the "G+ Hangout" that ended an hour ago, about the current pollution emergency in China, I strongly recommend that you watch at least the last 10 minutes. Here's the background:
This broadcast is part of a weekly series on events in China, run by Fons Tuinstra, whom I knew in Beijing. The main guest is Richard Brubaker, who lives in Shanghai and teaches at a well known business school there. The topic is the recent spate of historically bad air-pollution readings in many Chinese cities, especially Beijing. The whole discussion is important and interesting, and here are some of the early highlights:
Time 9:20+ how ordinary Chinese citizens are affected by the emergency
11:15+ why the respective geographies of Beijing and Shanghai usually make problems worse in Beijing (which like LA sits in a bowl where air gets trapped), but why Shanghai is suddenly "catching up" and in a worst-ever situation for air quality;
12:15+ why parents of small children must constantly worry about air quality, along with food safety
13:00-15:00+ why not only foreigners but increasing numbers of young Chinese say they are thinking of leaving the country to escape the air, water, and food problems.
That's just the buildup. What I really want you to watch is ....
... the last ten minutes of the broadcast, starting around time 20:00. Very matter-of-factly Brubaker lays out the basic realities of China's environmental/economic/social/political conundrum:
that its pollution and other environmental strains are the direct result of rapidly bringing hundreds of millions of peasants into urban, electrified, motorized life;
that China's economic and political stability depends on continuing to bring hundreds of millions more people off the farm and into the cities;
that China's practices and standards in city planning, transport, architecture, etc are still so inefficient enough that, even with its all-out clean-up efforts, its growth is disproportionately polluting. In Europe, North America, Japan, etc each 1% increase in GDP means an increase of less than 1% in energy and resource use, emissions, etc. For China, each 1% increment means an increase of more than 1% in environmental burden. And, the most important part for Western readers:
this cannot go on. Brubaker makes a point ignored in virtually every breezy prediction of the inevitable Chinese future: that environmental constraints are the most urgent of several limits affecting the famed "Chinese growth model," and because of them it is far from obvious that China will ever "overtake" the United States or anyone else.
None of this is "new," but it is useful to have it all put together so concisely. I respond so strongly to this point because it's a central argument of my recent book and other dispatches for the Atlantic. Also Brubaker explains why it's "true," but meaningless, that every industrializing country has gone through its own stage of hellish rape-of-the-land-and-air. I grew up in the Southern California of the terrible-smog era of the 1960s, and have described what that bodes for possible improvements in Beijing. (Part one, two, and three.) Alexis Madrigal recently compared China's problems to those of Pittsburgh at its worst.
Brubaker's point, which I agree with, is: the comparisons don't matter. China's scale and speed are so different that its environmental problems constitute a unique emergency, for its own people and for the world.
Through the year before the Olympics, while we were living in Beijing, I used to do daily views-out-the-window as a guide to the challenge the air-cleanup-people faced. For instance, here was a downtown area a few weeks before the opening ceremony:
Therefore I am sobered by news reports, official warnings, and messages from friends in Beijing, Xi'an, and elsewhere saying that the air pollution there is worse than it has ever been before. Here's a gauge: the picture above was taken back when the level of dangerous "PM 2.5" small-particulate pollution, as reported by the rogue @BeijingAir monitoring site on the roof of the US Embassy in Beijing, was in the low-300s "hazardous" range. The readings in the past few days have been in the previously unimaginable 700s-and-above range, reported as "beyond index" by @BeijingAir. The worst I have personally seen in Beijing was in the high 400s, and that day I did not understand how life could proceed any further in such circumstances. The conditions this weekend have been much worse:
As a place-holder and set of reading tips, here are a few points for now:
This is yet another reminder of a fact impossible to forget when you're inside China but that often gets glossed over in credulous accounts of the New Chinese Century. Namely, that economic growth has come at the cost of environmental disaster, which is in turn (according to me) the most urgent and important of several limits and dangers the Chinese system faces. Every country as it develops has gone through its hellish-despoliation era, and of course the world as a whole is still at this stage. But the scale and speed of China's transformation make its case unique.
A little more than a year ago there was a mild-in-retrospect, frightening-at-the-time air emergency in Beijing, for which I gave background here, here, here. Earlier I wrote an article about what Chinese air had done (and not yet done) to me, according to a doctor.
It's worth reading the English version of a notable editorial in Global Times, a government-controlled and often hard-line paper. In days of yore, the Chinese press would downplay pollution reports -- calling it "fog," saying that foreigners were meddling in Chinese affairs by even monitoring the most dangerous pollutants, etc. In context, this editorial is filled with quite eye-opening lines, which I have helpfully highlighted:
"The public should understand the importance of development as well as the critical need to safeguard the bottom line of the environmental pollution. The choice between development and environment protection should be made by genuinely democratic methods... "The government cannot always think about how to intervene to 'guide public opinion.' It should publish the facts and interests involved, and let the public itself produce a balance based on the foundation of diversification. "The government is not the only responsible party for environmental pollution. As long as the government changes its previous method of covering up the problems and instead publishes the facts, society will know who should be blamed."
The Global Times news story today (English version) also has a very different tone from what I remember during the last emergency. It wasn't that long ago that state media were pooh-poohing the "PM 2.5" readings as being meaningless for a country at China's stage of development. That's changed, as you'll see. Similarly from Xinhua.
Here's a wrapup of a number of other Chinese and foreign reports, from the Sinocism blog.
For a through technical description of how the air-quality/air-pollution measures work in China and the US, see the Live from Beijing site. Vance Wagner, who runs the site, explains why this pollution episode is worse than the others. He also has examples of the way genuine public alarm about an unignorable disaster is altering the Chinese press-control system. (In short: social media taking the lead, and some state media realizing they have to respond -- as with this from People's Daily.) That's the connection between this story, and last week's Southern Weekend showdown, and other tensions within China: much of the society is becoming well-informed and sophisticated, in a hurry. The government's first instinct is just to bottle up and censor the information flow, but it has to be selective about where that will work and where it will simply look ridiculous. This is a longer saga, underway in earnest at least from the time of the SARS epidemic ten years ago. Here's a book for further reference, and an essay on the implications of Southern Weekend by the Chinese dissident Mo Zhixu. Plus this from the China Media Project at the University of Hong Kong.
I could spend all night adding items to the list, but that is surely enough for now. Each will lead you to dozens of other sources. Americans have had football and Golden Globes this weekend, but this week's Chinese news really matters in a different way.