CHONGQING, the Yangtze River city that Americans may know as Chungking, is a naturally foggy place. It also suffers some of the worst pollution in all China, which puts it among the strong candidates for most polluted city in the world. When the fog and the pollution are both at their thickest, locals say, "if you stretch your hand out in front of your face, you cannot see your fingers."
Visibility was somewhat better than that when I visited Chongqing one morning recently. Perched high above the Jialin River, which also flows through the city, I peered into the dank grayness before me. I could dimly make out a black-and-white tugboat hugging the far shore of the river and, beyond that, the outlines of what might be office buildings. This was the view from the back of the Chongqing Paper Factory, a massive state-owned facility that local environmental officials had singled out as evidence of how well they were cleaning up Chongqing. Built in the 1940s, the factory had been for a long time a terrible polluter, discharging enough chlorine and other toxic chemicals into the Jialin "to cover the entire river with white foam," according to a top official of the Chongqing Environmental Protection Bureau who must remain nameless. Now, however, the official bragged in an interview, the factory had been all but shut down. "Our strategy has been to press them to death!" he said.
At the factory, though, it didn't look that way. The official discouraged me from trying to visit ("I myself would have to seek permission to enter," he said scoldingly), but Zhenbing, my interpreter, and I found the front gate open when we arrived, and since no one stopped us, we simply walked in. At the back of the plant a set of concrete steps led down to the Jialin River, perhaps eighty yards below. Halfway down Zhenbing and I cut left across the exposed riverbank, our shoes leaving clear prints on the dark, sandy soil.
Within seconds we saw a broad stream of bubbling water cascading out the back of the plant and down the hillside. The astringent odor of chlorine attacked our nostrils, and once we reached the stream's edge, the smell was so powerful that we immediately backed away. Below us, where the discharge emptied into the Jialin, a frothy white plume was spreading across the slow-moving river.
Fifty yards farther on we encountered a second stream, this one a mere foot wide but clogged with pineapple-sized clumps of dried orange foam. Beyond was a third creek. Its stench identified it as household sewage (workers in China's state-owned factories generally live on site or nearby), but its most extraordinary feature was its color -- as black as used motor oil. Not ten yards away a grizzled peasant in a dark-blue Mao jacket and trousers (an outfit still worn in China by the poor) bent over a tiny vegetable patch to pick some greens for his midday meal.
All this was dwarfed by what lay ahead. The vapor was what we saw first -- wispy white, it hung low in the air, like tear gas. Stepping closer, we heard the sound of gushing water. Not until we were merely footsteps away, however, could we see the source of the commotion: a vast, roaring torrent of white, easily thirty yards wide, splashing down the hillside like a waterfall of boiling milk.
Again the scent of chlorine was unmistakable, but this waterfall was much whiter than the first. Decades of unhindered discharge had left the rocks coated with a creamlike residue, creating a perversely beautiful white-on-white effect. Above us the waterfall had bent trees sideways; below, it split into five channels before pouring into the unfortunate Jialin. All this and yet the factory, as one worker had informed us, was operating at about 25 percent of capacity.
Hoping to leave the factory grounds by another exit, Zhenbing and I were trudging up a service road when a man wearing the olive-green greatcoat of the Chinese military came running directly at us. It seemed that our unauthorized factory tour might end badly after all. But no. Military greatcoats turn out to be a bit like Mao jackets in China these days: lots of people wear them, because they are cheap and functional. In any case, this man had different worries. Liquid was spilling from two large, loosely connected hoses by the side of the road, one leading back up to the factory and the other stretching down to the river. The man barked orders at two workers straddling the hoses, and they stepped back. Then, without a word of warning to Zhenbing and me -- though we were standing only five feet away -- he knelt and tightened the connection between the hoses.
Instantly he was engulfed in an explosion of gas. But he was ready for it, and in one fluid motion he straightened and started sprinting back along the road, vanishing behind the billowing cloud of chlorine after two steps. Zhenbing and I were not ready for it, but forward was the only way out, so we held our breath and plunged after him. Six running strides brought us past the worst of it, but even then we were surrounded by huge puffs of gas, which started us coughing fiercely.
Thirty yards up the road we were still sputtering when we passed three dump trucks parked against the factory wall. A dozen workers were lounging in the backs of the trucks. The man in the greatcoat, who had run all the way here, was bending down to tie his shoe. Chlorine is the chemical that was used to kill soldiers in the poison-gas attacks of the First World War, but the men in the trucks showed no concern about the vapors floating past their heads. They only elbowed one another and stared at the foreigner trudging past their factory -- evidently a far more unusual sight.
Zhenbing and I walked in silence to the plant's side exit and left. We were in the middle of a six-week trip through China to investigate the environmental crisis, and it was not a cheering assignment. In Beijing, Xi'an, and other cities of the north Zhenbing and I had walked in air so thick with coal dust and car fumes that even sunny days looked overcast and foggy. In the bone-dry province of Shanxi, a day's journey west of Beijing, we had ridden by train for hours without seeing anything that resembled woods -- there were only a few scattered, spindly trees, which looked ready to expire any minute. Everywhere, it seemed, the land had been scalped, the water poisoned, the air made toxic and dark.
Despite witnessing all this, Zhenbing was not exactly a militant environmentalist. Born into a very poor rural family thirty years ago, he, like most Chinese I had met, was quite willing to put up with filthy air and polluted water if it meant more jobs, better pay, a chance to get ahead. But today's experience had shaken my new friend. Outside the factory we were waiting for the bus back downtown. I was scribbling in my notebook when, behind me, I heard Zhenbing murmuring, as if in a dream, "My poor country. My poor country."
HUMAN rights, China's possible admission to the World Trade Organization, its alleged Washington influence-buying -- these are the issues that have made international headlines in the months leading up to this fall's Sino-U.S. summit. But soon China's environmental crisis is bound to command equal attention. China claims that its population is 1.22 billion people (as of the end of 1996). The true number is certainly higher than that. But even the official figure means that nearly one out of every four human beings on earth lives in China. The Chinese economy is ranked anywhere from the third to the seventh largest in the world, and is expected to be No. 1 by 2010. Incomes have doubled since Deng Xiaoping initiated his marketplace reforms in 1979, and the environmental side effects have been devastating.
At least five of the cities with the worst air pollution in the world are in China. Sixty to 90 percent of the rainfall in Guangdong, the southern province that is the center of China's economic boom, is acid rain. Since nearly all the gasoline in China is leaded (Beijing switched to unleaded gas in June), and 80 percent of the coal isn't "washed" before being burned, people's lungs and nervous systems are bombarded by an extraordinary volume and variety of deadly poisons. One of every four deaths in China is caused by lung disease, brought about by the air pollution and the increasingly fashionable habit of cigarette smoking. Suburban sprawl and soil erosion gobbled up more than 86 million acres of farmland from 1950 to 1990 -- as much as all the farmland in Germany, France, and the United Kingdom. Farmland losses have continued in the 1990s, raising questions about China's ability to feed itself in years to come, especially as rising incomes lead to more meat-intensive diets.
Even the government's official policy pronouncements, which invariably overaccentuate the positive, admit that environmental degradation in China will get worse before it gets better. For China's newfound wealth has only whetted its citizens' appetite for more. China's huge population wants to join the global middle class, with everything that entails: cars, air-conditioners, closets full of clothes, jet travel. Rising consumer demand has already resulted in chronic widespread electricity shortages. Thus China plans to build more than a hundred new power stations over the next decade, adding 18,000 megawatts of capacity every year -- roughly the equivalent of Louisiana's entire power grid. By 2020 its coal consumption will have doubled, if not tripled. All this will not only worsen the country's acid-rain and air-pollution problems; it will endanger the entire planet, by accelerating the global warming that scientists say is already under way.
China's huge population and grand economic ambitions make it the most important environmental actor in the world today, with the single exception of the United States. Like the United States, China could all but single-handedly make climate change, ozone depletion, and a host of other hazards a reality for people all over the world. What happens in China is therefore central to one of the great questions of our time: Will human civilization survive the many environmental pressures crowding in on it at the end of the twentieth century?
Like governments the world over, China's leaders have learned to say the right things about the environment. In 1992 China was an enthusiastic participant in the United Nations Earth Summit. In July of last year President Jianang Zemin and Premier Li Peng began to speak out against environmental destruction and to urge a shift toward "sustainable development." China has also adopted comprehensive environmental laws and regulations that on paper compare favorably with -- indeed, were often modeled on -- their Western equivalents.
But the future is shaped less by official rhetoric than by what actually happens on the ground, and as the Chongqing Paper Factory illustrates, environmental laws are often simply not implemented in China. This is no state secret; most of the dozens of government officials I interviewed acknowledged the pervasiveness of the problem, often without prompting. Sometimes the culprit is corruption: factory owners use guanxi -- personal connections -- or bribery to get local regulators to look the other way. Beijing either can't or won't stop them. As the ancient Chinese adage says, "The mountains are high, and the Emperor is far away."
Even more common, and intractable, is the so-called soft-law syndrome. Under soft law the government excuses state-owned companies from full compliance with environmental laws and standards; the law is "softened" in order to spare the companies (and the state banks supporting them) from bankruptcy and to shield their workers from unemployment. In contrast to corruption, soft law is not something Chinese officials like to talk about.
Right after the explosion at the paper factory I had lunch with Hu Jiquan, a top government economist in Chongqing. Keen to encourage foreign investment, Hu was pledging that the local environment would improve in years to come, thanks to tougher law enforcement. "We will close factories if we have to," Hu said. "We've already closed more than two hundred of them." Having just returned from the chlorine waterfall, I couldn't help challenging this rosy vision, and Hu was honest enough to concede that short-term economic considerations often do override environmental goals in China. "The trouble is, if we close that factory, many workers will lose their jobs, and our government would rather support the workers than protect the water," he said with a shrug.
Hu then extended his explanation, though he first told Zhenbing not to translate this part for the foreigner. The government of Chongqing knew perfectly well that the paper plant should be closed immediately. In fact, it had tried to shut the plant months earlier (just as the unnamed official quoted earlier had bragged), "but the local people and leaders complained a lot, so the government backed off. It was afraid of social unrest."
This is the crux of the Chinese environmental problem. The government knows the environment needs protecting, but it fears the social consequences. Bluntly put, it worries that doing the right thing environmentally could be political suicide.