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China’s Sick Yellow River

Thursday, January 31, 2013

China’s water pollution is even worse than its better-known air pollution. As long as the Chinese people have few private rights, government-backed pollution will continue.

Beijing is an unhealthy place to live. The air in China’s capital often has over ten times the safety limits established by the World Health Organization for particulates and other potential dangers to health. This problem has received widespread coverage in newspapers around the world, yet the problem with water quality in China is even worse than its air quality, but less visible to foreign correspondents.

According to Peter Gleick, director of the Pacific Institute, China’s water resources are “grossly polluted by human and industrial wastes, to the point that vast stretches of rivers are dead and dying, lakes are cesspools of waste, groundwater aquifers are over-pumped and unsustainably consumed, uncounted species of aquatic life have been driven to extinction, and direct adverse impacts on both human and ecosystem health are widespread and growing.... Of the 20 most seriously polluted cities in the world, 16 are in China.”

The general explanation for this gross air and water pollution is that it is caused by China’s rapid industrial development, and particularly its use of numerous coal-fired power stations. Many cities in Western countries had the same types of problems in the first half of the last century. Public sewage works and publicly protected corporations were the equivalent of China’s omnipresent government corporations of today. The Cuyahoga in Ohio was so polluted it repeatedly caught fire, and effluent in the Trent and Derwent in central Britain meant that for months — even years — at a time there were no fish in them. The common narrative is that popular opinion pushed politicians to enact and enforce regulations, and as a result quality improved. This is true in part. But one of the drivers of public opinion was often what private landowners did to combat pollution. And they were able to take action because of the common law at their disposal.

Sixty years ago, the first important case to stop pollution of British rivers was won. Lord Brockton sued the Luton Corporation (a government provider of sewage services), because it was grossly polluting the river Lea and harming the ancient riparian and other rights of Lord Brockton. The British government defended itself, in essence saying it had the right to pollute the river, that the price of progress was the inevitable pollution. Lord Brockton won, and what followed was hundreds of litigious actions against government and private polluters. Over the next 20 years, rivers were cleaned up across Britain — before the British government decided to act decisively and enforce legislation against pollution. Property right actions over river pollution occurred in the western U.S. states, which also contributed to public opinion in the United States against pollution.

Private corporations were the first companies to ensure product quality, advertise it as such, and lobby for quality regulations.

Such actions are not in practice possible under Chinese law. And it is one of the reasons why actions to decisively combat pollution will not occur anytime soon. The Chinese government shares the view of the British government of 60 years ago in claiming the right to pollute as the price of progress.

Of course, lack of protection of private rights in China has far wider consequences within China and abroad. It is one of the reasons for all the product scares — pet food, milk, medicines, car parts, cigarettes, and much more — over the past decade. Britain and the United States had similar scares a century ago, particularly around food quality, and it was private corporations and the law that largely resolved them. Heinz in the United States and Crosse and Blackwell in Britain were the first companies to ensure product quality, advertise it as such, and lobby for quality regulations.

Such a course is not really possible in China. Until individuals have greater political rights, those scares, along with air pollution, will continue — and may even worsen. And with all the imports from China, including food, but especially drug ingredients, Americans are at risk too. According to a Pew survey, 70 percent of Americans distrust Chinese-made medicines. But what most Americans don’t know is that Chinese ingredients are found in nearly every drug we consume in America. In one instance alone in 2008, 149 Americans died from such ingredients.

Prior to the Beijing Olympics in 2008, the air quality in the city improved because the government simply shut down polluting industries. Drastic action is available to a dictatorship like China’s, but it has no long-run value. Once the cameras left, industries started up and the pollution rapidly returned. 

Of course, government intervention is important to combat fake products and many types of pollution. It took decades to emerge in the United States and Britain, and followed private actions. As long as the Chinese people have limited ability to influence government and they have few private rights, action against government-backed polluters will not be sustainable. This is a major health risk to Chinese families and a far smaller but not negligible risk to Americans too.

Roger Bate is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.


FURTHER READING: Bate also writes “Combatting Corruption,” “Phakes and the Cancer Fight,” and “Blood Diamonds Are Mugabe’s Best Friend.” Douglas Noonan contributes “How Much Do We Care about the Air? Evidence on the Value of Air Quality Improvements.” Michael Rubin discusses “Tehran’s Losing Battle with Air Pollution.”


Image credit: Shutterstock/zhuda

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