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China's irresponsibility could lead to worldwide environment woe

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Posted: Saturday, September 20, 2008 9:00 pm

On Sept. 20, 1949, Mao Zedong stood atop the entrance to the Forbidden City, in the center of Beijing, and declared the establishment of the People's Republic of China. Over the next half century, China would embark on a turbulent journey from an empire that was shamed by its decay and stagnation into a rising world power.

As the forces of globalization shrink under the influence of time and space in the modern world, the problems that China faces could have an impact on the rest of the world. China's massive population, demand for resources, levels of pollution, and disputes over territory are all issues that will affect all citizens of the world in the 21st century.

Population and Resource Consumption:

When Mao founded the PRC, he had a dream of making China a superpower that would overtake Great Britain and the United States in both economic and military might. His belief was that fostering a large population was an important weapon that the Chinese people had available to be able to achieve this goal. In 1949, the population of China was a littleover a half-billion people. By 1980, China had reached a population of 1 billion people. For 30 years, the government had urged families to raise as many children as they could to make China strong.

In 1979, the Chinese government acknowledged that a population of such proportions would be more problematic than beneficial, and a population-control policy was enacted that allowed most Chinese families to have only one child. This policy has worked to slow the growth of the Chinese population and it is estimated that the population will reach a peak of 1.5 billion people by the middle of the century.

However, China's massive population is still massive, and its size has major implications for global resource consumption. The success of the Chinese economy in recent years has created a quickly growing middle and upper class. As these classes continue to grow, so does consumerism. The Chinese are buying more, using more energy, and as a result are using up more resources than ever. China has already surpassed the United States in the consumption of meat, coal, steel and grain and is quickly closing in on rivaling the U.S. in oil consumption.

Without drastic changes in the consumption practices of the United States and China, greater demand for increasingly scarce resources is bound to cause problems. These problems can range from increases in prices for these goods to internationalconflicts over the control and use of resources.


Throughout the Mao era, the government's philosophy on the environment was that nature was a force that needed to be conquered and controlled by China, becoming a subservientforce that could be used to the benefit of China's quest for greatness. Forests were clear-cut to make room for factories and the beginning plans for the Three Gorges Dam project were drawn up to prove that the Chinese people could tame the mighty, and destructive, Yellow River. One of the most interesting environmental campaigns of this era was the 1958 "war against sparrows," in which the government deemed the sparrows' consumption of grain to be detrimental to the advancementof China. A nation wide campaign was enacted to rid China of sparrows, rats, flies and mosquitoes. In Shanghai on Dec. 13 it is estimated that almost 200,000 sparrows were killed in one day.

This instance also serves as a perfect example of the unforeseen consequences of imprudent environmental policy. With the sparrow population greatly diminished, other pests, like grasshoppers and locusts, were missing a predator. Massive swarms of bugs ravaged and destroyed crops, which was a factor in causing a three-year famine in China that claimed 15 million lives.

Today, the drive to grow economically is outweighing the costs on the environment in the actions of business ownersand policy enforcement agents in China. Although China's national government has taken steps to fight rampant water and air pollution, actual enforcement is lacking at the local levels. For most small, local factories, the environmental toll of their practices is not as important as the financial costs of changing or updating their machinery to less polluting systems.Local government officials also tend to turn the other way to these polluters because of the local economic impact of enforcing the law and shutting down profitable factories.

As China continues to go through the process of industrializing,many scholars believe that other nations need to play a bigger role in stopping pollution, especially carbon dioxide emissions. Their argument is that the First World nations polluted greatly when they went through their industrial revolutions, thus China should be able to pollute too. This is not a blank check for China to rape the environment; they will have to reduce emissions but will be allowed a few decades before needing to do so. First World nations, which have already industrialized, have greater assets and capabilities to protect the environment and need to start doing so to balance out the environment across the globe.

Territory Disputes:

Disputed territories in China could pose problems to global peace, especially if other nations get involved. Ethnic separatist groups in China's Xinzhang and Tibet provinces have made open calls for independence. These calls have also turned into violence. Earlier this year, riots broke out in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa and demonstrators turned into a violent mob, burning businesses and cars, while calling for Tibet's independence. In the northwestern province of Xinzhang, several terrorist plots by ethnic Uigher separatists have been discovered in the last year. These disputes remain domestic problems for China, but have the potential to spill outside of the Middle Kingdom's borders.

The most dangerous territorial dispute in China is the conflict regarding Taiwan. After the communist takeover of China in 1949, thousands of members of the overthrown Nationalist government and their supporters fled to the island of Taiwan and declared themselves as not part of China. Twenty- five nations recognize Taiwan's independence and another 120 treat Taiwan diplomatically as a separate entity, without calling it independent.

China maintains that if Taiwan tries to formally secede that they will take the island by force. The United States has opposed China in this stand and has provided military equipment to Taiwan and pledges that it will defend Taiwan in the event of an attack. If diplomacy breaks down between China and Taiwan, or if Taiwan tries to become its own nation, we could see military conflict between the U.S. and China.

Peter Zysk is a senior at Gonzaga. He studied in Beijing last year.

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