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China’s Environmental Mess Creates Global Opportunity

May 10 , 2014

Something stinks in China; it’s the water, the soil and the air.

There is only so long that an environment can be polluted without incurring serious and long-term consequences.  In many places in China, the environment is so spoiled that it is difficult to see how it might bounce back.

Tom Watkins

Anyone who has spent time in Beijing knows how poor the air quality is from the moment they step out of their hotel. The U.S. Embassy in Beijing actually measures Beijing’s Air Quality.

In a clean environment, you can see the top of a ten-story building clearly.

Earlier this year, the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences claimed that Beijing’s pollution made the city almost “uninhabitable for human beings”.

On a trip to Shanghai last year, I sat in a second story Tea House on Nanjing Road, enjoying the hustle and bustle of locals and tourists enjoying a summer evening. As dusk washed over the city, I noticed flakes fluttering in the beams of car headlights. My first thought was that it was snow — but it was August in Shanghai! What appeared to be snowflakes were actually air particles that were large and prevalent enough to look like a winter wonderland.

The Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection provides its own for cities throughout China. Out of the 74 Chinese cities that were monitored last year, only three met official minimum standards for air quality, underscoring the country’s severe pollution problems. Yet even with these bad numbers, there is great skepticism among Chinese citizens about the accuracy of the reports.

A Wall Street Journal article reported that China’s Environmental Ministry stated, “Nearly one-fifth of China’s arable land is polluted. The new report confirms the worst fears of environmentalists and researchers about the effects of decades long rapid industrialization on the country’s soil.”

Bloomberg reported that “the silver dust that falls from carelessly managed mines, is the hydrochloric acid used in China to process raw graphite into a usable form. The acid is highly corrosive and when released untreated as waste water into the environment is harmful to all forms of life.”

I can’t tell you how many times I have been enjoying delightful seafood at a Chinese banquet, when I am suddenly reminded that there are few bodies of Chinese water that I would want to eat anything from.

Actions have consequences. Burning dirty coal, continued de-forestation, lack of environmental controls, and a desire to fast-forward economic growth, all come at a price. In Deng Xiaoping’s words, “To get rich is glorious”, but it is not inconsequential. Getting rich with little or no concern for long term environmental impact is now coming home to roost in China.

In China, symptoms of environmental damage range from lead poisoning and acid spills to sickening smog in all cities of significant size. In China, all cities are of significant size; therefore, nearly all of China is polluted.

I have been to places in Xinjiang, Tibet and Zhoujiagou that remain pure and picturesque, but most of China feels dirty, unhealthy, and environmentally hazardous.

China must address this growing problem, which is pivotal to its social and political stability.

The Pollution Spills Over

What happens in China does not stay in China. Its environmental problems are becoming global problems. A recent study published by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences suggests that “large amounts of pollution that travel from China—and the environmental and health issues they create—stem from our demand for cheap goods manufactured in China.”

Certainly, the U.S. fouled its own environment during the industrial revolution. It wasn’t that long ago that the Great Lakes, which contain 20 % of the worlds’ fresh surface water, were also in danger. Lake Erie was so polluted years ago, that it caught fire. When I arrived in Detroit in 1969, the air stank. Today however, both Lake Erie and Detroit are clean.

Jerry Xu, President of the Detroit Chinese Business Association said, “American companies can help China clean up its environmental mess, we have the most advanced technology and experience, coupled with China’s willingness to invest to clean up its air and water. It is the right formula for a win-win situation … China’s leadership realizes a poor environment is hurting its GDP. The environment is costly on people’s health, which causes significant medical and social issues. Also, it affects multiple generations, making China look bad at home and around the globe.”

Stuart Lloyd Hart is one of the world’s top authorities on the implications of sustainable development and environmentalism on business strategy. He is currently the Samuel C. Johnson Chair of Sustainable Global Enterprise and Professor of Management at the Johnson School of Management at Cornell University. He hit the nail on the head when he said, “China has an enormous opportunity to lead the world in ‘Green Leap’ innovation, by focusing their development strategy for the interior and west of the country on building the cities of tomorrow, using green leap entrepreneurship and base of the pyramid business models to lift the 700 million rural poor out of poverty.”

The United States’ know-how in cleaning up its own messes can be put to good use in China. It is a big world, and neither China nor the U.S. is an island unto itself. What happens in one country impacts the other – and all of humanity.  With forward thinking and leadership, the U.S. can literally make green off of China’s dirt.

China need not wallow in its mess alone.

Tom Watkins has had a lifelong interest in China that was sparked by a great fourth grade teacher. He has worked for over three decades to build economic, educational and cultural ties between the U.S. and China. He is an advisor to the University of Michigan Confucius Institute, Michigan’s Economic Development Corporation and Detroit Chinese Business Association. He can be reached at or follow Watkins on Twitter: @tdwatkins88

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