It's a challenge to defend China these days. There's violation of human rights. There's Sudan. There's Tibet. And now there's "currency manipulation."
So looking at China's pollution mess, we in the West have been quick to denounce the bad guys in Beijing, blaming them for doing nothing to protect their air, water and people.
But Chinese indifference to the environment is a myth. In the last few years China has begun to take aggressive action to bring its air and water pollution under control.
Here are a few examples:
-China's fuel-efficiency standard for cars is currently pegged at 43 miles per gallon, which means that when America's 2020 standards of 35 mpg go into effect they'll be lower than China's minimum standard of today.
-Coal-fired plants must install or retrofit filtering devices in their smokestacks.
-Chief executives of companies found responsible for waste-dumping are being fined 50 percent of their previous year's salary.
-Approval of new industrial projects in cities along China's four major rivers has been suspended indefinitely.
-A "green credit policy," which instructs banks not to give loans to energy-intensive, polluting industries and to recall loans when companies are later found to be violation of environmental regulations, went into effect in July 2007.
-An ambitious renewable-energy program, in which hydroelectric, biomass, wind and solar power are to account for 10 percent of China's total energy use by 2010 and 15 percent by 2020, was made public in March 2008.
Credit for most of these measures goes mostly to one man, Pan Yue, vice minister of the newly established Ministry of Environmental Protection. Pan has made it a personal mission to raise awareness of China's ecological crisis since 2003, when he was appointed vice deputy of the ministry's less powerful predecessor, the State Environmental Protection Administration.
"In 20 years, China has achieved economic results that took a century to attain in the West," Pan says. "But we have also concentrated a century's worth of environmental issues into those 20 years."
He appears unafraid to challenge the "development" path that the Chinese Communist Party has taken for the past three decades: "There has been a flaw in our thinking: The belief that the economy decides everything. If the economy is booming, we thought, political stability will follow; if the economy is booming, we hoped, people will have enough to eat and live contented lives; if the economy is booming, we believed, there will be money everywhere and materialism will be enough to stave off the looming crises posed by our population, resources, environment, society, economy, and culture. But now it seems this will not be enough."
With remarks like this, Pan is taking on the party leaders in Beijing. His insistence that it is time for the leadership to give less emphasis to development and considerably more to responsible stewardship of the environment has been unrelenting.
In one month alone (February 2008), he announced the shutdown of 40 plants that were operating in violation of pollution standards. A month earlier, he issued a blacklist of more than 100 multinational companies with subsidiaries in China that continue to contribute to contamination of the waterways. In late February, he introduced through SEPA the "Green Securities Act," which requires companies from energy- and pollution-intensive sectors to undergo strict inspection by environmental specialists if they wish to launch an initial public offering - thereby limiting the expansion of those sectors.
He acknowledges that the battle he's fighting is uphill, saying in the China Daily: "Local resistance will reduce the effects of environmental policies. Some projects that use a lot of energy and create a lot of pollution are able to generate quick returns for local governments, which has inspired some of them to stand in the way of policies like green credit." Yet he expresses faith, not in government officials, but in the Chinese people becoming ever more proprietary about their air and water - especially if the people are given information about the environment by the government, a position he advocates strongly. He said, "By increasing the transparency of environmental information, the force of public opinion can put pressure on those who destroy the environment."
Pan's initiative, the "Measures on Open Environmental Information," was formally adopted on May 1, 2008. The public activism implied in Pan's remarks is indeed growing. In 2006 alone there were 60,000 public protests related to the environment.
Further evidence of the public's engagement with ecological issues is the growth in the number of environmental-related nongovernmental organizations in China. As recently as the mid-1990s there were but four or five, now there are a few thousand.
So, we in the West can stay on the sidelines and keep our hands clean of China's deepening environmental crisis. Or we can join hands with environmentalists in China. Pan Yue, and others like him, represents an ideal opportunity to build bridges with a growing and critically important indigenous Chinese environmental movement.
It doesn't pay for the world community to treat China's pollution as China's problem. Pollution is a global problem; curbing it will require a global effort.
Daniel K. Gardner is a professor of history at Smith College.