chapter  2
31 Pages

Economic growth and environmental protection in the People’s Republic of China

Introduction The history of environmental protection is a history of addressing the relationship between economic development and environmental protection. During their century-long industrialization, most Western developed countries experienced a traditional economic growth characterized as “pollution first, treatment after,” due mainly to the limited recognition of the importance of environmental protection and level of economic and technological advancement. While accumulating substantial wealth, these Western developed countries have also paid dearly in terms of environmental degradation. The government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) recognized relatively early the importance of appropriately addressing the relationship between economic development and environmental protection. On December 31, 1983, during the Second National Environmental Protection Conference, the State Council included environmental protection in the basic national policies. To achieve the unification of economic, social and ecological benefits, the Council emphasized the need for synchronized planning, implementation and development in economic construction, urban and rural construction, and environmental protection (“Three Synchronizations” and “Three Unifications”). The inclusion in the basic national policy defined the importance of environmental protection in the PRC’s economic and social development. Being the PRC’s first strategic guideline for environmental protection, “Three Synchronizations” and “Three Unifications” wields profound influence on the development of the environmental protection cause, and signifies that the country’s environmental protection program has transformed from the initial phase of simple pollution treatment into a new phase of harmonious development of economy, society and environment.1 After the United Nations Environment and Development Conference in 1992, the PRC took the lead in proposing the “Ten Measures for Environment and Development,” the first nation to propose the transformation of the traditional mode of development into the sustainable mode of development. The proposal is a testament to the strategic solution most suitable to the PRC’s current situation, and it brought forth a new and crucial meaning to development – a sustainable progress with the confluence of environmental protection and economic growth.

This is the inspiration derived from the United Nations Environment and Development Conference, as well as the experience drawn from years of practice. If the traditional mode of resource-and energy-consuming economic growth is not transformed and the dependence on mere remedial measures continues, environmental problems will not be fundamentally resolved. A strategy based on basic national policy and sustainable development is the most appropriate policy guide to harmonize economic development and environmental protection. The effective implementation of this strategy in the PRC would have spared the country from encountering serious environmental problems. However, instead of the ideal harmonization of economic development and environmental protection, the present situation – characterized by rapid modernization, intensive development activities, large-scale infrastructure construction, high consumption, and pollution-intensive industrial development – has taken precedence. And although environmental protection has been incorporated into the basic national policy, firm regulations can rarely be seen on human, financial and material resources configuration nor in cadres’ performance examination, which are deemed as necessary guarantee measures for basic national policy. As a result, the intent and objectives of the national policy have not been put in place, and the rough style development mode of high resource consumption and high environmental pollution which is unsuitable to the PRC’s national situation have not been eliminated. Economic development had indeed materially enriched the PRC’s population, but it had also rendered the PRC’s two decades of accelerated industrialization and urbanization fraught with so many environmental problems. Developed countries experienced similar environmental problems, but in gradual measures during their century-long industrialization which enabled them to address the problems in phases. Despite the examples provided by, and lessons learned from, the developed countries’ industrialization experiences, the complexity and intensity of the environmental problems in the PRC made it impossible to veer away from the developed countries’ “pollution first, treatment after” solution. This chapter discusses the environmental costs of the economic growth in the PRC, renders an analysis of the causes of environmental problems related to economic growth, and proposes the route and policies that will enable the transformation of the relationship between economic growth and environmental protection from conflict to integration.