THE MIDDLE KINGDOM’S DILEMMA….In 1952, Mao Zedong proposed a solution to the uneven distribution of water in China: take from the (lush, wet) south and give to the (dry, arid) north. Fifty years later, Mao’s eccentric dream took shape as the South-to-North Water Transfer Project, a gigantic initiative to divert water hundreds of miles north from the Yangtze River to the Yellow River.

There was only one problem: as geologist Yong Yang discovered on extensive field trips to the frozen source of the Yangtze, there just wasn’t enough water to meet the government’s goals. In one section of the river, the government wanted to divert more water than the entire flow of the river could provide. And even in areas where the goals weren’t literally impossible, they still ran the risk of decimating downstream communities, including Shanghai, that depend on the Yangtze for agriculture, industry, and hydropower. Yet as Christina Larson reports in our December issue, the project goes on, for reasons that would sound drearily familiar in any country:

Informed sources say that the project has a champion in retired President Jiang Zemin — still a powerful force in Chinese politics — and a handful of influential retired army officers. And many entrenched interests have a reason to hope that construction proceeds. The steering committee that manages the water transfer project is led by Premier Wen Jiabao, and its members include high-ranking officials from the national government. A similar bureaucracy has been replicated in affected provinces, creating hundreds of titles and salaries dedicated to moving the project forward. Five state banks have major investments in the plan, and expect loans to be repaid when water user fees are assessed. The two companies with multibillion-dollar contracts to build the early phases of the project are hungry for more.

Why care about some corrupt Chinese engineering boondoggle? Because it’s emblematic of China’s schizophrenic attitude toward environmental problems: on the one hand, because the central government can’t police the provinces well enough to enforce its own laws, activists like Yong are nowadays allowed — sometimes even encouraged — to sound environmental alarms. On the other hand, it often doesn’t make any difference. China is still China. Their future affects us all, but even though the Chinese leadership is aware of what it needs to do to address its many looming environmental catastrophes, it’s often afraid to follow through:

Every industrialized country — apart from Singapore, a green authoritarian city-state — that has cleaned up its environment has done so with the help of civil society and a free press….David Lampton, the director of the China studies program at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, explained Beijing’s conundrum: “The Chinese are caught between the logic of what they know they need to effectively implement environmental policy, and the fear of whether these groups could become the opening wedge to political liberalization.”

….Perhaps China will, once again, elide the apparent contradictions of its environmental politics in the same way that it has somehow melded capitalism and communism. Or perhaps smoggy cities, dwindling water supplies, and peasant protests over pollution will force the party to accept greater political openness. Or perhaps the environmental activists themselves will call for it. Whatever happens, the consequences will be epic. If China continues on its current course, within twenty-five years it will emit twice the carbon dioxide of all the OECD countries combined. The Middle Kingdom’s dilemma is ours, too.

UPDATE: Still thirsting for more? Check out Jacques Leslie’s piece in Mother Jones:

Chinese ecosystems were already dreadfully compromised before the Communist Party took power in 1949, but Mao managed to accelerate their destruction….Yet the Mao era’s ecological devastation pales next to that of China’s current industrialization. A fourth of the country is now desert. More than three-fourths of its forests have disappeared. Acid rain falls on a third of China’s landmass, tainting soil, water, and food.

Excessive use of groundwater has caused land to sink in at least 96 Chinese cities, producing an estimated $12.9 billion in economic losses in Shanghai alone. Each year, uncontrollable underground fires, sometimes triggered by lightning and mining accidents, consume 200 million tons of coal, contributing massively to global warming. A miasma of lead, mercury, sulfur dioxide, and other elements of coal-burning and car exhaust hovers over most Chinese cities; of the world’s 20 most polluted cities, 16 are Chinese.

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