Perhaps the Chinese finally are beginning to recognize that consequences matter. While I have not been particularly optimistic about the progress that China has been making in dealing with the problems of hazardous foods and manufactured goods, they at least have come around to recognizing that their public face cannot hide behind veils of denial. It may be possible that the Olympic Committee played a role in this recognition with their threat of cancelling certain events if the air quality was not improved. This brings us to today's dispatch from Beijing by Jamil Anderlini reporting for the Financial Times. It turns out that the Chinese are finally coming around to recognize that the Three Gorges Dam, one of the greatest efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, may, itself, be an environmental disaster:
China’s Three Gorges dam threatens to become an environmental catastrophe if the government does not act quickly, senior Chinese officials have warned in an unusual public nod to the massive project’s ecological impact.
The comments, carried in state media on Wednesday, mark a rare Chinese admission that dire predictions of ecological destruction from international experts and domestic opponents of the world’s largest dam are coming true.
Landslides, silting, and erosion above the dam are creating environmental and safety hazards that cannot be ignored, Wang Xiaofeng, director of the State Council Three Gorges Construction Committee, was quoted as saying. “We cannot exchange environmental destruction for short-term economic gain,” he said.
In all fairness Mr. Anderlini then suggests that there may be a political side to this admission of the problem:
The unusual criticism of such a symbolic project could be politically motivated in the lead-up to the 17th Communist Party Congress, a five-yearly event in which senior officials jockey for power before the top ranks of the party are decided.
In his published remarks, Mr Wang quoted Premier Wen telling China’s cabinet recently that “the environmental cost is the most pressing of the serious problems facing the Three Gorges project.”
The dam was the brainchild of Mao Zedong but construction began under the government of former President Jiang Zemin, who still exercises residual influence in the current government even three years after he relinquished his last official post.
Former Premier Li Peng, the man widely believed to be responsible for sending in troops to quell the 1989 Tiananmen Square student movement, is the official most closely associated with the Three Gorges project.
In other words, whether or not, as is the case with addiction, recognition is the first step to rehabilitation, it can also be the first step to cleaning up a political house. This would be unfortunate, because it would then distract attention from the environmental impact of the dam, which is a serious problem requiring serious attention. Furthermore, since the dam itself was supposed to address the problem of air pollution, this means that the threat of the Olympic Committee still hangs over China's head, with the possibility of resolution more remote than had previously been anticipated.
Now I suppose there are plenty of idealists who would argue that the impact of this problem has now escalated to a global level and should be addressed by (at least) the industrialized nations, acting in concert under the leadership of the United Nations. However, given that the President of the United States chose to ignore a discussion on the environment that took place at the beginning of this week, we would probably be more likely to bet against the idealists. Furthermore, it would probably be unfair to lay all of the blame on our President. Ours is a country of self-determination; and we want to keep it that way. To a great extent China is trying to deal with its problems in that same spirit of self-determination. At least they have now come to a point where they can admit that this approach is not working, but it remains to be seen how they will seek out to design and implement more effective solutions.