SPIEGEL ONLINE - February 1, 2007, 07:27 PM



China's Poison for the Planet

By Andreas Lorenz and Wieland Wagner

Can the environment withstand China's growing 
economic might? As one of the planet's worst 
polluters, Beijing's ecological sins are creating 
problems on a global scale. Many countries are 
now feeling the consequences.

The cloud of dirt was hard to make out from the 
ground, but at an altitude of 10,000 meters 
(32,808 feet), the scientists could see the 
gigantic mass of ozone, dust and soot with the 
naked eye. In a specially outfitted aircraft 
taking off from Munich airport, they surveyed a 
brownish mixture stretching from Germany all the 
way to the Mediterranean Sea.

Smoke from factories in China's Shanxi province: 
Slowly, politicians and scientists are 
recognizing the path of destruction caused by 
China's industrial revolution.

These kinds of clouds float above Europe for most 
of the year and they've traveled far to get 
there. By analyzing the makeup of particles in 
the cloud, European scientists were able to 
identify its origin. "There was a whole bunch 
from China in there," says Andreas Stohl, a 
38-year-old from the Norwegian Institute for Air 

Some 12,000 kilometers (7,500 miles) to the west, 
Steven Cliff is slowly winding his way up Mount 
Tamalpais near San Francisco in his RV. The 
36-year-old researcher has installed a complex 
instrument to measure the air from Asia that 
reaches the West Coast of the United States over 
the Pacific Ocean.

Days like this are ideal for taking these 
measurements. San Francisco is shrouded in cool 
fog, but up on the top of the mountain there's 
warm sunshine. Indeed, these are ideal conditions 
for surveying air currents untainted by local 
influences. But Cliff is alarmed by his 
instrument's readings -- soot particles have 
colored the device's filter "blacker than we've 
ever seen it," he says.

Back in a lab at the University of California at 
Davis, Cliff and his colleagues analyze the 
origins of the air pollution with the help of 
x-rays. According to their "chemical signature," 
most have come from coal-fired Chinese power 
plants, Chinese smelters and chemical factories, 
as well as from the tailpipes of countless 
Chinese diesel-powered cars and trucks.

An export world champion -- in pollution

On the other side of the Pacific, in Yokohama, 
Japanese climate change researcher Hajime Akimoto 
places three photos of the Earth next to each 
other. They show in red where concentrations of 
nitrogen dioxide are especially high. The picture 
from 1996 shows the area between Beijing and 
Shanghai as a loose group of reddish spots, but 
one from 2005 completely covers that part of 
China in bright red.

Winds are blowing ever-greater amounts of 
pollution from China into Japan, leading many 
Japanese to complain about irritated eyes and 
throats. Last year, two cities made official 
warnings about health dangers caused by Japan's 
big red neighbor across the sea for the first 

China has become a global environmental problem. 
Initially, it was only the economists who were 
shocked by how the country was changing the world 
with its cheap clothes, televisions and washing 
machines. But now climate researchers are 
concerned about another Chinese export -- the 
pollution it is spreading across the planet. The 
massive nation is already the world's 
second-biggest producer of greenhouse gases after 
the United States.

And particularly in North America and Europe, awe 
over China's booming economy and its ability to 
produce cheap goods for the entire world is now 
often giving way to a critical question: Can the 
planet handle China's growing damage to the 

China's economy is booming -- with an annual 
growth rate of over ten percent. But the more the 
country's population of 1.3 billion strives to 
raise itself out of poverty with a mostly 
antiquated industrial base, and the more cheap 
Chinese goods the world's consumers buy, the 
bigger the price will be that the world pays for 
China's economic miracle.

A threat at home, a threat abroad

The Chinese are no longer simply destroying their 
own environment. Just as trade is global these 
days, so too is the threat against nature.

The connection isn't always apparent at first 
glance. For example, what does the spreading 
desert of Inner Mongolia -- a massive autonomous 
region in northern China -- have to do with the 
comfy cashmere sweaters that shoppers are 
snapping up for next to nothing in cities from 
Berlin to Boston? For years, Chinese herders in 
the region let millions of goats graze until the 
grass was gone, roots and all. Then the soil 
simply blew away and the desert began to expand 
at an alarming rate. Since the early 1980s, 
China's grasslands have shrunk each year by some 
15,000 square kilometers -- an area the size of 
the US state of Connecticut.

And now in the midst of a deadly drought, the 
sand dunes move ever closer to the small village 
Chaogetu Hure. Inch by inch, seemingly 
unstoppable, they claim everything in their path, 
as if the dunes purposely want to bury the 
government's expensive efforts to plant trees, 
build fences, corral goats and resettle local 

Abbot Lao Didarjie is being forced to watch the 
walls of the house opposite his Zhao Huasi temple 
slowly disappear under the sand. Out of fear for 
the house of worship he's raised alarm with six 
different authorities. "The temple was built by 
the 6th Dalai Lama in the 17th century," says the 
religious leader. "It should be saved for the 
coming generations."

Only a few kilometers away, on the edge of 
Luanjingtan, farmer Xu Changqin inspects a few 
meager green stalks of wheat. The local peasants 
worked hard to plant their fields, but last May a 
sandstorm covered them over. "The grassland is 
getting smaller, the fertile grounds are 
disappearing," says Xu, explaining how growing 
numbers of people are moving away to seek more 
hospitable places to live.

The fine sand from the farmer's homeland blows 
all the way to California and Europe. It's mixed 
in with ash and other dangerous particles from 
industry in China's Inner Mongolia region, which 
is home to countless factories, chemical works 
and power plants.

Along the Huang (Yellow) River in the city of 
Shizuishan, in the Ningxia region adjacent to 
Inner Mongolia, the extent of the pollution 
becomes rather obvious. Swaths of gray-black 
cloud blot out the sun to make the perfect 
setting for a Hollywood film about the end of the 
world. Two power plants belch ash into an 
artificial lake separated from the nearby river 
only by a thin dam. The wind blows the ash upward 
to start it on its journey around the globe.

Sand, smog and ash-filled skies

But it's not just sand, smog and ash that China 
is spewing into the atmosphere. The country's 
factories and power plants already emit more 
sulfur dioxide (SO2) and carbon dioxide (CO2) 
than Europe, even though the booming Chinese 
economy manages only a fraction of the per capita 
gross domestic product that the old 
industrialized nations do. Between 2000 and 2005, 
China's SO2 emissions grew to 26 million tons. In 
just a few years the country will surpass the 
United States to become the world's biggest 
carbon dioxide producer. China already accounts 
for more than 15 percent of total global CO2 

Independent US energy expert James Brock can see 
the smog-filled sky from his office in Beijing. 
"Currently each Chinese person uses just 
one-fifth of the energy that an American does," 
he says. But when China reaches Western standards 
of living, each person in the country will use 
three times what they do now. Even done 
efficiently that will amount to five tons of coal 
each year. Presently, only very few Chinese can 
afford that standard of living. But what effect 
on the environment will there be if the Communist 
Party makes good on its propaganda to spread as 
much "modest prosperity" to as many citizens as 
possible by 2020? Can nature withstand the strain 
when the number of families with washing 
machines, driers, air conditioners and cars rises 
from 100 million to a half-billion?

Chinese factories are already producing three 
times as many air conditioning units as they did 
five years ago. And although few people drive 
cars in China compared to industrialized 
countries, in Beijing alone the number of 
vehicles is growing by a thousand each day. In 
order to feed its appetite for energy, China is 
building coal-fired power plants as fast as it 
can. Every seven to ten days a new plant begins 
spewing smoke into the sky. The amount by which 
China increased its power production last year 
alone is greater than Britain's entire capacity.

Coal heavily pollutes the air, but China's 
leaders see little alternative to a dirty 
resource that is available in ample quantities 
around the country. Some 69 percent of all 
Chinese power plants are run on coal. China used 
2.1 billion tons of it in 2004 -- more than the 
United States, the European Union and Japan 
together. Even if the Chinese economy only 
continues to grow seven percent annually, its 
coal usage would double to 4 million tons within 
ten years.

Slowly, politicians and scientists are 
recognizing the path of destruction caused by 
China's industrial revolution. Yet, communist 
China has a long tradition of abusing nature. 
Revolutionary leader Mao Zedong spoke of 
"dominating nature" and during the Great Leap 
Forward (1958-1959) he ordered the construction 
of numerous factories. In an attempt to overtake 
Britain as an industrial power, the Chinese were 
instructed to build mini blast furnaces across 
the entire land. The absurd project failed, but 
the environmental destruction is still visible. 
To heat the steel furnaces China chopped down an 
estimated ten percent of its forests.

A poison-producing factory

The country opened itself to the world in the 
late 1970s, its bizarre mixture of communism and 
capitalism has since produced growth rates that 
Western politicians can only dream of. But China 
was simultaneously turned into one massive, 
poison-producing factory.

The country is home to 16 of the world's 20 
dirtiest cities. The inhabitants of every third 
metropolis are forced to breathe polluted air, 
causing the deaths of an estimated 400,000 
Chinese each year. Half of China's 696 cities and 
counties suffer from acid rain. Two-thirds of its 
major rivers and lakes are cesspools and more 
than 340 million people do not have access to 
clean drinking water. The Yangtze River, once 
China's proud artery of life, is biologically 
dead for long stretches. Many other rivers flow 
with blackened water and along their banks there 
are the notorious "cancer villages" where many 
people die early.

It's now begun to dawn on Beijing's politicians 
what China's economy is doing to China's ecology. 
Experts like Pan Yue, the deputy minister of the 
State Environmental Protection Administration 
(SEPA), are already fearful that environmental 
pollution will destroy the impressive economic 
growth of recent years. SO2 emissions cause 
damages worth 50 billion each year and the World 
Bank estimates environmental pollution already 
shaves eight to 12 percent off of China's gross 
national product (GNP).

"China has gone through an industrialization in 
the past 20 years that many developing countries 
needed 100 years to complete. That's why the 
country now has to deal with environmental 
problems that would also take 100 years to solve 
in many Western nations," says Pan.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao has also distanced 
himself from the country's raping of the 
environment to promote "sustainable growth," 
which includes an ambitious nuclear program. At 
least 20 new nuclear power plants are to be built 
by 2020 -- but the communist leadership doesn't 
say where the radioactive waste will end up. 
Beijing also wants at least ten percent of the 
country's energy needs to be covered by renewable 
sources such as solar, wind and hydro. 
Photovoltaic facilities have already been erected 
in thousands of villages and giant wind parks dot 
China's eastern coast.

Beijing also actively participates in the 
international emissions trade and provides 
foreign environmental polluters with 
opportunities to buy their way out of their 
obligations by financing somewhat clean chemical 
plants. The Chinese government plans to spend 
around $125 billion on sewage treatment 
facilities and new water pipes over the next five 

But such impressive-sounding announcements, 
measured by the scope and speed of China's 
environmental destruction, fall far short of 
what's needed. And despite any good intentions, 
the Communist Party members make no secret that 
their most important goals remain those that will 
ensure their continuing power: raising the living 
standard of China's citizens and eliminating the 
massive gap between rich and poor, as well as 
East and West.

Putting growth before the environment

China's leaders are certainly pushing for tougher 
laws to allow for stricter punishments for 
criminal officials and unscrupulous factory 
managers. But the misery is partially caused by 
the country's authoritarian system, which neither 
allows for an independent judiciary nor 
democratic supervision. SEPA's 167,000 employees 
aren't empowered enough to clamp down on 
polluters in every single province, especially if 
there's an influential employer there. And often 
local officials simply consider impressive growth 
rates more important for their careers than a 
clean environment.

Of 661 Chinese cities, 278 did not have a sewage 
treatment plant at the end of 2005. But wealthy 
polluters can often pay any fines incurred with 
petty cash. Many recently built power plants 
shouldn't actually even exist. Roughly half of 
them are illegal -- many simply on formal 
grounds, but others due to corrupt or negligent 
officials who ignore environmental rules. Instead 
of falling as they should, emissions in 17 
provinces have risen.

These grim facts aren't kept secret, as some 
government officials apparently still believe in 
spite of everything that they have the dramatic 
situation under control. SEPA official Li Xinmin 
claims it remains unproven that pollution from 
Chinese power plants reaches other countries. 
"That's a false, irresponsible argument," says Li.

Climate expert Liu Deshun from Beijing's Tsinghua 
University seemingly has a reassuring statistic 
or sensible Communist Party decree for almost any 
pressing environmental problem. But he avoids the 
key question: How much is China contributing to 
global warming and what is the government doing 
to try to stop it?

Liu wears a small green cap and an oversized pair 
of sunglasses. "We are a developing country," he 
says. "We aren't yet in the position to take on 
international obligations." Beijing has signed 
the Kyoto Protocol -- which aims to reduce CO2 
emissions worldwide by 2012 -- but as a 
developing nation China is not obligated to make 
cuts. Still, the professor claims Beijing's 
leaders have made an important contribution to 
efforts to protect the environment: the country's 
strict population control policies have ensured 
that 300 million fewer people live on the planet 
and use its limited resources.

A disaster in the making

When a chemical plant exploded in the 
northeastern Jilin province in November 2005, the 
industrial city Harbin had to cut water supplies 
for four days to prevent its 9 million 
inhabitants from being poisoned. But that didn't 
keep the catastrophe from spreading, as a thick 
benzene film traveled from the Songhua River into 
the Amur River, where it slowly dissipated in 
Russia's Far East.

Alexei Makinov, saw the disaster in the making. 
"It wasn't just a problem since the accident," 
says the 54-year-old Russian geologist and head 
of the hydrology lab of the Russian Academy of 
Sciences in the Far East in Khabarovsk. "The 
river has been stinking since 1997." The 
scientist's desk is covered with tables and 
statistics and his cabinet with its glass door is 
crammed full of papers. All of it is 
environmental data on the Amur.

But it's easy to see with the naked eye just how 
much damage the river has suffered. The Sungari 
-- as the Songhua River is known in Russia -- 
carries tons of poisonous sludge hundreds of 
kilometers downstream to the Amur. When fishers 
cut a hole in the river ice during the winter, a 
horrible odor is released. Makinov thinks the 
smell is from dying plant life and tells of 
residents complaining of infections, rashes and 

The ailing Amur River has become the most 
important patient of 65-year-old doctor Vladena 
Rybakova as the end of her career nears. "The 
river began to stink of phenol," she says. "And 
at first we thought it was a natural phenomenon." 
But soon Rybakova and her colleagues found the 
actual cause -- over the Chinese border. Whereas 
65 million people live on the Chinese side of the 
Amur, there are only 4 million on the Russian 
side. Since the Chinese authorities offered the 
Russian scientists no information on what their 
factories were producing and what poisons they 
might be releasing into the waters, the Russians 
began investigating on their own in the early 
1990s. After Rybakova fed lab rats fish from the 
river and then dissected them, she discovered 
that "their livers decomposed before you could 
start cutting."

The road to Sikachi-Alyan leads past barracks and 
massive radar equipment. It is home to the ethnic 
Nanai minority, which has always lived from 
fishing. During Soviet times there was fishing 
collective here, but now the village of wooden 
houses has fallen into bitter poverty. These days 
no one will buy what the locals catch.

"For the past 12 years, the fish have smelled 
like chemicals," says village leader Nina 
Druzhinina, a thin woman with a towering hairdo. 
"At first we thought it was Russian plants 
letting untreated water into the river. But now 
we know most of the filth comes from China."

Damned by dams

In order to secure their future, the Chinese also 
intend to dominate the Mekong River, which is 
known as the Lancang in China. In Yunnan province 
there are two major dams holding back the waters 
of Southeast Asia's longest river without regard 
for China's neighbors. Six further dams are 
planned. At the construction site of the Xiaowan 
Dam, an army of workers is transforming the once 
green gorges into a barren Martian landscape. 
Xiaowan will be one of the world's biggest 
hydroelectric plants -- almost as huge as the 
controversial Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze 

A few hundred kilometers further southward, the 
Mekong flows through fertile rice paddies and 
cornfields. Here and there, bamboo groves crowd 
the banks. But the lives of millions people, who 
depend on the river's natural rhythms, have been 
disrupted. The Chinese now have a dam in place 
and they flood the Mekong as they please -- when, 
for example, the water is too low and the Chinese 
need a big ship to enter the Thai river harbor of 
Chiang Saen.

In Cambodia, where river fish are one of the most 
important sources of food, the size of the catch 
is shrinking -- especially in the important Tonle 
Sap lake and river system. But even down south in 
the Mekong Delta the river has become 
unpredictable, according to residents. Sometimes 
floods wash away houses and at other times 
there's not enough water for the rice paddies.

Suthep Teowtrakul, district head of the small 
Thai town Chiang Khong, observes the river every 
day. He wears a yellow polo shirt sporting the 
words "I Love the King" and has four Buddha 
figures in his office. But neither his monarch 
nor the bodhisattva can help him counter the 
Chinese affects on the Mekong. "My motto is: 
'Leave the river alone'," he says, while 
admitting that's unlikely to happen. "Because the 
Chinese think the Mekong belongs to them." Just 
like the fields they destroy or the air they 

Setting its own course to the detriment of others

At a recent United Nations conference on climate 
change in Nairobi, the Chinese demanded that 
developing nations not be forced to make cuts in 
greenhouse gases. Only after pushing through this 
condition -- from which China has the most to 
gain -- did the Chinese delegates vote to work 
towards a follow-up agreement to the Kyoto 

China is a big country, a future superpower. Its 
leaders, accountable only to themselves, don't 
care for economic or environmental advice. They 
set their own path.

But each year, each month, almost every week, 
China experiences some sort of major 
environmental catastrophe. The mess spreads 
across the land, in its waterways and the air. 
And far too often, the rest of the world gets 
sprinkled with some of it too.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan