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Chinese shadows

Bret Stephens took up the subject of what he called “China eco-boosterism” in his Wall Street Journal column last week (behind the Journal’s subscription wall). It put those dead pigs that turned up floating down the Whampoa river earlier this year in a cruel, if familiar, American context:

Once upon a time the future belonged to China—and China was going to be green. Greener than the hills of olde England.

“China is pulling ahead on the environment,” was the title of a 2009 column in Forbes. “China is pushing ahead on renewable technologies with the fervor of a new space race,” Peter Ford reported in the Christian Science Monitor the same year. “Green Giant” was the title of a 7,000-word thumbsucker by Evan Osnos in the New Yorker, which spelled out the scale of the Chinese government’s investment in green tech.

And there was this: “Being in China right now,” wrote Tom Friedman of the New York Times in January 2010, “I am more convinced than ever that when historians look back at the end of the first decade of the 21st century, they will say that the most important thing to happen was not the Great Recession, but China’s Green Leap Forward. The Beijing leadership understands that the E.T.— Energy Technology—revolution is both a necessity and an opportunity, and they do not intend to miss it.”

Well, all of us columnists have off days.

The heady optimism of four years ago has now given way to more sober views, thanks to the accretion of facts. Facts like 16,000 dead pigs floating down Shanghai’s Whampoa river in March. Or the worst air pollution on record in Beijing in January, with levels of tiny particulate matter reaching levels 25 times higher than the standard in the U. S. Or 80% of the East China Sea lost to fishing because of the pollution, according to Elizabeth Economy of the Council on Foreign Relations. Or 1.2 million premature deaths due to air pollution, according to the Global Burden of Disease Study.

Another nugget: “A recent social media campaign led by locals and international activists shed light on the growing phenomena of ‘cancer villages’—areas where water pollution is so bad that it has led to a sharp rise in diseases like stomach cancer,” wrote Thomas Thompson last month in Foreign Affairs. “The China Geological Survey now estimates that 90% of China’s cities depend on polluted groundwater supplies. Water that has been purified at treatment plants is often recontaminated en route to homes.”

In the conclusion of his column, Stephens alludes again to the obnoxious Tom Friedman:

Western liberals adore the China model because they think being “China for one day” can force the kind of sweeping environmental legislation that democratic, interest-group driven politics prevents.

But the biggest reason China is so filthy isn’t a lack of environmental legislation. It’s rampant corner-cutting by unaccountable politicians and managers at state-owned enterprises trying to meet production quotas. Statism always wrecks the environment.

That’s a lesson you might have thought Western liberals would have learned following the collapse of the Soviet Union and all the environmental rot it exposed. Instead, it didn’t even occur to them that enthusing about a “Green Leap Forward” didn’t exactly hark back to an auspicious historical precedent.

In his conclusion Stephens was of course alluding to Mao’s so-called Great Leap Forward. Stephens turned to the epic famine of the Great Leap Forward in the Journal’s Weekend Interview column profiling Yang Jisheng, the author of Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962, the authoritative new history of China’s Maoist catastrophe. Stephens’s column on Jisheng is “Reading Hayek in Beijing.” The Journal has made this column freely available and I urge you to check it out.

Arthur Waldron’s review/essay on Jisheng’s book, “Starving in China,” leads the May issue of the New Criterion. According to Professor Waldron in this lucid essay, “Tombstone is one of the most important books—not just China books—of our time.” Professor Waldron’s essay is itself must reading.

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