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On the Record

Environmental Outlook: Air Pollution In China

Kenneth G. Lieberthal


Editor’s note: In an interview with NPR’s Diane Rehm, Kenneth Lieberthal to talk about the catastrophic air pollution crisis in China. Read an excerpt below.

Diane Rehm: Ken Lieberthal, to what extent are Chinese leaders, number one, taking this into account, number two, acknowledging it publicly and number three trying to do something about it?

Kenneth Lieberthal: Public acknowledgement has increased a lot just over the past year. Interestingly, that was largely forced by the U.S. Embassy’s measuring air pollution at the embassy compound in Beijing and putting out a Twitter feed live all the time that tells you what that rating is.

And what it turned out was that the official statistics put out by the Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection were systematically, dramatically lower than those of the embassy so that caused an uproar. The Chinese then improved their game. 

They began measuring those very dangerous pollution, the small particulate pollution and they began giving more accurate figures with more measurement. That is now a Cause célèbre in China.

In terms of what they’re doing about it, though, frankly it is fundamentally a combination of their approach to economic development, which is to drive GDP growth every day all the time. With most of that GDP growth being in manufacturing and in construction and with officials everywhere benefiting the most when they can build big projects and drive GDP growth by big capital, intensive projects, those tend to be the most polluting things out there.

And they’re supported by things like cement and aluminum and so forth, all of which are highly polluting. So at the end of the day, this is a model of development just built into the genetic code of the current political system. And they need to change that model of development dramatically as part of the solution to this catastrophic air pollution. So this is not going to happen quickly or easily.

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