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The problems of China are the problems of the world. China has built a modern industrial economy at breath-taking speed, as it reminded the world in staging the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and consumers all over the world enjoy many fruits of Chinese hard work and efficiency. For a few weeks before the IPhone first came out, Steve Jobs used a prototype, carrying it in his pocket as he expected Apple customers would do with change, keys and other metal jostling his phone. One afternoon Jobs summoned top Apple team members into his office, expressed upset that his phone’s plastic cover had scratches, and ordered that glass be substituted before any IPhones were sold. Days later, thousands of Chinese living on a factory campus were roused and put to work at 2 am one morning making a million glass covers, and IPhones reached markets on schedule. My iPhone’s cover doesn’t scratch, and I thank dedicated Chinese workers as well as Steve Jobs.
One downside of China’s quick industrialization is its well-publicized high levels of air, water and soil pollution; China now emits more carbon dioxide than the United States, and pollution levels are going up quickly. China is not a democracy, but citizen protests are pushing government to give weight to pollution concerns. Last March Chinese authorities ordered all major cities to monitor for very small particulate matter and ozone, both of which are serious health threats, in response to online environmental campaigners. Within 24 hours after the government’s announcement, citizens posted over a million favorable comments online. The government’s news agency noted that “A stirring campaign on the country’s social network websites since last autumn seemed to have gained a satisfying response from the country’s policymakers.”
China, while still nominally communist, is no longer a closed society, and influential people sometimes speak out. England’s Guardian newspaper quotes Dr. Zhong Nanshan, president of the China Medical Association and the country’s leading respiratory disease specialist, as follows: “Air pollution is getting worse and worse in China, but government data showed it was getting better and better. People don’t believe that. Now we know it’s because they don’t measure some pollutants. If the government neglects this matter, it will be the biggest health problem in China.”
Zhong says the Chinese public is getting aroused because the health consequences of many years of heavy pollution are now becoming more visible. In a diplomatic side note, the United States embassy in Beijing may be contributing to Chinese activism by releasing its own hourly measurements of fine-particle and ozone air pollution. In more direct action, the New York Times reports that demonstrators trashed a government office in the port city of Qidong last week, protesting a planned waste discharge plant demonstrators believed might pollute public water supplies.
Chinese air pollution, from greenhouse gases and otherwise, affects the whole world; our atmosphere is continuous, and there is no place to hide. Chinese leaders showed amazing ability to organize their billion-plus people into an economic goliath; now all of us need those men to show equal skill in handling goliath’s wastes.