China's sick Yellow River
China’s water pollution is even worse than its better-known air pollution. As long as the Chinese people have few private rights, government-backed pollution will continue.

Yangtze river by ValeStock / Shutterstock.com

Article Highlights

  • China has 16 of the 20 most seriously polluted cities in the world.

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  • The lack of protection of private rights in China means companies cannot contest the government's will to pollute.

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  • Chinese ingredients are in nearly every drug we consume in America. In one instance in 2008, 149 Americans died from such ingredients.

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Beijing is an unhealthy place to live. The air in China’s capital often has over ten times the safety limits established by the World Health Organization for particulates and other potential dangers to health. This problem has received widespread coverage in newspapers around the world, yet the problem with water quality in China is even worse than its air quality, but less visible to foreign correspondents.

According to Peter Gleick, director of the Pacific Institute, China’s water resources are “grossly polluted by human and industrial wastes, to the point that vast stretches of rivers are dead and dying, lakes are cesspools of waste, groundwater aquifers are over-pumped and unsustainably consumed, uncounted species of aquatic life have been driven to extinction, and direct adverse impacts on both human and ecosystem health are widespread and growing.... Of the 20 most seriously polluted cities in the world, 16 are in China.”

The general explanation for this gross air and water pollution is that it is caused by China’s rapid industrial development, and particularly its use of numerous coal-fired power stations. Many cities in Western countries had the same types of problems in the first half of the last century. Public sewage works and publicly protected corporations were the equivalent of China’s omnipresent government corporations of today. The Cuyahoga in Ohio was so polluted it repeatedly caught fire, and effluent in the Trent and Derwent in central Britain meant that for months — even years — at a time there were no fish in them. The common narrative is that popular opinion pushed politicians to enact and enforce regulations, and as a result quality improved. This is true in part. But one of the drivers of public opinion was often what private landowners did to combat pollution. And they were able to take action because of the common law at their disposal.

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Roger Bate is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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About the Author

 

Roger
Bate
  • Roger Bate is an economist who researches international health policy, with a particular focus on tropical disease and substandard and counterfeit medicines. He also writes on general development policy in Asia and Africa. He writes regularly for AEI's Health Policy Outlook.
  • Phone: 202-828-6029
    Email: rbate@aei.org
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    Name: Katherine Earle
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