Pollution Without Revolution

Why China's Environmental Crisis Won't Bring Down the Regime

A hazy day in downtown Shanghai, December 2013.
A hazy day in downtown Shanghai, December 2013. (Aly Song / Courtesy Reuters)

On a smoggy day this past February, Chinese President Xi Jinping did a remarkable thing: he went for a stroll outside without the face mask that Beijingers often don to protect themselves against the capital’s air pollution. With Xi’s grin on full display, the political message was unmistakable. “In the Midst of Smog, Xi Jinping Tours Beijing," a headline in state-run media declared the next day. "He Breathes the Same Air and Shares the Same Fate.”

To many observers, Xi’s stroll through the smog hinted at Beijing’s concern that environmental issues could drive widespread opposition to the regime. In recent decades, the idea that environmental crises can help drive democratic reforms has gained popular credence. Perhaps most notably, some historians have argued that the Soviet Union’s bungled response to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster helped to hasten its demise. Others have documented how environmental issues helped to galvanize new opposition movements in eastern Europe, South Korea, and Taiwan.

Xi is well aware of this history, and he has a plan to prevent it from playing out in the Middle Kingdom. By shifting blame for environmental failures to players outside the central government, he intends to use them to strengthen his own control. 

That won’t be easy, of course; China is facing an enormous environmental crisis. According to official reports (which likely underrepresent the problem), pesticides and heavy metals contaminate a fifth of China’s farmland, and a quarter of the country’s water is so polluted that it can’t even be used for industrial purposes. Other challenges will likely prove even more overwhelming in coming years. Parts of central and southern China are experiencing unprecedented droughts, which are thought to be brought on by climate change. Add to these problems declining groundwater tables in the country’s north-central breadbasket region, rapid warming on the Tibetan plateau, and a severe loss of biodiversity nationwide, and it’s clear that environmental issues constitute one of the greatest threats to China’s future development.

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