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China File: How Responsible are Americans for China's Pollution Problem?

Authors: David Vance Wagner, Alex Wang, Elizabeth C. Economy, C.V. Starr Senior Fellow and Director for Asia Studies, and Isabel Hilton
February 28, 2014

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"The United States, the European Union, Japan, and Canada, among many other countries, have long been deeply involved in assisting China's environmental protection effort. The question is not what more the outside world needs to do but what Beijing is prepared to do."

Elizabeth Economy: I very much appreciate the eloquent commentary of David Vance Wagner and Alex Wang. Let me be somewhat less elegant. Beijing, alone, has elected to underfund and understaff its environmental protection effort for decades. Beijing, alone, dismantled its State Environmental Protection Commission, which had the power to coordinate environmental policy among various agencies. Beijing, alone, has put in place a political system that devalues transparency, the rule of law, and official accountability—the underpinnings of any effective environmental protection system. Beijing, alone, has constrained the development of civil society, an essential element of virtually all countries with strong environmental protection. Beijing, alone, has promoted an urban design and culture in which people use four times the energy and three times the water as Chinese in rural areas. And Beijing, alone, has just finished formulating an environmental strategy to deal with its urban air pollution that relies in part on shipping polluting industry and energy to the western part of the country so it can pay the price for the excesses of coastal China. If American companies are not adhering to China's environmental protection laws, haul them into court and fine them. If China doesn't want to produce goods for export in a manner that pollutes the country, shut down the factories that do so and western consumers will pay the price at the checkout stand. The United States, the European Union, Japan, and Canada, among many other countries, have long been deeply involved in assisting China's environmental protection effort. The question is not what more the outside world needs to do but what Beijing is prepared to do.

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