Environmental and Health Crises Threaten China’s Rise, Warns Yanzhong Huang in New Book

October 22, 2020

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“China’s environmental health crisis is perhaps the most important litmus test for the resilience of the Chinese state,” argues Council on Foreign (CFR) Senior Fellow for Global Health Yanzhong Huang in Toxic Politics: China’s Environmental Health Crisis and Its Challenge to the Chinese State. “If the government fails to address the crisis effectively, growing public frustration over a worsening environment may evolve into a larger sociopolitical crisis that threatens the very survival of China’s political regime.”

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As China continues to reel from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, Huang points to a deeper and more systemic health crisis caused by China’s rapid modernization and industrialization, and explains how it raises doubts about China’s effort to assume the mantle of global leadership.

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“Worldwide, one-sixth of all deaths are linked to pollution,” Huang notes. It is estimated that “80 percent of Chinese citizens are regularly exposed to pollution levels much higher than those considered safe by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.”

“The crisis and government response reveal a Chinese state whose political system is both resilient and fragile, and that the China model does not constitute a viable alternative to liberal democracy,” Huang writes. “What we are likely going to witness is a faltering China that is perhaps more dangerous than a rising one. In that sense, the environmental crisis could be the Achilles heel of modern China.”

Huang’s book provides a comprehensive overview of “the economic cost of environmental health problems, the crisis’ impact on China’s social-political stability, as well as the implications for China’s foreign policy.” The book examines Beijing’s response to the crisis, and challenges the widely held view that China is winning its war on pollution.

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Huang identifies five areas in which “the environmental health crisis so seriously hinders China’s rise”:

  • “The people in China are more adversely affected by environmental degradation than those of almost any other country. . . . China cannot regain its greatness in the world if its people continue to breathe polluted air, drink toxic water, and eat tainted food.”
  • “China’s economy, for all its rapid growth, has been harmed by pollution. . . . The ensuing economic slowdown increases the likelihood China will slip into the middle-income trap, which occurs when a country makes significant gains in reducing poverty and building prosperity but then falters in achieving a fully developed status equal to advanced industrial economies.”
  • “Environmental health problems threaten sociopolitical stability by fueling widespread dissatisfaction and frustration among the populace, a breeding ground for mass protests directed at the state.”
  • “The crisis raises deep doubts about China’s claims to assume the mantle of global leadership. Mounting environmental health challenges testify to the dark side of China’s economic growth and undermine China’s ability to market its development model internationally.”
  • “The limited success of China’s pollution control highlights the problems arising from environmental authoritarianism, undercuts its ability to be a global leader in pollution control, and, more broadly, pinpoints the weaknesses of China’s political leadership.”

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“President [Donald J.] Trump’s ‘America First’ approach to foreign policy and the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement . . . give China the opportunity to position itself as a global standard-bearer and pacesetter on the environment, climate change, and sustainable development,” Huang notes. “That said, China’s role in global environmental leadership ultimately will be determined by its ability to fulfill its promises at the local level.”

Read more about Toxic Politics and order your copy at https://www.cfr.org/book/toxic-politics

To interview the author, please contact Susan Nelson at 703.297.1494 or snelson@cfr.org.

Praise for Toxic Politics:

Toxic Politics is a must-read for the times we live in. As the world grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as a host of other pressing global problems, Toxic Politics is full of valuable insights into how the Chinese government responds to crises that will matter to us all.”—Margaret A. Hamburg

“In this astonishingly prescient analysis, Yanzhong Huang zeroes in on the vital link between China’s political health and its physical health. His tough, fair-minded, deeply knowledgeable book not only diagnoses grave problems lurking behind China’s environmental progress but also provides a cautionary note about China’s bid for global leadership. Anyone who wants to predict China’s growth prospects needs to read this.”—Evan Osnos

“Yanzhong Huang’s Toxic Politics is a gem of a volume. This historically grounded, multidisciplinary analysis clearly explains not only China’s wide ranging environmental problems and their devastating public health consequences but also the political, bureaucratic, social and international factors that have stimulated—and also distorted and weakened implementation of—policy initiatives to ameliorate these problems. Policy success, he argues, will require additional profound changes in the country’s state-market relations, bureaucratic power structure, and state-society relations. Otherwise, he concludes, China’s environmental health issues have profoundly negative implications for its future economic growth, socio-political stability, and foreign relations.”—Kenneth G. Lieberthal

Toxic Politics is a fascinating, lively, and authoritative account of the successes and failures of China’s environmental authoritarianism particularly under Xi Jinping. Essential reading for anyone worried about pollution and health in China. I can’t think of a better book for teaching political science students about Chinese politics and policy making.”—Susan L. Shirk

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