In The River Runs Black, Council Fellow Elizabeth Economy Examines China’s Growing Environmental Crisis and Its Implications

April 22, 2004

News Releases

More on:


Energy and Environment

Energy and Climate Policy

CFR News

April 22, 2004—China’s spectacular economic growth over the past two decades has dramatically depleted the country’s natural resources and produced skyrocketing levels of pollution. Environmental degradation in China has also contributed to significant public health problems, mass migration, economic loss, and social unrest. In The River Runs Black, Elizabeth C. Economy, the Council’s C.V. Starr Senior Fellow and Director of Asia Studies, examines China’s growing environmental crisis and its implications for the country’s future economic development. While her stark conclusion is that China’s environmental problems, if neglected, could become the country’s most important challenge, she nonetheless expresses optimism for the possibility of genuine political reform.

Drawing on historical research, case studies, and interviews with officials, scholars, and activists in China, Economy traces the economic and political roots of China’s environmental challenge and the evolution of the leadership’s response. She argues that China’s current approach to environmental protection mirrors the one embraced for economic development: devolving authority to local officials, opening the door to private actors, and inviting participation from the international community, while retaining only weak central control. The result has been a patchwork of environmental protection in which a few wealthy regions with strong leaders and international ties defend their local environments, while most of the country continues to deteriorate, sometimes suffering irrevocable damage. Economy examines the growing role of nongovernmental actors in protecting the environment and expanding the boundaries of political action, and sketches out several possible futures for the country.

“Economy’s book hits my ‘top ten’ list....It is a clear and compelling reminder that no engagement with China— commercial, diplomatic, cultural, intellectual— can afford to ignore China’s vast environmental dilemmas and the deep social, economic, and political structural problems that make environmental salvation an uncertain enterprise at best. The case for international engagement with China emerges even more strongly from this book; the case for ‘irrational exuberance’ is dashed to smithereens.”
— Robert A. Kapp, President, U.S.-China Business Council

“Rivers run black, deserts advance from the north, and smoky haze covers the country. Elizabeth C. Economy both provides a gripping account of a severely degraded environment and thoughtfully analyzes what could be China’s most important challenge in the twenty-first century.”
— Gordon G. Chang, author of The Coming Collapse of China

“Elizabeth C. Economy captures extraordinarily well the complex historical, systemic, political, economic, and international forces that are shaping China’s environmental outcomes. No other volume on this enormously important issue is as comprehensive, balanced, and incisive. True to her deep understanding of the crosscurrents of China’s present environmental efforts, Economy is agnostic about which of three startlingly different futures will come to pass. Her book enables us to understand both the potential for each of these futures and the means to lessen the chances of environmental meltdown on the Chinese mainland.”
Kenneth Lieberthal, Professor of Political Science and Professor of International Business at the University of Michigan

“Elizabeth Economy has written a well-researched analysis of the environmental degradation that has occurred in China and its implications for the rest of the world. This book will provide critical guidance for the United States and other nations to pursue enlightened policies that will help the Chinese address our mutual environmental problems.”
— Theodore Roosevelt IV, environmentalist and Chair of Strategies for the Global Environment

Elizabeth C. Economy is C. V. Starr Senior Fellow and Director, Asia Studies, at the Council on Foreign Relations. She is co-editor of China Joins the World: Progress and Prospects and The Internationalization of Environmental Protection. She has published articles and opinion pieces in Foreign Affairs, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The International Herald Tribune, among others. She consults regularly for the U.S. government on issues related to China and the environment and is a frequent television and radio commentator on U.S.-China relations.

Founded in 1921, the Council on Foreign Relations is an independent, national membership organization and a nonpartisan center for scholars dedicated to producing and disseminating ideas so that individual and corporate members, as well as policymakers, journalists, students, and interested citizens in the United States and other countries, can better understand the world and the foreign policy choices facing the United States and other governments.

The River Runs Black
Elizabeth C. Economy
A Council on Foreign Relations Book
Published by Cornell University Press
352 pages
Cloth ISBN 0-8014-4220-6 $29.95 Phone: +1-607-277-2211 Fax: 1-800-688-2877 (U.S. and Canada only)
Email: Web:

Contact: Marie X. Strauss, Communications, +1-212-434-9536 or