from Asia Program and Global Health Program

Environmental Health and China’s Rise

Insights From a CFR Workshop

January 11, 2017



Compared to other crises, environmental health challenges have some distinctive features that warrant special attention. It is extremely difficult to establish a causal relationship between particular environmental risks and public health status, given the broad range of hazards to which individuals may be exposed. This not only makes targeted interventions difficult but also frustrates victims’ efforts to redress their grievances. Also, environmental health issues are not explicitly addressed by a particular agency in China. Ambiguities over responsibilities are likely to lead to interdepartmental conflict.

China’s environmental health crisis is testing the resilience of the state. If the government fails to address the crisis effectively, as indicated by the exacerbating environmental health problems, the expanding gap between economic and social development—combined with growing social frustration over a worsening environment—could devolve into a bigger crisis that potentially can threaten the very survival of the political regime.

In December 2016, the Council on Foreign Relations’ Asia Studies program held a workshop on environmental health and China’s rise to power, convening an international and interdisciplinary group of roughly thirty experts in New York. Participants discussed off the record environmental health linkages, the Chinese government’s capability to respond to associated health crises, and international experience for coping with similar challenges. The report, which you can download here, summarizes the discussion's highlights. The report reflects the views of workshop participants alone; CFR takes no position on policy issues.

Framing Questions for the Workshop

The Environmental Health Linkages

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Energy and Climate Policy

Public Health Threats and Pandemics

What are the major environmental health linkages in China? What accounts for the emergence of the environmental health crisis in China? To what extent do they pose unique, yet differentiated, challenges to achieving Healthy China 2030? What are the complexities and difficulties involved in addressing China’s environmental health crisis? What are the prospects for addressing China’s environmental health problems?

The Politics of China’s Response to Environmental Health Challenges 

How have environmental health challenges risen on the governmental agenda? How capable is the government leadership in coming up with timely, coherent, and effective policy responses? How influential are the special interest groups in the policy process? What is the impact of Xi Jinping’s anticorruption campaign on enforcing government policy measures? How have the rising social forces affected the implementation of environmental health policy?

The International and Comparative Perspective 

To what extent does the rise of China’s environmental health problems follow a path parallel to those of the industrialized countries? How serious is China’s environmental health crisis in comparison to that of other countries, developed and developing alike? How have similar challenges been addressed in other countries? What does the experience of other countries reveal about the Chinese state’s ability and effectiveness in addressing its environmental health crisis?

Charts From This Report

Fine Particulate Matter Concentration and Labor Productivity
Designations for Air Quality in China and the United States

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Energy and Climate Policy

Public Health Threats and Pandemics

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