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Brown China

The myth of an environmentally friendly People’s Republic.

Oct 25, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 06 • By ETHAN EPSTEIN
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In a move that would make Xerxes proud, Beijing is attempting to assert control of its waters. A project 60 years in the making (it was first envisioned by Chairman Mao in 1952), the Chinese government is building three canals to reroute water from rivers in the south of the country to the arid northern plains. It’s a huge project, totaling over $60 billion in construction costs and, critics charge, wreaking environmental disaster. People worry that an undertaking on such a scale will cause soil erosion and landslides and decimate river ecosystems, not to mention displacing hundreds of thousands of people.

Since the early 1980s, the Chinese government has made the entirely defensible decision to stress economic growth over environmental protection. This has lifted hundreds of millions of Chinese people out of miserable poverty, which is something to celebrate. But the Chinese experience reminds us that if you want to achieve explosive economic growth, it’s not easy being green.

Ethan Epstein is a writer traveling in China. 

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