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SEPTEMBER 27, 1999 VOL. 154 NO. 12

LANZHOU: An Environmental Disaster, 1998
Most Polluted City on Earth

Zeng Nian/Contact Press Images for TIME
Factory smoke has made respiratory disease the city's leading cause of death.
By LIANG CONGJIE

As China's industrialization revved up in the 1950s, Mao Zedong and his cohorts would proudly state: "The machines are rumbling, and smoke is rising from factories." Today, dark fumes still belch from the nation's smokestacks, but the industrial base Mao once admired has produced an environmental disaster. The degradation is most evident in Lanzhou, a bleak city in Gansu province that last year earned the dubious distinction of being the world's most polluted city, according to the World Resources Institute in Washington. Lanzhou has plenty of national company: eight other Chinese metropolises rank among the institute's top 10 list of cities with unbreathable air.

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presented by CNN, TIME, Asiaweek and Fortune

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Until the rivers stank of raw sewage and the coal dust clogged the air, almost no one gave much thought to the negative influences of industrialization. My father, Liang Sicheng, a well-known architect and an expert on city planning, was one of the few exceptions. He strongly opposed developing heavy industry in Beijing--a view for which he was severely criticized by the Communist Party. Party officials maintained that environmental problems could not exist in socialist countries, since pollution was an "evil inherent in capitalism." As a result, the Chinese people, within a period of almost a generation, still blindly believed that "chimneys should be seen everywhere."

In the early 1970s, China finally admitted that environmental problems existed in its socialist sphere, but Beijing did not launch a general environmental-education program for the public, nor did it establish a social mechanism that would encourage people to participate in environmental protection. That work was basically limited to a government department that had nothing to do with the broad masses. In the 1960s the West, galvanized by Rachel Carson's groundbreaking book Silent Spring, took the first steps of a broad popular movement for environmental protection. China at the time was convulsed in political turmoil, and few people had time to notice that the sky, rivers and lakes had become severely polluted, the forests were disappearing, the grasslands were facing desertification and biodiversity was being drastically reduced.

Today, the environmental movement in China is still limited to a very few people. When my non-governmental organization Friends of Nature started its environmental-education program in the mid-1990s, we had to start from a point corresponding to the 1950s in the West. In 1995, I accompanied a high-ranking official from Shanxi province to visit a scenic spot. He threw an empty mineral-water bottle out of the car window without a thought. When I asked him to pick it up, the official said impatiently: "What's the problem? Lots of people do that!" This illustrates the difficulties environmental-protection volunteers face in our work today. In the 1980s, Deng Xiaoping put forward the idea that "development should be given the first priority." The concept of sustainable development never entered his thinking.

Nor is it the priority of the many Western countries that want to export Coca-Cola Culture to 1.2 billion eager Chinese consumers--without regard to our environment. Of course, the new consumer society wants a way of life similar to the West, complete with hamburgers, 31 flavors of ice cream and famous-brand cosmetics. But the energy and resources that China must use to meet those demands will ruin the nation. The World Bank estimates that fallout from pollution--whether medical costs from respiratory diseases or farms forced fallow by desertification--eats up 8% of China's economic output, effectively negating the nation's output gains. How much worse does it have to get in places like Lanzhou before we act?

Liang Congjie is founder and president of Friends of Nature, an environmental NGO in Beijing

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