Sunday, December 27, 2009

Rare Earth Metals in China: A Case of Corruption Leading to Pollution

Lately, the government of China has been talking about honoring Chinese tradition. It's fine when societies, including our own, honor the best parts of our traditions but actual practices don't always match our publicly declared policies. China, in any case, is a bundle of contradictions. One could easily argue that the red octopus above represents the strange fusion of red communism and acquisitive capitalism that today is indicative of China. (Come to think of it, I ought to use the octopus later to represent Republican members of Congress and Washington lobbyists who wish to snarl up and otherwise obstruct useful legislation in Washington. It's a great image!)

For some time, China has been talking about cleaning up its pollution but not much happens. It is a sad fact that sooner or later China is going to have its Love Canal. But multiply that times ten given the pollution problems China already has.

I recently did a post on rare earth mining in California's Mountain Pass Mine in the Mojave desert. Even during its worst days, Mountain Pass seems to have been handled better than the Chinese mine discussed in the following New York Times article:
Here in Guyun Village, a small community in southeastern China fringed by lush bamboo groves and banana trees, the environmental damage can be seen in the red-brown scars of barren clay that run down narrow valleys and the dead lands below, where emerald rice fields once grew.

Miners scrape off the topsoil and shovel golden-flecked clay into dirt pits, using acids to extract the rare earths. The acids ultimately wash into streams and rivers, destroying rice paddies and fish farms and tainting water supplies.

Lovely. So much for 5,000 years of sustainable agriculture.

I don't want to minimize the environmental damage that has been done by the United States in the last 200 years but the worst stories that have come out of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe make the United States look rather green by comparison. There are growing concerns that China is repeating some of the worst damage done during the Cold War. The problem is that the dynamics are far too similar: despite China's commitment to capitalism and the loosening of strict authoritarian control, the government is over-centralized, overly authoritarian, and overly paranoid about a free press. On top of that, there is far too much corruption in government as well as in business.

President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabo seem bent on curbing corruption but they have the same problem the emperors had from the beginning: the inability of the central government to control events in distant provinces as well as in large cities such as Shanghai. Premier Wen has apparently found it useless to announce personal appearances around the country since that only leads to Potemkin moments as local officials try to put on a good but fraudelent show. Now Wen arrives unannounced and is not pleased with what he finds. And as noted by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, not nearly enough is done to enforce laws against corruption:
Though the Chinese government has more than 1,200 laws, rules, and directives against corruption, implementation is spotty and ineffective. The odds of a corrupt official going to jail are less than three percent, making corruption a high-return, low-risk activity. Even low-level officials have the opportunity to amass an illicit fortune of tens of millions of yuan.

Still, despite problems, we need to be careful not to underestimate what the top Chinese leadership can do. There are indications that the global warming deal in Copenhagen wasn't as bad as some on America's far right and far left have claimed. Having any kind of deal that involves China and the United States is better than anything we've had in the last nine years. But no one should kid themselves. Not China. And not the United States. In a real sense, a number of American corporations have been sending their pollution to China for almost thirty years. Further, it's been apparent that many U.S. corporations don't have the kind of quality control that all of us took for granted back in the 1970s—instead too much money seems to go to public relations and Washington lobbyists. In the meantime, a lot of crap is put on the American market by American companies that shouldn't be sold.

A real climate change agreement will only be possible as the U.S. and China build up mutual trust and respect. Eventually mutual inspections will be needed and those inspections will have to extend beyond just the U.S. and China. I know, these things will be difficult but they are necessary and not impossible. And they will take time.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Whoa - too much to even begin to dig into here. But good on you Craig. On the mark.

The Octopus. A novel by ? Frank Norris. About the Southern Pacific Railroad Company. What goes around....

True that, bad as our mountain-top removals, burning Detroit River, and all the rest have been - and are - what is going on in eastern Europe, in China, and soon if any real progress happens in Africa, there too - will make us seem like the angels of the planet. Even the Canadian tar sands. Maybe.

Or not. ALL of these, us too, deserve front-burner attention. From now on. The stories about late 19th Century excesses, from the hydraulic mining disaster in California to the trusts, 'busted' by TR, are good set pieces and examples, if only to say that such things deserve action to end them. Only now the stakes are so much higher.


11:40 AM  
Anonymous S.W. Anderson said...

China really is a perfect setup for industrial revolution gone wild, on an unprecedented scale, with the worst kind of environmental damage resulting.

If China's leaders were smarter, they would welcome some form of international oversight. That might take some political heat off of them with China's factory and mine owners and managers. But China's leaders are more concerned about military security and not being hassled about human rights matters, I'm sure.

The best hope for the rest of the world is probably to try to restrain the Chinese where it matters: their bank accounts. If other countries would shun Chinese exports made using outrageously polluting materials and processes, it might make some difference.

I'm sure China has already experienced some Love Canal-type disasters, and hushed them up.

12:57 PM  
Blogger Craig said...

BT, yes, Frank Norris crossed my mind.

S.W., thanks for the comments. In the last 15 years or so the United States has managed to mangle our relationship with China. Arrogance, greed and convenience on our part led to decisions and actions that have strengthened the Chinese and weakened the U.S.

If it were only about China, it would be easier though still daunting to correct any number of problems. But there are seismic shifts going on. As just one example, throughout Asia economic relationships are shifting towards China and away from the United States.

The irony is that it's the avoidance of our own environmental laws that made China so attractive to many American businessmen. Although the Chinese seem to be taking environmental issues more seriously, I fear it may be a major environmental disaster of some sort before there can be real change. If 51% of American voters every four years or so refuse to take global warming, product safety or pollution seriously, the Chinese will just put off the day of dealing with their own pollution.

12:26 AM  
Anonymous S.W. Anderson said...

Craig wrote: "But there are seismic shifts going on. As just one example, throughout Asia economic relationships are shifting towards China and away from the United States."

That's a key point Kevin Phillips makes in Bad Money.

What it might come down to, some future decade, is the ailing, besieged publics of the U.S., China and elsewhere in Asia, vs. the wealthy, well-connected few, corporations and governments of the respective countries.

2:53 PM  

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