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Growing Pains

by A. Maureen Rouhi
October 7, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 40

Rapid, irregular growth, worries about peer acceptance, and concerns about social issues are hallmarks of adolescence that came to mind as I was reading Senior Editor Rick Mullin’s story on page 26. “China Cracks Down” describes changes under way as the country’s new president, Xi Jinping, insists on reforms that he considers essential in keeping China on the path to superpower status. Like a teenager teetering between doing what is right and doing what is convenient, China frustrates those who wish it would just act like a responsible adult, including global businesses, as Mullin reports, and the Chinese public, as the nonpartisan think tank Pew Research Center reports.

In the environmental arena, the gulf between aspirations and reality remains wide, as evidenced by news of thick smog, as well as dead pigs and chemical waste in bodies of water. Mullin reports that the country is now emphasizing enforcement of environmental regulations, including those affecting companies engaged in chemical manufacturing. But enforcement is stymied by what chemical industry observers describe as “a Byzantine regulatory environment that fosters noncompliance.” Scrupulous companies are hugely disadvantaged when corrupt local authorities allow the operation of noncompliant companies with the right connections.

Even the locals acknowledge the gap between intent and practice. “Some of the rules in China are not enforceable,” says Mingzhang Chen of the pharmaceutical services company WuXi AppTec. “For the past 30 years, economic growth has been the driving force. In order to do that, some rules had to be ignored.”

The good news is that some businesses see the new emphasis on enforcement as positive despite the rise in cost it entails. Hao Hong, the CEO of Asymchem, a U.S.-based supplier of active pharmaceutical ingredients with manufacturing sites in China, tells Mullin that the higher cost of doing business to comply with regulations will eventually eliminate the dirty chemistry practiced by small manufacturers. To hear executives’ forecasts of the Chinese business environment in their own voices, click the audio players at

China’s environmental problems do not come only from chemistry-related manufacturing. An analysis by Minxin Pei, a professor of government of Claremont McKenna College, in Claremont, Calif., cites heavy reliance on coal for energy; emphasis on energy-intensive industries, like the steel industry; and underinvestment in environmental protection as important contributors.

As Chinese citizens gain wealth, raise their standard of living, and move to the middle class, their expectations of their country also rise. Increasingly, the Chinese public is concerned about inflation, corruption, economic inequality, and pollution, according to results of a Pew Research Center survey released last month. Of 17 public concerns included in the survey, the top five that respondents rated as “very big” problems are rising prices (59%), corrupt officials (53%), rich-poor gap (52%), air pollution (47%), and water pollution (40%).

Rising prices are likely caused in great part by China’s rapid economic growth. Given that a free-market-style economy is what keeps the Chinese public tolerant of the Communist Party, it is unlikely that the country’s leaders will put the brakes on economic growth. Corruption and income inequality also have societal and governmental strings snarled in a Gordian knot.

The problem of pollution, however, has science-based solutions. Considered objectively, the costs and benefits of mitigation can be quantified. And if President Xi is serious about environmental regulation, he can put in place, and enforce, remediation. The acceptance by the Chinese people of the absolute authority of the government will permit Xi to address at least two of their top concerns.

To attain the full status of a developed country, China must be a responsible adult in the community of nations. One of the hallmarks of that status is a serious commitment to keeping the environment safe for current and future inhabitants. One hopes that President Xi’s zeal will yield lasting benefit to China’s besieged environment.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.


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