Commentary on Political Economy

Sunday 7 April 2024


China’s Flag Is Red, Not Green


Thomas J. Duesterberg

April 7, 2024 11:09 am ET

Stockpiles of coal at the Caofeidian Port in Tangshan, Hebei Province, China, March 18. Photo: /Bloomberg News

Before environmental protection became a global issue, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping taught that “only development is a solid truth.” Deng saw the degradation of the environment as a “necessary evil” in the drive for Chinese growth. As a result, China now leads the world in carbon-dioxide emissions, land and water pollution, and the depletion of natural resources.

China’s current leader, Xi Jinping, has pledged to build what he calls an “ecological civilization” in service of a net-zero future. This is a claim ripe for re-evaluation, especially with Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen on a visit to Beijing and Earth Day approaching. The Chinese Communist Party isn’t a serious steward of the global commons, and Western leaders must refute this dangerously misleading narrative.

China’s record of environmental degradation starts with its exploitation of Asia’s water resources. Mao Zedong cut down as much as a third of the country’s forests to expand agriculture and build modern industry. He ordered the breakneck construction of infrastructure to harness the hydroelectric potential of China’s rivers. As a result, China’s landscape is scarred by a system of groundwater wells, dikes and canals that move water from the country’s fertile south to its arid north.


To meet its population’s growing thirst for electricity and irrigation, in 1986 China undertook a massive program to control the waters of the Tibetan plateau and the Himalayas. Beijing has erected dozens of hydroelectric dams on the tributaries of the main rivers of Southeast Asia: the Mekong, Irrawaddy and Salween. The reservoirs created by these projects capture enough water to fill the Chesapeake Bay, and allow China to control the flow levels of these vital rivers. Beijing’s interruption of Southeast Asia’s normal flow cycles has damaged rice-intensive agriculture and freshwater fishpond aquaculture downstream, especially in Vietnam and Thailand. Compounding the problem, the Chinese Communist Party refuses to cooperate with the multinational Mekong River Commission—loath to share control of the vital river.

China also controls the headwaters of the three main rivers of North India, Pakistan and Bangladesh: the Brahmaputra, the Indus and the Ganges, which also emerge from western Tibet and the Himalayas. Beijing has built more than a dozen dams to generate hydroelectric power from these massive rivers. In 2020 it announced a plan to build the world’s largest hydroelectric project on the upper Brahmaputra, raising alarms in Delhi and Dhaka.

Despite these massive hydroengineering efforts, China can’t feed its own people or supply enough water for its industrial economy. More than 75% of China’s surface water supply is contaminated and undrinkable. Under current United Nations standards, the amount of water available in Beijing places the megalopolis in a state of “extreme water scarcity.” Much of China’s farmland is too polluted by heavy minerals and salinization to grow edible crops. China is now the world’s largest importer of feed grains, accounting for 60% of global imports of soybeans. It also imports 70% of its cooking oils.

China’s import binge is a major cause of deforestation in South America. Environmental researchers estimate that China is the largest contributor to deforestation in the Amazon and nearby Atlantic regions, home to the world’s two largest remaining rainforests. One recent study concluded that 51% of China’s timber imports are sourced from countries with “weak governance, poor rule of law, and/or documented evidence of widespread illegal deforestation.”


Beijing is the world’s largest exporter of wood products but is also the world’s second-largest importer of timber, wood pulp and paper. Its predatory use of resources across Asia has driven the depletion of old growth forests.

As Beijing degrades Asia’s water and land resources, it also pollutes the world’s air. China is the world’s leading emitter of carbon dioxide, with emission levels more than 50% higher than those of the U.S., Europe and Japan combined. Communist Party leadership authorizes the construction of dozens of coal-fired power plants. China also builds military facilities atop coral reefs to dominate fishing and sea lanes in the Yellow and South China seas. In the process it has destroyed some 90 square miles of coral reefs.

Yet by committing to work toward a net-zero emissions goal and claiming to provide development assistance to the struggling countries of the Southern Hemisphere, Beijing has largely avoided global pushback against its environmental record. Last year it reneged on its net-zero commitment with little public outcry.

China’s practice of paying lip service to environmental stewardship shouldn’t go unchallenged. Western leaders should increase public and diplomatic pressure on Beijing to take measurable steps to curb its destructive practices. Western diplomats should cultivate alliances with the Asian nations most affected by China’s aggressive efforts to control the Continent’s water supplies. Stronger measures, such as cutting China off from loans from multilateral development banks, actively helping the Philippines and Japan counter China’s illegal appropriation of coral reefs and exclusive fishing zones, and stronger trade restrictions should also be considered.

China poses the greatest threat to the health of the global commons. Until Beijing seriously commits to environmental stewardship, the West shouldn’t allow it to claim that it does.

Mr. Duesterberg is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.

Journal Editorial Report: The week's best and worst from Kim Strassel, Bill McGurn, Kyle Peterson and Dan Henninger. Images: AP/Getty Images Composite: Mark Kelly


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