Assessing Chinese Government Response to the Challenge of Environment and Health

Globally, an estimated 24 percent of the disease burden and 23 percent of all deaths can be attributed to environmental factors. Pollution and environmental degradation undermine a nation’s health in myriad ways. China, the world’s largest developing country and, as of 2006, the world’s leading emitter of greenhouse gases, is no exception. In recent years, environmental threats to human health have escalated in many parts of the country, particularly in southern China, a hotspot of industrial development. With the lack of political attention and resources for research, comprehensive, official data on the real impact of pollution on health are largely nonexistent in China. The little knowledge that does exist is still primarily anecdotal—proof that more complete analysis is becoming an urgent need.

The leadership in Beijing has become increasingly aware of the heavy socioeconomic cost of pollution domestically. Pollution burdens the Chinese economy and drives up health care costs. A deteriorating environment implies a heavy burden of disease in China and a rising cost of treatment for the Chinese government and the public. As public demonstrations against environmental and health risks of industrial projects have become increasingly common in Chinese cities, Beijing has begun to be sensitized to the potential impact of environmental health conditions on social stability. This raises the possibility that environmental health in China is becoming a matter on which the leadership’s political legitimacy may, in part, rest.

The nexus between environment and health in China is too significant to be ignored, either within China or abroad. Accordingly, the CSIS Freeman Chair in China Studies offers this assessment of China’s response to the challenge of environment and health. As China aspires to build a “harmonious society” based on “scientific development” and to become a responsible global player, environmental health problems present a looming challenge for China—and for the international community.

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Charles Freeman
Senior Adviser (Non-resident), Economic and Trade Affairs

Xiaoqing Lu Boynton