Of course, Mr. Zhang's chief qualification was that he was an environmentalist, or, more precisely, a fellow environmental-disaster tracker. Now, having toured choked rivers, depleted forests, and grasslands that had ceded to encroaching deserts, we were near the end of our trip, with nothing in front of us but a two-hour jaunt down the broad, brutish Beijing Badaling Expressway to the capital. Ms. Lei, my delicate translator, had announced her wish to get back to Beijing before her four-year-old boy went to bed, and we were running late. Mr. Zhang's swashbuckling solution was a "shortcut": Instead of fighting his way along the paved, but circuitous, road to the highway, he sped down a narrow dirt path that held the promise of providing a more direct route. Within minutes he was doubling back on himself, loudly grinding gears as he cut through dust-shrouded cornfields and drought-stricken cherry orchards while peasants leaped out of our way and into the foliage. By the time Mr. Zhang found the expressway, the shortcut had cost us an hour.
I already knew that China's roads are some of the world's most dangerous. A quarter of a million people die on them each year—6 times as many as in the United States, even though Americans possess 18 times as many cars—and the entire system is plagued with soul-withering traffic jams prompted by police inspectors who extract "fees" from coal-truck drivers. Lines of trucks often extend behind inspection stations for miles; truckers have waited in them for as long as two weeks.
And now we couldn't get on the expressway because traffic was at a standstill behind a toll station. An abhorrer of inertia, Mr. Zhang cut across six lanes to the only booth with a short line and cockily paid the toll. For a moment we basked in his nascarish dexterity. Then he slammed on the brakes. In front of us, the road was clogged with coal trucks lined up behind an inspection station far down the road. We'd been funneled into a classic Chinese bottleneck.
Unfazed, Mr. Zhang made a 180-degree turn and headed west on the eastbound expressway. I braced for the inevitable crash. Then, just before we regained the toll station, he swung right and headed for the center divider, past a gigantic, disabled semi stuck perpendicularly to the flow of cars. The half-dozen policemen who stood around the truck gave no sign of noticing us. Through a gap in the divider, Mr. Zhang found an eastbound lane reserved for passenger cars and turned into it; as we sped toward Beijing, we saw that the line of motionless coal trucks extended for miles. Drivers dozed or ate dinner on top of their cargo. On this tottering foundation, the world's most dynamic economy has been erected. What globalization offers, it also takes away.
THE PEOPLE'S REVOLUTION
In 2005, there were nearly 1,000 pollution-related protests a week in China, and the numbers have only increased since. The protesters run the social gamut, from impoverished villagers to the urban middle class. The government's response has been similarly varied, ranging from killing and beating protesters to launching investigations into the worst offenders.
Spring 2005: 30,000 villagers overturn buses, beat officials, and burn squad cars after police dismantle barricades set up by elderly protesters on a road to 13 polluting chemical plants.
July 2005: Protesting a pharmaceutical plant, hundreds of residents of the booming factory province Zhejiang riot for three nights. "They are making poisonous chemicals for foreigners that the foreigners don't dare produce in their own countries," a demonstrator tells reporters. "It is better to die now, forcing them out, than to die of a slow suicide."
December 2005: In the fishing village of Dongzhou, police kill up to 30 residents protesting a new coal-fired power plant.
January 2006: During weeklong riots against preferential zoning for chemical and garment factories, 60 Guangdong Province villagers are injured and one—a 13-year-old girl—is killed by police toting automatic weapons and electric batons.
Fall 2006: Villagers from seven Gansu Province towns protest for months against local zinc and iron smelters; half of the 5,000 villagers exhibit high levels of lead in their blood.
June 2007: Up to 20,000 middle-class Chinese congregate outside the city government headquarters in Xiamen to protest a proposed chemical factory. The protesters were alerted by an anonymous cell phone text message (rumored to have been sent by Xiamen University professors and students). The city cracks down on anonymous web posting.
July 2007: Farmers near Mount Emei in Sichuan Province block a highway, demanding $1.1 million in damages from an aluminum company they claim contaminated crops. Ten are injured and five detained when police clear the road.
CHINA EATS THE WORLD
the emergence of China as a dominant economic power is an epochal event, as significant as the United States' ascendancy after World War II. It is in many ways an astonishment, starting with the ideological about-face that enabled it, the throwing over of Maoist values for plainly capitalist ones starting in the late 1970s. So thorough is the change that the 19-foot-tall portrait of a stolid, potato-faced Mao Zedong that still looms over traffic-choked, commerce-suffused Tiananmen Square looks paradoxical, even startling, in seeming need of an update in which Mao winks—or sobs—in blinking neon. Meanwhile, inside Beijing's Forbidden City, the heart of old China, buildings with such intoxicating names as Hall of Preserved Harmony and Palace of Heavenly Purity bear signs reading, "Made Possible by the American Express Company."
The grander astonishment is the most massive and rapid redistribution of the earth's resources in human history. In a mere two and a half decades, China has awakened from Maoist stagnancy to become the world's manufacturer. Among the planet's 193 nations, it is now first in production of coal, steel, cement, and 10 kinds of metal; it produces half the world's cameras and nearly a third of its TVs, and by 2015 may produce the most cars. It boasts factories that can accommodate 200,000 workers, and towns that make 60 percent of the world's buttons, half the world's silk neckties, and half the world's fireworks, respectively.
China has also become a ravenous consumer. Its appetite for raw materials drives up international commodity prices and shipping rates while its middle class, projected to jump from fewer than 100 million people now to 700 million by 2020, is learning the gratifications of consumerism. China is by a wide margin the leading importer of a cornucopia of commodities, including iron ore, steel, copper, tin, zinc, aluminum, and nickel. It is the world's biggest consumer of coal, refrigerators, grain, cell phones, fertilizer, and television sets. It not only leads the world in coal consumption, with 2.5 billion tons in 2006, but uses more than the next three highest-ranked nations—the United States, Russia, and India—combined. China uses half the world's steel and concrete and will probably construct half the world's new buildings over the next decade. So omnivorous is the Chinese appetite for imports that when the country ran short of scrap metal in early 2004, manhole covers disappeared from cities all over the world—Chicago lost 150 in a month. And the Chinese are not just vast consumers, but conspicuous ones, as evidenced by the presence in Beijing of dealers representing every luxury-car manufacturer in the world. Sales of Porsches, Ferraris, and Maseratis have flourished, even though their owners have no opportunity to test their finely tuned cars' performance on the city's clotted roads.
The catch is that China has become not just the world's manufacturer but also its despoiler, on a scale as monumental as its economic expansion. Chinese ecosystems were already dreadfully compromised before the Communist Party took power in 1949, but Mao managed to accelerate their destruction. With one stroke he launched the "backyard furnace" campaign, in which some 90 million peasants became grassroots steel smelters; to fuel the furnaces, villagers cut down a 10th of China's trees in a few months. The steel ultimately proved unusable. With another stroke, Mao perpetrated the "Kill the Four Pests" campaign, inducing the mass slaughter of millions of sparrows and a subsequent explosion in the locust population. The destruction of forests led to erosion and the spread of deserts, and the locust resurgence prompted a collapse of the nation's grain crop. The result was history's greatest famine, in which 30 to 50 million Chinese died.
Yet the Mao era's ecological devastation pales next to that of China's current industrialization. A fourth of the country is now desert. More than three-fourths of its forests have disappeared. Acid rain falls on a third of China's landmass, tainting soil, water, and food. Excessive use of groundwater has caused land to sink in at least 96 Chinese cities, producing an estimated $12.9 billion in economic losses in Shanghai alone. Each year, uncontrollable underground fires, sometimes triggered by lightning and mining accidents, consume 200 million tons of coal, contributing massively to global warming. A miasma of lead, mercury, sulfur dioxide, and other elements of coal-burning and car exhaust hovers over most Chinese cities; of the world's 20 most polluted cities, 16 are Chinese.
The government estimates that 400,000 people die prematurely from respiratory illnesses each year, and health care costs for premature death and disability related to air pollution is estimated at up to 4 percent of the country's gross domestic product. Four-fifths of the length of China's rivers are too polluted for fish. Half the population—600 or 700 million people—drinks water contaminated with animal and human waste. Into Asia's longest river, the Yangtze, the nation annually dumps a billion tons of untreated sewage; some scientists fear the river will die within a few years. Drained by cities and factories all over northern China, the Yellow River, whose cataclysmic floods earned it a reputation as the world's most dangerous natural feature, now flows to its mouth feebly, if at all. China generates a third of the world's garbage, most of which goes untreated. Meanwhile, roughly 70 percent of the world's discarded computers and electronic equipment ends up in China, where it is scavenged for usable parts and then abandoned, polluting soil and groundwater with toxic metals.
Though government-run and heavily censored, the English-language China Daily has reported that pollution problems caused 50,000 disputes and protests throughout China in 2005. (See "The People's Revolution".) If unchecked, the devastation will not just put an abrupt end to China's economic growth, but, in concert with other environmentally heedless nations (in particular, the United States, India, and Brazil), will cause mortal havoc in societies and ecosystems throughout the world.