The process is already under way. During the Mao era, the People's Liberation Army ritualistically fired shells at the Taiwan-controlled island of Quemoy; now, the mainland spews garbage that floats across the mile-and-a-quarter-wide channel and washes up on Quemoy's beaches at the rate of 800 metric tons a year. Acid rain caused by China's sulfur-dioxide emissions severely damages forests and watersheds in Korea and Japan and impairs air quality in the United States. Every major river system flowing out of China is threatened with one sort of cataclysm or another, including pollution (Amur), damming (Mekong, Salween), diverting (Brahmaputra), and melting of the glacial source (Mekong, Salween, Brahmaputra). The surge in untreated waste and agricultural runoff pouring into the Yellow and China Seas has caused frequent fish die-offs and red-tide outbreaks, and overfishing is endangering many ocean species. The growing Chinese taste for furs and exotic foods and pets is devastating neighboring countries' populations of gazelles, marmots, foxes, wolves, snow leopards, ibexes, turtles, snakes, egrets, and parrots, while its appetite for shark fin soup is causing drastic declines in shark populations throughout the oceans; according to a study published in Science in March 2007, the absence of the oceans' top predators is causing a resurgence of skates and rays, which are in turn destroying scallop fisheries along America's Eastern Seaboard. China's new predilection for sushi is even pricing Japan out of the market for bluefin tuna. Enthusiasm for traditional Chinese medicine, including its alleged aphrodisiacs, is causing huge declines in populations of hundreds of animals hunted for their organs—including tigers, pangolins, musk deer, sea horses, and sea dragons. Seeking oil, timber, gold, copper, cobalt, uranium, and other natural resources, China is building massive roads, bridges, and dams throughout Africa, often disregarding international environmental and social standards. Finally, China overtook the United States as the world's leading emitter of CO2 in 2006, according to the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency.
All this is common knowledge among the scholars and activists who follow Chinese environmental trends. The news, however, has not yet shaken China out of its money-induced euphoria. One indication is that China's 10 percent growth rate takes no account of the environmental devastation the boom has caused. In June 2006, an official at China's State Council said environmental damage (everything from crop loss to health care costs) was costing 10 percent of its gross domestic product—in other words, all of the economy's celebrated growth. Vaclav Smil, a highly respected China scholar at the University of Manitoba, pegs the environmental-damage rate at between 5 and 15 percent, with 7 percent a "solid, defensible figure." Smil says that shorn of hype, China's growth rate is also likely 7 percent, "so basically every year environmental damage wipes out the gdp growth."
LOOKING FOR TROUBLE
for a daredevil, Mr. Zhang looked surprisingly bland. Closely trimmed hair, receding at the temples, crowned his smoothly oval 45-year-old face, and on all four days of our acquaintance he wore the same gray, odorless T-shirt. To sustain his family, Mr. Zhang works freelance as a telecommunications engineer—his current project, he said, was designing a mobile security system for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. Freelancing allows him to pursue his real passion: water. He's tracked Beijing's numerous waterways and carries in his head a map of them in all their polluted, obstructed, and diverted complexity. Together, they reveal the capital's fragility. Now he treated me to a sampling of his discoveries: It was the inverse of the typical tourist's treacly junket, a passage through the region's environmentally degraded places.
To achieve this, Mr. Zhang eschewed not just highways but, for long stretches, anything paved. He clearly had such adventures in mind when he bought his vehicle, a primordial two-wheel-drive suv made by the Great Wall Motor Company. Having reached Beijing's Tong Hui canal, Mr. Zhang gleefully bounced us down a dirt path overlooking it. On one side were the makeshift settlements of some of Beijing's legions of migrant laborers, and on the other, the cement-lined, nearly waterless channel. Mr. Zhang pointed to a slightly viscous liquid issuing from a foot-wide pipe on the opposite bank and declared that this marked the first entrance of raw sewage into the canal; from this point on, he said, all the sewage entering the channel, including the squatters' own waste, was untreated. Far downstream, the canal's water merges with the Hai River, one of China's most polluted waterways.
On the city's outskirts, we stopped at a gas station, whose attendants told Mr. Zhang that a nearby beer factory had sucked up enough groundwater to lower the local water table by 40 or 50 yards. We took a bridge across a riverbed so dry that the grass in it had turned yellow. After driving alongside the Mi Yun reservoir—Beijing's last remaining reliable source of water, which has dropped more than 50 feet since 1993—we passed a sign reading, "Looking for someone to drill a well?"
At midday we ascended the Jundu Mountains, the low, jagged range north of Beijing. The twisting road offered frequent glimpses of precarious, crest-top outcroppings of the former world wonder, the Great Wall—obscured by the haze, it looked diminished by China's new scale. At last we stopped for lunch at a rustic, thick-walled restaurant with cigarette butts on the floor. Mr. Zhang objected to the disposable chopsticks we were offered—whole forests are succumbing to China's consumption of 45 billion pairs of chopsticks per year—and demanded washable ones. The daintily manicured Ms. Lei was more worried by the restaurant's indeterminate hygiene, and stuck with the disposables. Reluctantly, so did I.
BEIJING GOES GREEN
In preparation for the Olympic Games, China has spent $3.6 billion and taken some radical, and sometimes loony, steps to clean up the capital.
Four new subways are being built; fares cut 33% to 27¢. In August, 1.3 million cars were banned for four days. Subway ridership increased by 30%, and pollution was reduced by 20%. A million vehicles will be banned for the entire Olympics. 54,000 taxis and buses have been kicked off the road due to new emissions restrictions. Beijing now has a fleet of compressed-natural-gas buses, and by the Games will be using battery-powered garbage trucks.
More than 50 percent of Beijing is now "green areas," including 20 nature reserves. 33 million trees have been planted along Beijing's highways and rivers. But a mountain was destroyed to provide the soil.
135 "rainmakers" at 22 sites around the city have been enlisted to shoot clouds approaching Beijing with silver iodide in a cloud-seeding operation. "If rain clouds are headed toward the Olympic stadium, we will intercept them," one official said.
200 factories and steel mills have been relocated outside the city, already the origin of most of Beijing's particulate matter. Hebei Province is spending $2.8 billion to build six air-quality monitoring stations and install scrubbers in 34 power plants.
The city aims to increase bird and ladybug populations. Hoping to eliminate 80% of Beijing's insects, two farmers have volunteered to stake out parks and toilets, videotaping flies to learn their behavior and best eradication methods.
Bureaucrats told to wear short sleeves to reduce need for AC. Volunteers with the Green Woodpecker Project are trying to persuade Chinese to stop spitting, and videotaping those who persist in order to shame them.
By now I'd realized that Mr. Zhang had only a vague idea of the location of the newly formed Inner Mongolian desert that I'd hired him to take me to. As backup, he stopped at a cluster of houses in Fengning County, Hebei Province, that had been engulfed in an April 2001 sandstorm. Residents told us how the sand penetrated their houses and got into their food, clothes, eyes, and mouths. Many just left: One village's population, about 200 people in 2001, is now half that.
By the end of our visit, evening had set in, and Mr. Zhang realized he'd locked his keys inside the car. An hour passed while he tried increasingly improbable but inventive stratagems for opening the doors, finally removing the car's front bumper so he could open the hood and disable the car's electronic lock system—to no avail. Ms. Lei and I were getting cold and irritable. By the time Mr. Zhang shaped a snag out of a windshield wiper and successfully hooked an inside lock, he looked thoroughly beleaguered. At last back on the road and out of options for spending the night, we came across a karaoke inn near the top of the mountain pass that would take us to Inner Mongolia. We slept in bare, cold rooms as disembodied, dissonant karaoke strains floated up from the floor below.
no sector better illustrates the vast reach and explosive impacts of China's manufacturing dominance than logging. At one end are the consumers in the United States, Europe, Japan, and China itself, who are mostly oblivious to the social and environmental destruction left by the Chinese-made furniture, plywood, moldings, and flooring they buy.
At the other end are the wood suppliers, almost all poor countries with weak or corrupt law enforcement and a flourishing trade in illegal lumber. Among China's leading wood importers, Thailand and the Philippines have already been stripped of their natural forests; Indonesia and Burma are projected to lose theirs within a decade. Papua New Guinea's will succumb within 16 years, and the vast forests of the Russian Far East will survive no more than two decades. Even so, Forest Trends, a Washington-based nonprofit, estimates that China's wood imports will probably double over the next decade. Chinese manufacturers are already developing replacement sources in Africa, and South America's forests are under threat for a different reason: China's growing consumption of pork and chicken is fed by soybeans grown on newly cleared Amazonian land; by one estimate, 30 percent of the jungle could eventually be transformed into soybean fields.
In the middle is China, the world's workshop, now both the planet's leading wood importer and exporter, supplying more than 30 percent of the international furniture trade. Hundreds of sawmills line China's northeastern border to process softwood logs harvested in Russia, while a port north of Shanghai called Zhangjiagang, described by the British watchdog group Environmental Investigation Agency as "a sleepy backwater" in 2000, grew to become "probably the largest trading centre for tropical logs in the world" by 2005—by then, at least half a billion dollars in wood passed through it annually, according to Chinese customs figures. From the port, many of the logs are transported two hours by road to the town of Nanxun, another former hinterland that the eia calls "the wood flooring centre of the world," with more than 500 flooring factories.
Until 1998, China fed its wood mills trees from its own forests. That year, the middle reaches of the Yangtze River swelled with the region's biggest flood in more than 50 years, killing 3,000 people, destroying 5 million homes, and engulfing 52 million acres of land. As winter approached months later, 14 million were still homeless. The land, it turned out, had no defense against erosion left. Lakes and wetlands that once would have absorbed some of the rain had been drained to create farmland, and the forests that once held topsoil in place had been harvested. Torrential rainwater carried the topsoil to the river and then down it, until its bed swelled with new sediment and the floodwater rose above its banks. As a result, China declared a logging ban on what little remained of its old-growth forests. Most environmentalists applauded the ban until they grasped its corollary: Chinese companies began harvesting other countries' trees on an even grander scale.