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Globalization and the violation of environmental justice

February 22, 2003

Some of the poorest and most disadvantaged people in China suffer disproportionately from the global pattern of exportation and displacement of environmental harms from the rich to poorer people and nations, writes Abigail R. Jahiel. The combination of China’s WTO entry and the US refusal to take action to reduce its own enormous negative impacts on the world’s environment mean the prospects for any improvement in this grim reality are low.

The principle of environmental justice as originally conceived states that regardless of race, culture or income, all people should enjoy the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards. This idea emerged from the thinking of grassroots activists and academics in the United States in the 1970s, in response to increasing evidence that minorities and the poor in the United States were disproportionately affected by certain types of environmental harms. It was later adopted by the US Environmental Protection Agency as a principle to guide domestic environmental regulation.

As global trade and investment has risen dramatically over the past two decades, the concept of environmental justice has taken on international significance as well, for with the growth of trade overseas has come the transfer of polluting industries, wastes, and ecologically destructive practices from developed countries to the less developed world. In these cases, the potential violation of justice is even greater because those who receive disproportionately large shares of environmental harms have even less financial ability to benefit from the processes that cause these harms.

Other authors in this issue (see articles by Anna Brettell and Kelly Haggart and Yang Chongqing) have addressed the environmental human rights issue by focusing on how the Chinese political system limits citizens’ ability to challenge environmentally harmful ventures that threaten basic human rights. The focus of this piece is not on the constraints posed by the Chinese political system per se but rather on the ways in which the global economic system—in which China is now an active player—works to deny Chinese citizens, and particularly some of China’s most vulnerable citizens, equitable rights to good health and a clean environment. A survey of how increased integration in the global market has affected China over the past two decades helps to elucidate this argument.

Since 1978 when it first initiated its “Open Door” policy, China has been one of the major growth spots for international trade and investment. Between 1978 and 2000 foreign trade increased 24-fold, and today China is the premier recipient of foreign direct investment in Asia. Moreover, exports and foreign investment now generate a full 40 percent of China’s GDP. With the Chinese economy growing at an annual rate of close to 10 percent for much of the past two decades, Chinese people, to varying degrees, have benefited financially from engagement in the global economy. But at what cost?

Over this same period, China has experienced a notable increase in both the range and extent of its already serious environmental problems, equivalent in monetary terms to an estimated 15 percent of its GNP. In many parts of China, people now face critical water shortages, severe air and water pollution problems, serious soil degradation, loss of arable land, desertification, sand storms and flooding. Countless urban workers face occupational health threats parallel to those in the West during the early days of the industrial revolution, and farmers are routinely exposed to high levels of toxic pesticides. Moreover, in their efforts to increase their own standard of living, either through production for the global market or for their own consumption, Chinese people broadly speaking play a significant global role in deforestation, loss of biodiversity, ozone depletion and climate change—all of which will have long term effects on the Chinese themselves as well as on other global citizens. As just one indicator of the more immediate human health impacts of environmental destruction, chronic pulmonary disease is now the leading cause of death in China; a primary reason for this disease is the heavy reliance on coal to fuel China’s growth.

To argue that these problems are simply the costs of development, however, would be to overlook the fact that many of these costs represent the “ecological shadow” necessary to support consumerism elsewhere. In fact, from a global environmental justice perspective, it is evident that the rights of Chinese people to an equitable exposure to environmental harms have been violated in two respects. First, environmental harms resulting from resource exploitation, the production of export products and the disposal of foreign wastes are shouldered predominantly, and immediately, by the people of China and experienced only indirectly, if at all, by the many foreign consumers (most notably in the industrialized West), whose lifestyles these ecologically destructive practices have supported. Second, even within China, these environmental harms are not equally distributed. Rather, engagement in the global market, and the drive it creates for least-cost production and achievement of comparative advantage, means that when compared to their wealthier counterparts, poorer Chinese are increasingly exposed to a disproportionate share of the environmental harms of trade relative to the economic benefits of it. Examples from three sectors of the economy help illuminate this argument.


The extensive exploitation of natural resources that occurred over the past two decades of increasing integration in the global economy has disproportionately affected those in poorer parts of China or among the poorer sectors of society. In order to feed and clothe epicurean tastes overseas, fragile grasslands in Inner Mongolia have been over-farmed and over-grazed. The growth of demand for highly lucrative wild vegetables and herbs and the need to provide fodder for goats to supply the booming global cashmere market imposed a steep and immediate ecological price on the nomadic herdsmen of Inner Mongolia, threatening their livelihoods by destroying their ecosystem. Similarly, once fertile lands in coastal areas have been drained of nutrients and made toxic by heavy and ever-increasing applications of chemical fertilizers and pesticides (including insecticides, herbicides and fungicides) as farmers have sought countless short-term means to increase yields for cash crops. In doing so, these farmers, often-times unwittingly, have sacrificed their long-term health, as well as that of their offspring and their land. Delicate landscapes and hillsides in many inland parts of China have been mined for the non-ferrous metals and rare minerals sought by global markets. In exchange, local populations have been exposed to dangerous, and sometimes radioactive, materials.

Even in wealthier coastal zones, the exploitation of natural resources has served to benefit foreign consumers at costs to the local environment. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, coastal zones were heavily over-harvested to feed the world’s rapidly growing desire for seafood. China ultimately came to produce more than half of all farm-raised shrimp world-wide and received billions of dollars in export revenues in exchange. But the profit-driven motivations of the shrimp industry meant that ecological limits were ignored, and by 1993 this had led to the collapse of the entire coastal ecosystem.

In all these cases of natural resource exploitation, it is the poor who first prosper, but ultimately pay the environmental, health and/or financial costs due to destroyed or toxified ecosystems. Meanwhile, foreign consumers do not even notice as the global industry merely moves on to the next location that will provide the product.


A second set of examples relates to China’s pursuit, during the 1980s and 1990s, of a global market niche, resulting in Chinese entrepreneurs and government officials welcoming the transfer of “dirty industries”—industries which the advanced industrial countries no longer wished to locate within their own borders—into China’s booming southeastern cities. According to a 1995 study by the State Environmental Protection Administration, 30 percent of all foreign-invested ventures in China (including private firms, joint ventures and public holdings) were engaged in heavily polluting industries. These included foreign investments in the chemical, pharmaceutical and paper production industries, as well as in the leather tanning, textile dying, electroplating, electronics, machine-building, rubber products, mineral and energy sectors. Although in the 1990s small-scale township and village enterprises were barred from engaging in these sectors under government prohibitions on “15 small [heavily polluting] industries” (shiwu xiao qiye), violations of this prohibition remained commonplace.

Foreign investments in “dirty industries” in China included trade in other prohibited sectors as well. For example, following the international ratification of the Montreal Protocol (the treaty designed to reverse ozone depletion, in which the manufacture and use of ozone-depleting substances was banned in the industrialized world), foreign direct investment in China soared in industries involved in the production and consumption of ozone-depleting substances (ODSs). Between 1985 and 1996, foreigners invested $2.18 billion in 1,004 ODS-related enterprises.

Urban residents in general and even people in other parts of the globe felt some of the negative environmental and health impacts of these dirty industries in the form of poor air quality, polluted drinking water and increased contributions to global climate change and ozone depletion. But, as in the case of resource exploitation, the poor were disproportionately affected. Key beneficiaries of many of these environmentally harmful production processes were overseas consumers and wealthy Chinese, while the poor—oftentimes members of China’s rural “floating population”—worked in some of the least regulated and dirtiest industries in the country, where they were exposed to noxious and toxic fumes, heavy metals and the like.


A third way in which environmental harms have fallen disproportionately on Chinese people has been through the waste trade. Again, looking to exercise “comparative advantage” and draw in foreign currency, China in the early 1990s became an active recipient of international waste. Elsewhere in this issue, Sarah Westervelt and Jim Puckett describe one of the manifestations of this trade in their discussion of “e-waste” (electronic wastes). They demonstrate that for ten years in wealthy Guangdong Province, farmers in several poor villages have been making a living scavenging through highly toxic, electronic wastes to retrieve precious metals and other materials at great costs to their health and the health of fellow villagers and local ecosystems. But imported wastes have included other hazardous and even lethal substances as well, such as hospital wastes, radioactive scrap metals and unidentified chemicals.

In addition, many more mundane waste products of consumer societies have been imported too, such as wastepaper, dirty diapers, soft drink bottles, plastic bags, household garbage and agricultural plastic sheets. While some of these materials are recyclable, others have been illicitly imported (often falsely labeled as “recyclable”) and pose significant and immediate health threats. The ultimate disposal of some of these wastes within China releases toxic substances into the air and into ground water, takes up valuable space in fast growing land fills, or simply lies strewn beside farmers’ fields. Between 1990 and 1997 the volume of hazardous wastes imported to China grew almost five-fold, while the profits to be garnered increased 140 times (from just under $14 million to $19 billion).

The environmental injustices of global trade are perhaps most visible in this type of trade; while Chinese people are exposed to the environmental harms of the waste trade, the recipients of the benefit provided by this trade are quite clearly the industrialized OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries, most often the United States, which do not have to face the high costs, financial and environmental, of waste disposal in their own countries.

It should not be assumed that the Chinese government has completely ignored the environmental implications of international trade and investment. As different issues have emerged, the State Environmental Protection Administration has sought to address them. In April 1996, for example, tough new laws were formulated and implemented, making the trade in certain wastes punishable by up to ten years in prison or a fine of 500,000 yuan. And shortly after the Chinese government proclaimed its “Go West” (Xibu da kaifa) policy, encouraging investment in the poor western provinces and autonomous regions of China, it pointedly issued statements warning against investments in polluting enterprises and environmentally destructive practices.

Yet, periodic reports, both Chinese and foreign, indicate that the waste trade continues. And environmentalists and senior environmental protection officials in Beijing acknowledge that large-scale, foreign-financed resource extraction ventures and hydropower projects are being undertaken with insufficient attention to environmental effects, while small-scale, environmentally destructive mining ventures, chemical plants and the like are being set up one after another in China’s western region. It seems that it has been hard for the developmentalist Chinese state to control the natural economic tendency—within the prevailing global market economy and the Chinese reform climate—for environmentally destructive ventures to migrate to areas of lowest income. This is especially so when residents in these poorer locales—or local entrepreneurs and government officials—welcome all opportunities for economic growth, no matter how environmentally destructive, and when little public space is made available for free discussion of potential environmental harms or their implications.

As China adjusts to its new status as a member of the World Trade Organization, the pressures which result in violations of environmental justice may only be expected to grow more intense. The effects of the structural adjustment of both the rural and urban economies, forecast as a result of increased international competition, are expected to force many to seek new means of employment. As financial and social pressures increase in the next few years, individuals and local government officials will find themselves more tempted to engage in ecologically destructive practices if these practices promise lucrative financial reward. As I have argued elsewhere, the increase in the manufacturing sector and in natural resource exploitation brought about by increasing trade, coupled with lax enforcement of environmental regulations and emphasis on economic growth at the expense of other values, can only be expected to worsen China’s existing environmental problems. With this, the displacement of environmental harms to China, and specifically to China’s poor, can be expected to grow.

Meanwhile, the United States, the worlds’ largest consumer, continues to flaunt the few attempts on an international scale to regulate the transfer of environmental harms. It has steadfastly refused to join the Basel Convention and ban which prohibit the trade in hazardous wastes; it has not ratified the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) which aims to strictly control the disposal of the most toxic chemical compounds ever created; and most recently, in December 2002, it reneged on a US presidential moratorium in effect since 1994 that prevented the overseas scrapping of naval vessels because they contain significant quantities of hazardous asbestos and PCBs. Until Americans start demanding that the United States take much greater responsibility for the negative environmental effects of its consumer society and its business practices, environmental justice in China is likely to remain an ephemeral notion. t

Abigail R. Jahiel is Assistant Professor of Environmental and International Studies and Director of the Environmental Studies program at Illinois Wesleyan University. She has authored many articles on environmental policy implementation in China, including, "The Contradictory Impact of Reform on Environmental Protection in China," and "The Organization of Environmental Protection in China," both published in the China Quarterly. Most recently, she written an article on "The Environmental Impact of China’s Entry into the WTO."

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