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Last Updated: Tuesday, 24 January 2006, 10:43 GMT
The downside to China's runaway growth

By Rupert Wingfield-Hayes
BBC correspondent, Beijing

The recent announcement that China's trade surplus with the rest of the world has tripled may be good news for the country's economy but bad for its main trading partners - in Europe, the United States and Japan.

But China's rapid growth not only poses a threat to its competitors. As Rupert Wingfield-Hayes explains, an environmental price is already being paid by the country itself.

A Chinese man looks at electricity pylons outside his house in Beijing.
Constant growth requires more and more electricity

Every year the Chinese government announces to the world exactly how much it thinks the Chinese economy will grow in the next 12 months.

How it calculates this is a mystery, but for the last 10 years it's consistently got it right.

Recently we were told that the growth rate for 2006 will be 9.6%. What that means is that once again China will have the world's fastest growing economy.

And 2006 will mark another milestone - China will overtake Britain to become world's fourth largest economy.

This is heady stuff. China is now being openly referred to as "the next super-power". The 21st Century, we are told, will be "China's century".

The smell of China

But behind such hyperbole there is another side to China's fantastic growth; that is of the immense toll it is taking on China's environment.

I'll give you an example.

Miners bring out a colleague hurt in a blast at Dongfeng mine, Heilongjiang province, in November 2004.
Mining accidents are all too frequent in China
Every night, I leave the BBC office in the centre of Beijing and head home on the airport expressway.

About half way along there's a spot where the car is suddenly enveloped by a thick black blanket of smog. Some nights it is so dense I'm forced to slow down. The car fills with the acrid smell of sulphur.

This is the smell of Beijing in winter. Indeed, it's the smell of China. The smell is of burning coal - millions and millions of tonnes of black sulphurous coal.

My parents used to describe London's pea soup smogs of the 1950s, but I had no idea what they meant. Until I moved to Beijing.

It's not just Beijing. Eight of the 10 most polluted cities in the world are now in China.

Frantic rush

The other day I read a newspaper report that said one new coal-fired power station comes on line in China every week. I didn't believe it, so I went to ask a coal industry expert.

"That sounds about right," he told me.

"This year China will install about 80 gigawatts of new electricity generating capacity" he said, "most of it coal."

"I'm afraid that means nothing to me" I said.

"Well", he replied "here's a comparison, if you add up the electricity from all the power stations in Britain, all the coal, gas, nuclear, wind, everything - that comes to about 80 gigawatts. And that's how much China will add this year."

That's a lot of coal. More than two billion tonnes this year - a third of all the coal dug up in the whole world.

The Chinese have always had a fondness for mega projects. Who else would have built the Great Wall?

And each year the frantic rush to get more and more coal out of the ground takes the lives of about 6,000 Chinese miners.

The 12 miners that were tragically killed in America the other week - that's how many die in China's mines every single day.

The world's worst air pollution and the highest number of industrial deaths - just two of the unfortunate side effects of China's spectacular growth.

There are others.

Forced removal

Even with a new power station every week, it's still not enough. So China is turning to other energy sources.

One is water power. The five great rivers of Asia all rise in China: the Yellow river, the Yangtze, the Mekong, the Salween, and the Brahmaputra.

Smog hangs over Beijing
Growth in car ownership has exacerbated smog problems

China is damming them all.

The biggest of them all is the Three Gorges Dam - a vast concrete wall across the Yangtze river.

The Chinese have always had a fondness for mega projects. Who else would have built the Great Wall?

The Three Gorges Dam is on a similar scale. A mile and a half wide, two and a half kilometres wide, 40 storeys high, and with the architectural merit of a 1960's tower block.

Many will have heard about the one and a half million people forced to move because of the dam.

Far fewer know what the dam is doing to the Yangtze river.

Empty nets

A few weeks ago I went out on the Yangtze with a group of fishermen. For three hours they plied up and down, casting their nets and pulling them in. Every time the nets were empty.

One old fisherman told me as a boy he'd caught fish weighing over 200 kilos. On a good day, he said, a single boat could haul in half a tonne.

But as the dam has gone up the fish have disappeared.

And with them are also going two of the rarest mammals in the world - the Yangtze river dolphin and the Yangtze river porpoise.

I once had a rare chance to see the only Yangtze river dolphin in captivity. Fei Fei lived in a large tank at the Wuhan university aquarium. He was a strange looking creature, completely white, with a long beak like nose, and almost no eyes at all. He was far from beautiful, but quite unique.

Today Fei Fei is dead, and the rest of his species are on the brink of extinction. The last sighting was five years ago.

If Fei Fei had been cute and furry someone might have made more effort to save his species. Instead his fellow dolphins look like becoming another victim of China's fantastic growth.



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