The New York Times has a lengthy and scary article (the first in a series) on the environmental effects of China’s booming economy. Though freedom of information was not a theme of the article, it kept cropping up. First, basic public health data is being suppressed by the government because . . . well, it’s bad news.
This spring, a World Bank study done with SEPA, the national environmental agency, concluded that outdoor air pollution was already causing 350,000 to 400,000 premature deaths a year. Indoor pollution contributed to the deaths of an additional 300,000 people, while 60,000 died from diarrhea, bladder and stomach cancer and other diseases that can be caused by water-borne pollution.
Chinaâ€™s environmental agency insisted that the health statistics be removed from the published version of the report, citing the possible impact on â€œsocial stability,â€ World Bank officials said.
Another part of the article discusses a government-supported research program that developed a means of calculating “Green GDP” to inform the rewards system for various public officials whose success is measured in increased productivity. When the group issued their first report, it turned out that these officials aren’t doing so well; if you factor in the cost to the environment, in many cases gains are zeroed out. The government withdrew its support for the project. The second report, scheduled for March, was never published.
And finally, the article concludes on this chilling note:
China does have an army of amateur regulators. Environmentalists expose pollution and press local government officials to enforce environmental laws. But private individuals and nongovernment organizations cannot cross the line between advocacy and political agitation without risking arrest.
At least two leading environmental organizers have been prosecuted in recent weeks, and several others have received sharp warnings to tone down their criticism of local officials. One reason the authorities have cited: the need for social stability before the 2008 Olympics, once viewed as an opportunity for China to improve the environment.
Reading this article reminded me that we have a couple of things going for us that we may take for granted.
One is the amount of publicly-available government information. Sure, it’s been constrained of late, and the current administration has been criticized for it. But we have a valuable tradition of providing government-generated data for citizens and scholars to interpret for themselves. We need to preserve that availability. Reading this article, it’s hard not to think about the healthy debate over the closure of the EPA libraries. We need this information. Let’s keep it available.
Second, we have a valuable tradition of academic freedom. As a society, we need to create conditions where the facts are not only available, but can tell us what we need to hear, even if it might be unpopular. This article shows just how high the stakes really are.
[photo by Keith Kris]