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The cost of success: What China cannot hide page 2

 Visitors walk through smoggy haze in Bejing's Tiananmen Square. The environment bears the cost of economic success in China.
Visit the Photo Place
Date published: 11/6/2012


In Beijing, I saw considerable evidence of China's economic success: thriving small businesses; well-dressed, busy people; no beggars; and streets filled with new cars and electric motorcycles (as well as the occasional bicycle). I also saw the worst air pollution I have ever seen and people wearing face masks. Taxiing to the end of a runway at the Beijing airport, I realized that I could not see the opposite end of the runway through the smog, even in broad daylight.

Perhaps most depressing was a boat ride on a canal in Suzhou, a city of 10 million. On each side are homes that are being preserved by the government, inhabited by older Chinese who cannot leave. The homes are without electricity and without plumbing. (I saw one man relieving himself on his front doorstep.) Moreover, the government prohibits any renovation, preferring the houses' "traditional" condition. As our canal boat floated past their homes, I saw the hopeless faces of the people forced to live in this urban zoo. And yet, in another stark contrast, I saw a thriving market area only yards away from all the misery.

The parts of China that I saw were also remarkable for their lack of children. One morning, I visited a Beijing park where hundreds of adults were exercising, dancing, or doing tai-chi. But of the 300 or 400 people, there were fewer than 15 children visible. I noticed the same skewed demographics in all four cities. There were children visible, but always too few of them. Moreover, until the plane ride home, I never once saw a child in China playing with another child.

China's continuing one-child policy has now been in place long enough that most children lack not only siblings, but also cousins. The country is headed for a demographic and economic nightmare, when the shrinking numbers of young people are no longer able to provide for the increasingly long-lived elderly population.

Fear for the future is perhaps the most salient emotion that I brought back from China. The human costs of China's success have, so far, not interfered with the continuation of that success. Nor has the corruption, which is inseparable from government-led economic success, so far impeded government efficiency significantly. But even a land as vast as China cannot go on forever polluting its air, distorting its economy, and killing its children, without facing disaster. Eventually, the black smoke will obscure even the brightest fireworks.

If the world is lucky, the coming Chinese collapse will be gradual.

Ed Lynch is John P. Wheeler professor of political science at Hollins University; he traveled to China in October on a tour organized by the Roanoke Regional Chamber of Commerce.

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