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THE ASIA BOOM : Environment : Is Pollution the Price of Asia's Development? : China's rapid growth has many worried, recalling the early days of Japan's environmental problems.


MANANSHAN, China — From its hilltop perch overlooking the North China Plain, the Jietai Temple provides a stunning contrast between the ancient serenity of China and its modern industrial roar.

The dark wood and gray brick Buddhist temple, built in AD 622 during the Tang Dynasty, is a gracious retreat nestled in a pine and cypress grove 25 miles west of Beijing.

But on the plain 1,200 feet below, veiled by a thick cloud of sallow smoke, the massive Capital Iron & Steel Corp., cradle-to-grave workplace for 200,000 employees, works night and day to meet this booming nation's demand.

Steel production has helped China maintain its phenomenal rate of growth, a 40% expansion of the economy in just three years. But the sulfur dioxide emissions from the plant's coal-fired blast furnaces produce acid rain and make Beijing one of the most polluted major capitals in the world.

Just breathing the air for a day in Beijing, concluded one study, is the equivalent of smoking three packs of unfiltered cigarettes. According to a 1992 report by the World Bank, the concentration of sulfur dioxide is twice the recommended level; unburned particulate matter more than four times recommended amounts.

The environmental problems in China are not limited to Beijing or the major cities. Several of the main tributaries of the Yellow River, the lifeline of the North China Plain, are so polluted with chemicals that they can no longer be used for irrigation. Acid rain blackens crops throughout China and is such a danger that the Japanese and South Korean governments are increasingly concerned that it may reach their shores.

On a recent trip to a remote mountain area of southwest Sichuan province, Chinese photographer Gao Bo, back in China after five years in France, noticed a stunning transformation.

"Land that was once virgin forest was denuded," said Gao. "The land looked wounded. Not only were there no trees, there was nothing green."

Until recently, China has been slow to react to these warning signs. In general, people have been too busy enjoying the fruits of a booming economy to consider the environmental consequences.

"I think the basic problem with China is that people have totally misplaced expectations," commented Vaclav Smil, an environmental scientist at the University of Manitoba who has emerged as the Cassandra of the China boom. "They have this idea that they can become whatever they want. They are totally drunk with this 13% annual economic growth rate, and we in the West feed them. What they cannot see is that the growth is totally unsustainable."

Recently, however, senior Chinese officials appear to have heard the alarms raised by foreign environmentalists. At a Beijing conference, Xie Zhenhua, administrator of the Chinese Environmental Protection Agency, said the main threat to the Chinese environment was "irrational economic development that sacrifices the environment for advancement."

Assessing the environmental price of Asia's phenomenal development has become a front-burner issue as economic growth has soared. First there was Japan, rising like a phoenix from the ashes of World War II. Then it was the turn of the four little dragons--Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea--each one a small industrial powerhouse.

Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia came next, bringing double-digit growth to Southeast Asia. Finally, the great sleeping behemoth in the region, China, shook off ideology and isolation to join the rapid-growth club.

But every step forward seemed to have the potential of triggering two steps backward. How much does Malaysia's emergence, for example, cost in the destruction of some of the world's few remaining tropical rain forests? Is Taipei's impossible traffic and foul air justified by Taiwan's phenomenal growth?

As much as the world admires economic success stories, a handful of environmentalists and scholars have begun to ask tough questions about the price along the Pacific Rim.

"I believe that environmental constraints will soon affect China's economic growth," said Michel Oksenberg, president of the East-West Center in Honolulu. "They have already begun to affect quality of life."

Others contend that it is not too late for China and the other emerging Pacific Rim nations to learn from Japan, which began its industrialization without a glance at the environmental price.

Indeed, Japan provides an impressive model of blind growth giving way to ecological awareness.

From the days of the Meiji Restoration, which began in 1868, a national goal of "catching up with the West" was so fixed in Japanese minds that high school anthems were composed in praise of smokestacks.

Even the names of cities in Japan became associated with pollution. The mention of Kawasaki and Yokkaichi conjured up images of smog--and asthma and bronchitis. Water pollution spread virtually everywhere--in rivers, lakes and even the treasured Inland Sea.

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