Achemical spill on China’s Songhua River is a grim reminder of the costs attendant to China’s breakneck economic development. The release of toxic chemicals underscores three sets of challenges that China faces as it modernizes: environmental practices of its businesses, government’s response to the inevitable accidents, and the mounting environmental costs of China’s growth. All are related, and the Beijing government must better deal with each if it is to maintain the confidence of its citizens, its neighbors and the world.

An explosion Nov. 13 at a chemical plant run by the energy giant PetroChina near Jilin city released a toxic slick that has drifted past Harbin, nearly 300 km downstream and home to 9 million people. Reports that levels of benzene, a chemical used in plastic production, were more than 100 times the allowable levels, closed schools, forced the shutdown of the water supply and prompted a mass exodus.

There were fears that the spill would continue downstream to threaten the Russian city of Khabarovsk and the 1.5 million people that live in and around it.

As has so often been the case, the local government’s initial reaction to the incident was to cover it up. The explosion was not reported, and a week later, Harbin city officials shut down water mains, saying the action was taken for maintenance reasons. Rumors substituted for fact set off a panic. Two days later, after a series of contradictory statements by the city and PetroChina, Harbin officials admitted that the water had been polluted.

While all governments prefer to cover up bad news, the tendency is especially pronounced in China, because there are fewer checks and balances — considered unnecessary in a one-party state run by an infallible Communist Party — and because the country’s size means that local governments have considerable autonomy. The country’s international reputation and credibility have been badly bruised by the failure to come clean when SARS broke out a few years ago, and suspicions remain high that China is not being forthcoming when reporting cases of avian flu.

To their credit, President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao have made environmental protection and government transparency government priorities. Ensuring that local officials get the message — especially when they risk being punished when mistakes and mishaps are exposed — is another matter.

The difficulties in changing the official mind-set are magnified by the sheer scale of the problem. According to official Chinese figures, the government inspected 420,000 companies between May and September last year. It closed 2,682 companies for discharging liquid waste and asked 1,750 others to suspend production for treatment.

Pollution compounds the country’s water shortage: According to one estimate, 60 million Chinese have difficulty securing enough drinking water each day and 600 million drink contaminated water on a daily basis. Nearly half of China’s rivers are polluted.

Shocking though those numbers are, water pollution is only one of China’s environmental problems. Its air is among the worst in the world. According to the World Bank, 16 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities are in China. Acid rain blights one-third of Chinese agricultural land and desert, which comprise a quarter of the country, and is expanding annually.

The human toll is severe. As many as 300,000 Chinese die prematurely from diseases related to air pollution. Cancers and other diseases are abnormally high as a result of contaminated water. Over the next two decades, 30 million Chinese will be forced to migrate because of shortages of land or water.

It is tempting to see these as China’s problems alone: They are not. Because of China’s size, its problems affect its neighbors, too. Russia has learned this lesson as Khabarovsk awaited the benzene slick. Japan has too: Our forests are dying because of acid rain blown east from China. This is an opportunity for Japan, however, to draw on its experience with development and work with China to minimize the pollution and other side effects of modernization.

Working with China on these issues makes sense. It helps minimize damage to Japan. It offers economic benefits to Japanese companies that supply green technology. It facilitates engagement with China, an all-important consideration at a time of growing political tension between our two countries. And finally, there is the moral benefit from helping Chinese citizens protect themselves from a development process in which they are often mere spectators and victims. The Chinese government may be loath to admit it, but they need all help they can get.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.