Miracle and disaster as China grows rich

Boomtime for industry in China has brought health risks for the population, with frequent poisonings and accidents. But there are benefits as well.

Over 200 children were made ill over the weekend and 23 of them were taken to hospital. Why? They breathed in the lead fumes from a battery factory in a rural area of Eastern China; and this wasn’t unusual. On Thursday, a gas used to make pesticides and fertiliser affected 62 workers at another factory in the same area.

These are latest in a long line of incidents which have seen local people’s health damaged by Chinese industrial pollution.

China is a vast country with a population of 1.32 billion, and it’s getting richer at an astonishing speed. New factories are being built all the time to promote economic growth, with a steady movement of people from the countryside to the expanding towns and cities.

In many ways it’s an economic miracle. Three decades ago, 85% of China’s population lived in poverty. However, industrial development has brought enormous benefits for the population. Now only about 15% of the country is officially poor, with higher standards of living all round, and more widespread access to education.

But it’s a miracle that comes at a price. The environment is suffering damage that may take generations to repair, and the health of both industrial workers and those who live close by is at risk.

Unsurprisingly, the government has been reluctant to limit the number of new factories being built or crack down in other ways on pollution.

They believe that the people are pleased by increasing prosperity and proud of China’s new standing in the world. Their economic success is at the heart of this.

Meanwhile, local officials must take the blame for accidents. After this week’s battery factory gas leak, the head of the country’s environmental protection bureau was suspended from his job. The factory had been ordered to close back in August because it was too close to local homes; but the decision was not enforced.

Burden of achievement
“It is a very awkward situation for the country because our greatest achievement is also our biggest burden,” said Wang Jinnan, a Chinese environmental researcher. “There is pressure for change, but many people refuse to accept that we need a new approach so soon.”

Across China, local residents and factory workers are increasingly likely to protest against pollution. But the fact remains that rapid economic progress has lifted millions out of poverty and brought a higher standard of living.

Is it time for China’s rulers to set a different course and consider the human and environmental cost of such rapid industrialisation?

You Decide

  1. If you were the official in charge of a small village, where people were very poor, would you approve a new factory in the area if it brought jobs and wages but also pollution?
  2. China is the world’s largest producer of consumer goods for export to countries like the UK. Is the rest of the world also responsible for Chinese industrial pollution?


  1. Imagine the class is a group of workers at a factory with poor safety protection. You are worried about an accident. Have a vote to choose a student to represent the class and put your concerns, both in writing and face-to-face, to the factory owner.
  2. Do some research on China, then write a short essay entitled “China - Hero or Villain?”

Some People Say...

“Economic growth is the nearest thing China has to a state religion.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What is the problem?
Lax rules governing industrial safety, as well as poor enforcement of those rules, are causing as many as 10 accidents per month in Chinese factories.
What are the results?
Pollution, which harms the environment and the population. For example, China’s expansion is largely powered by coal, and coal-fired power stations produce toxic gases. Many of China’s cities are enveloped in smog.
How long has this been happening?
China has been going for growth since 1980, but the heavily polluting industrial development began in 1997 when a government policy used tax breaks and grants to encourage a manufacturing boom.
Is anyone reacting?
Local people have protested and even attacked factories which affect their health, and environmental activists risk arrest by identifying places where industrialisation is out of control. But local officials are often too focussed on growth to consider preventing pollution.


PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.