China’s Leadership Dilemma: Development Or Environment? – Analysis


By Gunjan Singh

The Chinese economy has been developing at a tremendous pace for the last three decades. The level of growth has been touching almost double digit figures. In 2010 China surpassed Japan and became the number two economy in the world. It also managed to lift a large number of its people out of poverty, a feat which is quite praise worthy. Apart from this it has also been developing its military capabilities at a break neck pace. However, this is just one side of the development story.

There has been a consistent increase in the environmental degradation, especially water pollution as the regional and provisional governments have been flouting the norms in order to push the economic development. This is primarily because of the fact that it is numbers and growth figures which matter most for the party and especially the provisional leaders when it comes to promotion within the party apparatus. Albeit in the changing circumstance, some developments in the Chinese society are threatening the control of the CCP.


In another shocking incident in the southern Chinese city of Hechi, cadium was released in the Longjiang river, as reported by the Xinhua. According to other media reports, “cadmium pollution in the upper Longjiang River posed a potential threat to the water supply in the downstream city of Liuzhou, which has 3.7 million residents. Cadmium is a highly toxic heavy metal used in batteries, electroplating and industrial paints. Exposure can lead to fatal liver and kidney damage.” According to China Daily, ‘the level of cadium was almost 80 times higher than the safer limit.’ After the incident, media reports suggest that seven people have been arrested in connection with this incident, and all happened to be executives in chemical companies around the region.

According to one official in the Ministry of Water Resources, Chen Mingzhong (quoted in “Water pollution is very serious in China now. Only about 46 per cent of the 178,000 kilometers of key rivers and lakes monitored by the ministry are up to standard on quality.” According to a 2010 CNN World report 40 per cent of Chinese people are concentrated in the north which is primarily a dry region. It further added that 250,000 people were short of clean drinking water.

What is surprising about these incidents is that the government always becomes proactive only after the damage is done. The major problem which China is facing isone where there is a need to balance environmental issues with development. There is a developing tendency in the CCP to push for development at any cost, primarily because they need the economic growth in order to sustain themselves in power. However if these kind of accidents and negligence continue to happen they might prove to be a major threat to the party’s hold on power as there is an increase in the discontent amongst the masses.

The sustained increase in the number of protests and demonstrations is a clear indication of this trend. The sheer negligence towards the health and life of the people is also affecting the overall ‘image’ of the party. The Chinese people are increasingly feeling ‘ignored’ due to the cost of development. Thus this thin line between fast pace economic development and environmental degradation is becoming a two-sided sword for the party. If they decide to slow down growth it will affect the overall economic situation and may affect the livelihood of the people and lead to further domestic problems. On the other hand, if the government decides to continue the level of growth it affects the people health and environment and thus leads to more antagonism.

It leads to further quandaries on what might happen if a number of regions suffer from environmental pollution and degradation at the same time and there is a rise of simultaneous people’s movement? Will the CCP be able to sustain itself and will blaming the lower level officials suffice. Till date the central leadership has done damage control by blaming the lower level leaders as being corrupt, inefficient and greedy. However the more these problems continue to persist in addition to the other problems which the Chinese society is facing (primarily, increasing unemployment, rising income inequalities, poor education and healthcare) it may be not be long before that the Chinese people start questioning the legitimacy of the party and the central leadership and start pushing for alternative system of governance.

The gravity of situation is clear to the CCP; the larger question is will the CCP ichoose to ignore or address it? According to China Daily, “Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao has pledged to unwaveringly push forward opening-up and reform in the face of current challenges and difficulties, while calling for protection of farmers’ rights to vote to improve rural community administration.” A clear indication that there is a growing concern within the leadership because of the rise of discontent among the people. If the CCP fails to come up with concrete solutions for the existing problems it may harm the party’s hold on power.

Gunjan Singh
Research assistant, IDSA
email: [email protected]


IPCS (Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies) conducts independent research on conventional and non-conventional security issues in the region and shares its findings with policy makers and the public. It provides a forum for discussion with the strategic community on strategic issues and strives to explore alternatives. Moreover, it works towards building capacity among young scholars for greater refinement of their analyses of South Asian security.

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