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  • Writer's picturePre-Collegiate Global Health Review

China’s Struggle in Balancing the Environment and the Economy: Implications on Global Health

By Max Zukerman, Solon High School, Solon, Ohio, USA


Historically, China has taken a business-centric approach to growth, prioritizing its economy over its environment. However, recent geopolitical actions have prompted China to pass numerous climate reform policies. This paper aims to compare the effects of economic and environmental policies on health both within and outside of China’s borders. It can be determined that the status quo of China’s economic approach contributes to biodiversity loss and poverty in foreign nations. However, China’s proposed environmental approach may engender health risks and human rights violations within its borders. Ultimately, while current environmental policies are a step in the right direction, political reform is necessary to reduce corruption and protect public health.


The Traditional Approach

Over the past several decades, China has been on track to become at the forefront of economic control and global dominance. According to The World Bank, since China began to open up and reform its economy in 1978, GDP growth has averaged over 9 percent a year, and more than 800 million people have lifted themselves out of poverty. There have also been significant improvements in access to health, education, and other services over the same period (The World Bank, 2023). These findings are consistent with graphical analysis, as seen in Figure 1 below, depicting China’s annual Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth rate from 1961 to 2021. This consistently high growth rate has placed China among global economic superpowers like the United States.

Figure 1. GDP growth (annual %) - China (World Bank Open Data, 2021).

This growth, however, has not come without its costs.

One of China’s main sources of income is through its Belt and Road Initiative, or BRI, a project in which China loans money to other countries for infrastructure development. An estimate by Cheang Ming of CNBC totals Chinese investment under the BRI to 8 trillion dollars over 10 years (Ming, 2018). Naturally, China’s BRI targets countries in need of foreign aid, typically those with a poor domestic economy, such as Benin and Mali. This, however, burdens countries with unpayable debts. As Rob Garver writes, over a fourth of the countries to which China has given loans now carry debt to China greater than 10% of their GDP (Garver 21). This “debt-trapping” is inherent in China’s practice of overselling the benefits of foreign infrastructure, resulting in receiving countries unable to pay back their debts.

Unfortunately, the BRI causes a debt disaster across the globe. For instance, as executive director Chukwuka Onyekwena and senior researcher Mma Amara Ekeruche of the Centre for the Study of the Economies of Africa explained, 24 countries in Africa have been deemed highly vulnerable to economic changes due to the BRI’s implementation, drastically increasing the likelihood of a recession (Onyekwena & Ekeruche, 2019). Devastatingly, a study by Jed Friedman finds that during Africa’s last recession, 50,000 more infants died (Friedman, 2013).

The BRI also fuels biodiversity loss, as coal is a trademark of BRI energy. After over a decade of building factories and coal plants, coupled with China’s historic ignorance of environmental impact assessments, coal has become a staple in countries across Africa and the Middle East. A study by John Nagle finds that such growth results in massive species extinction, exerting relentless pressure on biodiversity (Nagle, 2009). Biodiversity loss has direct global effects on human life, as biodiversity is integral for food, nutrition, energy, development of medicines, freshwater supply, economic opportunity, less pollution, and overall wellbeing.

A Modern Solution?

In efforts to reverse China's ecological crisis, policies have been implemented at both the national and international level. Treaties like the Paris Climate Agreement place China in a position to pledge to give priority to environmental protection, with goals to eliminate air and water pollution as well as  bringing soil contamination under control. As the Chinese Embassy writes, China, as one of the first countries to sign and approve the Convention on Biological Diversity, has always attached great importance to biodiversity conservation (Chinese Embassy, 2021).

In theory, climate change policies like these are pivotal to resolving the issue. In practice, however, we see human rights violations and rampant health risks.

Human Rights Watch documents China’s discriminatory practices of monitoring, writing that the Chinese government has been exploiting environmental causes to consolidate political control and expand its power at the expense of human rights, namely through the usage of environmental policies to increase surveillance. For instance, one such policy utilizes cameras and facial-recognition software both domestically and in BRI-recipient countries to enforce recycling mandates, punishing or arresting those who fail to comply (Human Rights Watch, 2022).

Surveillance results in human rights abuses. For example, China uses surveillance to racially profile Uighur muslims, and due to surveillance, over a million Uighurs were placed into detention camps. Paul Mozur and Aaron Krolik of the New York Times also write that surveillance gives police vast powers, and thus, authorities have cracked down on many protests and arrested scores of activists, journalists, and citizens (Mozur & Krolik, 2019). Human rights violations like these pose health risks, as Amnesty International finds that those detained are held in harsh conditions and subjected to torture (Amnesty International, 2022).

Findings like these prove that regardless of China’s level of prioritization of the economy or the environment, health risks arise, largely due to China’s corrupt approaches to either solution. Fortunately, the United Nations have demonstrated that it is feasible to implement policies that promote a blend of both worlds without posing global health risks. For instance, the UN Secretary-General deemed China’s contributions in COP15 mutually reinforcing in terms of biodiversity and climate while eradicating poverty in all forms (United Nations, 2021).

While there is no simple solution to China’s sustainability dilemma, status quo political reform demonstrates that China is taking steps in the right direction. With consistent intentions to become the global economic leader, China continues to support environmental reform. Ultimately, regardless of China’s approach to tackling the climate crisis, political reform is necessary to protect public health.



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