The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenge to China's Future


China's spectacular economic growth over the past two decades has dramatically depleted the country's natural resources and produced skyrocketing rates of pollution. Environmental degradation in China has also contributed to significant public health problems, mass migration, economic loss, and social unrest. In The River Runs Black, Elizabeth C. Economy examines China's growing environmental crisis and its implications for the country's future development.

Drawing on historical...

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China's spectacular economic growth over the past two decades has dramatically depleted the country's natural resources and produced skyrocketing rates of pollution. Environmental degradation in China has also contributed to significant public health problems, mass migration, economic loss, and social unrest. In The River Runs Black, Elizabeth C. Economy examines China's growing environmental crisis and its implications for the country's future development.

Drawing on historical research, case studies, and interviews with officials, scholars, and activists in China, Economy traces the economic and political roots of China's environmental challenge and the evolution of the leadership's response. She argues that China's current approach to environmental protection mirrors the one embraced for economic development: devolving authority to local officials, opening the door to private actors, and inviting participation from the international community, while retaining only weak central control.

The result has been a patchwork of environmental protection in which a few wealthy regions with strong leaders and international ties improve their local environments, while most of the country continues to deteriorate, sometimes suffering irrevocable damage. Economy compares China's response with the experience of other societies and sketches out several possible futures for the country.

This second edition of The River Runs Black is updated with information about events between 2005 and 2009, covering China's tumultuous transformation of its economy and its landscape as it deals with the political implications of this behavior as viewed by an international community ever more concerned about climate change and dwindling energy resources.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"The statistics and the anecdotes recounted in The River Runs Black are worse than ominous: China has six of the ten most polluted cities in the world; just by breathing, some children are smoking the equivalent of two packets of cigarettes a day; acid rain affects a third of the territory; more than three-quarters of the river water flowing through urban areas is unsuitable for drinking or fishing; each year, 300,000 people die prematurely as a result of air pollution; in one part of Guangdong Province, where circuit boards had been processed and burned, level of lead in the water were 2,400 times the guideline level set by the World Health Organisation."—Financial Times, 26 June 2004 (reviewing the first edition)

"As described by Elizabeth Economy, the scale of China's environmental degradation is shocking. Her book is particularly strong in its examination of the peculiarly Chinese reasons—beyond the country's rapid development and huge population pressure—that lie behind this: the leadership's obsession with short-term growth to preserve social stability, whatever the ultimate cost, is one; the weak rule of law and a tradition of devolving power to the regions, where watchdogs and polluters are often in collusion, is another."—The Economist, 10 July 2004 (reviewing the first edition)

"In Taiyun, a coal-producing region, water scarcity meant the city had the stark choice of moving 3 million people, shutting down heavy industry, or diverting a major river. It chose the last option. Water shortages also mean crop losses. In Qianghai, some 2,000 lakes and rivers have dried up, with serious implications for the flow of the crucial Yellow River. Already a quarter of China, about the size of the United States, is desert. Air pollution is also serious, creating health problems that mean days lost on the job. Beijing roads carry 2 million cars now, with 3 million predicted for next year. Traffic cops, breathing foul air, live 40 years on average. That's some of the environmental damage toted up by Elizabeth Economy, author of The River Runs Black."—Christian Science Monitor, 29 April 2004 (reviewing the first edition)

"Economy examines the historical, political, cultural, and bureaucratic issues that will affect China's ability to meet the needs of its people and its environment. . . . She concludes that China's environment has paid 'a terrible price' as the country has turned from a nation in poverty to an economic power. It is possible, but by no means certain, she says, that it will be able to repair the damage or even to slow the degradation."—Chronicle Review, 18 June 2004 (reviewing the first edition)

"According to The River Runs Black, an outstanding new book by Elizabeth Economy, . . . five of China's biggest rivers are 'not suitable for human contact.' . . . According to Economy, Li Xioping, executive producers of 'Focus,' a Chinese investigative news program, says peasants now come to the 'Focus' studios to beg them to investigate environmental problems caused by local officials."—Joshua Kurlantzick, The New Republic, 30 August 2004 (reviewing the first edition)

"Elizabeth C. Economy's book hits my 'Top Ten' list from the day it is published. It is a clear and compelling reminder that no engagement with China—commercial, diplomatic, cultural, intellectual—can afford to ignore China's vast environmental dilemmas and the deep social, economic, and political structural problems that make environmental salvation an uncertain enterprise at best. The case for international engagement with China emerges even more strongly from this book; the case for 'irrational exuberance' is dashed to smithereens."—Robert A. Kapp, President, US-China Business Council (reviewing the first edition)

"Rivers run black, deserts advance from the north, and smoky haze covers the country. Elizabeth C. Economy both provides a gripping account of a severely degraded environment and thoughtfully analyzes what could be China's most important challenge in the twenty-first century."—Gordon G. Chang, author of The Coming Collapse of China (reviewing the first edition)

"Elizabeth C. Economy captures extraordinarily well the complex historical, systemic, political, economic, and international forces that are shaping China's environmental outcomes. No other volume on this enormously important issue is as comprehensive, balanced, and incisive. True to her deep understanding of the crosscurrents of China's present environmental efforts, Economy is agnostic about which of three startlingly different futures will come to pass. Her book enables us to understand both the potential for each of these futures and the means to lessen the chances of environmental meltdown on the Chinese mainland."—Kenneth Lieberthal, Professor of Political Science and Professor of International Business at the University of Michigan (reviewing the first edition)

"Elizabeth C. Economy has written a well-researched analysis of the environmental degradation that has occurred in China and its implications for the rest of the world. This book will provide critical guidance for the United States and other nations to pursue enlightened policies that will help the Chinese address our mutual environmental problems."—Theodore Roosevelt IV, environmentalist and Chair of Strategies for the Global Environment (reviewing the first edition)

Foreign Affairs
This is an excellent introduction not only to the beliefs and practices of the Falun Gong, but also to the long history of secret societies and millenarian movements in China. Chang believes that Westerners tend to belittle the movement when they suggest that it consists of not much more than harmless group exercise. She details the efforts of the Chinese state to suppress the Falun Gong and spells out the cosmology of the movement's founder and master, Li Hongzhi, and its roots in Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. The core idea-that the end of the human race is near-is hard for Westerners to take seriously. But Chang gets past this problem by laying out the Falun Gong's belief system as an anthropologist would. Her review of the history of secret societies in China, meanwhile, makes clear why the government takes the movement so seriously.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780801476136
  • Publisher: Cornell University Press
  • Publication date: 7/28/2010
  • Series: Council on Foreign Relations Book Series
  • Edition number: 2
  • Pages: 360
  • Sales rank: 831,094
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Table of Contents

1. The Death of the Huai River

2. A Legacy of Exploitation

3. The Economic Explosion and Its Environmental Cost

4. The Challenge of Greening China

5. The New Politics of the Environment

6. The Devil and the Doorstep

7. Lessons from Abroad

8. Avoiding the Crisis



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