The World Bank conjured a daring finale to a conference it co-hosted in Beijing in March on pollution, staging a Chinese adaptation of a Henrik Ibsen play about a doctor trying to alert citizens to an environmental problem.
The doctor’s battle in An Enemy of the People to reveal the truth has striking parallels with efforts by reformers in China to force the authorities to be more open about the damage to the environment resulting from the pursuit of high-speed growth.
Few in the audience realised at the time just how striking the parallels were: a landmark report issued at the conference on the cost of pollution in China had been quietly, and substantially, cut under pressure from Beijing government ministries.
The excised material, about 30 per cent of the original report, detailed the number of premature deaths in China each year from air and water pollution.
Based on an epidemiological model used by the World Health Organisation, the report found that about 750,000 people die early every year in China because of the filthy air and water.
The officials in China’s State Environmental Protection Agency (Sepa) and health ministry who vetoed the publication of the report’s full findings may have been most disturbed by a map accompanying the findings.
This gave a detailed regional breakdown of the deaths, with most clustered in China’s coal-belt in the north-west.
But, according to an adviser to the study, the World Bank was told by Chinese officials that it could not publish the information because it was deemed too sensitive and could thus cause “social unrest”.
An increasing number of local protests in China in recent years have been provoked by local environmental degradation, commonly against factories that have polluted surrounding farmland or water supplies.
The Chinese stance nonetheless appears to have taken the World Bank by surprise, especially as Sepa and Pan Yue, its high-profile deputy director, have increasingly used publicity to force through tougher environmental rules.
In a speech in April, Mr Pan said: “The public will lose confidence in the government if they do not have information and cannot express their concerns. Social stability may be affected as rumours spread out.”
The demand that the report be cut clearly irked the bank. The report says “it is critically important that existing water, health and environmental data be made publicly available”.
After demanding the material be cut from the written report, health ministry speakers at the conference surprised and puzzled foreign researchers by including the details about premature deaths in their verbal presentation.
It is not clear whether the health ministry officials revealed this information inadvertently. The ministry and Sepa both declined to comment.
The Chinese side had been enthusiastic about the research project. Guo Xiaonmin, a retired Sepa official who co-ordinated the work, said China had been doing research on the cost of pollution for 20 years but a “lack of methodology” had produced substandard results.
The report’s findings were not all gloomy. By some standards, the quality of the air in Chinese cities has improved in recent years. Even so, Chinese cities are among the most polluted in the world.
To calculate levels of air pollution, the biggest killer, the report uses the globally recognised measure – which looks at the concentration of particulates measuring less than or equal to 10 microns per cubic metre of air.
Only 1 per cent of Chinese urban residents live in cities with concentrations of such particulate matter below 40 microgrammes per cubic metre of air. The WHO guideline sets the bar at 20 microgrammes.
In 2003, 58 per cent of Chinese city dwellers were exposed to particulate matter of more than 100 microgrammes, “twice the annual average standard in the US”, the report says.
“This has huge costs,” said Gavin Fisher, a New Zealand-based air pollution consultant who has worked in China.
“Most developed countries will adopt the WHO guideline over the next few years but it will be decades before China can hope to get there.”