By now it should be clear that China is the big story of the 21st century, in geopolitics generally and global environmental health in particular. Last week saw yet more news of grassroots protest in the country, this one “improperly handled” by police, who killed up to 20 villagers.

The general outline of China’s story is one of rapid economic growth, rapid growth of environmental degradation, rapid growth of political dissent, and genuine uncertainty about whether the communist government can keep all these balls in the air without a) acceding to democracy, or b) imposing harsh, country-wide political suppression.

It’s hard to overstate the degree of complexity and uncertainty involved here, or the stakes. Depending on where you look, you can find signs that economic growth will continue or run up against hard limits, that environmental degradation will accelerate or that the government will leapfrog past the woes of West’s industrialization, that political unrest will spread out of control or calm down as prosperity spreads, that the government will lose control or manage the transition smoothly.

Nobody really knows, and as Gristmill readers will recall, the experts’ predictions are no more likely to come true than those of a reasonably educated observer.

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That said, I commend you to this post from Anne-Marie Slaughter (or rather, a unnamed friend of hers who lives in China and works in the environmental movement there). It’s a great rundown of the role environmental issues are playing in China’s political dynamic.

A long excerpt is below the fold, but you should, as bloggers are so fond of saying, read the whole thing.

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Consider the three biggest China-related stories in the foreign press over the last two weeks. A petrochemical explosion north of the city of Harbin left millions without water for several days. At least three separate coalmine accidents left over 200 workers dead. And police and paramilitary forces shot and killed up to 20 people in Guangzhou after residents of the village of Shanwei protested the construction of a power plant on their land–the largest (known) use of anti-demonstration violence since Tiananmen. The first two incidents have been widely discussed in the Chinese media; the last has been predictably suppressed.

These stories have several important similarities.

First, all arose from the challenges of rapidly developing a country of 1.3 billion people with limited natural resources–in these cases, energy resources. …

Second, none of what’s happened is directly Beijing’s fault. Each of these cases was caused and/or exacerbated by the incompetence, corruption, or lawlessness of local or provincial governments. …

Third, local bungling has caused Beijing to lose face in each of these cases. …

These events don’t just embarrass Beijing; they challenge the CCP’s legitimacy. Having given up on Maoist ideology, the CCP casts itself at a competent developmentalist regime that can make Chinese people richer while preserving social stability–the Singapore model. Unfortunately, as incidents like these demonstrate, the strategies used successfully in a city state of 4 million may have limited application in a vast, heterogeneous country of 1.3 billion. Case in point: the CCP counted over 74,000 incidents of social unrest last year, many of them likely similar to the power plant protest in Shanwei, though probably less extreme. When local governments mess up, the whole system is blamed.

But don’t look for environmental problems and social unrest to bring down the CCP just yet. …