If you want to visit the front line of China's environmental struggle, there are lots of places to choose from. You could drop in on Changqing, in northwestern Shaanxi province, where on Aug. 17 hundreds of people stormed a smelting plant blamed for toxic emissions that left more than 850 children with lead poisoning. Or there's Wenping, in central Hunan province, where days later 1,300 children were found to have been sickened by pollution from a manganese factory.
When former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and philanthropic Chinese martial-arts star Jet Li made their own tour of inspection on Aug. 22, they chose a place that wasn't shrouded in toxic vapors or ravaged by illness. It was the bucolic village of Baigong, in southwestern Guizhou provincea community of blue skies, grape trellises, freshly painted houses and colorful sprays of drying peppers hanging from doorways. Where China's industrial wastelands symbolize its present and past, Baigong may be a tiny herald of the future: its streetlights are solar-powered under a program by Li's One Foundation and the nonprofit Climate Group, which Blair helped launch. "If all Chinese cities had these, we could save a lot of power," said Li. "And also provide a lot of employment," chimed in Blair.
In its breakneck quest for economic growth, the world's most populous nation has created no shortage of environmental disastersjust as other countries did when they, too, industrialized. But the Chinese people are growing impatient with the costs of unchecked development. Around the country, citizens are volunteering for cleanup projects. A small, courageous network of NGOs is naming and shaming the worst polluters. The huge number of pollution-related protestsan estimated 50,000 took place in 2005unambiguously demonstrates grass-roots resentment of the ecological burden of industrialization. So did a survey by the Pew Global Attitudes Project about a year ago, which found that some 80% of Chinese felt protecting the environment should be a prioritya stark contrast to the global perception of the Chinese as a people in feckless pursuit of wealth.
The drive toward development cannot be deniedafter the demise of Maoist ideology, growth is the key base of legitimacy for the ruling Communist Party. But it can be harnessed and made compatible with environmental protection. In the words of Shanghai-based environmental lawyer Charles R. McElwee, "the old-fashioned green" of money has become equated with "the new green" of such industries as alternative fuels and energy-efficient materials. That's not as far-fetched as it sounds. In fact, as the Climate Group outlined in an August report, China is already a global leader in environmental technology. It is the world's largest manufacturer of electric bicycles, and may dominate production of electric cars. Chinese factories churn out 30% of the world's solar panelsincluding those used in Baigong villageand the country is doubling its wind-power capacity annually. "This is not an issue of China's good faith," Blair told TIME. "China is doing an immense amount."
He's right. For one thing, the authorities are getting tougher on polluters. On Aug. 14, two factory officials, convicted of chemically tainting a water source for 200,000 residents of China's coastal Jiangsu province, were sentenced to six and 11 years in jail when previously they would have received little more than a fine. (The state-run Xinhua news service noted it was the first time defendants "were jailed on charges of spreading poison.") During his visit, too, Blair met with Premier Wen Jiabao and the chief engineer of the nation's efforts to develop environmentally friendly technology, Vice Premier Li Keqiang. He came away struck by the leadership's willingness to acknowledge the country's pollution woes. The central government has made the environment a key part of its next five-year economic plan, says Blair. "The environment is not a separate chapter," he insists. "It's the core narrative."
It needs to be. China's powerful National Development and Reform Commission and the Development Research Center of the State Council sponsored a recent report suggesting that if it took a number of aggressive measures, China, now the world's largest greenhouse-gas polluter, could hit an emissions peak in 2030 and then begin winding down. But if global warming is to be reversed, more than emissions control will be needed. Just as essential will be the further, rapid development of clean energy. And if the Chinese decide that there's good money to be made in that, you can be absolutely sure that it will happen.