Through the Smoke

China Embraces Sustainability—One City at a Time

When China announced last November that it would impose strict new fuel-economy standards for small cars and minivans, it was only one sign that the world’s most populated country is headed down a more sustainable path—while the U.S. moves in the other direction.

"China’s economic development is happening so fast that it’s suffering in 40 years what the U.S. suffered over 150 years," says Rick Schulberg, director of the China-U.S. Center for Sustainable Development. Chinese cities choke under thick clouds of smog. But when it comes to the government’s newly aggressive pursuit of sustainable policies (and enthusiastic notice in the official press), Schulberg says China beats the U.S. hands down.

One of the best places to view sustainability, the Chinese way, is in Suzhou, a rapidly expanding city of 2.2 million people located just 40 miles from Shanghai. In the first place, the city provides a textbook case of China’s rapid and lucrative expansion. Last year, the city’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) was $22 billion; this year it’s $27 billion. In 2003 alone, Suzhou has attracted an estimated $5.3 billion in foreign investment.

In the 21st century, Suzhou is one huge construction zone. As residents grumble about the disruptions to their daily lives, government officials are investing billions of dollars in massive public works projects: building ring highways, widening roads and alleyways, laying more than 50 miles of sewage and rainwater pipes, landscaping the city’s myriad canals, renovating and building housing complexes and breaking ground on the first of four planned light rail and subway lines.

To the west and east of the city, where two industrial parks are growing by nine miles a year, centuries-old villages are being bulldozed to make room for 20-story apartment buildings, foreign-owned mega-corporations, landscaped parks and western-style subdivisions. "Development," reads a Suzhou billboard, "is an Immutable Truth."

Local officials admit that Suzhou has a long way to go before environmental protection measures, technology and public awareness catch up with the city’s booming economy, especially when it comes to the commandeering of agricultural lands by the special development zones.

But as one of 10 nationally designated "model environmental cities," Suzhou also points to a second wave of Chinese urbanization—one that isn’t inextricably linked to social and ecological devastation. Indeed, sustainability has become something of a mantra in Suzhou. Many of its green initiatives—such as relocating polluting industries outside of the city (away from waterways), and a pilot project requiring local taxis to run on natural gas—move beyond comparable strategies in the United States.

"One of our goals is to build an eco-city," says Suzhou Mayor Yang Weize, pulling out his business card, printed on recycled paper. "With rapid growth in industrialization and population comes great responsibility to pursue environmentally friendly development. We should not use the land that belongs to the next generations."

With a 2,500-year history, Suzhou is one of China’s oldest cities, showcasing whitewashed houses and cobblestone streets that line a network of canals. The city is internationally renowned for its classical gardens and silk and embroidery industries—a combination of history, culture and greenery that officials say makes Suzhou the perfect place to model a livable community. "We are a tourism city, so we want to keep the city beautiful," says Wang Cheng Wu, vice director of the Environmental Protection Bureau.

Government officials say Suzhou’s top priorities are to develop a public transportation and alternative energy infrastructure and to continue ongoing clean-up of the city’s polluted air and waterways. Today, only 25 percent of the city’s residential wastewater is treated before being dumped in the canals. That figure will triple by 2005, when the city adds capacity and builds new sewage treatment plants.

As for air pollution—progress in industrial clean-up is now up against the automobile. Five years ago, there were 30,000 cars in Suzhou. Today, there are 150,000, with an additional 150 being sold every day. "Because the government encouraged private enterprise, the age of cars arrived sooner than we expected," says Jiang Renjie, vice mayor of transportation.

Beginning to reverse policies encouraging residents to buy automobiles—known here as "city babies"—Suzhou is now hyping its comprehensive light rail project. "We understand that rail is a public facility and at first it will lose money," Jiang says of the $13 billion project. The increase in land prices along the rail lines, he said, will eventually pay for the project.

Evidence of Suzhou’s livability includes the seven-story height limit on buildings in the city’s center, the "water is the people’s resource" signs in hotels and restaurants, and the solar water heaters vendors hawk outside the People’s Department Store. Recyclers pay or barter with residents to pick up their newspapers, bottles and styrofoam. The government is phasing out gasoline-powered motorcycles by the year 2007, and there are plans for a network of battery exchange and disposal centers to serve the burgeoning electric bicycle/moped market.

If there is one fundamental contradiction associated with China’s sustainable development, it’s the rapid advance of the country’s special economic zones. In Suzhou, the city’s National New and Hi-Tech Development Zone (SND) and the Suzhou Industrial Park (SIP) are forcing relocation of hundreds of farmers and paving over hundreds of square miles of green space. Over the next few years, the SND will grow from 20 to 99 square miles, overtaking four villages.

Because China didn’t create a Ministry of Land and Resources until 1998, says Schulberg, the country’s land use and preservation policies are behind the curve compared to air and water pollution clean-up. In Suzhou, officials admit that the idea of an urban growth boundary, to preserve agricultural lands, has yet to penetrate the civic consciousness.

Still, SND and SIP have won numerous national and international environmental awards. And inside the SND is an "environmental business incubator," made up of 50 small R&D firms. According to Yang, the next step for Suzhou is to develop a recycling infrastructure. China took a step in that direction this year, when it enacted a series of environmental laws to promote clean production, pollution control and a "circular" (recycling) economy. And what does Yang think of Bush administration environmental policies? "China," he says diplomatically, "should not make the same mistakes as the United States."