Chen Weihua

Boastful mayors overlook a bigger business

Updated: 2011-05-06 11:41

By Chen Weihua (China Daily)

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When a group of Chinese mayors met their American counterparts in Seattle recently, the mayors touted their cities' rapid economic growth, fast-improving infrastructure, the increasing number of direct foreign investment and their rich cultural heritage.

If they had come to the Emerald City 20 years ago, they would have probably marveled at the Space Needle and the 932-foot Columbia Center. But now all these Chinese cities - Shanghai, Chongqing, Xi'an, Wuxi and Weifang - boast as many, if not more, towers and skyscrapers. It is especially true for Shanghai, whose skyline rivals that of New York City.

But one important thing that the Chinese mayors failed to mention in their two-day talks was the level of environmental quality in their cities.

If they had just walked a few blocks from the Sheraton Seattle, where they stayed, to the Waterfront Park and looked ahead to Puget Sound, they might have felt the breeze caressing their faces. Some may even have wanted to cry gazing at the clear skies.

As a Shanghai native, I feel bound to talk about the environmental quality of the city. The country's economic hub and metropolis of 23 million people along the East China Sea just suffered a rare sandstorm recently. Even on an ordinary day, the sky often looks hazy and the air smells of car fumes.

If Mount Rainier were 50 miles from my high-rise apartment in Shanghai's city center, it would not be discernable because of the haze.

So it is perfectly okay for the Xi'an mayor to describe his city, home of the Terracotta Warriors, as China's Seattle because they both have strong aviation industries and are leaders in their countries in research and education. But the annual sandstorms and the occasional muddy rains in Xi'an sets it apart from pristine Seattle.

The growth potential of Chongqing touted by its vice-mayor is probably all true, but the largest city in Southwest China should first think about removing itself from the World Bank's list of the 20 most polluted cities in the world so that it's more on a par with Seattle, its sister city since 1983.

Wuxi, once known as the land of milk and honey, has for years been haunted by the blue and green algae pollution in Taihu Lake, China's third largest body of water. Over the years, billions of dollars have been poured into cleaning up the lake and more money will be spent in the coming years.

The mayor of seaside Weifang, known for its international kite festival, introduced its giant petrochemical complexes and strong fishing industry during the talks. But he clearly overlooked the air and ocean pollution by the breakneck economic growth in the city. The fragile ocean ecological system along China's coast is so overburdened that it literally won't be able to withstand any more pollution.

Here's an idea: If mayors from both Chinese and US cities at the meeting have not yet identified investment and trade opportunities and partnerships, perhaps they should look at the big business of environmental protection.

It is a huge and lucrative business to help improve the environmental quality of Chinese cities. It is an enormous market that has yet to be tapped.

The stories told by Chinese mayors are truly impressive. After enjoying double-digit GDP growth for the past three decades, Chinese cities have closed the gap with their US counterparts in economic strength. But one gap that is widening is environmental quality.

Even in New York, one of the most polluted American cities, Chinese visitors have been struck by the clear sky and fresh air. Thirty years ago, they would have marveled at the tall skyscrapers and great number of cars on the streets.

That is where the gap is and that is where business opportunities lie.

The author is deputy editor of China Daily USA. He can be reached at

(China Daily 05/06/2011 page7)


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