On the other hand, China's problems are complex and growing. As a result of economic hyper-expansion and ignoring the damage that was being done, China's economic, environmental, and social resilience has diminished.
Although the country has spent more money than any nation on land and water restoration, only about 11 percent of China's forests have healthy ecological functioning. The Chinese Academy of Sciences reports that 43 percent of surface water is too polluted to use, and 57 percent of urban groundwater— the primary source of drinking water for hundreds of millions of people — is also polluted, according to a 2014 Ministry of Environmental Protection study. Last summer, the Ministry of Environmental Protection released results of air quality studies from 74 cities showing that these urban areas had harmful levels of pollution. Couple of years ago the city of Harbin, population 11 million, was completely shut down as dense pollution reduced visibility to a few meters. Soil pollution is so extensive that the government considers data about it to be a state secret.
That's why it is not unsurprising to discover that environmental issues are now the number one cause for public protests in China - overtaking land and labor issues. China's leadership is now feeling intensifying public pressure to do something about the environment. Citizens forced the central government to act, for example to shutter coal plants in major cities and reduce the number of new cars allowed to be registered in Beijing and other metropolitan areas.
After decades of growth at all costs, China is now at a tipping point. The development and growth model of the last 35 years has been increasingly dependent on energy and pollution-intensive industries, so its about time to change and balance the environment and growth. At recent Party Plenum, the summary acknowledges general support for "ecological civilization" and party leaders have made it clear that they intend to rein in heavily polluting industries and coal-fired power plants. The party vowed to take strong steps to halt the rapid loss of arable land to urbanization, promising enhanced legal protection for farmers. Many of these reforms have been mentioned before, however, and it remains to be seen if they are accomplished. Nevertheless, unlike three decades ago, when all that mattered was the economy, today economic, ecological, and social reforms demand the same attention. Their relation would define China in the 21st century.
One thing is certain, China's environmental problems will not disappear soon. Therefore, for China the next 25-50 years will be crucial. The Communist Party is not going to suddenly ditch decades of faith in GDP growth. Economic reform will still be priority number one. What to watch for will be how new economic policies are coordinated with social and environmental reforms. China has already proven that it can build a powerhouse economy and pull hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. Now comes another huge challenge — constructing an adaptive state under 21st century conditions of decreasing resources, greater social inequality, and climate uncertainty. China must reboot its economy but also, establish environmental policies to reverse decades of decline.
What model of sustainability is optimal for China and in your opinion, is rapid and sustainable growth even possible?!