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Environmental Problems Remain Incompletely Addressed

Although the government has attempted to address environmental problems seriously, such efforts have not always been successful. Sometimes, this was because the solutions were insufficient, and sometimes this was because the effects of climate change were worse than anticipated.

One major issue was water. Two of the three branches of the South-North Water Diversion Project, an ambitious plan to bring water to the northeast of the country, had opened prior to the financial crisis (Kuo, 2014; Zhao, 2014), but water supplies in the source provinces had begun to dry up as well. With GDP growth down from previous levels, increasing water prices to encourage conservation was too politically dangerous. That continued overuse of water, combined with rainfall below historical norms, made water scarce in the northeast, including Beijing. Although strict limits on water use have helped a little, they were also too little too late, and officials now anticipate that more and more people will move out of the region. Some have already begun to do so.

Activists were able to secure some meaningful changes in water-discharge enforcement, which improved water quality but did not address the issue of scarcity. These limits have dampened the previously high growth in some manufacturing industries, so they have not been universally praised.

Another issue was food safety, much of which was linked to soil contamination. After several well-publicized scandals involving tainted food, people began protesting. These drew more government response than previous demonstrations had as the government sought to hang on to its legitimacy. One response was more transparency in information related to soil pollution levels, and, by the late 2020s, many major cities had brownfield programs to clean up contaminated lands previously occupied by factories.

China did pass major climate legislation in 2020, including both an emission-trading system and a carbon tax. However, implementation of its many provisions was slow, so public could not see the anticipated effects on air quality right away, despite the enormous publicity around the law's adoption. People remained somewhat skeptical that real changes would take place. Even though government data showed improvements in air quality, many believed that the numbers were not totally reliable.

A final challenge has been the increase in severe storms along the Pearl River Delta, which have caused widespread flooding in cities on multiple occasions. Official responses have included stronger building codes—it became obvious after one flood that more people would have survived had their apartment buildings been better able to withstand the pounding winds—and more-stringent enforcement. But little has been done to advance a more permanent solution of restricting development in those areas most vulnerable to flooding.

The Population Barely Grows, but Urbanization Continues

The population in 2030 is just shy of 1.4 billion; the average growth rate since 2014 has been 0.18 percent, continuing its previous decline. At some point in the not-too-distant future, the overall population will likely begin to decline, but that point is probably five to ten years away. Despite higher incomes, people did not rush to take advantage of the liberalization of the one-child policy in the 2010s; many struggled to earn enough to provide for one child amid rising housing prices, costs of living, and competition for the best schools. Even if the fertility rate had increased, given the existing structure, the population would have continued to age.

Urbanization has continued, although the growth has been more in the inland cities than in the coastal ones. In part, this is because of the environmental problems in the northeast, and in part it is because some manufacturing jobs have shifted toward central and eastern regions.

The problem of highly unequal income distribution also continues. Although the economy has improved overall since the problems of the late 2010s, much of the gains have gone to the wealthiest 10 percent of the population. The 30 percent of the Chinese population who live in rural areas continue to seriously lag behind their urban counterparts in income. New migrants to cities have found that wages for lower-skilled work have not increased much, leaving them far behind urban workers in professional occupations. This explains how what many observers think is a respectable rate of GDP growth coexists with stubborn poverty.

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