Why China Says Ozone Must Take Back Seat in Drive to Prosperity. WHAT PRICE PROGRESS?

MOUNTING international pressure to limit ozone-destroying gases has compelled China and many other developing countries to choose between prudence and prosperity. In Beijing, the choice is clear.

China cannot afford the high cost of substituting alternatives for industrial gases that erode the atmospheric ozone layer protecting earth from harmful ultraviolet radiation, according to Chinese officials. So, like countries already industrialized, it will risk damaging the environment in its drive for prosperity, they say.

Unless developed countries help it to switch to alternatives, China will continue making the destructive gases at a rate that could make it a major producer in the next decade, according to China's National Environmental Protection Agency. (See column on ozone `blackmail,' P. 18)

Representatives of 124 nations met earlier this month in London to accelerate the phase-out of chemical substances that break down the ozone layer.

The resolve of Chinese leaders to use chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) despite environmental and diplomatic costs reflects their desire to quickly build the economy. A strong economy is politically vital to communist leaders, who are trying to legitimize their rule in part by improving the livelihood of Chinese.

Even if Chinese leaders decide to limit CFCs, they would have trouble regulating the mushrooming of factories that have thrived by selling products which include the gases.

Chinese officials acknowledge that China could hurt itself by continuing to make CFCs.

``China has a very important reason to be concerned about the ozone layer - there are 1.1 billion Chinese so if the ozone layer breaks down, the one-fifth of the world's population that is Chinese will be hurt and we'll suffer the most,'' says Zhang Chongxian at the National Environmental Protection Agency.

But while Mr. Zhang says he and other scientists would like to see China curtail and even eliminate CFCs, he nevertheless acknowledges that the call for modernization is so irresistible that China will continue to produce these ozone-depleting chemicals.

Beijing called on industrialized nations earlier this month to fund efforts by developing countries to acquire technologies to replace CFCs with benign chemicals.

Noting that China accounts for less than 2 percent of the world's annual CFC production, Mr. Zhang said, ``developed countries are responsible for most of the damage to the ozone layer so they should do the most to clean up the problem.''

Although US and British officials have publicly supported China's proposal, the official newspaper People's Daily said Monday that ``industrialized countries have adopted a cold attitude to the request of third world countries for more international aid'' to adopt substitutes for CFCs.

Without the help of developed countries, China will continue to quickly expand the use of the harmful chemicals, Zhang said. China's production of CFCs totaled 44 million pounds last year and has jumped 20 percent annually this decade, according to the Chinese Research Academy of Environmental Sciences.

If this growth continues, China will be a major producer of the gases within a decade as many nations halve or halt their manufacture of CFCs by the year 2000, say Western diplomats and international aid officials.

China, India, and some other third world countries are reluctant to hinder the industries that use the gases to produce refrigerators, electronics, aerosol sprays, and other goods.

As with many other pollutants, CFC consumption levels offer an ugly measure of affluence. After a decade of economic reforms in China, the level of development in many areas is quickly rising toward the stage where consumption of CFCs takes off, according to Western diplomats and international aid officials.

Indeed, many Chinese economists point to refrigerator manufacturers, one of the biggest users of CFCs, as the bellwether in China's booming consumer-products sector. Scientists say refrigerators here are CFC polluters when manufactured, used, and disposed.

China produced 7.4 million refrigerators last year, 84 percent more than in 1987 and 133 times more than in 1981, the state statistical bureau says.

Spurning stagnant, state-run heavy industries, many local governments have invested in light industries like refrigerator factories which are comparatively free of state control.

In the Hangzhou area alone, the number of refrigerator factories has doubled to 60 since Beijing began efforts to strengthen state economic controls last September, says Wu Jinglian, executive director of the Economic, Social and Technological Research Center under the State Council.

The burgeoning of refrigerator factories, despite Beijing's intense drive to curb capital construction, reveals the challenge the state would face in restricting the use of CFCs.

Beijing is unlikely to have the power to eliminate the use of harmful gases in factories that it has been unable to stop from being built.

A state-approved effort to protect the ozone layer would open another front for already beleaguered environmental officials, Western diplomats say. These officials must struggle to regulate powerful industrial ministries as China storms into the second decade of its modernization drive at a double-digit rate of industrial growth.

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