[T]o forestall more serious, systemic environmental issues, Beijing will have to be preemptive rather than reactive with regulation. In everything from modernizing its recycling industry to improving regulations on rare earth mining, the costs of waiting and testing out new ideas are high. Especially in terms of human health, delays from experimenting with environmental reforms are almost guaranteed to be more harmful in the long run than the initial errors from launching untested policies.

via Taking the Leap on China’s Pollution Problem | The Diplomat

Quite a thought-provoking point here. The preferred method of rolling out new policy in China is to use caution and often involves pilot projects that are examined in great detail before launching nationwide.

This has served China quite well in areas like foreign investment, financial services, SOE reform and privatization, where slow and steady arguably avoided both a repeat of some of mistakes made by Russia in the 90s and minimized the boom-and-bust/stagnate cycles that have plagued Asia from the late 90s. (Folks from Morgan Stanley, Goldman, etc. would probably disagree, but that’s to be expected.)

But just because this approach to reform has been largely successful since the late 70s, should it be an ironclad rule? Are there exceptions, and if so, is pollution one of them?

I’m a big fan of the cautious approach (in-house lawyer, remember?), but it all comes down to timing. If caution with respect to environmental policy means that the air in Beijing will not be significantly cleaner until 2025, then I’d say the government needs to start taking a few more risks. If, however, we are looking at a 3-5 year cycle to settle on the best policies and ensure that things are done correctly, that doesn’t seem unreasonable.

One year would be better, I realize. Any delay is going to be bad news for folks with respiratory diseases, or that guy on the bus last weekend who sounded like he was hacking up his spleen. But too quick could lead not only to failure, but wasted time and economic downsides.

Best to get this right the first time around.

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