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Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau's choice of China in response to the question, "Besides Canada, which nation's administration do you most admire?" was astounding on many levels. One is China's record of persecuting its critics, including environmental activists. That makes Mr. Trudeau's reason for choosing China – "because their basic dictatorship is allowing them to actually turn their economy on a dime and and say, 'we need to go greenest, fastest" – even more bizarre.

His utterances came in the same week as news reports that an eight-year-old girl in Jiangsu province had become the youngest person in the country to be diagnosed with lung cancer linked to air pollution. Like hundreds of millions of other Chinese, that little girl is breathing air with dangerously high carcinogenic levels, due mainly to the burning of coal. China's coal consumption has quadrupled since 1990 and is now almost equal to the combined total of all other countries. And its coal is dirty, producing a toxic brew of particulates and gases.

Last January, parts of Beijing experienced particulate levels that were 40 times higher than the World Health Organization's safety limit. Recently, in the northern city of Harbin, visibility was reduced to a few metres due to particulates. A study by the American National Academy of Sciences concluded that air pollution in northern China reduces life expectancy by more than five years. Yet, every week, a new coal fired power plant starts up.

Cleaning up China's air is a huge and urgent challenge. But water may be its most intractable environmental problem. Eighty per cent of its water is in the south where the mighty Yangzi River flows. But half of China's population and two-thirds of its farmland is in the dry north, mainly in the Yellow River basin. The Yellow River Conservancy Commission has found that, along one-third of its length, the country's "mother river" is too polluted for even agricultural use. Water for agricultural irrigation is under severe pressure, leading to unsustainable draws from regional aquifers and dropping the water table by an alarming 300 metres in the past two decades.

Rapid industrial growth in developing countries is inevitably hard on the environment. But China's "basic dictatorship" administration that Mr. Trudeau admires has made the problem much worse than it should have been. Corruption within the top ranks of the Communist Party is legendary, but most decisions about industrial development are made at the regional level. As a senior Chinese banker told me during a business trip to the country, "China is mostly run by the mayors."

The "mayors" include provincial and county party secretaries, who often become wealthy by ignoring environmental edicts issued in Beijing. While the central government has tightened stack-gas cleanup requirements for new coal-fired power plants, many of those startups are no cleaner than the old ones because local officials pocketed bribes to look the other way. Worse are the factories that contaminate farmland and pollute water supplies as corrupt local officials collude with unscrupulous businessmen to avoid Beijing's rules.

The first Chinese protests against polluting power plants and factories were crushed with an iron hand. But the growing numbers of people who are farming contaminated land, drinking polluted water and breathing toxic air is spawning widespread unrest that could threaten the rule of the Communist Party.

Beijing seems serious about attacking both the pollution problem and the culture of official corruption and dysfunction that fuels it. But unless the central government cracks down on a system that sees regional officials enrich themselves by ignoring environmental laws, little progress will be made.

Real change in any organization must start at the core. Elimination of regional corruption is high unlikely unless Premier Li Keqiang lives up to his pledge to clean up corruption in Beijing. In the end, it is people who will ultimately force the political elite to repent. It had better happen soon. China's environmental crisis is nearing the point of no return.