By William Pesek

China has 1.3 billion people and 10 percent economic growth and wage increases, putting the most populous nation on the cusp of a "Henry Ford moment."

In recent years, China took a page from the industrialist who built Ford Motor Co. In 1914, Ford doubled the average automaker's wage to $5 a day, making his Model T more affordable to them. It provided a model for a stable workforce that formed the core of the U.S. middle class, and now it's offering one to an economy that eventually may eclipse America's.

Yet there's a dark side to rising Chinese wealth. The question is whether the air in cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Chongqing is ready for hundreds of millions of vehicles churning out emissions. More bluntly, will China literally choke on its economic success? It's an issue that deserves far more attention.

Europeans polluted plenty while industrializing in the 19th century; Americans did more than their share in the 20th, and still do with their sport-utility vehicles and failure to get serious about the risks of climate change. Shouldn't Chinese, Indians and other developing Asians have the right to pollute just as much? In a perfect world, yes. It's unclear, though, that Earth can withstand billions of Asians consuming the way the West did.

Consider, for a moment, the biggest economic-development excesses over the last two centuries, factor in a population the size of China's, and you get a sense of the magnitude of Beijing's environmental challenge. There were 4.8 million vehicles on Beijing roads last year, triple the number in 2000.

A Dec. 16 Bloomberg News story dramatizes China's death-by-air risks. It details a growing body of evidence showing dirty air not only triggers asthma and other respiratory conditions, but over time it may damage heart and blood vessels, and even cause birth defects.

Outdoor air pollution kills 1.3 million people globally each year, the World Health Organization estimates. In a 2009 study, the Asian Development Bank predicted pollution will cost economies like Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines as much as 6.3 percent of gross domestic product by the end of the century. Such numbers are a harbinger of trouble for Asia.

Rising wages and consumers coming into their own is a natural part of an economy's maturity, something Henry Ford showed America. In China's case, though, the ride could be a bumpy one.

(William Pesek is a Bloomberg View columnist.)

-0- Dec/16/2011 15:42 GMT