When China is unable to solve their environmental dilemma

Philip Hinkes

Modern Asia D

Final Digital Essay

May 2015

My father used to joke with me, “Philip, in China, if you’re one in a million there are over a thousand of you.” Although comical, this line is very true as 1.357 billion people live in China. China’s enormous population is both a blessing and a curse, and the people’s well being should be of paramount importance as China moves forward. Sadly, however, as China’s environment has declined, so has the overall condition of the 1.357 billion.

Although most are familiar with China’s urban pollution, many are unaware of China’s rural pollution crisis that has put many villagers in harms way. The air throughout the rural areas is far from pure, and there even exist areas that have a substantially higher pollution rate than the norm. As a result, areas have developed where there exist “Patterns of illness among populations ....particularly around chemical industry installation” (Pollution and Health in China: Confronting the Human Crisis). Many experts have dubbed these areas “Cancer Villages”, as the residents tend to suffer from cancer-like illnesses.

Cancer Villages. Digital image. Welbo. Global Times, n.d. Web.

As can be seen in the photo provided, “Cancer Villages” are not only prevalent, but spreading throughout China. Aside from cancer, many villagers suffer from lead poisoning (which stems from the use of lead in the factories) that damages their livers and kidneys. Not only are villagers sick, but outside the “Cancer Villages” there is a lack of water and food. According to new studies, 300 million rural residents do not have access to safe drinking water (Chinese Fortune Environment) and this staggering statistic is just the tip of the dirty iceberg for China’s water debacle. Furthermore, in many Chinese villages, the soil has been contaminated by cadmium, which has stemmed from the increase of “dumping” chemicals in adjacent water bodies. In the rice today, Cadmium levels are more than 0.5 mg per kg, with the international limit being 0.4 mg per kg. (The Victims of Chinas Soil Pollution Crisis). Not only are China’s rural environmental issues severe, but they will not be solved.

The rural pollution is prevalent, yet China is not/will not stop its festering. In the short term, China is not addressing the issue. For example, in a small village on the outskirts of Hangzou, the Chinese government attempted to build a garbage incinerator plant that would have produced dangerous toxins. Villagers who feared they would be harmed by these toxins rioted, riots that resulted in “Dozens of overturned and burned cars....10 residents and 29 police officers were hurt in the melee” (China’s Air Pollution Protests Grow increasingly Violent).

A Damaged Car following Protests. Digital image. Getty Images. Angnees French Press, n.d. Web.

Instead of listening to the protestors initially peaceful protests, the Chinese government refused to budge and continued to build the factory. Subsequently, the conflict escalated and many were unnecessarily hurt. Sadly, this village is not an anomaly and is one of many villages that are neglected by the Chinese Government. In my opinion, the Chinese Governments’s disregard for peasant colonies stems from the old practice of Confucianism. For thousands of years, the Qing bureaucracy lived by Confucianism, a “Code of Ethics” that put great emphasis on the class structure. In the system, the rich existed at the top of the pyramid while the poor were shoved to the bottom.

Role of Key Groups in Ancient Chinese Society. Digital image. Asian Civilization Museum. N.p., n.d. Web.

Double standards for the rich and the poor could be as easily seen as the black and white of Yin and Yang.

The Solution to Achieving Gender Diversity. Digital image. Huffington Post. N.p., n.d. Web.

After the Qing fell, however, Mao Zedong tried to expunge all traces of Confucianism with his “flipping of the Class Pyramid” and Cultural Revolution, “The struggle of the proletariat against the old ideas, culture, customs, and habits left over by the exploiting classes for over thousands of years will necessarily take a very long time. Therefore, the Cultural Revolutionary groups.... should not be temporary....but permanent,” (Decision of the Central Committee). Yet despite Mao’s efforts, thousands of years could not be reversed in a few decades, and to this day there still exist undertones of Confucianism in Chinese Society. Hence, the upperclass and government (those that have the capacity to stop the pollution) still treat the lower class (those that are most affected by the pollution) as superfluous. It’s hard to want to change the environment when the people who are being most harmed by it (at least for now), are rural farmers you care nothing about.

Another problem pertaining to the environment that has its origins in Confucianism is China’s intransigence and self-righteousness. Confucianism puts China on a pedestal at the “center of the world” and thus creates an aura of superiority. For example, the Chinese refused to engage in trade with the British as they were “heathens” not worthy of China. It took two Opium War losses, humiliation with the Treaty of Shimonoseki, and a great deal of conflict in-between for the Chinese to finally change their ways. Mao was far from a Confucianist, but he too suffered from the affliction of recalcitrance. Only after hundreds of thousands of infants had died and tree bark had become a staple food did he realize his economic plans were abysmal. Mao also viewed China’s bordering nations as threats, instead of potential allies.

While Xi Jingping’s government is not the Qing dynasty, nor Mao, it still suffers from a similar unwillingness to change and hubris its predecessors did. Xi Jingping’s government, like with the village outside of Handzou, does not listen to its people’s concerns nor desires. It almost seems Jingping does not even want to hear his constituents, as many citizens, like the man in The Victims of China’s Soil Pollution Crisis, are afraid to give out their real names for fear of possible repercussions. Aside from the macro-confucian issue that is amplifying the environmental problem, the polices and sanctions that are being put into place are few and far between.

Air Pollution Linked to 1.2 Million Premature Deaths in China. Digital image. New York Times. Aly Song/reuters, n.d. Web

China’s inability to solve their environmental woes will have severe consequences on their society. China is running out of clean water. Along with the 300 million rural residents who don’t have access to clean water mentioned earlier, there is a greater issue of clean water throughout China, “Five out of nine bays....extremely poor (condition)....10 major river basins show that 40% of water was polluted...55% of the underground drinking water in 200 cities is polluted,” (Chinese Fortune Environment) Water is crucial to any civilization, and given China’s lack of action towards its water issue, the situation will undoubtably get worse.

Apple Chinese Suppliers in Trouble for Environmental Pollution. Digital image. NYtimes. Tiffany Kaiser, n.d. Web.

It is hard enough, as is, to govern and control a nation of 1.357 billion people and 3.707 million square miles. I can only imagine the difficulty of doing so with no water. Another issue in the realm of water, is food, which, according to Ma and Adams, is one of the 9 “scarcities” that plague modern China. China has 20 percent of the world’s land, but only 8 percent of that land is arable. (Ma and Adams.) Yet as was touched on earlier, much of China’s soil is being contaminated with toxins, like cadmium. According to Chinese Fortune Environment, over 10 percent of the countries arable land has been contaminated.

In addition to the land, the tillers are getting sick from eating rice with excess cadmium, breathing in toxins, and the overall poor quality of the air. Some farmers are even losing their lives as a result of poor soil and the environment. Food was already scarce in China, and one does not need a P.H.D. in agriculture to realize that its a lot harder to produce food when you have less land and fewer farmers. The cities and upper-class may be immune to the food issue now, but as the problem worsens China will struggle (even more than it already does) to feed all of its 1.357 billion people. Malnourishment rates will rise and and the already strong tension between the rural farmers and the urbanities will increase. The lack of food and water could even yield physical violence and feuds within China. In a nutshell, China’s economy is dependent on the labor of the lower class, whether its the rural peasants working in the fields or migrant workers in city factories. But how can you have an economy based on the exploitation of the lower class, if the lower class is vanishing. Thousands of farmers are dying in cancer villages, 1.2 million people have died, prematurely, from air pollution, and every day, factory workers are too sick to work from breathing in toxins.

China Skies Toxic Levels of Pollution. Digital image. Www.boston.com. N.p., n.d. Web.

The economy is China’s essence, it is the thing that has propelled China into the modern world. Without its economy, China has no edge and while the lower class won’t completely disappear, every member who can’t work (whether he be sick or dead), is one fewer contributor to China’s already slowing down economy.

One may argue that China is actually in the process of recovering from its environmental turmoil and that the “worst days” are behind China. Some environmentalists argue that every nation has a “ureeka” moment, when they realize the level to which they have destroyed their environment. For example, in the United States, after the Cuyahoga river caught fire, the populace realized the severity of their situation and subsequently started the EPA and “Earth Day.

Cuyahoga River Fire. Digital image. Ohio History Central. Cleveland State University Collection, n.d. Web.

These environmentalists argue that China has had that “realization” in one way or another. The Bejing smog of 2013. The discovery of at least 1600 dead pigs in rivers

A Dead Pig Floating in Wulong River. Digital image. Radio Free Asia. N.p., n.d. Web.

The overall quality of the air in general. I would contend two counter points to this theory, the first being that this problem is beyond solving. If tomorrow, China turned 180 degrees and became a transparent, earth-friendly nation, that would still not restore the lives of millions who have died, and millions who have contracted illnesses from pollution. More importantly however, most experts believe that China is well past the point of fixing. Their economic policies are, in Laymen’s terms, “too little, too late.” Many new studies, like the one conducted by the Deutche Bank, show that the “current growth policies would lead to continued decline in environment for the next decade,” (Cost of Environmental Damage Growing Rapidly Amid Industrialization). While I would like to be optimistic about China’s future, the facts point otherwise.

The years of environmental neglect have put China in a precarious situation they will be unable to get out of. In the short term, the Chinese upperclass may be able to “buy” their way out the environmental crisis. They can purchase clean water. They can purchase sanitary food. But China will reach a point where pollution is not just a lower class issue-but a 1.357 billion people issue.

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