Chinese Environmentalism

As I huffed and puffed up the Great Wall at Badaling, it was impossible to ignore the splendor of the surrounding mountains. Sharp ridges carpeted in green with the occasional stark rock outcroppings drew me onward, out beyond a crowded hilltop and down to a deserted looking tower. As I approached the ancient building, five heads appeared at one of the top story windows. Interestingly enough, I had wandered into a gang of fellow Bei Da students. We talked about the beauty of the place and joked while working our way back down the Wall. One of the five, a member of the Peking University Mountaineering Association, drank the last of his water and casually tossed the empty plastic bottle over the ramparts of the Wall.

As an officer in the University of Pittsburgh Outdoors Club, such an action seems utterly ridiculous. Pack it in; pack it out. Unfortunately, environmental concerns appear to take a back seat to other issues in China. Walking around Beijing, the problem surfaces as passersby drop empty bottles, food wrappers, and other refuse along the sidewalks. The haze that hangs over the city more often than not calls attention to atmospheric environmental concerns. Drive out of the city for a few hours and see the hills of rubbish lining roadsides, deforested hills, and eroding topsoil. China obviously has room for improvement in the environmental sector.

I do not intend this to be a purely critical paper. The United States has had and continues to have its share of environmental problems. I have not yet heard of a river in China so polluted that it caught fire. Smog plagues many American cities still, and many pristine wilderness areas are now becoming less wild with every careless visitor. However, the USA now has a strong environmental conscience, and many government actions are carefully monitored for environmental impact.

Several factors combine to form the foundation of environmental problems in China, as explained by Prof. Zhang Haibin. Obviously, the 1.3 billion person population of China is the first factor to consider. Food, energy, and material goods all must be produced on a massive scale to meet the basic needs of the people before environmental issues can be addressed. China feeds five times as many people as the United States with one half the total amount of arable land. Coal is the number one energy source, producing some 70% of the energy consumed by the Chinese people. Also, the prevalence of small Town and Village Enterprises (TVEs) contributes to the problem. These local industries are too small too utilize advanced technologies and cannot afford treatment equipment to reduce emission of harmful waste products. Thus, 25% of industrial wastewater goes directly into China’s rivers and acid rain threatens to destroy ancient Buddhist art in southern China.

These problems are not unique to China, but can be found in any developing nation. During the 1970s in the United States, steel mills left the river rocks in my parents’ hometown of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, stained orange. Rather, the most important difference between China and the United States with respect to the environment is awareness. Prior to 1972, environmental awareness did not exist in China; pollution was a problem only experienced in capitalist countries. While awareness is on the increase, the problem is far from solved. People continue to leave trash lay in the streets and cut wood from already barren slopes. On the way to visit the Great Wall at Simatai, I observed more trucks carrying raw timber than I see in America in a month. Enforcement of environmental law is also a problem. Though China has a very highly developed system of environmental legislature, enforcement is lax at best. Environmental law is seen as “soft law” and environmental infractions will be overlooked if they result in a faster pace of industrialization and growth. As China strives to reach the level of development of the United States and Europe, the environment in sacrificed.

It is difficult, however, to criticize the people of China for these problems if one considers the level of development of the country. Food security takes top priority in much of China. What reform minded factory manager would destroy the profitability of his enterprise to treat wastewater? Prof. Zhang Haibin pointed out that at least 60 million in China earn less than one US dollar per day. In other words, a group as large as one fifth of the population of the United States lives in extreme poverty in China. Who can blame someone in that situation for cutting wood to heat his or her home in winter? Environmental concerns fall below the right to survival for Chinese people.

A problem exists here, however. In sacrificing the environment to achieve a higher standard of living, the Chinese people are destroying the very land that gives them life. The statistics are formidable. Topsoil erosion claimed more than 300,000 hectares of arable land in 2000, and the annual rate of desertification in China has been on the rise since the 1960s. Of the 666 cities in China, more than 400 face water shortages, yet factories continue to pump untreated waste into the local rivers. Sooner or later, something must give.

I feel that environmental awareness will increase in China as these problems increase in severity. It seems to me, however, that the pace of environmental reform in China will be slow. China is directed at growth and development, goals which are typically at odds with environmental protection. Until China reaches a higher level of economic development, the environment will continue to take the back seat. As with many issues, the basic needs of the Chinese people need to be filled before the government can turn its eye to other concerns. Pressure from the rest of the world may also play a role. As the reform experiment continues to succeed, environmental issues should increase in importance in China.

China and the Environment
Philip Magistro
2001.07.14
Pitt in China

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