Environment & Sciences / Politics / Society

Pollution, The Thorn in China’s Side

by Marion Bouvier

The Great Wall shrouded in smog © Charlotte Marillet/Flickr

The Great Wall shrouded in smog © Charlotte Marillet/Flickr

Picture a scenic Chinese village to which (mostly Chinese) tourists flock in Sprint to admire the blooming of thousands of water lilies on a nearby lake; the weather is sunny, the fumes of pollution coming from Beijing have been left behind as the train drove a few hours away from the capital.

After a day’s visit, you elect to stay in the village for the night. You drink a few Qingdao beers, and inevitably comes the need to relieve yourself. There is no toilet in the tiny eatery where you have had dinner, neither are there any in the room that you rented for a few euros. That is because people don’t have private toilets, since there is no sewer system anyways. Some choose to pee in a bucket and throw it in their backyards, but most people visit the village’s public toilet.

It is night when you visit this hotspot for the first time, and what you see is a wooden, slightly derelict shack with a door and two cabins separated by a wooden plank. There’s a hole in the floor, and that’s it.

The next morning, somewhat reluctantly you visit the shed again, and you see that it is in fact perched above the narrow river that runs through the village. A few meters down below the shed is the bank of the river, and you can see the accumulation of what people came to do in the toilet; the smelly pile merges with the river’s waters. Other parts of the banks are littered with all sorts of trash: plastic bottles, discarded metal scraps, diapers and more plastic waste. Children are playing a bit further along the river, close to where two old men are patiently waiting to catch an elusive fish.

A boy drinks from polluted water in Fuyuan county © Reuters

A boy drinks from polluted water in Fuyuan county © Reuters

You could have imagined this scene taking place in the 1950s maybe, or in a remote village inaccessible by car. But this is just an ordinary village connected to Beijing via road and via the train station of the nearby town. It could be any Chinese village in fact, and I have seen similar scenes repeated in various provinces in China, from the mountainous areas of Yunnan (where international photographers take these breath-taking pictures of the terraces where rice grows) to the flatland of Inner Mongolia, and in many of the villages that have not yet been transformed into a museum for the sake of tourism.

These villages are where the 47% of China’s population still live[1]; this is the water people bathe in, the water that those who can’t afford bottled water drink (albeit boiled). The countryside is becoming a giant dump. And probably the craziest part is that this is only one type of pollution (which we could call “individually produced” pollution) that pales in comparison to the three other types of industrial pollution that plague China, namely:

  • Air pollution

  • Water pollution

  • Soil pollution

These 3 types of pollution are all the more catastrophic since very little is done at the governmental level to address their causes—and despite the acknowledgment of the problem and the empty promises that are regularly made[2].

What are the causes of pollution in China?

The Forbidden City on a smoggy day © Wang Shen/Xinhua

The Forbidden City on a smoggy day © Wang Shen/Xinhua

One of the most easily identifiable culprits is coal, since coal-powered plants were still generating 77% of China’s electric production in 2006[3]. Coal generates power for domestic use but also for industrial and manufacturing plants, which have proliferated in China since the founding of the PRC in 1949, and later again with the economic reforms of the mid 1980s.

The emissions of gases and fine particulates are at the root of the smog that cover cities like Beijing, Guangzhou, or Shanghai. Even in Hongkong, air pollution from the neighboring Shenzhen regularly makes the air quality level go into the red. According to the China National Environmental Monitoring Center (CNEMC), the air pollution in more than a 100 Chinese cities was beyond the “dangerous level”[4]. In 2013, Greepeace made a list of the most polluted Chinese cities, and found that Langfang, often dubbed “China’s Silicon Valley”, had reached more than twice the amount of fine particles concentration deemed dangerous for human health (with a maximum of the daily average of 772 micrograms of PM2.5 per cubic meter).

On top of their disastrous impact on air pollution, the industry sector plays an even more vicious part in polluting soils and waterways. It is hard to find reliable estimates of the impact of water and soil pollution on health[5], especially since the Chinese government is not too keen on looking closely into it, but a study estimates that close to 30,000 people die annually in China from digestive cancer linked to the deterioration of water quality in China. And these are just the figures for digestive cancer. Skin, bladder and lungs cancer have also soared in villages contaminated by arsenic pollution[6].

A river in Xinmeizhou contaminated by unidentified chemicals © Central European News

A river in Xinmeizhou contaminated by unidentified chemicals © Central European News

The problem is: chemical wastes are commonly rejected into the environment without any sort of filtering, treatment or containment. This has led to many local catastrophes, which spark regular anger from the local population, but always end being settled in the best case with some compensatory money given to local communities, or in the worst case with the beating up of the leaders of the local contestation[7]. In 2013, 220 200 dead fish were floating on the Fu river, poisoned by ammonia released into the water by a chemical company. The nearby villagers who live off fishing were warned not to eat the dead fish but were told by the local government that the water was still drinkable.

But no matter how often these types of tragedies take place, not much is done in practice to regulate what factories do with regards to the environment. From time to time the government makes a statement about its determination to better the environmental situation, and then the words dissolve in the air and fail to take concrete form.

So why is nothing done against pollution?

Firstly, because as the Chinese leaders have repeated many times, they have chosen to prioritize economic development, and if that comes at the cost of “collateral damage”, so be it. It does not matter that the cost of externalities such as pollution—and its consequences on environmental destruction and people’s health­—notably lowers the actual economic growth rate of China. In 2007, the United Nations Development program estimated that environmental mismanagement had cost China 9% of its GDP[8]. This political choice stems from an ideological strategy based on short-term performances on the one hand, and on the other hand on China’s self-image on the international scene.

China has felt humiliated for decades since the downfall of the Qing dynasty at the end of the 19th century, the subsequent unequal treaties imposed onto China by Western countries led by the UK and France, and the Japanese invasion starting from the 1930s. Chinese leaders from Chiang Kai-shek to Mao Zedong and up to now have exacerbated nationalism as a way to soothe the bleeding wounds that years of suffering­—through external but also internal conflicts—have maintained wide open.

Thus, defying the West through a strong political stance and by being economically powerful is a great pride for Mainland China. The fact that close to a million people die as a (direct or indirect) result of the environmental situation is just a collateral damage.

And of course, I would agree to say that the West has no moralizing lessons to give to China, considering Western countries greedily benefitted from China’s inner weaknesses to enrich themselves; it is also true that Western countries copiously polluted during the industrial revolutions, and continue to have mixed results in limiting their carbon-dioxide emissions[9].

But there is one thing that should matter more than nationalist pride: the people. And this is why China should be taking the pollution issue seriously. Not because the West is “better” or “more right”, not because being environmentally friendly is “progressive” or “what good governments do”, but because the Chinese people is now put through a new trial that the state is doing virtually nothing to address.

I could of course also mention all the damage done to ecosystems in China, to its incredibly beautiful and diverse flora and fauna, but at this stage China does not even treat its own people better than animals. The rule is: if you don’t have money to save yourself, the state will do nothing for you.

Another major reason for the inertia of the government when it comes to environmental protection remains corruption.

Just this week the major French newspaper Le Monde published an article detailing how corrupted the Ministry of the Environment is. This amounts to saying that fire is hot, really, but it is always useful for readers to be reminded that Mainland China is not a transparent state, and that corruption is endemic. The mediatized anti-corruption campaigns mostly aim at purging unwanted political rivals; sometimes a case in point is made to harshly sentence a few officials in order to give the impression that something is being done against corruption. One should also add that even when the Central government is actually serious in its pledge to rid itself of the rot of corruption, it is the many branches of local governments that misappropriate the money sent to them to remedy actual issues.

Hence even regulations approved at the state level can be easily bypassed if you are a factory owner; just go to the local party branch and offer the officials there a nice watch bought in Hongkong and some French wine.

The combination of reckless economic growth and widespread corruption therefore makes an explosive cocktail that does not bid well for the fight against pollution.

Our way of consuming is also part of China’s pollution problem

Screen shot of copper medling plant workers

Copper medling plant workers, screenshot from Rust (Wang Bing, 2002)

Besides, another aspect of the tragic effects of factories’ irresponsible use of polluting substances is the direct contamination of factory workers by the chemical products they handle. In his fascinating documentary[10] about the last years of three plants in Shenyang (north-east China), Wang Bing wordlessly showed the run-down factories in which workers are surrounded by harmful chemicals while being equipped with little if no protection. Some of the more mediatized examples include the Apple factory where workers ended up with nerve damage and skin conditions because of the acid used to produce Mac screens.

Here we see how the problem of pollution in China also concerns governments, companies and customers in the West. We have no problem buying ‘Made in China’ every day, yet we point the finger at how bad the Chinese are with regards to environmental protection and human rights. CEOs of major international companies give teary speeches in Europe and America about the charities they support and their great principles regarding sustainability, but they do not go as far as to ensure that their factories deal with waste properly, use are powered by sustainable energies, or that their workers work in safe conditions. In 2012, an environmental NGO[11] in China highlighted the devastating effects of pollution discharge from factories producing the goods of major clothing brands such as Zara, Puma, Polo Ralph Lauren and many others.

It is not only the role of the Chinese government to set rules; it is also for entrepreneurs in China to set their own standards and to make them respected. Yes, it will cost more on the short-term, but investments should take into account the long-term benefits of a virtuous circle that is profitable for the local communities and for the environment.

To round off this brief overview of the sources of pollution, emissions of carbon dioxide caused by cars and trucks are a major problem. Indeed the number of cars per 1000 people remains very low (around 100 cars per 1000 people in 2013[12]) in China, but it is already growing rapidly and could reach alarming proportions. Traffic in all major Chinese cities (there are more than 60 cities of 1 million or more inhabitants in China) is already congested, and attempts to curb the problem during the Beijing Olympics[13] were an encouraging start but the ever increasing number of cars limit its positive outcomes.

To conclude, pollution is a crucial issue in China, one that, in my opinion, will be decisive for the future of China. Local activists and initiatives, although they are generally limited in scope, can make a small difference that could turn into something bigger. The growth of a civil society that is both informed and active is relatively slow in China (for reasons that could be the topic of another article), but it may be China’s best chance to develop a more efficient environmental protection.

Furthermore, officials, entrepreneurs and citizens alike have to understand what is at stake and have to be encouraged (whether financially or out of peer pressure) to act on it.

For us in the West, we have to be more conscious of what we buy and how much we buy, and to take action to ask companies to upgrade their standards in all countries where they produce their goods. We cannot just pretend that this is an issue happening somewhere else and that we have nothing to do with it. We have to be willing to look into our consumption habits, to enquire about where and how the products we buy are produced. Some companies like H&M, Nike or Gap have already taken steps to screen their supply chain more closely and to set up a pollution record.

These brands are not inherently better than others (and both H&M and Nike have a history of abusing the loose regulations of third world countries to reduce their production costs). But these are brands which understand that the world is changing, and that making a difference when it comes to environmental protection can be a positive marketing argument. So as customers, we also have to demand that all major brands adopt higher standards, and we have to request more transparency when it comes to the supply chain and production methods.

The advent of capitalism and of the all-powerful big companies does not mean that consumers should passively wait that the goods are delivered to their homes and ask no questions about it. You don’t have to be a hermit and stop buying your favorite clothes to make a difference in this world. Send a quick e-mail to your favorite store and ask by which environmental standards the factories where their clothes are produced abide. Talk to your friends and ask them whether they know that factories that deal with dyeing and finishing clothes are responsible for unreasonable water consumption and polluting chemical waste. Take part in spreading the word on actions promoting environmental sustainability , start your own petition.

As a citizen and a consumer, you have the right to ask for a better world to live in, for yourself, your family and for future generations. And take a minute to think whether you really need to buy this cute t-shirt in three different colors. You can make a difference, at your own scale. If everybody makes a small difference, it will turn into a big change.


[1] The percentage of urban versus rural population recently (2012) tipped in favor of urban population, which now constitutes around 53% (Source: World Bank data).

[2] In April 2014 a new law entered into force; as Liu jianqiang summarizes : “The updated law makes significant progress in the area of public interest litigation and strengthens the legislative tools to punish polluters. But it fails to answer a key question: how to get local officials to enforce the rules effectively.” https://www.chinadialogue.net/blog/6937-China-s-new-environmental-law-looks-good-on-paper/en

[3] Source: Xinhua.

[4] Defined as a maximum daily PM2.5 level of 300.

[5] For three main reasons: it takes decades to be able to have a clear picture of the evolution of death causes, most people living in rural areas are not diagnosed or no record is kept of the cause of death, and the direct causality between diseases and pollution is not easy to prove.

[6] Read for example Reuter’s story on one of the “cancer villages”: http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/06/23/us-china-environment-health-idUSKBN0EY0ZI20140623

[7] An example related by Jeffrey Hays: “In April 2005, thousands of villagers rioted in Mangkantou village in Danyang city in Zhejiang Province over toxic chemicals pumped into streams and on farmland by local pesticides and chemicals plants. Two elderly women were killed, villagers said, when they were run over by police vehicles. Fifty police were injured in riots following the deaths of the two women. Ten police cars were overturned and rocks were hurled at police holed up in a high school.”


[8] As quoted by Patricia Blazey in her comprehensive overview of pollution-related externalities in China, accessible here: http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/journals/UNSWLJ/2007/52.pdf

[9] A very interesting account of China’s energy consumption compared with the European Union’s can be found here: http://theenergycollective.com/robertwilson190/420531/why-china-still-behind-west-energy

[10] A monumental 9-hour long trilogy called “West of Tracks » (Wang Bing, 2002).

[11] The Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE). You can read and download their report here: http://www.ipe.org.cn/En/about/notice_de.aspx?id=10859

[12] In comparison, the United States had 809 cars per 1000 people in 2011, and Italy 682.

[13] During the 2008 Olympics, cars were only allowed 1 day out of 2 depending on their whether the last number of their license plate was even or odd.

[14] For example Greenpeace’s “Detox” campaign: http://www.greenpeace.org/international/en/campaigns/detox/what-you-can-do/


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s