Lifting the Shroud: exposing life amidst China’s pollution, and what lies ahead

By Jesse Weber

Every morning, Mrs. Wei rises with the sun, laces her tennis shoes, and begins the hike to the top of Zijin Mountain. Her daily routine is more than just a workout; she finds beauty and tranquility amidst the verdant leaves and melodic bird songs muffling the drone of the surrounding city. Mrs. Wei is a Nanjing native, and Zijin Park is her favorite place in her hometown, a metropolis of 8 million in southeastern China. Many others apparently share her sentiment, because she never has the park to herself. Hundreds of others, mostly middle-aged to senior citizens, but also young people as well as children with their parents, wander the trails of Zijin in the early hours before work or school begins.

A visiting foreigner, however, may not be so impressed at the supposed sanctity of this place. Zijin is called a national park, but is not of the same caliber as those in the United States. To an American eye, every green leaf seems dulled of its true potential by a coating of gray dust. Birds sing here and there, but it seems their calls should be resonating throughout the forest. Instead of rugged hiking trails ascending the mountain, the paths are wide, concrete staircases. Although these ills may seem perturbing to an American visiting Nanjing, Mrs. Wei is not fazed because she knows no different. This is the purest nature to be found in urban China.

China is the most populated country in the world and, not surprisingly, is the world’s number one polluting country. More than 50% of the country’s population lives in urban areas, and this percentage is growing every year. Rapid urbanization results in extremely high rates of sprawl, perpetuated by one of the fastest-growing economies on the planet. Even rural areas are often the recipients of massive development projects, spurned by the central government, that aim to expand transportation and communication infrastructure in every corner of the country. The rampant expansion is fueled mostly by filthy fossil fuels—coal and oil energy production that contaminates the air. The result is that much of China has very little natural environment left, and what remains is under constant threat.

What is it like to live every day at the mercy of China’s pernicious pollution? How do the people feel about their situation? Indifferent? Enraged? Or are they blissfully unaware of their own plight, shrouded by gray skies and sheltered from the reality of the outside world? The truth is that most people in China are perfectly aware that their natural environment is not as healthy as it should be, but opinions on how to react vary widely.

Mrs. Wei would prefer to live in a city with fewer people, fewer cars, and cleaner air, but she accepts these as they are and remains grateful for her daily respite in Zijin Park. She is fortunate, in some sense, to live in Nanjing—the metropolis with far more green space than any other city of its size in China. Nanjing natives know this about their home, and are proud of it. As Mrs. Wei strolls through the park, she passes green signs displaying inspirational aphorisms about protecting the environment. “For the sake of green tomorrow, protect the forest today” reads one. As evidenced by these signs, there are those in China who realize the need for drastic improvements in environmental protection, but the country as a whole remains on a trajectory to foul the earth with the obtrusive emissions of 1.3 billion people’s booming industrialized economy.

On top of Zijin, Liuming folds his arms atop the brick wall of an overlook and leans forward into the vista. He gazes toward the morning sun as it climbs in the sky, but its light is dimmed by a blanket of haze bundled thickest at the edges of the horizon. “Today the view is very clear, but I know it could be better,” Liuming remarks. “Pollution in China is a problem . . . Air pollution especially. Yes, I think it has gotten better in some ways. Some factories and cars are getting cleaner, but there are still so many of these things, and always more people.” Liuming is 26 years old, a recent graduate of China’s increasingly progressive education system.

In school, Liuming and his classmates learned about the environment and some dangers of pollution. A certain level of environmental education is required as part of the state-issued curriculum, but unless pursuing a specialized field after grade school, most students gain only a superficial understanding of environmental science.

Another Zijin visitor, Boxiao, enjoys hiking with his girlfriend before classes begin at the nearby university. He notices a green sign that reads, “Care of Mother Mountain depends on us all.” When contemplating his own contribution to conserving the environment, all he can think of is, “Well, I throw trash in a trash can instead of on the ground.” Boxiao and Liuming are like many of their generation—knowing what problems exist, but powerless to make a difference in the face of China’s massive industry and government. The highly bureaucratic, agenda-bound Communist Party of China has a deplorable history in environmental protection, but recent trends and new laws may stand to improve conditions in the world’s pollution powerhouse.

Gray skies, green water
Gray skies, green water – pollution in China

Continued economic growth brings ever-increasing pollution, but China is taking definitive steps to reduce the rate of increase. Although China’s single-party central government has not historically placed environmental protection high on its list of agendas, recent legislation provides hope that clearer skies are on the horizon. The 2014 amendments to China’s environmental protection law stipulate tighter regulations on emissions reduction, more stringent penalties for noncompliance, and expanded avenues for accountability and public influence.

The Chinese government is infamous for imposing strict censorship on many forms of free speech and providing few policies conducive to non-governmental organizations (NGOs). As a consequence, no socially equitable programs can expect broad influence without direct government support. However, the presence of NGOs is increasing in China, and the new environmental legislation allows for NGOs to file public interest lawsuits against polluters. Other recent laws have made the NGO registration process less complicated and less restrictive, and the central party has even allotted certain funds for NGO incubation programs. These are major steps in the right direction, but recent success has been enjoyed mostly by NGOs engaged in social service and financial sectors—those most closely in line with the party’s list of top priorities. In order for nonprofit environmental initiatives to gain a solid foothold in China, pro-NGO policies must continue to expand beyond what they are today.

Significant progress has been made in many developed countries by sustainable business initiatives—making sustainable practices profitable and therefore widely marketable. Such businesses often capitalize on alternative energy or production efficiency, but their success is dependent on either government incentive or on the economy naturally crossing the threshold where traditional forms of energy become too expensive. China’s government is currently most sympathetic to fossil fuel, nuclear, and hydroelectric production, but is also proliferating alternative energy such as solar and wind in many parts of the country. The crux of China’s energy problem is the sheer scale of what the economy must produce. Continued cooperation between the government and corporations to expand alternative energy could produce real improvements in emissions reduction, but “dirtier” forms of energy must be rapidly phased out.

A third major problem—and perhaps the most pressing—is that no matter how clean the energy, industry must operate cleanly as well. As home to more manufacturing than any other country in the world, the brunt of China’s pollution comes from industry. In fact, the Chinese Ministry of Health has blamed industrial pollution for making cancer the number one cause of death in China. The fastest remedy for this would be strict regulation on emissions, but current legislation is not nearly aggressive enough to immediately solve the problem. Major fuel for the Chinese economy is big business and cheap exports, so the government is not keen on cumbersome environmental regulations that would make production more expensive. The improved laws of 2014 promise continued development of pollution reduction standards, but these may struggle to hold pace with the ever-expanding industry of China.

The Chinese government has come to realize that pollution is a major detriment to the health of its citizens, so motivation for environmental protection is largely the product of concern for public health. The well being of over 1 billion pollution victims depends on the efficacy of progressive reduction initiatives—but will the new laws be sufficient?

As Mrs. Wei relishes the greenery in Nanjing, Mr. and Mrs. Li awake to nothing but gray in Beijing, far to the north. As residents of one of the world’s dirtiest cities, the Li family battles daily against the infamous air quality. Little Li suffers from asthma. Mrs. Li desperately wants to move to another city for the sake of her son’s health. Although her and her husband are both successful computer engineers, the government’s strict household registration system makes it difficult for families to transfer jobs between cities. Mr. Li, set in his old-fashioned ways, refuses to admit that his son has a chronic condition. He says, “The air is not the problem, just the boy’s lack of healthy activity. Or if Little Li had stronger will to excel in life, he would go out and work instead of sitting around the apartment, and his health would automatically improve.” Meanwhile, Mr. Li himself smokes cigarettes every day, stubbornly claiming that the filters “cleanse the bad air” from the atmosphere before it enters the lungs.

It is Mr. Li’s generation that currently controls most government and corporate operations in China. Although not everyone is in such utter denial as he, the predominant social psyche is equally conservative and rigidly unconcerned with environmental ills. The progress China has already made in education, industry, and law is not insignificant, but to produce real improvement of environmental conditions, much more drastic change is needed. This will require a trans-generational shift in attitude from one of misguided, wanton utilization of the environment to one of informed, conscientious sustainability. Hope for China lies in Liuming, Boxiao, Little Li, and their peers to solidify environmental awareness as a pillar of political and economic priority in their country.

An ancient Chinese proverb warns, “The first bird flying out is the first one shot.”  This mindset discourages pioneering endeavors that go against the grain of societal norms, and is particularly prevalent under a regime so quick on the draw against challenges to its ideologies. The single-party government has potential to continue its progressive policies and drastically improve China’s environmental conditions, but only if successive generations of leaders are willing to relinquish outdated political dogmas, reform the economy, and accept a new social norm of environmental awareness. When that happens, perhaps Little Li can finally live free of asthma; perhaps Boxiang can realize the importance of environmental stewardship; Liuming can watch the bright sun rise into a cerulean sky; and Mrs. Wei can find true sanctuary beneath a canopy of lush green, serenaded by a choir of bird songs.


*All quotes in this article are from actual interviews on location, but real names of interviewees have not been used.


Read more about pollution problems in China on Unweary Traveler – Battling the Bloom

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