Environmental Injustice in China

Air pollution is a poor man’s issue.

– Ahmad Safrudein

Linfen, China. Located on the Coal Belt. Spend one day in Linfen, and your body will have taken in the tar equivalent of three packs of cigarettes.

I’m currently in China. I arrived in Beijing after a 12h flight and then flew to Changsha, the capital of the Hunan province. There, I was immediately struck by how much worse the pollution was than in Beijing. I have family that lives in Zhuzou, a nearby city that is smaller but just as commercial and polluted as,  if not more so than Changsha. Pollution exists everywhere in China to some degree – that’s no surprise in a heavily industrial country where environmental concerns are not prioritized on any national or local agenda. However, it is much worse in the poorer industrial cities and provinces. In these areas, there is a much smaller service and tourism sector. The economy is comprised of activities that spew toxic waste into the air, land, and water. Who knows if we should oversimplistically say that we should forsake something of this economic progress for some cleaner skies? China controversially cleaned up its most polluted city, Linfen, 20 years ago by shutting down the factories there and leaving thousands of people jobless and even poorer than they were before. There was no unequivocally happy ending.

The price of pollution is something that eventually everybody on the planet will pay. What people should think about instead is who is suffering disproportionately, and how they depend on the source of this pollution for their livelihood at the same time. It’s a sad equation, and one that doesn’t add up.

In my freshman year at Babson, I took a rhetorics class with an environmental activist for a teacher who lectured us daily on social hegemonies – so for my final speech to the class, I decided to talk about the social hegemony of pollution. The perception of poor people as dirty and rich people as clean had always bothered me. Furthermore, it is common knowledge that poor people live in dirty, polluted areas where rich people live in clean, orderly neighborhoods. I thought to myself – there has to be more than these two relatively self-evident correlations. There is a larger connection between and poverty than we as a society want to admit. We therefore instead label the lower-class as uncouth and inherently dirty, to justify the conditions in which they live. The truth is something very different. Richer countries and richer cities in a developing country both directly and indirectly export their pollution to poorer countries/cities. If you have the money to live in a clean place, why not?

La Oroya, Perú. A mining town. Its name means The Gold Mine.

Literally, rich countries export their waste to poorer countries. These rich Western countries don’t want to keep all the toxic waste that they made and have on their own land, and poorer countries see the opportunity of cheap resources and materials. Other times, they’re simply bought out to take the trash. Here’s a simple overview of the process and reasons for both sides to partake in the Global Waste Trade: http://www.mnn.com/money/sustainable-business-practices/stories/exporting-garbage .

Indirectly, richer countries/cities export their pollution-making activities to poorer countries/cities. For example, the US economy and many others in Europe are now almost completely service sectors. We have the social infrastructure to create very well-educated citizens who mostly go after white-collar jobs. All of our imported products/materials are made, in sometimes very dirty conditions and producing toxic waste, in poorer countries such as India, China, the Philippines, Syria, etc. So while Americans and Europeans go on about recycling, solar panels, and going “green”, perhaps we should remember that we are privileged to even talk about organic farm CSA memberships and remembering to shut off the AC before going to sleep. We live in relatively clean cities and have relatively clean jobs that make decent money. For some million people in China, the only way for them to feed their families and make a decent living (for them, for us it would seem not a decent living at all – but that is just one of the many different perceptions that people will have when we come from different societies and different economic circumstances) is to move to these polluted cities, take a factory job, and not expect any sunshine.

It’s not about complaining about the pollution in real China for most Chinese people. It’s about surviving in the economic food chain that we’ve created. Think about the politics of pollution that we’ve created. China, India, and other rapidly developing, heavily polluted countries are mere players in the world order that is completely determined by money.

I’m now in Hong Kong, one of China’s richest cities and blessed by its harbor location for ameliorating its pollution. I see sunshine and blue skies here everyday. I didn’t see any when I was in mainland China. When I was there, I learned not to expect nor want any after a while.

Lake Karachay in Russia, considered to be the most polluted location on Earth. The radioactive exposure is fatal after one hour. It used to be the Soviet Union's nuclear weapon site, and then it later became their toxic waste dumping grounds. The French sign says: Russia is not a trash can.

China now has the money and resources to clean itself up. Obviously, that money is not uncompromised. The “green” projects of China are those in its richer areas. An eco-town will be built right next to Shanghai, a money machine city if there ever was one. The cleanup of Linfen was entirely political, and perhaps rather insensitively done, as thousands lost their jobs. We must show China that we care about their poorest, as opposed just about their richest. Every human being deserves to be able to breathe, to drink untainted water, and to not suffer from pollution-related diseases. Every human life has the same value. The world, and China, should realize that.


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