Beijing smog outside apartment widow, Fall 2013 (Photo taken by author)
Soon after Chairman
Mao had become the “great helmsman” of the newly inaugurated People’s
Republic of China in 1949, the Party began an aggressive propaganda
campaign asserting itself as the redeemer of “New China.” To enforce
this message, Mao promoted a song with the lyrics, “Without the Communist Party, There Would Be No New China”
(没有共产党就没有新中国), and further declared that Communism has at long last, “improved the lives of the people” (他改善了人民生活).
living in “New China” again for another year, from 2012-2013, I mused
on the realities of the Party’s “improvements.” I thought of a message
given by Pope Benedict XVI to the Director General of the Food and
Agriculture Organization in 2006. “The order of creation,” stated
Benedict, “demands that a priority be given to those human activities
that do not cause irreversible damage to nature, but which instead are
woven into the social, cultural, and religious fabric of the different
communities.” He warned against the dangers of reckless human
consumption and the abuse of God’s creation.
Mao’s “New China” has
thrust the Eastern hemisphere into new depths of environmental
exploitation and damage. As I write this post, the air quality index in
Beijing is rated at “261, Very Unhealthy,” while here in Eastern
Washington the rating is “41, Good” though that is “higher” (that is,
less good) than usual. While living in Beijing last year it was not
uncommon for my wife and me to walk to the subway in days with air
quality ratings in the 800s; the U.S. Embassy chart’s highest rating is
500, or “hazardous,” and warns American citizens that exposure can cause
significant health problems: “Serious aggravation of heart or lung
disease and premature mortality in persons with cardiopulmonary disease
and the elderly; serious risk of respiratory effects in general
China’s population is exposed to extreme levels of
smog day after day, year after year, and as Jonathan Watts has pointed
out in his timely book on China’s attack against the environment, When a Billion Chinese Jump (Scribner,
2010), lung cancer is China’s “biggest killer”. So many people are
suffering the effects from pollution in China today that entire
communities, called “cancer villages (癌症村) by locals, are drawing the
attention of health activists worldwide.
Other concerns, equally
alarming, have resulted from China’s environmental recklessness, which
has far surpassed the previous levels of polluting industries in Great
Britain and the United States. Here are a few scattered illustrations of
the cost of China’s recent progress:
industry in Shanxi is so polluting that the provincial birth defect rate
is six times more severe than the rest of China, which is already
nearly fives times higher than the rest of the planet (see Phyllis Xu
and Lucy Horby, “Birth Defects Show Human Price of Coal”, Reuters, June 2009).
The World Health Organization has reported that less than one percent of
China’s urban population is breathing healthy air, and premature deaths
caused by lung cancer and other lung-related health problems continues
to increase (see Watts, 179).
In the rush to build massive dams,
several have collapsed due to substandard construction. Fushun dam only
lasted four months before collapsing and drowning around 10,000 people
downstream, and by 1980 an estimated 240,000 souls had perished after
2,796 damns had failed (See Jasper Becker, Hungry Ghosts: Mao’s Secret Famine, 77; also see Watts, 53).
In 2007, the World Bank reported that nearly six percent of China’s GDP was spent on pollution (Cost of Pollution in China, World Bank & Ministry of Health Report, 2007).
About 1.2 million hectares of arable land in China was seized for
building construction between 1986 and 2000, which has contributed to
China’s present food crisis (Deng Xiangzheng, et al, “Cultivated Land Conversion and Potential Agricultural Productivity in China,” China Academy of Sciences, July 2005).
A recent article at EVWorld.com features a NASA photo taken in December 2013 that shows a 750-mile-long haze of air pollution stretching “from
Beijing far south to Shanghai … where officials closed schools, delayed
flights, and sensors recorded PM 2.5 particulate levels peaking at
602.5 micrograms, twenty-four times higher than World Health
Organization guidelines considered healthy.”
Kentucky Fried Chicken opened at Tiananmen Square in 1987, and two
decades later the number of outlets had grown to 2,000 in 400 Chinese
cities. Dramatic increases in obesity and diabetes have accompanied this
growth (see Warren Liu's book, KFC in China: Secret Recipe for Success, for an account of KFC growth in China).
China enters 2014 the central government has announced a plan to curb
its pollution problem by encouraging the use of “energy vehicles” in its
twenty-eight most smog-laden metropolitan cities. China’s state
economic planners have also committed to maintaining the country’s seven
percent annual GDP growth; the hazy black smoke that billows into
China’s skyline mostly comes from ambitious factories. Fewer cars will
certainly help the South China Morning Post notes that
Beijing’s “5.5 million cars” clogging the city streets is a large part
of the problem but the forecast of fewer cars and more factories in
2014 is still a frightening augury for our globe, for China’s children,
and for our future.