“New China’s” Environmental Crisis

The World Health Organization has reported that less than one percent of China’s urban population is breathing healthy air

Beijing smog outside apartment widow

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).

After 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 population.”

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:

• The coal 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.”

• The first 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).

As 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.

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About Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D. 54 Articles
Anthony E. Clark is an associate professor of Chinese history at Whitworth University and the author of China’s Saints: Catholic Martyrdom During the Qing, 1644-1911. He is also the host of the EWTN television series The Saints of China: Martyrs of the Middle Kingdom.