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When talking with Chinese friends and co-workers about the pollution levels in Nanjing (awful compared to developed countries, but decent for Chinese cities), they are quick to point out that foreign companies in China are the ones that should be blamed for the filthy air. While it is absolutely true that foreign companies are adding to China’s environmental woes, I’m not convinced they should shoulder all the blame.
Today, I’d like to start by discussing three points related to this statement, and I hope you’ll continue the discussion in the comment section below.
Production for the West
This factor is undeniable. Western consumers have benefited from the destruction of China’s environment by purchasing cheap goods. If all of our environmental standards were enforced globally (and corporations actually complied), then the price of goods would be higher.
The latest example of this can be seen in the fact that Apple’s production facilities in China have created many environmental problems while making goods far out of reach for most Chinese consumers.
The problem I have with this argument, is that the destruction of China’s environment for the sake of producing goods for the West has also benefited many Chinese by creating jobs (from migrant workers to factory owners). The pollution has been seen as a by-product of development, without questioning how it could have been avoided.
However with the slow down in the global economy, one would expect that declining demand overseas would correlate to China’s yearly carbon dioxide emissions. Instead we see China’s emissions have continued to grow during this time, as there have been massive pushes to increase domestic consumption. It turns out cheap Chinese products made in polluting factories aren’t any less attractive in Chinese Walmarts than they are in the West.
While consumers in ALL countries have a responsibility to choose environmentally responsible products, due to the explosive growth of Chinese manufacturing, it would be very difficult to buy only “green” products.
Another important point against this argument, is that China was polluted before foreign companies arrived in the late 70’s. Foreign companies work largely through or with Chinese factories, and Chinese companies are among the world’s least environmentally conscious. The idea that western corporations are doing something different than Chinese companies is ridiculous.
Let’s take a quick look at two companies operating in China that have been attacked in the Chinese press:
In Apple’s case, Foxconn is their major supplier and also their major polluter. Apple clearly should be making greater efforts to practice corporate responsibility, but Foxconn should not be absolved of wrongdoing simply because it is working with a foreign company. Yet in Chinese papers you will always see Apple taking the majority of the blame.
The same is true of the recent oil spill involving ConocoPhilips. Both Global Times and People’s Daily railed against their environmental destruction, and both failed to mention that a state owned company owned the majority share of the project.
While blaming foreign companies might be more politically palatable, it does little to address the underlying problem.
Let’s be honest, when it comes to corporations, do we really expect them to take any actions that don’t add to their bottom line?
Corporations have a responsibility to their share holders to maximize profits, and few legal responsibilities to communities beyond paying taxes. This might be a fairly negative view of corporations, but it is not surprising that companies will dump as much toxic waste into rivers, and spew as much carbon into the air as governments will allow (if it is profitable).
While cheap labor is often cited as a reason for companies moving to developing countries, lax environmental standards are another major factor.
For example, in Nanjing there is a large chemical factory owned by a German multi-national that is often blamed for the smog in the air. The question I always pose to my Chinese friends is, “Why didn’t they build this factory in Germany?” The reason being that environmental regulations in Germany would make this kind of processing plant incredibly expensive to run. The Nanjing gov’t invited the company here because it would increase local GDP.
This is the major underlying problem. The pursuit of local GDP development (in return for promotions) has essentially aligned the interests of local government leaders with those of corporations, instead of the people they supposedly represent. While the Central government has created CO2 emissions targets and other environmental incentives, local leaders still recognize the fact that the key to promotion is GDP.
Perhaps the most troubling example is Huaxi (read my series on the richest village in China), instead of being condemned for it’s reliance on dirty industries like fertilizer production and steel, it has been lifted up as a national model of excellence.
Even in cases where factories have been “shut down” for violating the already lax environmental regulations, they are frequently allowed to continue their operations until people end up in the hospital (numerous examples of lead poisoning from “closed” factories have surfaced in the last year).
If local governments encourage the creation of heavily polluting industries, than they too must shoulder some of the blame for the resulting mess.
Ultimately, even if every multinational pulled out of China tomorrow, there is little evidence that this would actually bring an end to China’s pollution problems. Certainly the West is benefiting from this environmental destruction, but to pretend that this disaster is not largely of China’s own making ignores the reality of the situation.
For unbelievable photos of China’s environmental devastation and the toll it takes on China’s people check out this post from ChinaHush.com
Every weekend, Yaxue will present a column called “China is talking” in which she will translate some items she finds online that has interest her. By doing so, we hope to give you a small taste of some of the things that are making the rounds in Chinese cyberspace.
- Feng Xiaogang (冯小刚, Chinese movie director): The price you pay for saying a bit of truth is very steep. First of all, my wife wouldn’t let me sleep, begging me plaintively: Could you please not speak your mind for the sake of the children and me? Then, there are good friends who scoffed me: Will you die if you don’t speak honestly? What Daoming (陈道明, Chinese actor) said stung me in particular. He said: “It won’t concern me at all if you strike a fortune [by doing so], but it would hurt my interest a lot if you suffer fallout from it!” All I did was speaking a bit of truth and it has caused such unease among my family and friends. So I give up and keep my mouth shut. You will have to forgive me if you don’t hear any honest talk from me anymore. (link)
- After the news of Steve Jobs’ death came, Pan Shiyi (潘石屹, a Chinese real estate tycoon ) updated his Weibo several times to offer his condolences. Yesterday (Oct. 6) morning, he said on his Weibo that “Apple’s board should make an immediate decision to manufacture iPhone and iPad that sell for below 1,000RMB, so that more people can afford Apple. That would be the best way to remember Steve Jobs.” Shortly afterwards, a netizen reposted Pan’s post with the following comment: “Mr. Pan, when you die, will your company please sell houses that cost 1,000RMB/square meter? One billion plus Chinese will all remember you.” The comment has been reposted many times and netizens gave Pan Shiyi a nickname “Pan 1,000”. (link)
- note:Tsinghua University has recently celebrated its 100 anniversary by highlighting, among its other achievements, the 29 outstanding scholars and scientists who were educated in at the school. All of the 29 great people were educated in Tsinghua before 1949. Tsung-Dao Lee and Chen-Ning Yang notwithstanding who [left China to study in the US and later] became American citizens (both were winners of Nobel Prize in Physics), among the 27 living in mainland China, two committed suicide; two others died of persecution; 13 of them were beaten down, with their homes being ransacked, and sent to labor camps. Those who were spared were mostly working in the military. (link)
- Bai Yansong (白岩松, CCTV host): In most of the countries, it is easy to speak the truth and to say what it is what it is. It does not require courage, nor sacrifice. On the other hand, it takes quite a bit of courage to lie, because there are consequences to lying, and you could get done for it. But here in China it is the opposite: It’s very easy to tell lies; you spew them out without your face blushing and your heart thumping; while it takes extraordinary courage to speak the truth, and you could even be tempting imprisonment. The upside-down of truth and lie is, in essence, the reverse of right and wrong.
- I remember that, when I was in primary school and again in secondary school, every year on the National Day, we stood in the middle of the Tiananmen Square in the early morning, with bouquets in hands, to form words. When I became a worker during the Cultural Revolution, every year we were taken out from our jobs, a month and a half before [the National Day], to practice formation. To earn the smile of the Great Leader on the Tiananmen, we the “Capital’s Militia Division” would practice goose stepping for more than a month, often to the point of our legs becoming swollen and our throats inflamed … Thank goodness, now that I am in my middle age and I finally understand that the National Day should a holiday for the people who live on this land! They alone are the masters of the country. As masters, they should be enjoying gatherings, relaxation, fall excursions, etc.; families and friends should be speaking what their hearts dictate and giving each other the love and friendship that’s humane. (link) You might also want to read Yaxue’s reflection on her experience on National Day 1984
- Zhang Ming (张鸣, Professor of Political Science at People’s University of China) : A female graduate student of Yu Dan committed suicide. Reporters contacted Yu Dan (a professor at Beijing Normal University, known for her kitsch TV lectures on Analects of Confucius). Yu Dan said she couldn’t come, because she was in the middle of attending a meeting of the Party representatives. (link)