mark hertsgaard

Independent Journalist & Author


Our Real China Problem

Chongqing, the Yangtze River city that Americans may know as
Chungking, is a naturally foggy place. It also suffers some of the
worst pollution in all China, which puts it among the strong
candidates for most polluted city in the world. When the fog and the
pollution are both at their thickest, locals say, if you stretch your
hand out in front of your face, you cannot see your fingers.


Visibility was somewhat better than that when I visited Chongqing one
morning recently. Perched high above the Jialin River, which also
flows through the city, I peered into the dank grayness before me. I
could dimly make out a black-and-white tugboat hugging the far shore
of the river and, beyond that, the outlines of what might be office
buildings. This was the view from the back of the Chongqing Paper
Factory, a massive state-owned facility that local environmental
officials had singled out as evidence of how well they were cleaning
up Chongqing. Built in the 1940s, the factory had been for a long time
a terrible polluter, discharging enough chlorine and other toxic
chemicals into the Jialin to cover the entire river with white foam,
according to a top official of the Chongqing Environmental Protection
Bureau who must remain nameless. Now, however, the official bragged in
an interview, the factory had been all but shut down. Our strategy
has been to press them to death! he said.

At the factory, though, it didn’t look that way. The official
discouraged me from trying to visit (I myself would have to seek
permission to enter, he said scoldingly), but Zhenbing, my
interpreter, and I found the front gate open when we arrived, and
since no one stopped us, we simply walked in. At the back of the plant
a set of concrete steps led down to the Jialin River, perhaps eighty
yards below. Halfway down Zhenbing and I cut left across the exposed
riverbank, our shoes leaving clear prints on the dark, sandy soil.

Within seconds we saw a broad stream of bubbling water cascading out
the back of the plant and down the hillside. The astringent odor of
chlorine attacked our nostrils, and once we reached the stream’s edge,
the smell was so powerful that we immediately backed away. Below us,
where the discharge emptied into the Jialin, a frothy white plume was
spreading across the slow-moving river.

Fifty yards farther on we encountered a second stream, this one a mere
foot wide but clogged with pineapple-sized clumps of dried orange
foam. Beyond was a third creek. Its stench identified it as household
sewage (workers in China’s state-owned factories generally live on
site or nearby), but its most extraordinary feature was its color —
as black as used motor oil. Not ten yards away a grizzled peasant in a
dark-blue Mao jacket and trousers (an outfit still worn in China by
the poor) bent over a tiny vegetable patch to pick some greens for his
midday meal.

All this was dwarfed by what lay ahead. The vapor was what we saw
first — wispy white, it hung low in the air, like tear gas. Stepping
closer, we heard the sound of gushing water. Not until we were merely
footsteps away, however, could we see the source of the commotion: a
vast, roaring torrent of white, easily thirty yards wide, splashing
down the hillside like a waterfall of boiling milk.

Again the scent of chlorine was unmistakable, but this waterfall was
much whiter than the first. Decades of unhindered discharge had left
the rocks coated with a creamlike residue, creating a perversely
beautiful white-on-white effect. Above us the waterfall had bent trees
sideways; below, it split into five channels before pouring into the
unfortunate Jialin. All this and yet the factory, as one worker had
informed us, was operating at about 25 percent of capacity.

Hoping to leave the factory grounds by another exit, Zhenbing and I
were trudging up a service road when a man wearing the olive-green
greatcoat of the Chinese military came running directly at us. It
seemed that our unauthorized factory tour might end badly after all.
But no. Military greatcoats turn out to be a bit like Mao jackets in
China these days: lots of people wear them, because they are cheap and
functional. In any case, this man had different worries. Liquid was
spilling from two large, loosely connected hoses by the side of the
road, one leading back up to the factory and the other stretching down
to the river. The man barked orders at two workers straddling the
hoses, and they stepped back. Then, without a word of warning to
Zhenbing and me — though we were standing only five feet away — he
knelt and tightened the connection between the hoses.

Instantly he was engulfed in an explosion of gas. But he was ready for
it, and in one fluid motion he straightened and started sprinting back
along the road, vanishing behind the billowing cloud of chlorine after
two steps. Zhenbing and I were not ready for it, but forward was the
only way out, so we held our breath and plunged after him. Six running
strides brought us past the worst of it, but even then we were
surrounded by huge puffs of gas, which started us coughing fiercely.

Thirty yards up the road we were still sputtering when we passed three
dump trucks parked against the factory wall. A dozen workers were
lounging in the backs of the trucks. The man in the greatcoat, who had
run all the way here, was bending down to tie his shoe. Chlorine is
the chemical that was used to kill soldiers in the poison-gas attacks
of the First World War, but the men in the trucks showed no concern
about the vapors floating past their heads. They only elbowed one
another and stared at the foreigner trudging past their factory —
evidently a far more unusual sight.

Zhenbing and I walked in silence to the plant’s side exit and left. We
were in the middle of a six-week trip through China to investigate the
environmental crisis, and it was not a cheering assignment. In
Beijing, Xi’an, and other cities of the north Zhenbing and I had
walked in air so thick with coal dust and car fumes that even sunny
days looked overcast and foggy. In the bone-dry province of Shanxi, a
day’s journey west of Beijing, we had ridden by train for hours
without seeing anything that resembled woods — there were only a few
scattered, spindly trees, which looked ready to expire any minute.
Everywhere, it seemed, the land had been scalped, the water poisoned,
the air made toxic and dark.

Despite witnessing all this, Zhenbing was not exactly a militant
environmentalist. Born into a very poor rural family thirty years ago,
he, like most Chinese I had met, was quite willing to put up with
filthy air and polluted water if it meant more jobs, better pay, a
chance to get ahead. But today’s experience had shaken my new friend.
Outside the factory we were waiting for the bus back downtown. I was
scribbling in my notebook when, behind me, I heard Zhenbing murmuring,
as if in a dream, My poor country. My poor country.


Human rights, China’s possible admission to the World Trade
Organization, its alleged Washington influence-buying — these are the
issues that have made international headlines in the months leading up
to this fall’s Sino-U.S. summit. But soon China’s environmental crisis
is bound to command equal attention. China claims that its population
is 1.22 billion people (as of the end of 1996). The true number is
certainly higher than that. But even the official figure means that
nearly one out of every four human beings on earth lives in China. The
Chinese economy is ranked anywhere from the third to the seventh
largest in the world, and is expected to be No. 1 by 2010. Incomes
have doubled since Deng Xiaoping initiated his marketplace reforms in
1979, and the environmental side effects have been devastating.

At least five of the cities with the worst air pollution in the world
are in China. Sixty to 90 percent of the rainfall in Guangdong, the
southern province that is the center of China’s economic boom, is acid
rain. Since nearly all the gasoline in China is leaded (Beijing
switched to unleaded gas in June), and 80 percent of the coal isn’t
washed before being burned, people’s lungs and nervous systems are
bombarded by an extraordinary volume and variety of deadly poisons.
One of every four deaths in China is caused by lung disease, brought
about by the air pollution and the increasingly fashionable habit of
cigarette smoking. Suburban sprawl and soil erosion gobbled up more
than 86 million acres of farmland from 1950 to 1990 — as much as all
the farmland in Germany, France, and the United Kingdom. Farmland
losses have continued in the 1990s, raising questions about China’s
ability to feed itself in years to come, especially as rising incomes
lead to more meat-intensive diets.

Even the government’s official policy pronouncements, which invariably
overaccentuate the positive, admit that environmental degradation in
China will get worse before it gets better. For China’s newfound
wealth has only whetted its citizens’ appetite for more. China’s huge
population wants to join the global middle class, with everything that
entails: cars, air-conditioners, closets full of clothes, jet travel.
Rising consumer demand has already resulted in chronic widespread
electricity shortages. Thus China plans to build more than a hundred
new power stations over the next decade, adding 18,000 megawatts of
capacity every year — roughly the equivalent of Louisiana’s entire
power grid. By 2020 its coal consumption will have doubled, if not
tripled. All this will not only worsen the country’s acid-rain and
air-pollution problems; it will endanger the entire planet, by
accelerating the global warming that scientists say is already under

China’s huge population and grand economic ambitions make it the most
important environmental actor in the world today, with the single
exception of the United States. Like the United States, China could
all but single-handedly make climate change, ozone depletion, and a
host of other hazards a reality for people all over the world. What
happens in China is therefore central to one of the great questions of
our time: Will human civilization survive the many environmental
pressures crowding in on it at the end of the twentieth century?

Like governments the world over, China’s leaders have learned to say
the right things about the environment. In 1992 China was an
enthusiastic participant in the United Nations Earth Summit. In July
of last year President Jianang Zemin and Premier Li Peng began to
speak out against environmental destruction and to urge a shift toward
sustainable development. China has also adopted comprehensive
environmental laws and regulations that on paper compare favorably
with — indeed, were often modeled on — their Western equivalents.

But the future is shaped less by official rhetoric than by what
actually happens on the ground, and as the Chongqing Paper Factory
illustrates, environmental laws are often simply not implemented in
China. This is no state secret; most of the dozens of government
officials I interviewed acknowledged the pervasiveness of the problem,
often without prompting. Sometimes the culprit is corruption: factory
owners use guanxi — personal connections — or bribery to get local
regulators to look the other way. Beijing either can’t or won’t stop
them. As the ancient Chinese adage says, The mountains are high, and
the Emperor is far away.

Even more common, and intractable, is the so-called soft-law syndrome.
Under soft law the government excuses state-owned companies from full
compliance with environmental laws and standards; the law is
softened in order to spare the companies (and the state banks
supporting them) from bankruptcy and to shield their workers from
unemployment. In contrast to corruption, soft law is not something
Chinese officials like to talk about.

Right after the explosion at the paper factory I had lunch with Hu
Jiquan, a top government economist in Chongqing. Keen to encourage
foreign investment, Hu was pledging that the local environment would
improve in years to come, thanks to tougher law enforcement. We will
close factories if we have to, Hu said. We’ve already closed more
than two hundred of them. Having just returned from the chlorine
waterfall, I couldn’t help challenging this rosy vision, and Hu was
honest enough to concede that short-term economic considerations often
do override environmental goals in China. The trouble is, if we close
that factory, many workers will lose their jobs, and our government
would rather support the workers than protect the water, he said with
a shrug.

Hu then extended his explanation, though he first told Zhenbing not to
translate this part for the foreigner. The government of Chongqing
knew perfectly well that the paper plant should be closed immediately.
In fact, it had tried to shut the plant months earlier (just as the
unnamed official quoted earlier had bragged), but the local people
and leaders complained a lot, so the government backed off. It was
afraid of social unrest.

This is the crux of the Chinese environmental problem. The government
knows the environment needs protecting, but it fears the social
consequences. Bluntly put, it worries that doing the right thing
environmentally could be political suicide.

A Long Nightmare of Deprivation

The government would like to protect the environment for a very simple
reason: senior officials have come to realize that environmental
degradation costs money — indeed, it threatens to derail China’s
entire economic-modernization program. Li Yining, a grand old man of
market economics, who was one of the masterminds of China’s transition
to private enterprise, told me in an interview that inadequate
ecological protection was one of the few things that could prevent
China’s economy from growing at 10 percent a year for a very long
time. Acid rain, for example, causes $2.8 billion worth of damage to
forests, agriculture, and industry in China every year. Air pollution
raises health-care costs and lowers workers’ productivity.
Deforestation worsens the floods that already kill thousands of
Chinese every year. The list goes on. The official China Daily
estimates that the annual cost of China’s environmental degradation is
seven percent of the gross domestic product. Vaclav Smil, a geographer
at the University of Manitoba and a leading expert on China’s
environment, calculates the cost at no less than 10 to 15 percent of
GDP. If Smil is correct, then the much-celebrated growth of China’s
economy is, in effect, being canceled out by associated environmental
degradation. In short, the economy is running hard but poisoning its
own future. The problem, of course, is that faithfully implementing
environmental laws would require closing hundreds of thousands of
factories and throwing tens of millions of people out of work.

The Chinese people have long and bitter experience with scarcity and
are understandably eager to leave it behind. As recently as 1949 life
expectancy was only thirty-nine years, a level not seen in Europe
since the Industrial Revolution. All Chinese over forty have firsthand
memories of the greatest man-made disaster of the twentieth century,
the famine caused by Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward campaign. As
Jasper Becker, the Beijing bureau chief of the South China Morning
Post, documents in Hungry Ghosts (1997), the famine killed some 30
million people from 1959 to 1961 and brought starvation, misery, and
even cannibalism to rural China.

Today the average Chinese life-span is about seventy years, yet scores
of millions still live in desperate poverty. In one village I visited
in Sichuan province, on a very cold day when my feet were only just
comfortable inside heavily insulated hiking boots, I watched a
grim-faced peasant woman washing her family’s clothes in the river,
her bare feet dangling in the frigid water. On the other side of the
village a man, also barefoot, stamped around on a pile of loose, moist
coal, looking like an eighteenth-century European peasant crushing
grapes for wine. In fact he was manufacturing the briquettes of fuel
whose carcinogenic combustion would provide what little heat he and
his neighbors enjoyed in their windowless mud huts.

Now that China is at last awakening from its long nightmare of
deprivation, the Communist Party’s tattered legitimacy depends on
keeping the economic expansion going, and extending it to the many
regions that still lag behind. Yet the marketplace reforms that have
sparked double-digit economic growth in China have also brought pain
to vast portions of the population. As a result, there has been much
more social unrest in China in recent years than most outsiders
realize. The mass occupation of Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989 and
the army’s subsequent massacre of unarmed demonstrators are well
known. But similarly militant protests took place at the same time in
cities and towns throughout China; that news did not reach the outside
world because there were no foreign journalists on hand to report it.
Recently, as the transition from state-organized economy to
private-market free-for-all has touched the lives of more and more
Chinese, thousands of wildcat strikes and street demonstrations have
occurred across the country, especially in Manchuria, a bastion of
heavy industry, where unemployment rates now exceed 30 percent. WE
DON’T WANT DEMOCRACY, WE WANT TO SURVIVE, declared one protest banner
in the city of Shenyang.

All this has left Party leaders determined to keep the economy growing
no matter what. They believe that Tiananmen Square was not primarily
about politics — about the issues of democracy and human rights that
dominated Western news reports — but about economics. There is truth
to this. Hundreds of thousands of average Chinese followed the
students into the streets not only because they yearned to breathe
free but also because they were angry about hyperinflation,
corruption, and their own uncertain economic prospects. The Party saw
its life flash before its eyes in 1989, and it got a second warning in
1991, when its erstwhile big brother, the Communist Party in the
Soviet Union, fell from power. The Chinese Communists are determined
not to suffer the same fate. As Deng Xiaoping warned his fellow Party
leaders after Tiananmen Square, if the Party cannot improve the
welfare of the people, the people will go into the streets.

Environmental Revolts

But there is a Catch-22. The people, it seems, will also go into the
streets if their local environment becomes intolerably polluted — if,
for example, they are deprived of safe drinking water.

There were social revolts along the Huai River, so the State Council
[China’s Cabinet] had to react, one retired senior government
official told me, recalling the most dramatic government crackdown on
pollution to date. The Huai region, located about 200 miles northwest
of Shanghai, is the most densely populated of China’s seven major
river basins: 110 million inhabitants share 108,000 square miles of
land. The river had been severely polluted for years, but it got
drastically worse in July of 1994, when a sudden flood of toxins
turned the river black and deadly for weeks. Hundreds of thousands of
people were left without drinking water, several thousand were treated
for dysentery, diarrhea, and vomiting, and 26 million pounds of fish
were killed.

Popular outrage took many forms, including pelting local officials
with eggs when they blocked foreign journalists from filming the
river. The most extraordinary moment came when a top leader from
Beijing, Song Jian, the elderly chairman of the State Council’s
environment committee, arrived to inspect the site. Somehow one brave
and resourceful peasant managed to give Song a glass of river water to
drink. Song took a sip of the putrid brew; then he turned to the local
and provincial officials flanking him and shrewdly invited them to
drain the glass. These officials had ignored earlier pleas to close
the paper, leather, and dyeing factories whose waste fouled the Huai.
Song told them they would be sacked if the offending factories were
not shut promptly. Last summer the government closed 999 paper mills
and untold numbers of other factories.

If Beijing fears social unrest so much, why did it shut all those
factories? One reason, said the retired senior government official,
was that for years no boy from [certain villages in] the Huai River
area has been healthy enough to pass the physical examination required
to enter the army. Even more important, said other observers, these
factories were township and village enterprises, or TVEs — small,
privately owned plants that employed no more than a few dozen workers
each. TVEs employed at most tens of thousands of moonlighting peasants
who had never stopped working in their fields. Against that fact the
government had to weigh the anger of the many hundreds of thousands of
people who relied on the Huai for their drinking water — people who
had already demonstrated a capacity for protest. There was no question
which group should be placated.

Beijing went national with the campaign against TVEs in August of last
year, when the State Council ordered some 60,000 heavily polluting
factories to close. That sounds like a big number, but in a country
as large as China it amounts to only one percent of the total number
of enterprises and workers, Ye Requi, a deputy administrator of the
National Environmental Protection Agency, told me. Ye nevertheless
argued that the closings show the seriousness of the government in
this area. Unfortunately, TVEs account for only a fraction of China’s
pollution — estimates range from five to 30 percent. To make a real
dent in the problem, state-owned enterprises like the Chongqing Paper
Factory would have to be closed. But fear of social unrest makes that
problematic, as it does the recent pledge by Party leaders to end
state ownership of 10,000 of China’s 13,000 largest industrial

Thus China’s leaders find themselves in a box. They can, in the name
of economic growth, leave the big factories and other environmental
hazards essentially undisturbed and hope that the resulting pollution
and ecological destruction do not trigger either unmanageable popular
protest or long-run economic stagnation. Or they can clamp down, clean
up, and face the double short-term risk of a stalled economy and a
wrathful proletariat. Not an enviable choice, but for Chinese leaders
not a difficult one either. As Chen Qi, the top environmental official
in Liaoning, a region of bitter winter cold and 30 percent
unemployment, explained to me, Heavy pollution may kill you in a
hundred days, but without enough heat and food you die in three.

The Collapse of the One-Child Policy THE most pervasive
environment-related myth about China is that couples are allowed to
have only one child. But in truth the one-child policy has long been
more slogan than reality, in the words of a top Chinese demographer.
The Party was forced by popular resistance to back off from the policy
— another example of social unrest driving government decisions.
Enraged peasants were actually attacking and killing local Party
leaders and their families.

When one Party boss in southern China forced a woman to abort in her
seventh month of pregnancy, he lived to regret it. The woman and her
husband already had a daughter, but like all Chinese peasants, they
wanted a son — the only old-age insurance available in China. During
the abortion it was discovered that the woman had been carrying two
sons — twins. When the father heard this news, Steven W. Mosher
reports in Broken Earth (1983), he exploded in a murderous rage and
ran through the village to the house of the Party leader. There the
father grabbed the leader’s two sons, aged eight and ten, and hurled
them down the courtyard well. He then leaped in after them, closing
the circle of death with suicide.

Such attacks apparently convinced Beijing that the one-child policy
posed a threat to Party authority. In 1984, five years after the
policy was inaugurated, it was relaxed, though in rural areas only.

Today the one-child family is all but unheard of in rural China, where
nearly three out of four Chinese live. In my six weeks of travel,
which took me from Liaoning and Hebei provinces in the north through
Shanxi and Sichuan in the middle west to Hunan and Guangdong in the
south, I talked with scores of peasant families. I was the first
foreigner that some of these peasants, especially the children, had
ever seen. Every family I met had at least two children; many had
three or four, and some had five or more. In a village near the Pearl
River I shot baskets with a boy of ten who shyly told me that he was
the youngest of seven. It seems that the only Chinese who do adhere to
the one-child target are urban dwellers — especially those who work
directly for the government and thus can be easily monitored, and
penalized through the withholding of salaries, promotions, and the

All of which casts strong doubt on official claims regarding China’s
population: that Chinese women average only two births each; that the
population will not reach 1.5 billion until 2030; that it will peak at
1.6 billion in 2046. Although some newly affluent families are, in the
familiar demographic pattern, having fewer children, the gross numbers
are almost certainly greater. The truth is that no one knows exactly
how big China’s population is, or how fast it is growing.

Ten years ago China had a reputation for having the best population
statistics in the world, because there was no way for its people to
hide what they were doing from the government, Gu Baochang, the
associate director of the official China Population Information and
Research Center, told me. But today Chinese figures have become very
questionable. The problem is, the local Party leaders compete with one
another to post the lowest birth rate, just as they compete to have
the highest economic growth rate…. So at each level of authority the
targets get tightened. If the central government sets a target of
eighteen births per thousand people this year, the provincial leaders
tell county officials no, they must achieve sixteen, and the county
leaders tell village officials no, it must be fourteen. The
regrettable results, Gu added, include a renewed coercion of women,
continued abortions of female fetuses, and underreporting of the
nation’s true birth rates up the chain of command.

Yet even scrupulously honest reporting would not change the
fundamental fact that Chinese leaders waited too long to attack the
problem. In the late 1950s Mao brushed aside warnings about the
approaching difficulties, arguing that China could always produce its
way out of trouble, since every mouth is born with two hands
attached. Not until 1971, when the population already exceeded 850
million, did China begin pursuing birth control in earnest. The
later, longer, fewer program urged later marriages, increased
spacing between children, and a limit of two children per family. It
was both less coercive and more successful than the subsequent
one-child policy, reducing average births per woman from 5.8 in 1970
to 2.8 by 1977 — a remarkable achievement. But it was not enough.
Because the base number — China’s population — was already so large,
even this lower rate of growth translated into huge absolute

That dynamic still operates today, which may be why President Jiang in
1996 spoke of reanimating the one-child policy. Even if the official
Chinese claim of 2.0 births per woman is accurate, that amounts to an
annual increase of 15 million people. So even though China has
reduced its fertility as much as possible, Gu explained to me, the
total population is still growing as much as it was in the early
1970s, when women were having four or more children each.

Population growth is probably China’s most important environmental
issue, because it magnifies all others. For example, China ranks near
the very bottom in global comparisons of per capita supplies of arable
land, fresh water, and forests. This is in part because so much of
China’s land is arid, and in part because Mao, in his mad Great Leap
Forward, ordered millions of trees to be cut down. But the country’s
gargantuan population makes a bad situation worse.

Beijing has so little water that Party leaders have questioned whether
the city can remain the capital, according to Yu Yuefeng, the staff
director of the Environmental Protection and Natural Resources
Conservation Committee of the National People’s Congress. With a
nervous chuckle, Yu told me that the problem has eased in the past two
years, thanks to higher than normal rainfall, but, he conceded, This
is a roll of the dice. We have to rely on the gods to keep the rains
coming. In his privileged Party position Yu can afford to laugh. The
problem is not so amusing for some 50 million people in rural northern
China who must walk for miles or wait for days to obtain any drinking
water at all. As for farmland, population growth has reduced the
supply per person to about the size of one third of a tennis court.

Everywhere I visited, I noticed that China felt crowded. How could it
not? China’s population is five times that of the United States, even
though the two countries occupy roughly the same amount of land area.
But since deserts and mountains make the western half of China
inhospitable to human settlement, 90 percent of its population lives
in the east. Imagine, then, almost nine times as many people living
east of the Mississippi as live there in real life. That is everyday
reality in China.

In all the thousands of miles of scenery I observed during my travels,
I cannot recall a single place without signs of intense human
settlement. Open space was for farming, period, and was cultivated to
within an inch of its life, with furrows reaching right to the edge of
any road and curling into hollows as small as pitcher’s mounds. In
daylight hours the cities become churning masses of congestion.
Although China has only one car for every 150 inhabitants (the United
States has one for every two), that still means a huge number of cars.
Jockeying for space alongside them are sky-blue cargo trucks, ancient
city buses, an occasional horse-drawn wagon, and an endless fleet of
bicycles — many of them three-wheeled cargo bikes, transporting
everything from bulging sacks of fruit and vegetables to freshly
skinned sides of pork to couches, toilets, and televisions.

Traffic jams are the rule. Since no vehicle seems capable of forward
motion without frequent beeps of its horn (Chinese drivers say this is
necessary to clear the way forward, just as they honestly believe that
using headlights at night wastes gas and causes accidents), making
one’s way across town is a stressful adventure. Negotiating the
sidewalks is no better, partly because the pavement is invariably
covered with many kinds of litter: plastic bags, peanut shells,
cigarette boxes, food cartons, construction-site refuse, and other
unsavory items. Pedestrians don’t necessarily try to crash into one
another, but they certainly don’t shrink from it. Intersections are
bedlam. There are no STOP signs, very few traffic lights, and no
concept of right-of-way, so everyone simply presses forward at all
times. Crossing the street often resembles a game of chicken, with
pedestrian and driver inching ahead in apparent disregard of each
other until someone blinks. In the swarming cacophony of urban China
one presses forward or gets run over.

Public transportation in China is not for the claustrophobic, to put
it mildly. In trains and buses one’s body is constantly pressed
against, usually from two or more sides, by the bodies of other
passengers, who seem neither to notice nor to care. As they have done
with so many discomforts over the years, the Chinese have grown used
to such close proximity. Zhenbing and I were once standing in line at
a train station, waiting to offer the bribe necessary to gain sleeper
tickets, when suddenly I felt myself grabbed from behind and moved
aside as roughly as if I were blocking Patrick Ewing’s path to the
basket. I’m not the fighting type, but I instinctively whirled around
to find … no one. The culprit, a man in his sixties, had already
hurried past me, intent on his destination. There had been no malice
in his gesture, only the natural impatience of an animal who has been
confined in too small a space with too many others for too long a
time. I tried to take a calming deep breath, but my lungs couldn’t
reach it. Not for the last time in China, I felt as if I had stumbled
into some fiendish laboratory experiment that was mushrooming beyond

The Meaning of Spitting

Walking down the sidewalk in China was a challenge not only because of
all the people I had to dodge but also because of the puddles of spit
they left in my path. Everyone, it seems, spits in China — on the
sidewalk, in the classroom, on the train, in restaurants. The habit is
universal. During a daylong train ride from Shenyang I was wedged
between a sniffling peasant girl on one side and her older brother or
cousin on the other. We had hard-seat tickets — the lowest class,
and the only ones available. I was a curiosity to these peasants, and
to show friendship the young man offered me a few of the sunflower
seeds he and his family of seven were munching. Upon finishing his own
seeds, he washed them down with a swig of tea and then, with a deep
hawking sound, summoned from his throat a prodigious gob of phlegm,
which he casually spat onto the floor in front of us. He then reached
out his foot and rubbed the spit into the floor, as if stamping out a
cigarette. It was 8:15 A.M., there were fourteen more hours to
Beijing, and lots more spittle was loosed throughout that packed
compartment before we arrived.

The Communists tried to eradicate spitting when they came to power, in
1949; it was one of their first exhortations to the masses. They
failed. Spitting lives on because it is a habit of peasant life, and
the vast majority of Chinese are still peasants or only one generation
removed. The habit apparently derives from the basic conditions of
peasant life, which include rampant lung infections and other
respiratory problems. These, in turn, result from a historical fact
with enormous environmental implications: for centuries Chinese
peasants lived with very little heat in wintertime. They burned wood
if they were lucky, but more often they used dried leaves and crop
stalks, as Zhenbing remembers his family doing exclusively before he
turned ten, in 1976. Today peasants still rely on such biomass fuels
for 70 percent of their energy consumption.

Coal therefore represents a great advance for the Chinese people; it
keeps a body much warmer. But it does so at terrible cost: the Chinese
are dying in frightful numbers from coal smoke. Twenty-six percent of
all deaths in China are caused by respiratory disease. Coal smoke is
not the sole cause of these deaths, but it is a major contributor.
Outdoor air pollution, of which coal smoke is the main component, is
second only to cigarette smoking as a cause of lung cancer in China’s
cities, where lung cancers have increased 18.5 percent since 1988.
Coal is also a central element in the indoor pollution from home
stoves that is the chief cause of rural lung cancers, especially among

There is little hope of relief. One of the few natural resources China
has in abundance, coal accounts for three quarters of total energy
consumption. The country’s power stations and manufacturing plants are
fueled overwhelmingly by coal. Factor in coal’s dominant role in
keeping people warm, along with the primitive technologies often
employed, and it’s no surprise that Chinese cities, especially in the
industrial, frigid north, have some of the filthiest air on the

Levels of total suspended particulates, or TSP (soot and dust, in
lay terms), are appallingly high in China — often four to nine times
as high as the World Health Organization’s guideline of 60 to 90
micrograms per cubic meter annually. Most American cities have
readings in the 40-to-60 range; New York measures 62. In some northern
cities in China the level climbs as high as 400, 500, or even 800 in

The Ghosts in Tiananmen Square

Visitors to Beijing can forget seeing blue skies in winter, except
immediately after Siberian winds have roared through. By chance such
winds struck the capital the night of my arrival. But two days later
the winds calmed, and over the following week and a half I witnessed
the sickening descent of the city into murk and gloom.

At noon on my third day, a Saturday, after barely twelve hours of
still air, I took a bus across town to a luncheon interview, traveling
the main east-west boulevard past Tiananmen Square. Directly above me
the sky was still blue, but in the distance a fuzzy pale-gray layer of
smog already frosted the skyline. When I came back outside a mere four
hours later, the layer had nearly doubled in thickness, its blurry
density giving the sky an otherworldly aspect as it melted into a
sunset of vivid pinks and yellows. The pollution accumulated with each
passing day, and by Thursday I was used to waking up to a dull
gray-white haze that rested on the city skyline like a lid on a wok.

On Friday morning I took a taxi to the National People’s Congress.
Passing through the larger intersections of Beijing, I looked both
ways down the cross streets, but my line of sight extended no farther
than about 200 yards. When I reached Tiananmen Square, at 8:45, the
sun hung white and barely visible above the southern gate to the
Imperial Palace, like a dim light bulb in a barroom full of cigarette
smoke. Gazing north, past Mao’s mausoleum and the site of the 1989
massacre, I could not see the far end of the square, much less the
Forbidden City beyond it. The pedestrians crossing the square were
like spectral figures, half ghost, half flesh, as they disappeared
into the gritty mist.

During our travels beyond Beijing, Zhenbing and I fell into a running
debate over which city in China had the nastiest air. Was it, in fact,
Beijing? Zhenbing, a resident of the capital, wouldn’t entertain the
possibility. Was it Benxi, in Manchuria, whose pollution was so thick
that in the 1980s the city had vanished from satellite photos?
Possibly. Though Benxi was now visible again from outer space, local
officials admitted that its TSP levels remained very high. What’s
more, my interviews with residents suggested that what progress had
been made stemmed as much from widespread factory bankruptcies as from
the government’s vaunted cleanup campaign.

For a day I leaned toward Datong, an ugly, low-slung town known as
China’s coal-mining capital. Bad as the air was in Beijing, it was
unusual there to see smokestacks belching copious amounts of
pure-black smoke; the pollution somehow seemed more dispersed. In
Datong black emissions were routine and ubiquitous. Nevertheless,
Datong was soon supplanted by Taiyuan, its neighbor to the south.
Taiyuan, the provincial capital, was another major coal center that
seemed to impose no controls on smokestack emissions. But it had a
population of four million, nearly five times that of Datong. Its air
was as soupy and gray as a foggy day in London, though there was no
natural fog within a hundred miles.

Another formidable competitor was Xi’an, the ancient imperial capital
known the world over for the enormous collection of terra-cotta
warriors buried outside town. A splendid bell tower and massive city
wall dating back to the Ming dynasty further enhance Xi’an’s
reputation as one of China’s loveliest cities. But Xi’an’s pollution
screened these architectural treasures from view. Even on a sunny day
the only sign of the orb itself was a patch of sky somewhat brighter
than the rest. As a test I timed how long I could stare at that
artificially veiled sun without hurting my eyes. After sixty seconds I
stopped counting.

Astonishingly, the Chinese I met insisted that their health is not
endangered by all this pollution. I developed a dry, rasping cough
because I was a foreigner; they, on the other hand, were used to it.
I heard that phrase dozens of times, even from people who should have
known better. One leading environmental scholar and advocate in
Beijing, for example, assured me that his lungs could tolerate his
daily jogs because he had been breathing Beijing’s air for years. By
that logic, of course, smoking cigarettes poses no health risk so long
as one begins in early childhood. He granted the point, but said that
since he could not escape Beijing’s air, he at least wanted to be as
strong and fit as possible.

The biology of cancer seems to be unknown to many Chinese; even
well-educated people appear to be unaware that the human body cannot
build up tolerance against industrial carcinogens the way it can
against the infections that cause influenza. But the lack of awareness
goes deeper. A tendency to deny unpleasant realities has become part
of the Chinese personality in recent decades, according to Orville
Schell, the author of many books on China. A society that has for
decades had to ignore so many unjust and irrational things in order to
just get along — the injustices of the gulag, families ruined during
the Cultural Revolution, other kinds of government barbarity, the lack
of a believable news media — is one in which the capacity to avoid
recognizing all sorts of problems, including environmental ones, has
become essential to survive, Schell says. In addition, most Chinese
accept the familiar idea that economic growth requires environmental
damage, and they are quite ready to pay that price. We have a saying
in China, one journalist who has tried to raise public awareness of
the subject told me. ‘Is your stomach too full?’ In other words, are
you so well off you can afford to complain about nothing? This phrase
is used for Americans who talk about saving birds and monkeys while
there are still many Chinese people who don’t have enough food to

400 Green Chinese

The environmental movement in China, such as it is, thus faces a
daunting challenge. The few individuals who dare to work on the issue
say that by necessity education is the top priority. Liang Conjie, the
founder and president of Friends of Nature, one of the very few
independent environmental groups in China, told me that his
organization got permission to operate because it registered as a
cultural rather than a political group. He added that with a mere 400
members, Friends of Nature could never oppose the government
directly, the way Greenpeace would — that will not work. Liang
focuses instead on raising public consciousness, particularly by
prodding Chinese journalists to cover environmental issues more

It would be hard to overstate the power that the government-run media
exercise in China, so, not surprisingly, Liang was glad to see an
increase during the past year in media criticism of environmental
problems. Much of that increase has been orchestrated by the
government itself, specifically the National Environmental Protection
Agency. But there are definite limits to what the official media will
say. In my stories, one journalist told me, I always have to begin
with something positive — how NEPA has announced new policies to
protect the air, for example — not with how the pollution got there
in the first place and what its exact effects are. So people don’t
know how bad the situation actually is.

Is it cynical to observe that the Chinese media’s newfound interest in
environmental issues correlates rather neatly with the environmental
crackdown on TVEs that Beijing ordered last summer? The coverage will
probably continue as long as the Party keeps pressing the
environmental issue, but how long will that be? The anti-pollution
campaign may soon blow over, says Jasper Becker, of the South China
Morning Post. The pattern is for such campaigns to come and go, each
being replaced by another, and then everyone goes back to doing what
they were doing before.

Whose Camel Is It?

President Bill Clinton has said that in his meeting with President
Jiang Zemin, in October of 1995, he told Jiang that the biggest
security threat China posed to the United States was related not to
nuclear weapons or trade agreements but to the environment.
Specifically, Clinton worried that China would copy America’s bad
example while pursuing economic development and end up causing
terrible air pollution and global warming. Clinton said he could tell
that Jiang hadn’t thought about it just like that. No doubt. Jiang
was probably wondering whether his American counterpart could possibly
be serious. If ever there was a non-issue for China’s leaders, global
warming is it.

Global warming is not on our agenda, a senior official for the
Chongqing Environmental Protection Bureau said with a dismissive wave
of his hand when I asked about his agency’s strategies to reduce
emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. As if to
underscore his contempt for the issue, the official asserted something
he had to know was false — All the pollution produced in Chongqing
is landing here in Chongqing, so it’s not a global problem — before
declaring, We can’t start worrying about carbon dioxide until we
solve the sulfur dioxide problem. The official was referring to acid
rain, which he and his colleagues in China consider more urgent,
because acid rain is landing on them and causing tangible damage
today, whereas carbon-dioxide emissions threaten merely potential,
far-off, worldwide damage.

Shortsighted? Yes, but understandable. I arrived in China eager to
investigate the issue of climate change, but I almost forgot to raise
the point during some interviews. When one is inhaling appallingly
polluted air for weeks on end, one tends to focus the questions on

China is a greenhouse giant. It has already surpassed the former
Soviet Union to become the world’s second largest producer of
greenhouse gases, trailing only the United States. With its immense
coal reserves, huge population, and booming economic growth, China is
very likely to triple its greenhouse emissions by 2020. Absent a
radical shift in policies elsewhere in the world, that increase will
accelerate global climate change, plunging the world into potentially
catastrophic territory — melting polar ice caps, raising sea levels,
causing more and nastier hurricanes, droughts, and blizzards. China
will by no means be immune. Much of its coastline could face severe
flooding; perhaps 67 million people could be affected.

Yet China has little patience with Western finger-pointing on the
climate-change issue, regarding it as a cynical means of constraining
China’s economic development. That is oversensitive, but it contains a
kernel of truth. For all its nuclear weapons, grand ambitions, and
mobile-phone-wielding, expensively dressed business executives, China
remains a poor country where hundreds of millions of people have no
reliable supply of electricity. What’s more, China emits a far smaller
amount of greenhouse gases per capita than the rich nations whose
earlier industrialization has already condemned the world to climate
change. If outsiders want China to do something about global warming,
they will have to pay for it. As one Western consultant with regular
access to senior Chinese officials puts it, They know very well they
can hold the world for ransom … and whenever they can extract
concessions, they will.

The Americans say China is the straw that breaks the camel’s back on
greenhouse-gas emissions, says Zhou Dadi, the deputy director general
of the State Planning Commission’s Energy Research Institute. But we
say, ‘Why don’t you take some of your heavy load off the camel first?’
If the camel belongs to America, fine, we’ll walk. But the camel does
not belong to America. China will insist on the per capita principle
[of distributing emissions rights]. What else are we supposed to do?
Go back to no heat in winter? Impossible.

China is not like Africa, you know — some remote place that’s never
been developed. We used to be the most developed country in the world.
Now, after many decades of turbulence, civil war, revolution,
political instability, and other difficulties, we finally have the
chance to develop the country again. And we will not lose that

A Terrible Dilemma

To get rich is glorious, in Deng Xiaoping’s famous phrase. Although
unrestrained growth can destroy the ecosystems on which all economies
ultimately depend, the headlong pursuit of wealth is the cornerstone
of modern Chinese life. The crowning irony is that even China’s top
environmental officials accept that economic growth must take
precedence over environmental protection for years to come. Economic
growth is essential not only to maintaining political stability —
avoiding a return to the chaos and stagnation seen during the Cultural
Revolution — but also to financing the environmental cleanup. The
money will come from the polluter-pays principle, explains Zhang
Kunmin, another deputy administrator of the National Environmental
Protection Agency. The enterprises and households must pay the true
costs of a cleaner environment, so they need more wealth.

This is the terrible dilemma of China’s environmental crisis, argues
a Chinese environmental expert who must remain nameless. If economic
growth stops, people will go back to the old, dirty, cheaper methods
of production. Worse, there will be political instability, and that
will overshadow everything; in that case no one will have time to
worry about the environment. Of course, this rapid economic growth
will cause additional environmental damage; some things in the
environment are irreversible. That’s why I think China will have to
lose something — some species, some wetlands, something. We are
working very hard to strengthen our environment. But, much as I regret
it, you cannot save all the things you would like. You cannot stop a
billion people.

It is true: China, and the rest of us, will have to lose something
in the years ahead. But the scope of that loss matters greatly, and
can be influenced. China has made great strides in the past toward the
efficient use of energy. With (self-interested) help from the United
States and other wealthy nations, a program to install efficient
equipment and processes throughout China’s energy system could reduce
its energy consumption by half. Similar improvements are possible in
other areas of environmental policy. But there is no time for delay or
half measures. As a government scientist in Chongqing told me, It is
never too late to learn, but it is very late.



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About Mark

Independent journalist Mark Hertsgaard is the author of seven books that have been translated into sixteen languages, including Bravehearts: Whistle Blowing in the Age of Snowden; HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth; and A Day in the Life: The Music and Artistry of the Beatles. He has reported from twenty-five countries about politics, culture and the environment for leading outlets, including The Guardian, Der Spiegel, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Time, Mother Jones, NPR, the BBC and The Nation, where is the environment correspondent. He lives in San Francisco.