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China Commentary– Youthful Musings on the Environment, Culture & Development

Posts Tagged ‘Pollution

China & the US: Corruption, Progress, and Tragedy

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China doesn’t say it’s going to change. It doesn’t ask you to believe in it.  But it’s happening.

I’ve often written about this country’s extreme paradoxes, how I can never seem to decide if it’s righting its course or steadily eroding. China is fascinating and frightening. It’s grotesque and inspiring.

And now, China is our only hope.

It hurts to say. I feel unpatriotic, a traitor to my upbringing. The good ol’ US of A is meant to kick ass and take names, to lead. And yet, as inspired as I was by Barack Obama’s historic ascent to the presidency, I’m equally horrified by the impotency of his tenure and the implications of our collective behavior.

For what seems like months, in reality is years upon years, I’ve witnessed Washington quibble over plans for universal healthcare.

I just don’t get it. How is this so difficult?

And what now? You’re bringing assault rifles to speeches? Town hall fights? What is this madness?

Burning flags, gay marriage, prayer in the classroom. We spend months and months and months working on this in Congress, and pass nothing. But on big issues, big like Andre-the-Giant-standing-on-a-ladder-on-Mt. Everest-type issues, we revert to mind-numbing partisan hack jobs. We choose paralysis over politics. And worse, we citizens allow it.

Chinese know they cannot openly question their government. But in a country where we can, the best we can muster is crazy gun-totting homophobes carrying Bibles to town hall? Holy Baby Jesus.

As we bicker and point fingers and nod our heads to the lunacy of TV pundits, here’s what China is doing.

1. Cracking down on corruption at the highest levels.

October 1st is the 60th anniversary of the PRC. Chairman/President/His Holiness Hu Jintao is expected to announce major achievements in righting some of the massive wrongs of corruption over the last, well, forever in China.

“Every month for the past year, at least one cadre at the level of assistant minister or above has been nabbed for ‘economic crimes’ and allied felonies,” writes Willy Lam in a phenomenal piece on the anti-graft campaign. Long-standing party members and mafia frontmen are feeling the heat.

The crackdown recently nabbed Kang Rixin, head of China’s nuclear energy program, one of the most powerful 204 cadres in the country. It’s progress, mind you, not an end-all solution.  Corruption in China will continue. As Lam writes,

Doubts remain as to whether the Hu administration will go one step further and introduce institutional checks and balances, as well as allow scrutiny from the media and independent anti-graft agencies, to better eradicate the scourge of graft and related malfeasances.

But this much is known: if you want to skim off the top nowadays, you better have the skill set (or be Hu Jinatao’s son).

Here’s more. For the first time ever, China’s 10th meeting of the Standing Committee just passed a resolution declaring a commitment to fight climate change. Just words, yes. But this is the first time that the highest reaches of government have conceded climate change must be addressed. Some call it peanuts, I’ll call it progress.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of progress in China is that so much is left to be done and much of it is easily within in reach. Unlike the US, China has the ability to implement policy nationwide practically immediately. In other words, while the US jabs, China is throwing uppercuts. As Thomas Friedman writes,

One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages. That one party can just impose the politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move a society forward in the 21st century. It is not an accident that China is committed to overtaking us in electric cars, solar power, energy efficiency, batteries, nuclear power and wind power. China’s leaders understand that in a world of exploding populations and rising emerging-market middle classes, demand for clean power and energy efficiency is going to soar. Beijing wants to make sure that it owns that industry and is ordering the policies to do that, including boosting gasoline prices, from the top down.

That, the in-between-the-lines up there, used to belong almost solely to the United States. We called it Balls and Foresight. Now we have malls and foreclosures.

But it’s not the economy that worries me. I’m supremely confident Wall Street will find a way to make money off of others. That, to me, is a lock. They have plenty of time to find the next best method, because everyone is distracted by the nonsense that is now healthcare and tomorrow will be something else. Because as much as I want universal healthcare, I feel that half of my Congress is dead set on me not getting it.

So what I do care about is the environment. My ability to eat, drink, and breathe is very important. These three come before the health issues they may cause. And, as I said, progress is attainable here in China.

A new joint report by The Boston Consulting Group and The Natural Resources Defense Council reads,

If by 2015, the end of China’s 12th Five-Year Term, 5% of existing buildings and 60% of new buildings were to achieve levels of energy consumption 50% below those of comparable non-green buildings in similar climate zones, the subsequent annual energy savings would be 170 billion kWh electricity, equivalent to turning off all the lights in America for one month. CO2 emissions would be cut by 170 million tonnes.

It’s been proven. Beijing’s “Agenda 21 Building” applied existing technology and reduced energy consumption by 70%. According to Justin Fung, co-author of the report,

“What is not commonly understood is that building operational use accounts for around 25% of China’s total energy consumption… That is more energy than China’s cement, iron and steel sectors combined. And if you include energy used for manufacturing and transporting building materials and products, China’s buildings consume 30-40% of the country’s total energy.”

People like to say the United States is The Land Where Anything is Possible. Well, healthcare sure doesn’t seem to be. Does the shoe still fit?

China Needs “Environmental Infrastructure”

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Small (relatively) cities in China need to know more about the effects of pollution on their health.

Small (relatively) cities in China need to know more about the effects of pollution on their health.

Greenlaw’s Alex Wang just posted a short piece reiterating calls for more open channels of information on toxic emissions here in China.  There have been recent reports of serious lead poisoning in Shaanxi province, leading to bouts of “unrest.”  I don’t like that term.  Unrest.  But I do like what Wang had to say,

“In this economic downturn, China has been investing heavily in infrastructure – rail, highways and the like – to make China more economically competitive going forward.  Think of open environmental information as necessary environmental protection infrastructure, without which the entire environmental protection system breaks down.  Let’s hope for the same sort of aggressive push for information infrastructure in the coming months and years.”

Open information is essential.  But it’s not enough.  There need to be members of each society who can help explain consequences in a way local people can relate.  The China Daily article mentions a mother telling her daughter she can not possibly have lead poisoning because she is 18.  They were only offering the free testing for children up to 14.

It reminds me of a story.  A few years back, traveling through the countryside of Cambodia, I was appalled to see people living in their own refuse.  Front yards were cluttered with bags and bottles, rotting food and torn cloth.  Passing some homes, you could smell the heaps of trash from 100 yards away.

I asked my Cambodian friend,  “Why do people pile trash in their own front yard?  Aren’t they repulsed?”

“No, they don’t even think about it,” he replied.  “Remember, only recently did these people begin gettting access to plastics.  Before that, almost all of their trash would biodegrade and sometimes even be useful as compost.  They do not know that this plastic will be here forever.  No one has taught them.”

A Look at Asia, Tourism and Tension

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My cousin recently ventured into Burma, after we parted ways in Vietnam.  He later told me the contrast between the two was nearly indescribable.  On the one hand, you have Vietnam, rolling in new money and racing ahead at reckless speeds.  On the other, Burma, idle and eroding, sinking into dictatorship and economic stagnation.

It had me thinking of the Asian countries I have visited in the past two years, in comparison to each other, and in comparison to some of the places I have been in Africa.  It’s a unique system of development in this corner of the world, one very dependent on its geography.  There’s massive China.  South Korea, Japan and Taiwan have all followed similar paths, straight down to Singapore.  Then there’s the peninsula with Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar, all lead by Thailand in regional power and leadership.  The island nations, they have their own type of development, the Philippines, Malaysia, etc.

Common to them all is the boon of tourism.  Unlike Africa, people think of Asia as a “safe” place.  It’s long been part of the backpacker circuit, and has been further pushed and developed in the last 20 years than ever before.  The situation is slightly different in China and Japan, who are welcoming more tourists but also sending out an all-time high as well.  Meanwhile, the peninsula and the island nations are facing a huge influx of transient visitors, some relying greatly on their financial input.

Often, upon returning from trips, I have written of the downside of tourism.  Primarily, the 3 P’s: pollution, poverty, and prostitution.  I think I should expand on the notion of prostitution, because it is not just young women being forced into intimate interactions, but entire populations.  There is a cultural prostitution, a sense that everything is for sale in these places, and it is tragic.  The more tourist flood in, the more enormous cameras dangle from necks, the more tour buses, stupid guides with little flags, groups with matching hats, youth just in search of a party, elederly in search of 5-star hotels… its enough to make me sick.  It’s enough to make entire nations sick.

Here are two articles that I think point out the contrast in what has become the search for “authentic” places.  The first discusses how Luang Prabang, a sleepy city in the center of Laos I visited just over a year and a half ago, is dealing with a record number of tourists streaming into its quiet streets.  The second article talks about Myanmar and the situation there, in which a society is being “preserved” to such an throttling extent that it is now starving itself to death.  It’s two ends of the extreme.  And after reading the article on Myanmar, thinking of my cousin, I realize that soon enough that country will open its gates to the floods of foreign visitors and let the rainfall of cash wash away any seeds of culture still in the land.

Lastly, I wanted to follow up on my premise that China has silently regained sole superpower status on our globe.   The article is a wake up call, but I think we, especially the U.S., have hit the snooze button a few too many times to reverse course now.  A U.S. government spokesperson recently spoke of silent diplomacy being used against China.  Ha!  What a crock of shit!  Our soft and hard power are being shown to be exactly what they are, weak.  Our moral legitimacy is in peril, our thirst for war has lost us allies, and with our economy in the toilet, our nation has become a clinger, desperately holding on to resources and the last clutches of geopolitical hegemony as they slip through its grip.