Pollution in China: More Than Just a Dirty Word

13 November 2008

Today’s New York Times contains a scary satellite photo of brown, smog pollution not only over China, but extending over much of Asia.  It’s not surprising that the article is reporting about a U.N. conclusion that pollution in China is reducing crop production and affecting weather across all of Asia, into Tibet and the Himalayas and into India.  The smog in China is so overwhelming that it’s impossible for anyone to ignore.  I’ve written about this on my blog many times, since it was such an overwhelming part of my experience of living in China that I developed asthma as a result of it. 


U.N. Report Sees New Pollution Threat


Published: November 14, 2008

“Brown clouds” — a noxious cocktail of soot, smog and toxic chemicals — are blotting out the sun in large parts of Asia, a report said.

For Article click HERE


The distinctly Western viewpoint regarding the "smog" problem is to think in simplistic terms, that China is polluting "our" world and that "they" should stop.  But industry, and production, provides money — resources — to feed people and raise their standard of living.  The industry that results in pollution also brings prosperity, in some sense.  Asia (and I do not limit this to China) is in the middle of its own Industrial Revolution, an economic revolution we in the West have already experienced and benefitted from, that is raising the living standards of hundreds of millions of people. 

In the first Industrial Revolution, at the end of the 19th Century, pollution was horrific in much of Europe and America, until "they" (the powers that be) got rich enough to care about cleaning it up.  Why should China be any different?  Isn’t it a double standard to expect something more of the Chinese than the West expected of itself during its own Industrial Revolution? 

The Chinese viewpoint is that it’s more important to feed, clothe, and house people.  They need their industrial revolution to achieve this.  After this first, most important, need is met, then the environment will be the next priority, they say. I had a conversation with a Chinese environmental engineer one time on an airplane.  She told met that as long as people are hungry, they want factories and jobs.  It’s hard for her to get them motivated to put pollution controls on their factories, controls that cost money and reduce profitability by even a small margin. 

The leaders of developing nations of the world almost dare the West to be judgmental on this point.  Their viewpoint is that: "You’ve had your turn.  You polluted.  You used resources.  You continue to use massive amounts of resources in comparison to us.  How dare you judge?  We are only doing what you have been doing for a Century.  Now it’s our turn."*  

After all, Chinese also like the things we Westerners take for granted:  heat in our houses, transportation, electric lights, fuel for cooking.  It’s one thing to visit a village where people live at a subsistence standard of living and to see their traditional lifestyle.  It’s another thing to be born and raised in that village.  While certain aspects of lifestyle and culture should be preserved, I don’t think anyone really would want to also preserve other aspects of that village life:  the one in five infant mortality rate, illiteracy, lack of opportunity for a different life, or a life expectancy less than half that of the developed world. 

Children in Cambodia

Dwelling for an extended
family in Thailand

One of my friends pulled me aside last year for a special talk about this.  She said, "You in the West are so concerned about Human Rights, and you want to judge us by your own standards.  But we in China are still concerned about Human Rights on a more basic level.  We are trying to reach the point of having everyone in our country have adequate food, clothing, and shelter." 

I get her point.  Here in the USA, even poor people are rich by the standards of many in the world.  Do you own a car?  In China, only 4 out of every 100 people own a car.  Do you have heat in your home?  Where I lived in southern China, my family was among the fortunate few to have heat.  Do you own a computer?  Then, by Chinese standards you are quite rich.  Even city dwellers in China, rich by the standards of the countryside peasants, don’t have the same conveniences that Westerners tend to take for granted. 

For example, one day I walked with a Chinese friend through a back alley (a hutong) in Guangzhou.  We came across a group of homes that were scheduled to be demolished to make way for new development.  The occupants had already been relocated and they were vacant, giving me an opportunity to peer inside.  When I did, I was surprised.  Each one had only a single faucet in the kitchen, at the front of the house, and no other plumbing.  I mentioned to my friend that I was very surprised at this, that an entire block of apartments would have to share a single bath house.  My friend walking with me replied, "Well, my house is the same way."  I asked her how many families shared a bathroom.  "Eight," was the reply. 

At the time my other friend talked to me about her view of Human Rights, we were traveling through the countryside of China.  During that same trip, I saw farmers out in very cold weather (just above freezing), plowing their rice fields with water buffalo.  The men walked behind the water buffalo plows barefooted, and I could see why they worked barefoot in the cold, cold water.  For, with every step they took behind the plow, they would sink to their knees in the mud of the rice paddies. 


(This photo was not taken at the same time)

Their houses, behind them, had shutters over the windows, but no glass, meaning that even if they had heat, it would be next to impossible to keep them warm.



(This photo is from a different region of China, but it shows houses that are not built to retain heat, in an area that gets quite cold in the winter.)

These dwellings are better than many.  My daughters’ Habitat for Humanity group twice went to villages where they helped to rebuild homes for villagers whose homes had been washed away in flooding.  Their houses had been made from clay bricks, but the bricks were unfired.  As a result, when the floods came, the bricks just turned back into mud, their houses literally melting away.  Their new homes, made of fired brick, thus represented quite an upgrade.  Even though they also do not have heat, these homes do have windows, and they won’t wash away in the next flood. 

These villagers are very happy with their new Habitat homes.


Inside rural homes, cooking stoves are powered by woodfires made from small twigs.  In small towns, industrial goods that we take for granted — sharp cooking knives for example — are still hard to come by.  And one of my Chinese friends explained to me why Chinese eat rats and dogs.  She said, "You Westerners just need to understand, we are hungry.  We have to eat what we can find." 


Back to the conversation with my friend about the Chinese view of Human Rights, as we drove through the countryside. 

She said to me, as we were driving past the men plowing in the cold water of the rice paddy, "You in the West, you don’t understand.  These people [the ones plowing] have such hard lives that they see no reason to live. They don’t value their own lives.  We [the Chinese government] are trying to make their lives better.  We want first to give them a reason to live."  Then, she got a look of pain on her face as she continued, "These people don’t value their lives.  They don’t care if they live or die.  We are trying to give them hope of a better life, something to live for.  After we achieve this, then we will have the luxury of worring about other kinds of human rights."  

I understand this argument.  I think it is far too simplistic for rich Westerners just to think in terms of "us" and "them" or to apply our own paradigm to a situation which is so completely different from the situation in the more developed, already-industrialized world. 

Yet, I also view the Chinese government’s viewpoint, of blindly rushing forward along the same trajectory of industrial development as the West,  as tragic.  There is a saying say that those who are ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it.  (Witness deregulation of banks and the banking crisis today.  Was it not lack of banking regulations that led to the crisis of 1933?)  I wish the Chinese government would take the best of what the West has learned in its history, mistakes that the West made and learned from in its own industrial revolution, and the proactively apply it forward, to avoid making the same mistakes in its own Industrial Revolution. 

For example, clean technology now exists.  Built it into your plants now rather than having to do expensive retrofits later.  Solar power didn’t exist 100 years ago, but photovoltaic cells are available now.  Build that into your infrastructure.  Capitalize on wind power.  Avoid destroying wetlands and ecosystems.  Design cities and communities that are bicycle friendly rather than plummet wholesale into the automobile economy.   There are a thousand ways that Development could be channeled into positive streams.  Take advantage of the ability to learn from, rather than repeat, mistakes the West has made. 

Even the broader definition of Human Rights, the definition rejected by my friend, could also be applied to avoid mistakes of the past.  Labor Unions developed as a way of combating the abuses of large industrial units driven purely by profit.  The Freedom of Information Act and transparency of governmental decision making, the promulgation and enforcement of Occupational Safety and Health standards, the right to redress through the courts, yes, even food safety could be protected.  There is no excuse for allowing a greedy Party official to rob a peasant of his land and then sell it for a profit of 10,000 percent.  People who protest unjust conditions should be able to air their grievances in a full and fair forum, not in a sham court that excludes their lawyers or witnesses. 

Pollution is just one aspect of a larger issue. The real issue is, what trajectory does an enlightened government take going forward from here. 


Pollution.  Industrialization.  Development.  Sustainability.   

The satellite image in this article brings back, for me, vivid personal memories of those clouds of smog.  I remember one flight from Guilin to Guangzhou.  It’s a one hour flight, and we took off in bright, clear skies.  About thirty minutes from the airport, however, the air suddenly transformed from clear hazy, then becoming sooty and dark as we approached the city.  This was typical, I came to realize.  Whenever we went away on vacation and returned to China, it was almost as if you knew you were approaching China by the smog that greeted you.  No matter what the day had been like when you got on the plane, when you arrived in China the air would turn "foggy" and overcast, even on the brightest and sunniest of days. I came to think of it as normal, so it still comes as a shock sometimes when I find myself back in a less-polluted world. 

Indeed, one of the first things I noticed upon landing at the Detroit airport, this summer, was that I could actually see the planes from the airport windows.  I remember looking out and just being so shocked at the blueness of the sky, vividness of the airplane’s color, and being stunned that I could see details of the paintings on the aircraft as it took off into the sky.  At the Guangzhou airport, where I had just departed, I may have been able to tell that the object in the sky was a plane, but I wouldn’t have been able to see the color or detail of it.  Even months after returning the USA to live, I am still marveling that I can look up into the sky and see stars at night; and the colors of autumn take on a new clarity when there is no smog in the air to cover their brightness. 

Similarly, I already wrote on my blog of my train trip to Beijing about a year ago, when I woke up at dawn.  I was gazing out the window, through the fog, as the train crossed the Yellow River.  I saw farmers out in their fields, children walking to school, people going about their business in their various trucks or carts drawn by animals.  I kept waiting for the sunlight to appear as it first turned 9:00 AM, then 10:00, then 11:00.  But the fog never lifted.  Instead, it got heavier and darker, taking on a polluted odor and burning my eyes as we approached Beijing.  As the train traveled on, and as it gradually dawned on me that this was not mere morning fog and that it was not going to clear up as the sun rose, I began to wonder how those people out in those fields coped with living in this level of pollution. 

How does a farmer work in a field when he has to breathe this air?  How does a child cope with having to walk to school in this air?  Do the clean clothes hanging on the lines to dry come back inside all covered with soot?  I began to wonder what effect this was having on crops, not only from the pollution that would settle on the leaves but from the fact that no light was getting through to nurture the plants. 

The light that gets through a blanketing smog is diffuse.  The sensation is as if one is in a room where there is a light source somewhere, but one cannot locate it.  There have been times in Guangzhou when I went weeks without seeing an outline of the sun, or when the sun was like a dim light in the sky, as if one were looking at the moon through clouds.  Another similar experience is that of a solar eclipse, if it were behind some clouds.  The sun is there, but one cannot see it.  I’ve written before that sometimes I felt as if I could swim through the smog, it’s so thick. 

Photo of the Pearl River on a smoggy day (mid day, no storms or other clouds)


Photo of the Pearl River on a clear day (at sunset)

I personally have been out of China for five months now.  Munchkin’s asthma seems to be a bit better, but mine persists.  I hope it gets better. 

And I hope the government in China will become more tuned in to avoiding the mistakes of countries that have already passed through the Industrial Revolution ahead of her.  We know Life as it is.  Imagine life as it could be, a better way, a better life.  Heed lessons from the past, and build a better tomorrow.  Please, China, think Green, think Clean.  Not only the already developed world, not only the rest of Asia, but (most importantly of all), your own people, will thank you.


*Indeed, even if China is using more of the world’s natural resources, they have not yet overtaken the U.S. as the world’s largest consumer of natural resources.

** On November 14th, the NY Times reported on this a second time.  Here is the next article:

14 November 2008


U.N. Reports Pollution Threat in Asia


Published: November 14, 2008

“Brown clouds” made up of toxic chemicals are blotting out the sun in large parts of Asia, a U.N. report said.

To read article, click HERE

Bicyclists swim in the smog in front of Tian Men Square in Beijing





Filed under Cross Cultural Issues

3 responses to “Pollution in China: More Than Just a Dirty Word

  1. sophie

    I agree your point, I have allergy rhinitis. I feel serious this two year. I saw doctor and took medicine about 2 month but useful. I did a treatment for my nose in Chrismas Eve .(it was so painful. you can\’t imagic.). the air in guangzhou is so bad. I take mask once walk outside. most of guangzhou people have breathe disease.

  2. Alex

    Hey Sophie, thanks for your comment! I\’m very sorry about these health effects. If you can close up your room and run an air purifier in there at night when you sleep, that can help because you spend about 1/3 of your hours there. If your employer can use an air purifier at your work place, then that just leaves the time you spend outside.

  3. Rosemary

    Wow~It is so awful!

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