Environmental Protection In China: 6 Lessons I Learnt

Questions about smog in China and other environmental issues are the ones I get asked the most often. In my opinion, it shows how much people here in Europe are reluctant to believe the terrible impacts of Chinese economic growth. And when they believe it, the scale of such pollution as we see it in media is so large that it kinda fascinates us.

I knew quite a lot about Chinese environmental issues when we decided to spend a year there. As everyone else, I was weirdly interested in the newest smog emergencies and also, I wrote my dissertation on Chinese environmental policy. 

I was super excited about coming to China and seeing the whole thing by myself. The smog, the dead pigs, the red water in rivers, the environmental protests violently oppressed. Don’t call me weird, can you?

Environmental Protection in China

As writing about environmental problems in China was one of the topics I was planning for this blog from the very beginning, I was pretty disappointed. No apocalyptic photos, no horror stories, no respiratory problems to come back home with to write about.

But people kept asking and I realised that even though I can’t tell exciting stories, I learnt a lot over the year in China. One of the most important things being that generalisation is a dangerous business when speaking about such an enormous country like China.

Considering the size, I have seen an awfully tiny bit of the country so most of this post is based on living in overcrowded Pearl River Delta.

Read on to find out what I learnt.

1. I learnt what living with smog is like

Smog was the only serious environmental issue I encountered in China over the year I lived there. It wasn’t as bad as in some other parts of the country. In numbers: air quality index (AQI) during smog emergencies in Beijing is about 500. The worst we saw in our city of Foshan was about 240.

Although we arrived really suspicious to smog, we didn’t recognise it the first few times. Eventually we learnt to distinguish between smog and fog. Fog is bluish and smells quite nice and fresh. Smog has a sick yellowish colour and smells sweet. Seriously, I always thought it would smell like smoke but it must be some particular chemical reaction which makes it smell sweet. 

As I was checking weather forecast every morning, I would check the AQI as well. Even when I didn’t, that sickly sweet smell made it obvious the smog arrived. 

It was far from happening every day but some weeks and months were worse than other. We for example didn't see blue sky for weeks in the winter. The air was thick and you could feel it burning in your throat.

The smog didn’t impact normal life at our school much. Sometimes, the kids had to stay in the classrooms during their morning exercise breaks but they were back in field in the afternoon. 

Lesson learnt: Living with smog sucks.

Smog China, Construction Work

2. China really is a developing country

I actually learnt this directly from the Chinese themselves. They use it as an alibi for everything. It was even written in my work contract! Even though it is often just an alibi, they are kinda right.

China is at early development stage and as such, they pollute just as all the European countries used to pollute. Its economy is focused on highly polluting heavy industry, intensive agriculture using the harshest fertilisers and coal, one of the main causes of smog in China, is still the most common fuel. 

As a teacher, I didn’t get to see much of the industrial pollution but I had enough opportunities to find out what “early development stage” means to ordinary people: they suddenly have money they didn't have before so they have clean and modern lifestyle. It allows them to distance themselves from the peasant life most of the Chinese look down at.

If you ever thought how ridiculous amounts of packaging you get with every single thing you buy in a shop, it’s still nothing in comparison with China. Guys, they WORSHIP plastic bags. Sweet buns from a bakery are double of sometimes triple wrapped. If you buy a bottle of water from a corner shop, they will put this one single plastic bottle in a plastic bag too.

As strange as it sounds, plastic bags are trendy, they are a symbol of cleanliness and richness, not just convenience. The more plastic bags, the cleaner it must be. It’s a symbol of a modern life the Chinese want to lead. Just like that. 

Lesson learnt: While plastic is slowly becoming obsolete in the West, it experiences boom in China. It is a symbol of new, clean and modern.

Clean River China

3. People realise the smog problem

A few years ago, I think it was about 2013, Western media went nuts. It turned out that the Chinese only realised then that the smelly fog in the air was a smog. The government had known for years but to keep the population calm, they kept the data on the air pollution secret. What the hell? How can you not notice smog?! 

I have no idea what was happening between the release of the data and my arrival but when I moved to China at the end of summer 2015, people knew. 

Our students would ask us about the air quality in our countries of origin and they would openly speak about the problem of pollution in China. The Chinese never forget to mention how blue the sky is on a particular day or how clear the water is. That actually gets funny at times when someone notices the water in a fountain and compliments how beautifully clear it is!

Why many people in the West still think the Chinese are completely unaware to the smog problem is the lack of grassroots efforts. Who has ever heard about a Chinese environmental NGO? Or a demonstration for an environmental cause?

There are both but the government’s suspicion towards environmental demonstrations and ever-lasting tight control over non-governmental organisations of all kinds completely freezes any far-reaching activities. 

Lesson learnt: People are discouraged to be active citizens but they are not oblivious.

Zhejiang New Town, Guangzhou, China

4. China has particular environment so what works in Europe, doesn’t have to work there

China is enormous so the climate differs hugely. I lived right in the south in sub-tropical/tropical zone. It was great to live in a hot place but the humidity was insane. When it got cooler in winter suddenly everything went mouldy. Our food, wooden furniture, our clothes in a wardrobe. Not even speaking about places like bathroom.

Our flat was at the school campus. Three thousand kids lived in flats like ours. Except mould, there were cockroaches and once my flatmate even spotted a rat in our kitchen.

My point is, all these things influence your lifestyle and choices you make. I hate plastic packaging, you might have noticed, and still, after the first few months, I completely understood why they for example double wrap toilet paper. When everything around you gets mouldy, it is often the only thing you can do to keep some hygiene standard.

On the positive note, the Chinese are pretty good at not buying plastic bottles. Everyone from school kids to business men have their drinking bottle they refill from a kettle or a water dispenser (you shouldn't drink tap water in China). They say it is not to waste so many plastic bottles. I think it is because they just love making tea in their drinking bottle.

Lesson learnt: This was a big one for me. What works in a household in America might not work in China and oppositely. We can speak to the Chinese about environmental protection and minimal waste but unless they get good alternatives suitable to their lifestyle, they will refuse the protection altogether. 

Rice Terraces China, Guangxi

5. The minimum of environmental protection you see is often superficial

The one important thing about China everyone should know about is a concept of “face”. A person can gain face when he or she does something well. If you do something bad you can lose face. It means a complete loss of social prestige not just for you but also for your social group (family, work place,…). The Westerners don’t have a problem to understand this concept — face is just our concept of reputation or image. 

Gaining or losing your face depends on a social norm. What might have been considered as a breach against the norm fifty years ago is not necessarily a problem now. Old norms disappear and new ones come.

No matter how hard it is to believe this but a concern to the environmental cause has recently become such a norm. The Chinese president appears in the pictures planting trees as the whole country is encouraged to protect the environment. Protection of the environment or at least speaking about it became a politically correct stand. (Although as we already know, people shouldn’t get too organised and too active while doing it.)

People take pushing environmental policies forward just like a new way of gaining face. That’s why it is so superficial. For example, I have never seen a full recycling bin. They were everywhere around our city but their content was exactly the same as the content of other rubbish bins. Someone had a great idea to introduce recycling bins but nobody cared if people knew what to do with them. And for that matter, I have never seen any specialised lorry for the collection of recycling either…

We heard quite a lot about the environment at our weekly meetings at school but I have never seen any action taken except separate paper bins in our office. Again, considering that the town administration didn't care about recycling at all, I am not sure what happened to our separately collected paper.

Lesson learnt: A lot of efforts to protect Chinese environment are only ways to gain face. They are superficial and they often don’t work at all.

Park in Guangzhou, China

6. final important lesson learnt

People in China finally realise how serious the situation of their environment is. They are even told by the government they should do something about it. As weird as this is though, they might listen to the Westerners more than to the government. The Chinese don't want to be seen as barbarians not caring about their environment.

So let’s speak to the Chinese about the importance of recycling. Reducing waste. Being a vegetarian/vegan. Organic foods and public transport. Endangered species and reusable bags. Being informed is the first step.

That’s it. What do you think? Have you ever been to such a crazy and complicated country like China? Have you learnt anything about their protection of the environment?

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