it will be largely due to the efforts of virtually every man, woman
and child to turn the dusty polluted capital into a whitewashed
shiny urban garden. Beijing municipality spent 15 billion yuan since
1997 on the cleanup job with an added 30 billion thrown in by the
central government for good measure. The resulting mass mobilization
created an environmental consciousness where there was none before.
dust storms and encroaching desert north of the capital as well
as the shrinking water supply to Beijing's main reservoirs, Minyun
and Guanting, assuredly brought the deteriorating environment to
everybody's attention. But it was the big money, the media and advertisement
downpour and the exhortation of the Communist party (a fine for
spitting for example) that got people to plant trees, dredge the
canals and begin throwing garbage into garbage cans instead of onto
not every city in China is blessed with an Olympic bid, tons of
cash and the full support of the central government. A foreigner
who assumes New Beijing is representative of the New China is seriously
Using a garbage
can is a novel idea for most Chinese outside of the developed cities
like Shanghai, Beijing and Hong Kong. Most businesses facing the
street deposit waste in a pile near the curb or in a wicker basket
Garbage cans are few and far between, and, even when available,
are under-used. I've sat in parks and watched people stroll through,
unwrap their ice cream or finish smoking their last cigarette and
nonchalantly toss the refuse inches from an empty garbage can.
streets of western cities in China look like the aftermath of an
outdoor concert. Plastic bags, Styrofoam containers, paper, chopsticks,
old shoes, rags of every nature, rinds and bones and everything
Sarah Cynthia Sylvia
Stout (a character from a Shel Silverstein poem) wouldn't throw
out lie strewn haphazardly along the roads, gardens and parks of
Chinese cities unfortunate enough to have little foreign presence.
Marriot hotel in downtown Chongqing is the most expensive joint
around at 500 yuan ($60) a night. Its air-conditioned lounge with
plush leather seats provides a spectacular view of three blocks
of refuse, beginning right across the street.
the spot was razed in 1998 to provide space for more plush hotels
but funds ran out and it soon became the neighborhood dump. Half-demolished
buildings and slowly diminishing piles of bricks testify to several
weeks worth of demolition, while the beggars' paradise of multicolored,
incredibly pungent junk displays the daily destructive might of
4 million Chongqingese.
garbage is sifted by aging men and women with a cart in tow. They
pull out what they can use or resell and then mosey on down the
road to the next pile of refuse.
so often, the acrid smell of burning chemicals wafts through my
window as I eat my noodles. This is one way people get rid of their
garbage. The smell hangs in the air for a day or two, then rains
down on the surrounding buildings during the next thunderstorm.
The Dazu Buddhist carvings have suffered during the last few decades
under the acid rain onslaught. The stone monks' noses melt into
their mouths and their appendages have all but disappeared. When
the first foreign tourists started arriving five years ago, Chongqing
Municipality began realizing the economic benefits of tourism and
embarked on a massive restoration effort to bring noses and smiles
back to the demons and monks, but one wonders what the situation
would be like if there were no tourists.
foreign presence can have a dramatic effect on the attitudes of
Chinese city dwellers and their environment. Chengdu, the capital
of Sichuan, is a relatively clean city: stars are visible and river
canals are not choked with garbage. The reasons lie in the wild
mountains west of the city and the forests that cover them. China's
beauty, so often hidden under dust, grime and concrete, rules calmly
and majestically in Western Sichuan. Chengdu is a staging point
for camping trips into the mountains, to Tibet, into Yunnan, north
to Xinjiang, to the giant Golden Buddha at Leshan and for jaunts
up 3079 meter Emeishan, one of China's four Holy Mountains.
Consequently, the city is the site of the American Embassy,
various Western restaurants, and most conferences concerning the
Develop the West campaign. Whitewashed walls bear messages such
as, "An environmentally perfect city is a joy to all the people
of the world," and, "Keep Chengdu beautiful for the 2000 Develop
the West Conference," and so on. Chengdu's environment has improved
because of a combination of tourist dollars and the provincial government's
desire to accommodate these tourists with the best conditions possible.
cities like Chongqing, Guiyang, Guizhou province, Luizhou, Guangxi
province and other poor cities with little foreign investment and
few tourist spots do not have the funds or political will to make
any significant improvements to the environment. They are still
"passing their begging bowl amongst the investors" in search of
funds; most of the environmental work is either research or rhetoric.
year, during a meeting of "foreign experts" and officials of the
Chongqing government, the Environmental Minister stood up and delivered
a short, vague speech, outlining the government's determination
to transform hazy Chongqing into a beautiful green city that will
have investors clamoring for space. When pressed for details she
said, "We will inform the street side food vendors that the burning
of coal is strictly forbidden and that they must now use clean gas."
right. Tell that to Yang Sifu who hauls coal up and down Beibei
township's infamous "Backstreet" or Luo Sifu who buys it at roughly
1 yuan a pound for his barbecue stand.
is a Yang Sifu on every backstreet in Sichuan and he's more worried
about where the money is than where his garbage ends up. And that's
the rub. Nothing short of an Olympic bid, complete with propaganda
and massive funds, will change the habits of poor Chinese, the habits
of accommodating politicians and, ultimately, the environment of
China's tourist-free cities.
printable version of this article
is a teacher living and working in China. His articles have appeared
in the South China Morning Post, the Minnesota Daily,
and elsewhere. His exclusive Antiwar.com column appears Tuesdays.
Towards World Significance
on the Road to Capitalism
American in China
the Street in China: A Report
THOUGHT THE CITIES WERE BAD ...
Take a drive into
the early morning fog and the vast paddies under the shadows of
purple mountains make you strain out of your seat and fervently
attempt to catch it all and burn it into your consciousness. The
lone peasant in blue with his pants rolled up and a pole across
his shoulders disappears into the mist at the far end of the field
and trees drip crystal dew.
then the weak sun dispels the weaker haze and you are treated once
again to the reality of things. Black water struggles its way through
feces and garbage into the rice paddies and you remember those three
bowls you gobbled with relish last night. Ducks dip their dirty
bills into slimy pools and you remember smacking your lips after
that last bite.
and mud fail to hide the ripped rubber tires and red plastic bags
that vie for space in the road with the potholes and mangy mutts.
of waste are everywhere, spilling down slopes, lining the roadside,
growing within throwing distance of the front door.
village enterprises that blossomed during the 1980s are already
churning at high speed by 6:30 am. The backdoors are as black as
the peasants shoveling coal in the courtyard, as black as the smog
shooting out into the morning air.
Peasants toss dumpling wrappers on their way to the fields
or the nearest construction site while opening the new pack of smokes.
Guess where that plastic wrapper goes.
Environmental regulations that have no effect in the cities
are completely ignored in the countryside. Urban state-owned enterprises
are being revamped and refitted according to European environmental
standards, which are more stringent than American standards, but
the revamping process has to first succeed in the cities before
the countryside can be tackled.
through the countryside also reveals denuded hills cultivated all
the way to the summit. Wood is in scarce supply in China and trees
are routinely poached by peasants who fight their way through guards
and rangers. In the winter, nothing will stop a freezing peasant
from felling as much wood as he needs.
Awareness and education are no match for necessity.
SITES ARE NOT EXEMPT
The Holy Mountain
Emeishan cannot escape the ravages of Chinese tourists with no regard
for the environment. Up and down the staircases, even to the frigid
top, crested with a yellow, red and orange dragon of a monastery,
one finds plastic bottles strewn along the side of the path and
empty bags of snacks floating in the Black Dragon River, which crushes
boulders on the way down from the Golden Summit.
Qingchenshan in nearby Dujiangyan, famous for the dam (built
2000 years ago) that brought water to central Sichuan, is also not
immune. Even as the cute college couple explain to me the special
connection Chinese have for their motherland and their earth, I
see him toss his finished bag of flavored chicken feet along the
way. I can't help but make him lose face in front of his girl by
stopping to pick it up. He laughs and informs his girlfriend that
foreigners "like to pick up garbage."
Hill in Yangshuo, Guangxi province, has a crown of garbage. The
new highway through Tiger Leaping Gorge in Yunnan province provides
ample opportunity to soil the pristine, once remote gorge. Silver
Beach in Behai, Guangxi province, rues the waves that wash filth
ashore. The list goes on.
Presently, throughout China, concern for the motherland is
translated into development, construction and wealth. The central
government has recognized this and the dangers it poses: now every
development project contains a section of environmental protection.
People are slowly becoming aware of the culture of pollution. (Next
week's column will address some of the good news about China's
Chinese in Beijing are now walking tall in a New City. They have
money from the government, garbage cans aplenty and a growing recycling
program to help them stay clean. But most important, they have destroyed
the culture of pollution that blinded them for so long.
520 S. Murphy Avenue, #202
Sunnyvale, CA 94086
Contribute Via our Secure Server
Credit Card Donation Form
Contributions are now Tax-Deductible