The last year has seen a dramatic uptick in press coverage of Chinese environmental issues. There have also been a number of books published on the subject, with more due out soon. So this seemed a good moment to get in touch with my friend Ralph Litzinger, an anthropologist based at Duke University. He has been tracking the topic closely, while also writing about other important issues, ranging from Tibetan self-immolations to labor conditions in and protests at Chinese factories. Currently in Beijing, he sent me the following thoughtful responses to questions I put to him via email:
Jeffrey Wasserstrom: There have been a lot of news reports lately about Chinese environmental and health issues, from the smog levels in Beijing to dead pigs floating in rivers near Shanghai. What's something important that you think someone who only pays passing attention to Chinese stories might have missed in this flurry of coverage?
Ralph Litzinger: We have indeed seen a barrage of stories on everything from the Beijing "airpocalypse," as many call the foul smog that descended over Beijing in January and February, to the 750 dead pigs pulled from the Huangpu River in Shanghai in March, to the more recent news of meat merchants selling lamb mixed with rat, fox, mink, and a range of chemicals. These are not isolated or novel events. They have a troubling history that moves almost in lockstep with China's great "opening and reform." That said, reading the press, or perusing online chat rooms in China, one would not be wrong to get the impression that China is now in the midst of an environmental and health meltdown.
Living in Beijing every spring and summer for the last three years, I have watched the emergence of a health-conscious urban middle class deeply concerned about where food comes from, who produces it, and what ultimately ends up in it. Many of my colleagues in university settings, for example, increasingly eat all of their meals at home; many are eating less and less meat. Organic food is getting popular. But this is all specific to a very small sector of the population. Walk the streets of Beijing and one gets a different impression. Beijing restaurants are overflowing with people eager to eat out, including lower-end restaurants and food stalls that cater to migrant workers and lower-income Beijingers. In these spaces you would never know there is a major environmental and health crisis in the making! For most people in Beijing, and certainly in most of China, life carries on as usual. Different classes and social groups experience these food scandals in quite divergent ways.
The same could be said about the air in Beijing. There is no doubt that the air has been shockingly bad. Much of the publicity about deteriorating air conditions came from a new kind of middle-class activist citizen who took to the streets to monitor the air, posting findings and images on weibo (the Chinese version of Twitter) and other social networking platforms. These same people also tended to use the U.S. Embassy air quality monitoring as a way to critique the Beijing city government for its failure, until recently, to report the most harmful particulate matter in the air. But head out into the outer rings roads of Beijing, where the poorest of Beijing's migrants and residents live and work, and you experience a very different situation. You see fewer people wearing masks, and hear much less complaining about the air. It is not that migrant and urban fringe communities in Beijing don't care about health and environmental issues; it is just that they haven't received the same kind of attention that the middle-class urban resident has received. Migrants, for example, don't keep their kids home from school when the air is bad, and migrant schools do not have outdoor exercise facilities covered in protective bubbles, as one finds at some of the best schools in Beijing.
So, what is missing in the flurry of coverage in recent months? Not enough attention to the moral geographies of polluted spaces. We are mostly hearing the voices of the middle class and the new rich. I think this is evidenced in a recent piece by Edward Wong of the New York Times. The middle class can keep its kids home, protect them from the Beijing air, and even contemplate ways to get them out of the country; the poor, the migrant, and the precarious worker cannot.
JW: For several years straight now, there have been Not In My Backyard (NIMBY) protests of various sorts in different Chinese cities. In these, locals have often called for a toxic plant to close or be moved, though in some cases there have been different causes, such as when Shanghai residents rallied to stop the extension through the city of a magnetic levitation train line. How significant do you think these protests are?
RL: There is no doubt we are seeing a new form of environmental and health consciousness in China's urban centers, especially in the eastern seaboard cities. In the places where the mass protests occurred in 2013 -- Ningbo, Dalian, Qidong (just north of Shanghai), Guangzhou -- we saw an incredible amount of knowledge being shared via social networking sites about chemical plants, long-term health effects, toxic runoff, and the shady deals city leaders have made with the companies hoping to build and expand these plants. This knowledge gets shared really fast, and protests can be mobilized in what often seems like an instant. The government uses these same social networking sites to disseminate its own information, or to plea for harmony and social order. Online activists then mock and ridicule these government postings. The protests on the street, the use of web-based social networking platforms, and the government security apparatus are in constant play during these events.
We saw the use of social media perhaps most powerfully in the July 2013 protests in Shifang, Sichuan, an interior province. This protest was started by high school students who researched the possible deadly effects of a proposed molybdenum copper plant, and then used China's most popular social networking sites, such as qq, We-Chat, and weibo, to post documents, images, and fact sheets. Once the police turned on the protesters in Shifang, as happened in other cities, images of blood and violence were almost instantaneously shared across the Internet.
I mention Shifang last because of where it is located. The significance of these NIMBY protests is not just in the compelling drama of online social networks. My theory is that the government and the owners of big chemical and heavy metal processing plants know that, in the long run, they will lose the battle to expand facilities in east coast cities, where urban citizens will continue to turn out and protest. This is why the government continues to push for companies to build their factories and chemical refineries in China's interior provinces. They make the false assumption that people living in or close to the poverty line will accept almost any kind of work, put up with the worst kind of environmental and health conditions. I think this is a highly suspect assumption. I suspect more and more industrial-related environmental protests will occur in the coming years in the western provinces of China, as the industrial manufacturing and chemical processing base is moved to the interior of the country....
[This is an excerpt taken from a longer interview that can be found at the webpage of Dissent magazine, as part of its increased coverage of China. To read the full text, which includes links that take readers to a variety of relevant sites, click here.]