Armed with more technology at their fingertips, cash in their banks and educated voices, the Chinese are slowly getting the government to tackle pollution. For other countries, this rising concern for the environment is not revolutionary by any means, but for China it is. Experts, such as Thomas Freidman, are optimistic and call this China’s “green revolution,” but the truth is, albeit the country has made changes to attack pollution it is still rife with problems. Instead, China is moving on a sluggish local train towards a rather distant “green revolution,” since the GDP of the country generally has priority over civil rights.
Lead poisoning reports recently surged in China: there were 160 children in Guangdong, according to Bloomberg; and more than 500 children in total recently, South China Morning Post reports. A few months ago, the government shutdown down 3 factories in Shanghai accused of partly being the source, one of which is the largest lead processing plant in the area, according to AFP. In total, China has closed hundreds of battery factories in the past year, according to Forbes, revealing that it is actually adhering to its five-year plan to tackle lead battery industries. This “… five-year plan is regarded as the toughest measures taken by the Chinese government to address heavy metal pollution,” Wu Yixiu, Beijing-based toxics campaigner at Greenpeace says, “China is obviously taking tougher measures to tackle heavy metal pollution, particularly of lead.”
Compared to the days in 2009 when China accused the U.S. embassy of “confusing” the public for posting pollution figures (often exposing pollution as being so toxic that children should stay indoors, contrary to the government’s figures claiming that it is “slightly polluted”), the government finally admits publicly that their figures need reassessment. This confession was a result of vast attacks from the Chinese community, especially through Weibo, China’s version of Twitter. The government says that it plans to set up 1,500 new air monitoring stations around the country, which is a big step for a country normally lackadaisically concerned with the welfare of its citizens.
From the days of tainted children’s milk and polluted bottled water, China has been cracking down on more companies that produce these goods. The government encourages the public to report them, for example it has heralded Sun Anmin, an activist who has filed over 700 lawsuits against China’s faulty products (all of which he has almost won), as a hero.
Despite such improvements, China is still ravaged with many problems. The government has done little to tackle air pollution; so far it seems like more talk than action. A recent MIT study shows that there has been “an improvement in air quality,” but this is only relative to China’s growth, meaning that overall pollution still has increased. In fact, China emitted more greenhouse gases than the US and Canada put together has – up by 171% from 2000 – according to the Energy information Administration 2011 report. Pollution healthcare-related costs have sky-rocketed “from $22 billion in 1975 to $112 billion in 2005,” according to a MIT report, and “40% of china’s rivers are polluted with industrial waste,” according to government official Jiao Yong. Also, in September, 30 people who protested against businesses that polluted Haining were arrested. Among those arrested was a man who blogged that local pollution has caused cancer in 31 inhabitants of his village, according to NY Times.
The “green revolution” where China has become a global leader in sustainable technology (it manufactures almost half of the solar panels in the world) has often created more pollution as a by-product. Examples include hundreds of dead fish in neighboring rivers and dead pigs, reports NY Times. Also, the world’s mountains of electronic waste intended to get recycled are sent to China, but instead they are left as massive garbage heaps in Chinese villages where families drink the oozing and toxic by-products – many even die from it, according to CBS.
China still has rampant pollution problems and the government’s attempt to cure them pale in comparison. For a country that that allows people to live in pollution over twice the rate of what the U.S. considers as legal, their small steps are large and even revolutionary. Albeit the government has done little to battle air pollution, at least it is openly talking about it and even admitting it is wrong in some cases – a rarity for a government that censors the press and usually denies its vast human rights abuses through propaganda as it has for decades. Perhaps, this movement marks the turn of an era for China where it slowly follows the trend of many formally industrializing countries to clean up, like England during the Industrial Revolution. For the lead poisoned Chinese children that now may have brain damage, in addition to the closure of factories, perhaps a new step for the government to take is to let these infants find justice by allowing the Erin Brockovichs of China to start doing what the Chinese are well-known for doing, which is, “work,” but this time for the rights of humanity.