According to recent news reports, the US embassy in China has been releasing Beijing air quality bulletins via Twitter since 2008, but a few days ago Wu Xiaoqing (吳曉青), a vice minister in China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection, issued a statement demanding that certain embassies stop releasing “unrepresentative” air quality data.
However, the air pollution problem is not limited to the Chinese capital. According to a report entitled China 2030: Building a Modern, Harmonious and Creative High-Income Society published earlier this year by the World Bank, of the world’s 30 most polluted cities, 20 are in China.
Another problem is that of garbage, which in many places has reached a point where the government and public simply do not know what to do about tackling the issue. Taking Beijing as an example, the 23,000 tonnes of waste the city produces each day far exceeds the limits of what the relevant authorities can handle. As a result, the city is now besieged by trash. Garbage dumps surround the metropolis, emitting a foul stench day and night and forming what some people call Beijing’s “seventh ring road.”
It would be impossible to make a list of every detail of China’s eco-related problems. The main factors driving such serious degradation of the environment are, on the one hand, China’s role as the world’s workshop and the accompanying rise of people’s material expectations and, on the other hand, the government’s unwillingness to resolve these issues. Wu’s statement is a clear case in point.
History shows that governments usually play a very passive role in the process by which societies face up to, and resolve, environmental problems. Generally speaking, the forces that exert influence and bring about needed change arise from community residents and civic groups.
The anti-pollution movements in Taiwan in the 1980s and the resistance of environmental groups to pollution generated by companies and corporations were the main factors that led to the establishment of government departments as well as laws and regulations concerned with environmental protection in Taiwan.
The rise of environmentalism in Taiwan took place in tandem with the country’s advance toward democracy and openness. The problem in China is that it has a much more closed political system under which civic forces are continually repressed.
Information is largely monopolized by the state and that makes it even harder for reformers to exert any real influence. That is the main reason why, more than 30 years after China started opening up its economy, no turning point has yet been seen in bringing much-needed improvements to the environment.
The Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development will soon take place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Let us hope that pressure from international organizations will be of some assistance in helping improve the environment of China, the world’s biggest emitter of carbon dioxide.
Environmental problems are global issues that cross national boundaries, and Taiwan is in the unfortunate situation of lying downwind from China.
Chi Chun-chieh is a professor in the Department of Ethnic Relations and Cultures at National Dong Hwa University.
Translated by Julian Clegg