Culture of Pollution

Next week the site of the 2008 Olympics will be decided upon. It is very possible that Beijing will be successful in its bid and China will be rewarded with its first Games, unprecedented international spotlight and an influx of foreigners not seen here since the Qing Dynasty.

If successful, 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.

The 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 the street.

But 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 mistaken.


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 at most.

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.

The 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.

The 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.

It seems 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.

The 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.

Every 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.

A strong 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.

But 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.

Last 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.”

Yeah 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.

There 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.