Chinese environmentalism: driven by a deep desire for healthy living and wholesome food

Cycling in Beijing. Photo: Thembi Mutch.
Cycling in Beijing. Photo: Thembi Mutch.
China's growing 'bling' culture has taken off big time, writes Thembi Mutch - yet it is widely reviled among ordinary people who in the face of China's industrial boom hold resolutely to traditional values of economy and frugality, quietly yearning for the old days of clean air and safe, wholesome food to fill their stomachs.
Recycling and re-using is integrated into life, it's not a wasteful society and millions of people lining China's city streets make a living repairing technology, or shoes, or cars.

"It's very trendy to be environmentally aware at the moment! You know, ride a bicycle and complain about the smog in Bejing, Hangshuo or Chengdu. I think the deeper thinking, the connection with biodiversity and serious consideration of resources and how much we're consuming, is yet to come".

Wei Tan is a Buddhist, a Chinese fast food chain owner, now living in Singapore, he's travelling on safari to Africa for the first time.

"You know when you buy a dumpling in Bejing, it might have cardboard inside, not pork!"

Tan, like many Chinese, is very concerned about his environment, but the necessary regulations and behavioural changes are not yet in place: they may be soon.

Chinese domestic consumption of solar light bulbs (and new-builds with Solar as standard) has shot up, and an entire Solar Valley has been built. For the first year ever, bicycle sales have surged, and electric car sales have doubled at over 20,000.

Wind-power and solar are being touted as the answer to coal consumption - which actually fell last year in absolute terms - and will, along with hydropower (from prominent show-case dams like the Three Gorges dam) replace fossil-based fuels as the drivers for Chinese expansion, development and consumerism.

Unfortunately, these industry-produced statistics do not encourage a nuanced reading of what is unquestionably a complex, and often contradictory situation.

Food, health, wellbeing, and food

Health, wellbeing and food lie at the heart of Chinese life - if it's possible to generalise at all about a country so vast and diverse. The traditional greeting used to be "have you eaten yet?" and still, "food is heaven" is often said. Food clearly takes a central symbolic and actual role. Working hours stop at midday for a long lunch.

So unsurprisingly, it's food - or rather baby milk formula - along with a particularly tenacious Chinese female reporter, Chai Jing, who has kick-started what could be mass environmental awareness in China.

The baby milk scandal has been bubbling away for a while. It started in 2008, with (toxic) Melamine added to formula to ‘fake' the level of protein present. Babies started vomiting, developing kidney stones, at least 8 infant fatalities, and 300,000 sick infants.

Chinese stopped buying domestic dairy products. The WHO called it one of the biggest health crises in consumer confidence. As commentator Yanzhong Huang wrote,

"China's efforts to address food safety are complicated by new environmental health hazards, such as pollution of water and soil. Rice and garden vegetables contaminated by heavy metals poses major health risks, but the cleanup is highly costly and may take decades. Consumer confidence in Chinese dairy products remains extremely weak."

Recycling and re-using is integrated into life, it's not a wasteful society and millions of people lining China's city streets make a living repairing technology, or shoes, or cars.

In August 2014 Amy Wan, a housewife in Guanzhou province, said to me: "I'm not a political person at all. I live in a small village and get on with my life. But my new baby was drinking chemically polluted, or even poisonous baby formula, really upset me. It's not acceptable."

'Under the Dome' - the film that changed everything

Then the online video 'Under The Dome' - presented by the popular, friendly, smart and persevering reporter Chai Jung - blasted into Chinese consciousness.

Using her status as a new mother to a vulnerable young child, she married China's deep love and reverence of the family with an abiding worry for millions of people: the atrocious water and air pollution prevalent across China.

After 100 million views the viral online film site was closed down to Chinese viewers in March this year. However with Chai Jing's combination of sensual emotional reporting (she described the difficulties in breathing and watching her daughter a prisoner in her home) and thoughtful chemical explanations of how heavy metal particles in the air attack the human immune system the video was circulated widely.

Video: Chai Jing's 'The Iron Dome' with English subtitles, full version.

Her evidence from the luminaries of Chinese Scientific Research, interviews with numerous representatives of Environmental Agencies and wide-ranging tenacious investigations (breaking into steel factories, following truck drivers at night) for the first time gave audiences both Chinese and global a glimpse into the slippery nature of statistics and the importance of questioning the official (and the commercial) approach.

She made the connections between fake emission licences, and poor regulation, laying bare the shameful practices at the weakening environmental legislation, and making it toothless.

The rise of the tuhau

Back in Africa, sporting a natty safari suit and Samsonite luggage, Wei Tan encapsulates China's contradictions: as one of fastest growing economies in the world, the citizens are consuming more, travelling more, and eager to be modern, but not necessarily fully engaging with the complexity this involves.

China has the largest per capita consumption of luxury goods: Rolls Royce, Prada, Lancome and Chanel are all blooming nicely there.

It also has the largest per capita number of 'mega-rich' nouveau-riche millionaires and billionaires - the 'tuhau' which roughly translates as 'crass rich': 'tu' means uncultured and 'hao' means 'bold' or 'bullying'.

In amongst the endless 'get rich quick' books lining the Chengdu's airport bookshops, are diamond-encrusted Buddhist prayer beads, or solid gold Buddhas at a mere several thousand pounds each.

For many, this ability to be flexible, to contain what look to untrained eyes like absolute contradictions, are China's strengths.

Yet the old and frugal ways live on

Tan's mother is a traditional Chinese physician, using roots, herbs, fermented vegetables, animal horns (antelope apparently is good for fever) amongst other things to treat her patients. Like many Chinese, she uses far more, and wastes much less, of any plant, or animal she uses.

In this respect Chinese are way ahead of the West: recycling and re-using is integrated into life, it's not a wasteful society and the millions of people lining China's city streets who make a living repairing technology, or shoes, or cars, as well as those who make the new stuff in the larger factories, are testimony to this.

In crowded decrepit backstreets in Bejing older people are playing Mah-jong, next to goldfish bowls on the pavement (they are considered lucky), over-shadowed by mind-bogglingly huge skyscrapers.

And the next generation of Chinese, caught uneasily between aggressive capitalism and 'the old ways', pedal furiously to work through the smog.



Thembi Mutch is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster, recently returned from travels in China. She is yearning to build her own eco-house and garden.

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