Amid the smoke and chaos of 'development', China seeks a return to ancient harmony

Precious little harmony here: a building site in Beijing. But change is on the way. Photo: Thembi Mutch.
Precious little harmony here: a building site in Beijing. But change is on the way. Photo: Thembi Mutch.
China is struggling with a myriad of environmental challenges, writes Thembi Mutch, as the country 'develops' at breakneck speed with massive construction projects, and industrial expansion. But amid the chaos and filth, the Chinese people are mindful of their history and ancient principles of harmony with nature - something that many are working hard to restore.
Datong - or harmony - is at the heart of life for Chinese, but if you see our Buddhist temples, with the solid gold Buddhas, and all those people constantly praying for Porsches, you realise we're pretty opportunist, we mould our words to fit our needs.

In the Forbidden City in Bejing, the restored ancient UNESCO monument to imperial living, there are clues to the modern mentality: there is a temple to the 'Harmony of Mental Cultivation' a 'Palace of Administrative Tranquil Longevity' and 'The Gate of Divine Might'.

Administrators lived in the traditional 'hutongs' and the royalty secreted centrally in peculiar indulged isolation.

Today, thousands of Chinese throng and bustle, some wanting their photos taken in full kitsch imperial garb (children mostly), others slogging through the summer heat to get a glimpse of the 'temple of financial rewards for loyal community' or the inner sanctum, which is now a canteen.

Lin Tei, is the daughter of a Chinese millionaire, studying in the UK, an avid fan of Sherlock Holmes (dubbed into English) she says

"Being in London, near Tower Bridge, London Bridge, Baker St, I realised we Chinese don't value our heritage. We build really bad buildings quickly, if they fall down or kill workers, we just build more. We don't value our environment, quality, or tradition".

Returning to China, Lin is worried about the frantic pace of everyday Chinese life: hutongs are being knocked down to make way for new builds: only a few in Bejing have been kept because they draw in the (foreign) tourists. Lin continues,

"Datong - or harmony - is at the heart of life for Chinese, but if you see our Buddhist temples, with the solid gold Buddhas, and all those people constantly praying for Porsches, you realise we're pretty opportunist, we mould our words to fit our needs.

"Or if you consider this antique monument, the Forbidden Palace, it's less about environmental or historical heritage, and more about saying you've seen it, had your photo taken".

Smoked out

Shivan Prakash ran the US arm of a large US pharmaceuticals company across China in the 90's and retired in 2006. As he told me, "Even in the late 90's the grit was so bad from the coal fires in winter in Bejing that it stung your eyes."

The construction industry has, until recently, been at the heart of the statistical growth of China, and in Hubei, the thousands of steel production factories belch out 300 million tons of coal smoke per year. A fraction of China's 3.6 billion tons of coal used per year - more than the rest of the world's consumption.

Inside the home, domestic fuel consumption is using coal that does not meet European standards (which are considerably higher than the US ones) and in Bejing lung cancer is up 465% than last year [i].

The coal they burn is 'brown' and not cleaned (according to EU or US standards), so the PM2.5 index is in many cases over four times the acceptable limit.

Or, put another way, the air that is being breathed by everyone, all the time, in the majority of China's large cities (eg populations over four million) contains up to 20 times more heavy metals and carcinogenic materials, including Benzoapyrene than is allowed in the Europe and North America [ii].

Datong - or harmony - is at the heart of life for Chinese, but if you see our Buddhist temples, with the solid gold Buddhas, and all those people constantly praying for Porsches, you realise we're pretty opportunist, we mould our words to fit our needs.

The price of growth: to understand the future, study the past

The push to modernise, extremely quickly, (thus tackling the enormous problems of rural poverty) and bringing healthcare, access and better job possibilities to millions does bring massive challenges. Overseen by a control and command economy, where decisions 'for the good of all' are taken at the top and dribble down, the 'Party' has a long history, and successes and failures.

The Great Leap Forward in 1958 and the 'three great cuttings' that followed, ordered that forests were cleared for agricultural experiments.

The 'Three Years of Natural Disasters or the Difficult Three Year Period' as they are referred to officially, caused between 15 and 45 million premature deaths, depending on whose statistics are used [iii]. Thousands of urban young people were forcibly relocated to clear the trees, and transform the land into farm fields.

But in 1998 China was one of the first countries to ban logging, recognising the link between forest destruction and erosion. It also embraced the solar revolution (doing expensive early research, then buying out all the world patents and rights) in the early 2000's, way before the global market caught on.

The party calls the shots

The Communist Party Central Bureau (CPC) is still a tight secretive clique where discussion is not encouraged, and which places chosen candidates in elite academic and state positions.

It is impossible to pull apart the issues of China's environmental problems without factoring in how decisions have been made, and how they are implemented.

To try and address the huge problems of poverty, in the coming 30 years China is planning for 450 million more people to move from the countryside to the cities [iv]. Perfectly sensibly, many of these towns will be wind-powered, and have solar panels, and the world's first carbon neutral air-conditioning systems [v] developed in 2010 by Chinese firm Shandong Vicot [vi].

No-one can accuse the Chinese of lagging - even if profit is the motive - they bought out all the licences and patents for solar inverters and panels in the 90's, leaving Germany, Australia and the USA (all keen to invigorate their own, and African solar markets) unable to compete.

Explains Professor Zhang Dhanbai of Ningbo University

"We've effectively been capitalist since the fall of the Gang of Four fell in 1979, but we're still feeling our way with regulation and control, and this includes environmental issues too."

Shivan Prakash says,

"Control and Command structures are central to understanding how China works ...The party really is key: it decides which school you'll go to, what subject, and what region, so very early on cadres are selected who work their way up the system and succeed in the party: it's not meritocratic, and it's not a choice."

Tall poppies

A few prominent individuals are willing to stand out, speak up. Dr Shu Wen Ben is a local hospital administrator, who in 2008 planted 3,000 apple trees where unproductive wheat fields had grown, funding the whole thing herself.

The dynamic environmental lawyers Wan Tsang Fa and Jing Jung have trooped across much of China, taking on over 2000 cases of industrial grievances against large firms whose chemical and industrial pollution has caused illness and sometimes death [vii].

Mrs Nu started a national re-forestation programme on her own, planting thousands of trees in the Gao desert in North China [viii].

Chris Barclay, an long-time American entrepreneur in China, has completely restored three buildings: one a mud farmhouse near Moon Hill in Yangshuo, a former Qing Dynasty school house and an important folk temple in Shaxi Yunnan, South West China.

All have been developed on ecological principles (with community permission) and host (beautiful) sustainable programs for tourists and educational groups. Chris says:

"We wanted to create an ecological haven away from the smog of mega-cities. The local government supported our work as a way of introducing ecological responsible tourism to these agricultural communities.

"Western guests appreciate our commitment to protecting heritage buildings, and the rivers, and countryside around them, but it's met with bemused bewilderment by Chinese tourists, who often want the latest wide screen tv and Italian bathroom fittings."

Change is coming

Construction is no longer as profitable as it was. Too many of the new buildings are actually empty. Problems of fraud, mimcry, legal cases (even Zara Hadid's famous 'Star' office building in Shanghai has been completely illegally pirated and the build started in another city) have curtailed the frantic pace.

Ningbo for example has an entirely unused industrial district of several acres, including a mock Chrysler building. Whilst in Donguuan, the largest mall in the world, The New South China Mall, is empty.

With an area of over 7 million square feet that can accommodate 2,350 stores, and attractions such as 553 metre roller coasters, ghost trains and a replica of the bell tower of St Mark's Square in Venice, 99% of the shops have never been leased out.

Last month, (March) there were clear signs top CPC officials are taking climate issues very seriously, because it affects people's bellies. Zheng Guogang, head of the China Meteorological Administration, warned variations in climate will reduce crop yields. In a strong official statement, Zheng said,

"We must respect nature and live in harmony with it. We must promote the idea of nature, and emphasise climate security. The safe production and operation of major strategic projects is facing a serious threat. [ix]"

He was referring to the huge project in Southern China to bring water to the parched North, the railways across the fragile permafrost also in the North, and the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtse river.

Meanwhile the highest level of the Communist party, the political bureau of the CPC, commented: "Henceforth, conservation culture should be considered in all aspects of government work - economic, political, social and cultural - in pursuit of industrialization, urbanization, informationization, agricultural modernization and greenization."

Shivan sees change will happen, but not perhaps in the way the West expects. As Western firms continue to move in to China, it won't be economically sustainable to do as Coca Cola does, and pay ex-pats a 'discomfort allowance' to live in smoggy Bejing.

Instead, he believes stakeholders (of multinational firms working in China) will become more vocal and informed, norms will become internationalised, the Chinese governmental elites less prickly and sensitive about their mistakes, and Chinese citizens bolder at speaking out.

"There are already environmental groups springing up, but for obvious reasons they're not drawing attention to themselves, they aren't NGO's or pressure groups that we'd recognise, they use a lot of online stuff to communicate, and stay outside of party radar."

The combination of pressure from within the country (citizen agency) and international governmental and corporate pressure, will make it impossible for China to remain static.

The solutions will be imaginative, lateral, small - ranging from more window blinds on office blocks - to huge - like the creation of an entire solar valley, a research and development hub. They will capture China's willingness to be scientifically adventurous, thrifty, and have splendid meals [x].

For Chai Jing the environmental activist, mother, media celebrity and campaigner, the issues are simple: enforce the regulations, give the regulators some teeth, this will see an end to flagrant abuse of standards, and an end to fakes [xi]: both shameful issues that have been dogging China.



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.

Names have been changed at interviewees request.

Grateful thanks to Yangshuo Mountain retreat who provided generous assistance with research and writing space.


i Under The Dome

ii Under the dome, reporter Chai Jung, broadcast March 2015

iii Famine in China: and Documenting China's lost history of Famine

iv China burning coal while developing green energy, Damian Grammaticus, BBC China, access 8/4/15

v, access 5/4/15

vi accessed 16/10/14

vii Sources: NY times documentaries.

viii NY Times

ix Xinhau news agency

x Gourmets in the Land of Famine: The Culture and Politics of Rice in Modern Canton. Seung Jeung Lee. Stanford 2015

xi Chinese Fakes, Trillion Dollar Business, (journeyman pictures 2014


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