Fuping town, Chongqing Municipality
Distance from Shanghai – 1,360 km
I began my walk in the village of Wuyiqiao where there was a market on because it was the October 1 holiday. Crowds (a relative term) flocked through the main street, examining and sometimes buying the knick-knacks and nibbles presented for sale on temporary stalls by farmers in for the day. But there was virtually no sign of the slogans, flags and the generally over-the-top media blast to which residents in China’s main cities were subjected. It was just a holiday.
Of course, they all have televisions at home, and on all channels in the countryside – as everywhere else in China over those days – it was wall-to-wall red-and-yellow flags and hammers and sickles. One father told me his child’s class had been ordered by their teacher to watch as much television as possible over the holiday. Maybe all children in China received the same instruction.
As for me, I had been asked to take a view on the environment, and I paid particular attention to pollution issues on my walk, assiduously photographing piles of garbage, and asking people I met about their views on the issue. Inevitably, the stretch of country I passed through was one of the cleanest I have seen on the walk from Shanghai. Curses.
The farmers talked about pollution more in terms of what they had seen in the coastal cities while on migrant worker trips, and they were thankful their corner of the country still had fresh air and clean water.
But I still wish the local administrations here and in other parts of China would take the responsibility for picking up garbage dumped off the roads, usually into stream gullies. The plastic items and old clothing just sit there for months and years, no decomposition and no collection. There was far less of this than normal on my stretch of road. One man said the road was regularly swept, but the responsibility of the sweepers seemed to not extend beyond the soft shoulders.
I have thought about the environment on my walk across China in the past five years. The impact of the country’s blind dash for economic growth has been felt in even the most remote corners of the country.
Garbage by the road is just the start of the problem, although it is the most noticeable. Interestingly, the quality of the garbage is a measure of how far China has come so quickly. The piles often include clothes that could have been reused for a few more years. But even China’s poorest now have access to cheap clothes – so old clothes get thrown away earlier.
Environmental pollution, like traffic jams, is a by-product of economic progress, which is overall a huge positive. China could not have stayed mired in poverty, darkness and hopelessness, as it was in 1979, at the end of the first 30 years. But particularly since the early 1990s, the growth has been promoted with little concern for the environmental impact, and also with little effort to create an awareness of the issue.
The Communist Party tends to worry only about the most direct and obvious threats to its rule. In 1979 and again after 1989, Deng Xiaoping knew what the consequences would be of failure to create economic growth, just as the current leaders understand the need to effectively channel the opinions of various interest groups, including the middle class.
And so, the environment is now on the party’s agenda because a pollution-related incident has the potential to focus these groups and lead to a questioning of current arrangements. SARS and the tainted-milk scandal came out of nowhere, and lead poisoning in certain industrial towns is the latest hot-button issue. Who knows what will come next? But it could well be an environment-related issue.
China has a huge capacity for creating unexpected "Factor X" situations due to the very low levels of transparency throughout the system.
Education is important. Teaching people to respect their surroundings is a priority. They must understand that dumping garbage off the road is not good, and see the longer-term impact of such behavior. But the unspoken priority of the media has instead been on convincing people to accept the consequences of fast growth.
The schools are a problem. The kids are not encouraged to think about any local issues at all. Everything is national, and so everything is removed from their lives. Language, history and environmental awareness included.
The biggest sources of concentrated pollution that I have seen on my walk have been factories – cement factories are probably the most common cause of pollution throughout most of China. They are followed by petrochemical plants, power stations, breweries, and fertilizer processing plants, large and small.
These factories all operate under a regulatory structure, and it is therefore up to the regulators to enforce the rules. But the reality is that regulations are applied at a local level at the whim of local leaders. Significant factories in small localities usually operate under the protection of those leaders, and are therefore untouchable. Local residents know this.
I remember a delightful valley in the Yangtze Gorges region, so clean and green, except for the pall of waste sitting over it from the cement factory at one end, near the town of Shazhenxi. Then there was a petrochemical plant near Yingcheng in Hubei province where the air was thick and stinking due to the presence of noxious elements. I hurried past it, wishing I was wearing an oxygen mask. I would bet serious amounts of money that the people living in that area suffer extraordinary rates of cancer and other diseases.
Most clearly, I remember the outrage I felt, as a resident of Mother Earth, at seeing the filth pouring out of the cement factory just to the east of Badong on the Yangtze River. I met, by chance, one of the shareholders of the factory, and raised the issue in no uncertain terms. He was sheepish in his replies. He knew. But last time I passed by, nothing had changed.
What has changed is the level of awareness, and awareness is the first step toward a solution. We can thank the internet for this more than anything else, as well as the general knowledge of the world at large that comes from travel.
I am not pessimistic. Change is inevitable – things would not have stayed as they were, and no matter how well handled, there were always going to be environmental consequences to economic growth. Added to which, Nature and Planet Earth have a regenerative capacity in which we should not lose faith.
I have passed through large areas of the mountains earmarked to be allowed to "return to nature," with bans on wood chopping and cultivation. I am confident the collective awareness of the existence of the problem will result in changes to the way the environment is handled. It will be too little and too late, but better than nothing.