Probably one of the goriest stories to appear in the media for some time was that of some 16,000 dead pigs found floating in the Huangpu River in Shanghai. This should provide (absolutely no scurrilous pun intended!) “food for thought”.
China is a big power and a magnificent civilisation. It is, justifiably, admired by many for various reasons. Being quite knowledgeable about modern Chinese history and having frequented the country for some forty years, I am definitely in the admirer category. Of course this admiration comes with strong reservations. But on balance I think China is a far, far better society today than it was thirty years ago with remarkable achievements on many fronts. But the question now must be: what about the years ahead? Will China build on the progress achieved? Will it stagnate? Will it regress? Will it stink?
I returned after a five-week stint in Greater China to my home in Lausanne, Switzerland, on Thursday 21st March. On Friday morning, I woke up to the sounds of birds chirping vibrantly and melodiously. I commented to my wife that if we were waking up in Beijing all the birds would be coughing. How many floating dead pigs and birds stricken with throat and lung cancer will it take before the government’s obsession with GDP-ism and untrammelled growth gives way seriously to other scenarios and goals?
Japan was once dirty
Of course, all industrialising societies have gone through comparable infernos during their initial high-growth periods. For example, Japan in 1950s and 1960s suffered from mercury poisoning in its rivers resulting in a whole fishing village being contaminated, called Minamata, which sadly provided the label – Minamata disease – to a most atrociously painful ailment. The air in Japan’s major cities, like Chinese cities today, was un-breathable. While the Japanese are generally known for their docility and perseverance – encapsulated in the expression “gaman suru” (endure, put up with) – in the course of the late 1960s and early 1970s rebellion was led by mothers. They worried rightly about their children.
The late Japanese economist Shigeto Tsuru lambasted the government’s obsession with GDP-ism, referring to it as “Gross Domestic Pollution”. He bewailed not only the environmental pollution, but also the cultural pollution whereby historic sites of pristine beauty were ravaged by the installation of petro-chemical plants. He argued that GDP (which is all about additions) should be moderated with subtractions in what he proposed would be a Social Depletion Index (SDI).
Today, as all who travel to Japan know, the air is one of the purest and Mount Fuji can be seen from Tokyo on a clear day. Korea travelled the same infernal road as Japan during the height of its industrialisation, but also effected a remarkable turn-around. Fish (not dead pigs!) have returned to the Han river. Indeed Korea is at the vanguard of green growth, having launched its “Green New Deal”.
China has to shift now
So maybe it is inescapable that fast industrialisation and growth, which is necessary to reduce poverty and provide employment, inevitably has to go through a “stink-phase”. At some point, however, there has to be a dramatic shift. The time for China is now. And to be fair, this is recognised by the Chinese Government and reflected in its twelfth Five-Year Plan.
There have been many recent outbursts of protestation by urban Chinese over the environment. And here again mothers have been prominent players. For the sake of the 1.3 billion Chinese and the planet generally, it should be hoped that the government will learn the lessons of the dead pigs and be seen to be learning them. On this score, Beijing must also be accountable to its neighbours and to the rest of the world. China is too big. A stinking China will mean a stinking planet.