Re-framing China’s environmental problems – jbs eek -mts

Patrick Miner

I spent fall term studying abroad in China. The language-immersion program in which I participated was based in Beijing, where I stayed for three months. I was also fortunate to be able to travel to Xi’an, Nanjing, Guangzhou, Guiyang, Zunyi, Chongqing, Yichang, Wuhan and Shanghai.
Before I arrived in the People’s Republic of China, my expectations regarding China’s environmental problems were largely based on a sort of caricature of their situation constructed out of misunderstanding by western media.
For example, in the lead up to the Beijing Olympics, U.S. media was obsessed with the idea that the air quality in the capital is horrendous and that the oh-so-unfortunate American athletes might perform poorly. They were partially correct — the air quality in Beijing is worse than that of any city in the U.S.
But the problem with “reporting” on such information without explaining the background is that it forms this caricature for the consumers of such media. If the only U.S. news agency allowed to air the Olympics — due to a contract involving NBC’s parent company, General Electric — fails to explain the circumstances correctly, there is a good chance that the majority of viewers will accept what they are told and not think anything more of it.
By comparing Beijing to the only U.S. city that matches it in size, New York, it is easy to note the enormous differences in social, geographical and economic conditions that separate the two mega-cities.
Beijing is located in the arid north of China, receiving about 58 centimeters of rainfall annually. Only 37 percent of that rainfall is actually usable due to rapid evaporation. The city is also half-encircled by mountains and 90 miles away from the Pacific coast.
Beijing has no major river and it has had over one million residents for over 500 years. New York, on the other hand, receives 126 centimeters of rainfall per year, is located at the mouth of the Hudson River on the Atlantic coast, and its population passed the one million mark just 150 years ago.
Beijing’s geographical conditions are perfect for keeping air pollution within the city. The mountains have a cradling effect on smog; the dry, sandy surroundings cause an increase in particles present in the air; the lack of rainfall prevents frequent breakup of the layer of smog that hovers over the capital.
Overall, there is simply too much pressure on Beijing’s natural resources. While Beijing and New York are both important centers of culture, education, and economics, Beijing also has the role of capital of a nation four-and-a-half times as populous as the United States.
The story behind what NBC sensationalized is that the people of Beijing are in an extremely difficult position. The city’s residents are contracting severe lung diseases and child asthma rates are off the charts. Water resources per capita amount to only 200 cubic meters per person, a figure 300 cubic meters below the U.N. figure that marks “Severe Water Shortage.” Beijing is out of water.
What I hope to continue learning while at Lawrence and after I graduate is how to interpret a situation like this Olympics media misunderstanding. If we are hoping to work with other cultures and populations to solve the climate crisis, we should first understand conditions.