The reality of Chinese environmental conditions

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, economic and human rights problems were partly based on caricatures constructed by U.S. media. These false representations, though perhaps created mostly out of carelessness and misunderstanding, are detrimental to cross-cultural communication for the residents of both countries.

A telling example comes to us from the 2008 Beijing Olympics. In the lead up to the games, U.S. media were obsessed with the idea that the air quality in the capital city was so horrendous that American athletes would 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 such information without explaining the background is that it forms this caricature for media consumers. If the only U.S. news agency that aired the Olympics, NBC, failed to explain the circumstances correctly, there is a good chance that many viewers accepted distorted information without further inquiry.

By comparing Beijing to the only U.S. city that matches it in size, New York, we can arrive at a illustration of the different conditions affecting these cities and their respective countries.

Beijing is located in the arid north of China, receiving 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 is 145 kilometers, or 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 hurtful particles present in the air; the lack of rainfall prevents frequent breakup of the layer of smog that hovers over the capital.

While Beijing and New York are both important centers of culture, education and economy, Beijing also has the role of political capital for a nation four-and-a-half times as populous as the United States. There is simply too much pressure on Beijing’s natural resources.

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.”

While New York is said to be “highly developed” with safe drinking water and decent air quality, Beijing is not yet fully “developed” and has many pollution problems. But New York’s concerns may just be less visible. The city is younger and avoids local environmental problems by importing energy and exporting waste. Beijing has fewer cars than New York, but more people ride the Beijing subway.

If we are hoping to work with other cultures and populations to solve the climate crisis, we should first understand underlying conditions. U.S. media might call Beijing a polluted city and highlight the plight of American athletes, but a simple analysis of the scenarios of New York and Beijing suggests that the American city — which consumes more energy — avoids the fate of the Chinese capital due to its advantageous local geography.

Most of American media gloss over the likelihood that the greatest difference between Chinese and American environmental conditions is that China is polluting itself and the U.S. is polluting its neighbors.