No Room to Breathe

by Patrick Nohrden

Note: Since this article first published in 2011, world political and financial situations may have changed. Some things never change.

After nearly two weeks of rain, the gray-brown gauze sky smothering Zhengzhou changed little. Instead of refreshing the air, the rain has done nothing more than create a dreary, mildewed cityscape, blending the browns and grays of the buildings into a muted corpse-like effect. The rain was wasted on Zhengzhou. Nothing is fresh as one might expect after a drought-breaking period of rain. Nothing reminds the people of the hope usually produced by gentle rainstorms. Nothing invigorates them.

Over the past three weeks, weather forecasters predicted as many as six sunny or partly cloudy skies in Zhengzhou. But on those days the sun, if you could see it at all, appeared as a pale orange disc painted behind dusty sheer curtains, stained gray yellow by years of smoking with the windows always closed. Smokers and nonsmokers alike wake up every morning to bouts of coughing and phlegm hacking.

Zhengzhou’s air is heavily polluted. In fact, of the 20 most polluted cities in the world, 16 are in China. The problem is so bad, that only 1% of China’s 560 million urban dwellers breathe air that is considered safe by the European Union. Exactly how bad the air is in Chinese cities is hard to gauge for somebody living in China. Most web sites that report actual data are blocked by the government. China admits that its air is dirty, but it will not allow its residents to know just how bad it is. But hiding these facts is nearly impossible. For example, the American embassy in Beijing monitors air quality, and nearly always obtains readings in excess of 500 (a score of 1 being the cleanest air, and 500 being the worst). Some cities, such as Zhengzhou, are worse than Beijing.

This pollution is killing people. China now has the highest death rate due to air pollution, with more than 300,000 people dying every year from lung cancer and heart disease attributed to ambient air pollution, lung cancer being the number one cause of death in China. However, Dr. Jim Zheng, a professor at the University of California, places that number much higher. More to the point, about 26% of all deaths in China result from respiratory illness, which compares to 2-3% in America. It is no wonder China wants to keep this information from its citizens.

Pollution is the price China pays for progress, which is easy to rationalize by asking, “Do you want clean air or jobs?” The problem with this rationale is easy to see. Although the proliferation of factories in China has provided many jobs, most of these jobs are extremely low-wage jobs; factory workers earn only about $50-70 a month. The real beneficiaries of the pollution are the owners and Communist Party members who work in government. They are driving the cars that contribute to the pollution. They live in the suburbs which are less affected by the pollution—many live in other countries which are not polluted. And the factory owners are among the fastest growing upper class in the world. China now has more than 10 million people worth over $2 million.

The government promotes pollution. Before a business owner can build a factory, he needs land and permits. The permits are easy; he merely needs to pay hefty bribes to those in government responsible for issuing the permits. The land is also easy. For a bribe to a few well-placed government officials, farmers will be pushed off their farms and the former farms will become the place of factories. This of course angers the farmers, and most riots in recent years in China are a result of farmers complaining about their land being confiscated to build factories and being paid inadequate compensation. But in China, farmers do not own their farms, the people do, and the government is the representative of the people. Because the farmers are protesting government action, the local authorities meet their protest by bringing in the Chinese Armed Police, a branch of the People’s Liberation Army, who will round up the leaders, using deadly force if necessary, prosecute them, and then sentence them to long prison terms or death. The factory will be built, the farmers will be left to fend for themselves, and the pollution will get worse.

Guo Zhang works for an iron ore mine in Sichuan Province. After he became a member of the Chinese Communist Party, he was put in charge of contracting the labor to mine the ore. Because it is a state-owned enterprise, the company does not employ the miners themselves. Instead, it contracts with other companies that provide the miners. Currently, Guo contracts with seven private companies, each of whom provide about 3,000 miners to harvest the ore. In order to get the contracts through Guo, the labor contractors must go through a private intermediary agency for an introduction to Guo. Guo’s wife owns the intermediary agency. They pay her a fee, then she sets them up with Guo. She also gets a percentage of each contract. Meanwhile, to stay on good graces with Guo, they are constantly giving him gifts of money, liquor, and other expensive gifts. Guo’s salary with the iron ore mine is less than one-tenth of that which he receives through the gifts and intermediary fees.

Ironically, Guo’s sister is a farmer in Liaoning Province where she earns about $1,400 in a good year. During the summer, in order to supplement their income, her husband tries to work in the coal mines. Last year he worked for an open-pit coal mine in Inner Mongolia for the three-month summer season. When it was time for him to return to Liaoning to help with the harvest, his employer refused to pay his three months salary. After waiting two weeks for his money, his employer offered him one month of salary if he would take it now, rather than to wait for an indefinite period of time. He had not choice but to accept the one-month pay instead of what was owed to him.

When Guo’s brother-in-law returned to Liaoning, being short of cash, he took a job in a granite quarry. Shortly thereafter, he had an accident at work and lost three toes on one foot, and temporarily injured his other foot. He could not help with the harvest. His employer gave him the equivalent of $420 to cover his medical expenses. That was it. Most of that money was used to hire people to help bring in his harvest of corn.

Whenever the public complains about China’s pollution, China points out that America refuses to sign the Kyoto Accord, which was formulated to curtail the emission of greenhouse gases. Some say that America is one of the biggest producers of greenhouse gases. Having lived in many parts of America, in China, and in other parts of the world, I wonder how these gases are being measured. But the interesting thing about the Kyoto Accord is that it only limits the amount of greenhouse gases that can be emitted from developed nations. This severely limits the amount of production in developed nations. On the other hand, because China is not a developed nation, it is exempt from the limitations of the Kyoto Accord. America would have its production capacity severely reduced in the face of a rash of factory closings due to competition for cheaper goods from China. Because China is exempt from Kyoto Accord restrictions, it will pick up the slack and produce what America would not be allowed to produce. The pollution would only get worse.

Photos: Smog in Zhengzhou smog 1smog2

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