China is a country that’s famous for a lot of things. Panda bears, Mao Zedong, 5000 years of history, and a language that very few foreigners are able to relate to.
However, it’s not always the positive sides of China that make the headlines around the world.
Over the last years, several serious environmental incidents have been reported:
- Yangtze river pollution. The third largest river in the world, Yangtze, is literally filled with various types of garbage. According to this article on Travelchinaguide.com, more than 35.42 billion tonnes of garbage filled the river back in 2016. These days, we can only assume that this number is way higher.
- Chinese children dying from polluted drinking water. According to The Guardian, more than 30,000 (yes – thirty thousand) children in China die EVERY YEAR from diarrhea as a direct cause of polluted drinking water. Sad.
- Polluted drinking water. It’s not only the children who have to drink polluted water. In the same article, it says that more than 300,000,000 Chinese people drink polluted drinking water every single day.
- Dead pigs floating in China’s drinking water. One of the most bizarre events happened in 2013. About 6000 dead pigs were found floating in a river that was used for drinking water supply near Shanghai. If you need to look up the whole story, feel free to click this link (Youtube video).
- Plastic pollution. China produces more than 60 million tonnes of plastic every year. Not all of it is recycled (to say at least). I’ve written a long article about 10 crazy facts about plastic pollution in China. Go check it out by clicking this link.
…and these are only the cases that the world gets to know of. As you might know: China is currently a dictatorship with little to no press freedom. The dictator and his friend do everything in their power to stop negative news about China coming out.
So in order to understand how much China struggles in regards to the environment and sustainability, we need to look at the bigger picture.
These 8 environmental catastrophes are something that the Chinese people need to struggle with every single day:
1. Outdoor Air Pollution
The most famous environmental challenge in China is outdoor air pollution. There are two things that pollute the air in big Chinese cities. First of all, it’s conventional coal combustion. That’s why you would see significantly more polluted days during winter time.
Secondly, motor-vehicle emissions also contribute quite a lot.
There have been several scientific reports that link the poor outdoor air pollution to premature mortality as well as increased hospitalization.
How bad is the air pollution in China really?
Let’s look at the data. Aqicn.org is the best source to find air pollution data all over the world. Let me pull out the data for the Chinese capital Beijing in 2021.
In order to understand the screenshot below, you need to understand what the colors mean. Here’s an overview:
- Green: Normal air.
- Yellow & orange: Dangerous air pollution.
- Red: Extremely dangerous.
- Purple: Don’t leave your home!!
Beijing air pollution data in 2021
As you can see, there’s quite a lot of orange, yellow, red, and purple days in Beijing.
Unfortunately this means that a lot of Chinese people will die earlier than they would have if they lived in a city with better air quality.
Just for fun, I think it would be helpful to illustrate how the Norwegian capital Oslo is doing on this same chart.
In comparison: Oslo air pollution data in 2021
Beijing is very often featured as the “air pollution capital in the world”.
That’s a mistake.
There are several Chinese cities with worse air quality than Beijing. One of them is Urumqi – which is located in the controversial Xinjiang province. Another one is Lanzhou – which is often characterized as a “major industrial city” in China.
Key fact: In 2014, the Chinese government had a goal of eliminating coal sale to private residents by 2020. Needless to say, they were unsuccessful.
2. Desertification & deforestation
With more than 500 million farmers, China is a country who has a long history of successful agriculture.
Unfortunately, the lack of restrictions in the agricultural sector has been leading to an awful lot of deforestation. There are many reasons why this problem is increasing year by year.
- The big number of cities that are being built on soil that was previously used for food production.
- Destruction of forests in order to build farmland.
- Big infrastructure projects that literally demand huge forests to be chopped down.
According to this report by Fao.org, about 30 % of China is desertificated. This is something that has a direct impact on more than 400 million people – giving them worse conditions for clean water and food. Back in 2012, that number was just below 25 %.
In other words: things are really going in the wrong direction.
For several Chinese people, the problem has grown so big that people have been forced to move. This article by The Guardian features how several Chinese netizens have become “eco-nomads”.
Key fact: In 1990, the Chinese government ruled out a Ten Year National Plan for Combating Desertification.
During the period of 1990-2000, the problem with deforestation and desertification got a lot worse in China.
3. Significant drop in biodiversity
When you hear the word “China”, many of us think about some of the exotic animals that can be found in the country:
- Giant pandas
- Red pandas
- Siberian tigers
- Chinese giant salamanders
- and so on.
What this list doesn’t show is that biodiversity is heavily under threat in China.
You might already understand that there is a clear correlation between lack of biodiversity and increased deforestation. The species will slowly lose their habitat – and die out.
But that’s not the single cause of the drop in biodiversity. You also have to understand the mentality that Chinese people have towards wildlife. Most of them don’t care. Throughout history, elephants, tigers and other beautiful (and endangered) animals have been slaughtered in order to create traditional Chinese medicine.
Chinese netizens destroying biodiversity in Africa (video)
And they don’t stop in their own country. The video below features how Chinese people have infiltrated the animals in Africa – and shipped the illegal goods back to China & Hong Kong.
Key fact: One of the most famous Chinese criminals is Yang Fenglan.
She has smuggled up to 1900 kilograms of ivory from Africa to China – and is considered one of the largest ivory smugglers that has ever lived in Africa. (Wikipedia link)
4. Cancer villages
The rural parts of China are something that the Chinese government loves to hide. You very seldom see any tourist marketing highlighting anything but the big skyscrapers of Shanghai – or the Great Wall of China.
So what can we find in the rural and unknown areas of China?
Cancer villages. What a terrible phrase. What a terrible concept. Yet, we have to talk about it.
Many people in China are living in areas that are so extremely polluted that it’s normal for the citizens to get cancer in their 30’s or 40’s – if not younger. There are many examples – but let us discuss two of them.
- Yangliang. The small village is only home to a couple of hundred people. However, 11 people died of cancer in a short time period, according to The Guardian. Several young people, like Wang Jinlan died at an early age of breast cancer. She is not the first nor the last victim of the horrible environmental “laws” in China.
- Liuchong village. Back in the days, a fertilizer manufacturing company moved into a small village called Liuchong. That had a severe impact on the people living there. It turned out that the water and soil around the village suddenly contained chemicals like arsenic, radium, and uranium. Loads of people got cancer. The icing on the cake was that the owner of the fertilizer company, Mr Zhong, started to threaten several villagers when they spoke out about their health concerns.
Key fact: Over the last 30 years, cancer mortality in China has increased by 80 %. I guess the human cost of economic growth is quite severe. Saddening.
For many years, China’s population growth was absolutely out of control.
Therefore, the Chinese government came up with an idea that has become rather legendary. The “One-child”-policy. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/One-child_policy
Even though this policy was strictly forced by the government, it didn’t stop the population growth. Below is a graph of the population growth in China between 1950 and 2017:
As we have established, the population growth in China has been massive.
But why is this a problem?
Meat consumption and luxury goods
In addition to a growing population, China has had a quite severe GDP growth in the same period of time.
And when people start to become richer, they start to buy a lot of products. Unnecessary products.
Also, they start to go on a diet that is not exactly very environmentally friendly. For instance, I have previously written an article about why it is a problem that Chinese people have started to get the taste for beef.
The richer people become, the more they pollute.
And now that more and more people start to get money in China, the pollution numbers are going through the roof.
Key fact: According to ScientificAmerican.com, the increased consumption of consumer goods in China is one of the key drivers for climate change.
6. Water pollution
We have already mentioned the floating dead pigs in the river close to Shanghai. Despite being a “funny” and somehow less dangerous incident; it perfectly describes some of the problems that Chinese people have in their drinking water.
According to one scientific publication, more than 700 million people consume drinking water that has been contaminated with animal and human excreta that, quote “exceed maximum permissible levels”. In other words: there are stool by animals and humans in the drinking water that many Chinese people consume every day.
That’s not only dangerous. It’s also utterly disgusting.
The story of Jin Zengmin
The story of Jin Zengmin perfectly describes how bad water pollution is in China.
We know that the corruption levels in China are quite high. You just have to look up the Corruption Perception Index (CPI) to find that out.
A gentleman called Jin Zengmin knew that as well. He went publically with a reward to the chief of the local environmental-protection department. And he said the following:
“If you dare to swim in our local river for more than 20 minutes, I will give you 32,000 $”
Unsurprisingly, the CCP politician refused to take that offer.
I think we all know why.
You can read the whole story on BusinessInsider.com.
Key fact: More than 90 % of the groundwater that can be found under China’s cities is polluted.
7. Food safety
For those of us that have lived in China, there is no surprise that the whole food industry is heavily polluted from A to B.
In order to shed light on this enormous environmental and health issue, I want to provide you with some real-life examples:
- Fake eggs. Yes – you read that right. Some Chinese guys figured out it was a good idea to create fake eggs made out of gelatine, water, and artificial food coloring. Obviously: the eggs were distributed to several shops and restaurants across China.
- Gutter oil. Again: you read that right. Many cheap restaurants in China buy their oil from shady people. It turns out that a lot of it has been recycled from industry factories. Not surprisingly, this is causing big problems for those eating at those restaurants.
The video below features how the gutter oil is collected and re-sold on the black market:
- Fake booze.
Not many people know this, but white people are very often given free alcohol in China. The first time you drink it, you don’t feel much difference from other alcoholic beverages. But after a while, you start to understand that it’s “fake booze”. This is a term used for alcohol that has been cheaply produced and poured over in branded bottles so they look expensive.
As you might understand already, food safety in China is terrible.
Key fact: According to Wikipedia, it was reported more than 500,000 (five hundred thousand) food safety incidents in China in one year (2016).
8. Electronic waste
More than 70 % of all electronic waste in the world is taken care of in China.
There are several reasons why so much of the electronic waste is gathered in one single country.
It is either shipped from other countries to China – or it’s generated through the manufacturing processes of various hardware.
The problem is that China has an extremely terrible way of dealing with such waste. There was one publication by two Chinese professors (Ni and Zeng) in 2009 that discussed this topic. After their findings, they actually called their scientific paper:
“Law enforcement and global collaboration are the keys to containing e-waste tsunami in China”
There’s two interesting things about this paper – and especially the title.
- Already in 2009, the scientists used quite a strong word like “e-waste tsunami” to describe the problem. In recent years, this problem has increased.
- The title suggests that global collaboration is required in order to fix the problem. But as we all know: the Chinese government is not very happy with collaborating with other countries to fix what they call “internal issues”.
Video: How does China work as the dumping ground for electronic waste?
The 4 minute long BBC news report below will give you a good insight into how other countries ship their electronic waste to China.
The clip also features how the Chinese handle that electronic waste in a way that creates hazardous health conditions for everyone involved in the process:
Key fact: More than 6,1 million tons of electronic waste is created in China every year.
Will China ever improve?
Probably not. Not until they are forced to improve.
The Chinese Communist Party are desperate to not create any riots in China. Therefore, they need to constantly deliver economic growth. In China, it’s all about the money.
Throughout this article, you’ve hopefully understood how bad environmental issues that can be found in China. Unfortunately, I do not believe that it will become any better in the future.
But if you do: please let me know in the comment section below. The comments are always open for a nice and healthy discussion.
PS! I’ve also written a “propaganda post” many years ago. While I lived and worked in China, I was inspired to write a post called “10 Ways China Is Contributing to an Environmentally Friendly Planet“. When I look back at what I actually wrote that time…I’m slightly ashamed. It looks like an article written by some paid CCP journalist, haha.
Not a lot. A typical response from the Chinese Communist Party is to pretend that problems don’t exist in their own country.
Well: they claim to do a lot. But in fact, the environmental problems in China are growing exponentially. There’s a big cultural thing in China when it comes to losing face. If the government (the CCP) admit that they are destroying their country and their planet, they will lose face.
In regards to the air pollution, the problem has become slightly better over the years.
When I was a student in Beijing in 2016, I sometimes struggled to breathe properly when I walked to school. If you want to read the whole story about how it was to live in Beijing during the worst year ever in regards to air pollution, feel free to read this article.
According to Activesustainability.com, China counts for about 30 % of all the pollution in the world. The second largest polluter is the US with about 15 %. In other words: China is by far the country who destroys our planet the most.
If the Chinese government acknowledges these environmental issues, they also have to deal with them. And in order to deal with these issues, they would have to take action that would slow down the economic growth of China.
And that is the last thing they would do. It’s more important to let millions of people die as long as the numbers look good. Welcome to China.