Interview: How China Will Export Pollution Along The 'New Silk Road'

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A woman and a child wear protective face masks against pollution as they walk in a street in Beijing, April 6, 2017.
A woman and a child wear protective face masks against pollution as they walk in a street in Beijing, April 6, 2017.

Asked about China's much-publicized new Silk Road initiative, known in official circles as the One Belt One Road program, U.S.-based environmental writer Zheng Yi, author of China's Ecological Winter, predicts that Chinese companies will use it as a golden opportunity to polluted poorer countries and take the proceeds, much as they have done at home:

RFA: Can you tell us something about the relationship between environmental issues and China's Belt and Road initiative?

Zheng Yi: I can't see that there is any relationship. But I have some general ideas about it. There are some entrepreneurs in China who are very happy at China's reaching out to developing countries, because they get to pollute as much as they like there. I think that's where the relationship may lie.

RFA: So you think it may have an entirely negative effect, in terms of environmental protection?

Zheng Yi: I can't see that anything good is going to come out of it. They're not in it for other people's benefit, are they? My understanding of One Belt One Road is that it's all about the government ... projecting its power. I am very concerned that it will lead to very serious pollution in the countries in China's hinterland.

RFA: So you are saying that China, which hasn't sorted out its own pollution problems, is now exporting them to other countries? Does China even have the determination to sort out pollution at home?

Zheng Yi: You can't really talk about determination in this context, because however determined they are, they can't remove themselves from the face of the earth. It's about discipline. The pollution caused by Western countries was large done in ignorance. They industrialized earlier, and they had no way of knowing how the serious pollution caused by large-scale mass production such as iron and steel factories would create a whole new problem for humanity. Once they realized, the developed countries, which usually had a more-or-less democratic political system, they used that system to respond fairly quickly to the problem. For example, the newspapers would write about it, the population would protest about it, and in a property owning society the lines of power are very clearly drawn, and there would be a representative assembly. The entire political machine would kick into action in a very short space of time to prevent pollution from worsening. They might not have been able to clean it all up immediately, but they could at least move fast to stop it the trend in a fairly brief space of time. In China, the reason that this problem has been worsening for a very long period of time is a systemic one ... Ordinary people aren't allowed to speak out or protest. The police don't arrest the polluters; they arrest the protesters. The polluters are all in bed with the government, and in particular, with the environment protection bureaux. What hope is there for the momentum of pollution to be halted? They can try using political campaigns, or inspection teams, or awareness campaigns, or the [ruling Chinese Communist Party's] central commission for discipline inspection. But everyone knows this isn't going to work.

RFA: But corrupt officials breathe in polluted air as well. Pollution affects their health too, surely?

Zheng Yi: But we are talking about massive economic incentives here ... They continue to pollute because they get huge benefits from doing so. You can save a huge amount of money by not installing cleaner equipment, for example, and it's the ordinary people who pay the price for this saving, and the officials who gain from it. There are two huge generators of China's economic growth in recent years; one is the sale of land. The other is the money saved by failing to implement proper pollution controls, leaving later generations to pick up the bill. From their point of view, breathing it a bit of polluted air is a small price to pay. And they can always move overseas. They can buy a house in the United States, they can buy clean air and water ... They have all kinds of ways to escape it. For example, they go and live in less polluted places in China, like areas of natural beauty, or coastal cities that aren't very industrialized. It's still in their interest to keep doing it. They're not staying in this country. They have stashed up billions, and are pouring their money out of the country, and sending their wife and kids to live overseas. They have already converted all of that pollution in to cash and put it in overseas bank accounts. Then, a word in the right ear, and they're outta here. Bye bye.

Reported by Gu Jirou for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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