I have always been fascinated with air. When I was in the third grade, my father’s right lung collapsed due to work conditions from years of service in the U.S. Navy. The doctors told him his diaphragm could not support respiration in his right lung, and since then, my dad has lived with this condition. I never thought this would play a role in my life until I visited China.
When we first arrived at the hotel in Beijing, I remember being mystified by the dense “fog” that filled the air. “How beautiful,” I thought. It seemed to me that the fog was similar to fog I’d known in America, one that would rise as the morning came and sunlight filled the open air. The sort of fog that fills empty baseball fields as the sun rises, matched by the dew remaining on the grass in the early hours of a Spring morning. I thought it was the fog my mom warned me about when I started driving when I was 15.
It wasn’t until late in my first night in Beijing that I realized the “fog” was really smog. These pollutants filled the air from nearby factories, and I found this to be very violating. I remember being offended, thinking that someone made a decision to put particles in the air. I had no choice whether or not I wanted to breathe these particles, but I had to nonetheless. After several days, I could feel the particles lining my lungs. I woke up feeling congested. I felt like I had a hole in the back of my throat. This choice was made by a corporation, and often times not even a corporation in the People’s Republic of China.
What I initially thought was that corporations and financial interests thousands of miles away dictated the quality of air millions of people live with in cities like Beijing and Shanghai. After further research, I found the situation to be much more complicated. The affordable cost of labor drove U.S. companies to outsource their factories abroad. Notably though, The Huffington Post reported in 2013 that U.S. manufacturing and Chinese manufacturing would cost the same by 2015 (Bradford). However, it has yet to be determined if this is the case today in China’s still rapidly expanding economy. China has not sat idly by, however.
The Chinese Government initiated foreign investments many years ago. Deng Xiaoping, a Communist Party leader from 1978 to 1992, opened China to foreign investment after years of isolationist economic practice. Since then, China has expanded this growth (Knight). The Shanghai skyline is representative of this, having expanded skyward since the 1990s. Today, the Pudong District (similar to the financial district in New York City) has two of the world’s largest skyscrapers (“100 Tallest Completed Buildings in the World.”). In fact, when we returned to New York from China, I remember being shocked at how “small” the New York skyline appeared in comparison.
Maintaining this economic growth is a Chinese priority. China today, however, appears to be on the front end of addressing this topic. Recently, Chinese legislators passed an a law allowing authorities to detain company bosses if they refuse to complete environmental assessments (Kaiman). This regulatory authority paves the way for China to begin limiting pollutants into the air beginning in 2025, per an agreement the U.S. and China agreed on in November. Although experts say this agreement has little substance, it is the first time China is committing to minimizing emissions (Stanway). It seems the Chinese government is beginning to realize the extent of its pollution, and paving the way for the uphill battle ahead. In the United States, the government seems to be constantly aware of environmental concerns. I recall thinking that this type of environmental situation would never exist in the United States. However, after further research, this exact situation did exist here in New York and continues to exist today. The pollution of the Hudson River proves that financial interests often does take priority over environmental interests. Even today, the fight to clean up the Hudson River continues, despite this pollution having occurred 68 years ago (“Historic Hudson River Cleanup to Begin After Years of Delay, But Will GE Finish the Job?”).
China’s situation is quite similar. With Greenpeace East Asia announcing that out of 360 Chinese cities, 90 percent “failed to meet national air quality standards in the first three months of this year,” the environmental crisis is clearly ongoing (Wong).
But it is here too. While our situations are different, we have the same basic issues—a constant, ongoing fight to balance financial interests and environmental protection.
My trip to China showed me that my own personal experience of having a father with a collapsed lung really did impact my view of clear air. I always viewed it as a basic right—something everyone deserved, but also something I thought everyone had. I never questioned it. If my father went to China today, I’m sure it would be quite challenging for him, but for many Chinese people it is an ongoing challenge. We haven’t solved it here entirely, and they haven’t solved it there either.
Bradford, Harry. “U.S. Manufacturing No More Expensive Than Outsourcing To China By 2015: Study.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 19 Apr. 2013. Web. 24 Apr. 2015 <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/19/china-manufacturing-costs_n_3116638.html>.
“Historic Hudson River Cleanup to Begin After Years of Delay, But Will GE Finish the Job?” Natural Resources Defense Council, 23 Mar. 2007. Web. 24 Apr. 2015 <http://www.nrdc.org/water/pollution/hhudson.asp>.
Knight, John. “The Man Who Re-Invented China.” Origins. Ohio State University, Jan. 2012. Web. 24 Apr. 2015. <http://origins.osu.edu/review/man-who-re-invented-china>.
Wong, Edward. “Hundreds of Chinese Cities Don’t Meet Air Standards, Report Finds.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 21 Apr. 2015. Web. 24 Apr. 2015 <http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/22/world/asia/hundreds-of-chinese-cities-dont-meet-air-standards-report-finds.html?ref=topics>.
“100 Tallest Completed Buildings in the World.” The Skyscraper Center. Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, n.d. Web. 24 Apr. 2015. <http://skyscrapercenter.com/buildings>.