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Chinese factory owners lament loss of blue sky and clean water

Not all Chinese factory owners are happy with China’s growth at all costs approach and wonder whether they were happier growing up in the 1980s

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Factory managers realise that a healthy environment for their children to grow up in can’t be bought with money (Image by Bert Van Dijk)

Manufacturers are a critical component of China’s environmental problems, accounting for 15-30% of air pollutants, according to some studies. In 2013, I spent a year interviewing owners and managers of eastern Chinese manufacturing firms in an attempt to understand how they view environmental protection on a personal and corporate level.

In a previous article for chinadialogue, I wrote about how these manager’s environmental perceptions affect their corporate policies and understanding of national and local laws. But how do they feel China’s environmental problems, which they contribute to, affect societal and individual happiness?

When I asked factory managers to describe their thoughts on China’s past 50 years in terms of economic development versus environmental protection, many responded with a similar story: before China’s economic liberalisation in the late 1970s “there was not enough to eat”. But since there was not nearly as much impactful economic activity back then, things were still relatively environmentally friendly. 

For many of my interviewees, this was personal. Many were over 40 and grew up in the countryside, meaning they personally experienced “not having enough to eat”. For example, Mr Liang, who grew up on a farm in Jiangxi province, told me: “When I was a child, I ate just rice and vegetables all the time. Meat was a luxury. I was always in some semi-hungry state, unable to concentrate on my studies.”

Despite the progress made in the last 40 years in Chinese society, my interviewees had a degree of nostalgia for the past and questioned this progress.

“We [China] plunged into economic development in hopes of gaining a happier life, but I’m not sure if material wealth has made us any happier in the long-run,” Mr Hu, a plant manager for one of the largest chemical companies in Zhejiang province, told me. When I asked why, he answered, “Just look at the air pollution here in Zhejiang, or the quality of our drinking water. People are getting cancer at alarming rates. It wasn’t like this when I was little. Maybe we didn’t have enough to eat back in the 70s and 80s, but the sky was blue and the water was clean.”

Mr Pan, young owner of a sporting goods factory and company who grew up in the 1990s, said: “Look at me, I have a luxury car, a nice house, and a successful business. But frankly, for my kids’ sake, I would rather sacrifice some economic progress in return for some blue sky and clean water - the kind my father had when he was growing up.”

Despite acknowledging the problem, Mr Pan didn’t seem to have any solutions when asked what was changing in his own life. “It’s up to the government to reduce these environmental problems, we try to do some recycling in our factory - we do more than most injection moulders, but we need some better national policies.”

Mr Wang, a manager, had the most extreme response:

Zhang: Can you tell me more about your personal experience growing up in the 1970s and 1980s?

Mr Wang: Everyone was poor. But everyone was innocent. Have you heard of the saying “to be poor is to be happy”? It was sort of like that. On a summer day like this, we had no air conditioning, but the whole neighbourhood would all just go outside and eat watermelon. Now I don’t even know our neighbours living in my apartment! We had hopes and dreams of getting wealthy, buying a car, a house. Now that we’ve met our dreams, I’m not sure we’re any happier.

Zhang: Then why go on owning a car and making money?

Mr Wang: Sometimes I wonder that. I think it would be better to live the 1980s. I wish there was something I could do to get out of this rat race, but there’s no other way.

People tend to overemphasise the positive things in the past and deemphasise the negative. Some academic studies indicate that this effect is even more pronounced among Chinese than Westerners.

Mr Wang’s answer that he couldn’t do anything was indicative of the response I got from others - it seemed like life was going too fast around them for them to stop and think deeply. When I asked Mr Wang whether he preferred the 1980s enough to let his son go through his own childhood in the 70s and 80s, Mr Wang replied, “Well, that wouldn’t be too practical- my son wouldn't be able to get an education and compete in today’s society.”

Another reason I think my interviewees didn’t think too deeply about this question is that they believed that China’s environmental problems would be fixed eventually.

In my previous article, I mentioned that my interviewees had a deep trust in the power of technology to solve environmental problems, coupled with a belief that environmental problems, no matter how serious were reversible. Among the factory managers, there was recognition of the seriousness of certain environmental problems, but a lack of alarmism prevalent in the West.

One interviewee, Mr Yuan who runs a toy-manufacturer, put it this way: “We have problems with water quality right now, but of course China’s rivers can be cleaned up. Germany’s Danube River was heavily polluted during its industrial revolution years ago but now look how clean it is!"

Although my study wasn’t a formal survey, its findings concur with surveys done on the general Chinese population showing environmental concern on the rise, especially with regards to air and water pollution. Quality of life and happiness is a basic lens with which my interviewees viewed environmental problems. Environmental protection isn’t anti-development. It was just left behind in the Chinese society’s initial rush to prosper through economic means.

Only now with increasing popular awareness of environmental problems, are factory managers, who are contributors to both economic progress and environmental problems, pausing to think some things, such a healthy environment for children to grow up in, can’t be bought with money.

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