Chinese Factories Embrace Environmentalism—to a Point

Despite nationwide efforts to spread environmental consciousness, obstacles remain.
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A laborer works at a coking plant in Changzhi, north China's Shanxi province (Reuters)

When I visited Mr. Liang's LED factory in Zhejiang, I saw a building with so many machines that it made my head whirl. I asked Mr. Liang about how he thought his factory was doing with respect to huanbao: in Chinese, the term huanbao means both the act of being environmentally friendly and the state of environmental protection. Despite the heavy electricity usage of the factory and some heavy chemicals used in manufacturing the process, Mr. Liang told me: "We only use electricity, our products are RoHS certified, and we don't pollute into the water or air, therefore, we're huanbao."

I have spent the past year interviewing Chinese owners and managers of factories for Chinese companies about environmental protection, and found that, like Mr. Liang, they tend to view environmental protection through the lens of China's economic development. Their views of the matter are focused almost exclusively on the effects of environmental damage to personal health. These views, in turn, affect the way they control the environmental impact of their factories.

I usually began my interviews by asking the 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 the 1970s and China's economic liberalization, most people were poor. There "was not enough to eat." When one doesn't have enough to eat, one does not think about such things as huanbao. But since there was not nearly as much economic activity back then as there is now, things were still relatively huanbao.

For many of my interviewees, this was personal. Nine out of my 15 interviewees were over the age of 40 and grew up in the countryside, meaning they personally experienced "not having enough to eat." Mr. Liang, who grew up on a farm in Jiangxi, 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. I didn't have enough to eat."

"I don't have much to say about China's environment except that it's getting worse and worse."

At the same time, some interviewees felt nostalgia for the past, one noting, "Pesticides were rarely used and everything was huanbao and safe to eat." A few even voiced a wish to return to those simpler, more innocent times. "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," said Mr. Hu, a plant manager for one of the largest chemical companies in Zhejiang province.

Interviewees stated that during the 1980s and 1990s, as economic growth came into full swing, not many Chinese had the education or consciousness to even think about environmental problems. They also reported that their predecessors, the factory managers and owners of the 1980s and 1990s, received very little education, partly due to the suspension of higher education during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, and therefore did not think about the environment at all.

In the past decade or so, many noted that environmental protection and environmental consciousness have improved. Better education seems to be one reason for this: 14 of the 15 interviewees obtained some form of higher education, be it trade school, technical school or university, and 9 of 15 went to university (including all of the interviewees under age 40).

Better environmental protection, however, does not necessarily mean good environmental protection. Although Mr. Li, the manager of a 500-employee injection-molding factory, told me, "Laws have gotten stricter: factories in our area can no longer dump our waste directly into the creek like we used to. We have to filter the waste water first," he admitted that the filtered waste water was still far from original quality and often induced algae blooms in the creek.

In addition, increased environmental consciousness has not necessarily resulted in an improved environment. As Ms. Jin, a younger manager in her thirties at a 1000-employee furniture factory noted, "I don't have much to say about China's environment except that it's getting worse and worse."

Still, it was clear from my interviews that environmental consciousness and laws are getting better, though there was disagreement as to why. Some interviewees, as Mr. Feng, a 20-something manager of a small 100-person rubber factory alleged, "All this stuff about huanbao is forced. No one who works at a factory really cares about this intrinsically. Our level of cultured-ness is just not there yet. Government laws are the only reason anyone cares about huanbao." On the other hand, people like Mr. Hu, the plant manager for the large chemical company, said, "Education is the most important thing. Huanbao laws only work because we [company managers] care about huanbao intrinsically to a certain degree."

Factory size seemed to play a role in the difference of opinion. Managers and owners of smaller factories generally held the former opinion, while those of larger factories, perhaps more concerned about projecting a good image for their global customers and clients, generally held the latter opinion.

Factory manager's views on China's economic and environmental changes determine how they define huanbao. For many of them, having a better environment is merely an extension of China's 40-year old struggle (and their own struggle) for better quality of life, not two opposed concepts, as some posit. Economic development is one aspect of progress, since it generally leads to a better standard of living (though, as some of my older interviewees admitted, not necessarily a happier life). Environmental protection, to the degree that it affects their quality of life, is another.

Several interviewees claimed that the global climate change agenda was a political instrument created by the U.S. to control China's economic growth.

For my interviewees, any human activity was a huanbao problem if it directly affected their personal health. That included air pollution, water pollution, soil pollution, and hazardous chemicals embedded into products: these were all huanbao problems that they cared about and cared to address in their factories. For an example, Mr. Su, the owner of a small injection-molding factory in Zhejiang, argued: "We have a small filter that filters our water outflows, and water pollution is the only thing our factory emits, so we're huanbao."

However, some human activities that are commonly thought of as environmental problems in the West were not perceived as huanbao problems to my interviewees. These included climate change and wildlife conservation. Several interviewees claimed that the global climate change agenda was a political instrument created by the U.S. to control China's economic growth. As for wildlife destruction and endangered species, one interviewee described it as a natural process: "One species of animals dies away, and another one will come about. That is natural selection."

Based on my research, most factory managers determined whether or not their factory was huanbao based on two criteria: whether the factory's pollution was within limits set by local environmental bureaus, and whether the final products met national or international standards for toxicity. A few of the larger companies' factories that were trying to sell their products internationally talked about being environmentally responsible organizations and having a more holistic view of huanbao, but most factories focused mainly on abiding by the rules.

Unlike many factories abroad, all of the Chinese factories I visited sold their trash to recyclers, eliminating most on-site waste. My interviewees almost always viewed the ultimate responsibility for proper waste disposal as falling on the companies that purchased the waste - despite some examples of questionable processing.

Chinese factory owners and managers also prioritized reducing energy consumption, but from a business/cost perspective, not an environmental perspective. Saving electricity was good for cutting costs and made the factory more efficient. That 65 percent of China's electricity is supplied by coal, and coal-generated electricity is especially impactful, was not a factor in their reasoning.

The Chinese factory owners and managers interviewed reported being optimistic about China's environmental future. Fundamentally, they did not believe that environmental problems were irreversible. With little concern for climate change, for example, none of them voiced any form of alarmism during their interviews.

Perhaps this had to do with their backgrounds (and those of Chinese factory managers in general). Ten of my 15 interviewees came from a science or engineering background in college or trade school. Most were "geeks" at heart who loved the technology their factories used- from simple injection molding machines to high-tech LED manufacturing robots. This was especially apparent every time I was taken on a factory tour by these managers, where my hosts leaped at the opportunity to explain the intricacies of every machine.

This trust in technology is tied into their thoughts on huanbao: these managers believe that scientific research would inevitably lead to less-polluting manufacturing equipment. Mr. Hu, example, said as much when he told me, "Besides education, how we advance society and make China more huanbao is through science."

Finally, from a historical context, China has a long history of managing the environment to suit human needs, including widespread deforestation even before Marco Polo, and engineering a change of course for the Yellow River in 1194. All these point to a very instrumental view of the natural world: It exists for the benefit of people. I believe this attitude continues today for these factory managers.

Based on all these factors - lack of alarmism, trust in technology, and the continuity of historical Chinese trends - my interviewees had a relatively optimistic view of China's environmental future.

The environmental consciousness of Mr. Liang and the other factory owners will be a determining factor in how China's environmental future unfolds.

Another determining factor will be the environmental consciousness of ordinary Chinese citizens -- or putong laobaixing. Scholarly articles show that the average Chinese person may have similar viewpoints to these factory managers: caring about the environment when it directly affects them and having an instrumental view of the natural world. However, with the continued rise of grassroots Chinese NGOs and protests, environmental awareness could increase. Mr. Zhu, a manager at a 1000-person toy company, told me that in his view, "Social media, NGO pressures, and grassroots journalism does more than the government in terms of encouraging huanbao behavior."

While this research cannot be considered representative, and the interviewees may have been reluctant to disclose the complete truth, their testimony may provide a closer look into how environmental protection and conservation is viewed by those whose actions can have a real effect. Chinese factory managers and owners are key stakeholders in any discussion or policy on China's environment.

Above all, these testimonies show that Chinese factory owners are people no different from many others. Their backgrounds, worldviews, and work environments have shaped their attitudes towards the environment and its protection. As China continues to develop and deal with environmental issues, an understanding of the past and present may be the only way to protect the future.


This post first appeared at Tea Leaf Nation, an Atlantic partner site.

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Steven Zhang is a ’12-‘13 Fulbright fellow based in Hangzhou who runs the research site Made in China: stories from Chinese factories.

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