It’s no secret that “clean air standards” are not real high in China. Some people complain of sore throats when they first come to China, just because of air pollution alone. Dust is no longer that distant, mysterious substance that accumulates in remote places afer several weeks. Oh, you become very familiar with dust here. I find myself not opening the window at times for “fresh air” because fresh air also means fresh dust. Dust accumulates fast here.
So the air quality is pretty bad here, by Western standards. Hanghzou air is not as bad as some places (such as Beijing), but it’s also not the “pristine garden city at one with nature” that it would have you believe. That said, don’t let your imagination go completely wild on you. I mean, if the air quality was really intolerably bad I wouldn’t still be here. One reason I’m here in Hangzhou is that the air quality is pretty good, relatively.
Now to my story. ZUCC is located at the north end of town, in a newly created school zone. Unfortunately, the north edge of town was formerly designated an industrial zone. (That means factories are officially allowed to pollute even more out here.) You can see smokestacks to the north of our campus. Usually the pollution doesn’t really seem any worse here than anywhere else in the city, but around the end of April/beginning of May, those smokestacks went to town. In the afternoon we frequently saw lots of thick smoke pouring out of the smokestacks, sometimes even accompanied by a raging flame atop the smokestack. Naturally, a lot of people at ZUCC became concerned.
The school made a formal complaint but was worried that it was being completely ignored, as pollution is often treated as business as usual here. Hangzhou, however, is a popular tourist destination with a reputation for natural beauty, so it has a little more to lose if the pollution gets out of hand. Still, as ZUCC “foreign teacher liaison,” I decided to act on my own with regards to this issue. Sometimes foreigners’ voices can have a special impact here. I wrote a polite letter to the mayor of Hangzhou requesting that actions be taken. 13 foreign teachers from ZUCC added their signatures to mine. The letter I wrote is below:
> I am a foreign teacher of English at Zhejiang University City College, located on East Zhongshan Road in Hangzhou . In writing this letter I represent a small community of foreigners from New Zealand, Australia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, and the United States, all of whom are living and teaching here.
> I write to you out of concern for my health, the health of my colleagues, and, indeed, the health of all those around me. In the past several months (April, May 2003) we have all witnessed incidents of thick smoke emitted from the smokestacks of factories to the north of our campus. Sometimes the smoke is accompanied by a large orange flame, other times it is smoke alone. When the factories emit this smoke, the air around our school becomes hazier and heavier, and a bad smell of burning permeates the area. We have photographed said smoke emissions and include the photograph with this letter. [see picture above.]
> In addition to health concerns, we also feel that this pollution will harm the development of Zhejiang University City College in that foreign visitors will be given a very poor impression of the school when such heavy pollution is evident so close to the school grounds.
> We know that China is working hard at developing its industry, but we believe that this is a serious case of air pollution that cannot be ignored. Our health, as well as the health of all the Chinese students and citizens around us, is at risk. We humbly ask that the government please take actions to curb such blatant air pollution in this area, and that it inform us of what actions have been taken.
> Thank you very much.
It may seem silly and futile to write this letter. More than one teacher who signed felt that it would do absolutely no good, but signed anyway. That’s why it’s amazing that only a month later, I learned of the actions taken by the government.
As the author of the letter, I was invited to a meeting at ZUCC along with the college vice president of general affairs and director of human resources, a regional and a municipal representative from the Chinese Bureau of Environmental Protection, the municipal foreign affairs representative, and several representatives of the factory in question. What went down is basically this.
1. Everyone got introduced.
2. Everyone got tea.
3. The Chinese EPA guy explained that during the month that the incident in question occurred, the factory actually exceeded its emissions limit and failed its inspection for the first time. As a result, it is being forced to buy and install 1,500,000 RMB (about US$183,000) particle filtering equipment. Non-compliance will result in stiff fines.
4. An account of the history of the factory was given. It is the forging plant for a motor manufacturer. It has already moved once. Hangzhou’s industrial section is being moved to the south, across the Qiantang River toward Xiaoshan, so it’ll probably have to follow suit, although this factory is not technically completely under Hangzhou’s jurisdiction.
5. Kind person gives John a simpler Chinese verion of what was just said, as it was really long and complicated with difficult vocabulary, and the guy giving it had horrible putonghua.
6. Tea refills.
7. John is asked to say something. John expresses his appreciation and pleasant surprise at having been promptly and seriously responded to.
8. Our school’s VP gave an impassioned plea for that factory to please get the hell out of here.
9. The factory spoke in its defense, saying zero pollution was impossible, the factory had a right to exist, and there was nowhere good for it to go right now.
10. A few other random pollution issues were discussed.
11. The mayor’s foreign relations representative stressed that the mayor takes environmental issues as well as foreign relations issues very seriously, and that our letter was translated and acted upon immediately after it was received.
12. The EPA guy stressed that Hangzhou takes environmental issues very seriously, and that the matter will continue to be investigated, with proper actions taken. EPA guy also passed out his card and gave us the number for a 24-hour pollution report hotline, adding that anything reported would be investigated within 30 minutes of the call.
13. Meeting adjourned, in less than an hour!
So, basically I’m surprised that such prompt action was taken. Were the actions sincere? Will anything change? That’s hard to say. But I’d say if serious actions were really to be taken, then the meeting I attended would probably be a part of it. I have hope.