China’s environmental problems

Visiting scholar says country can learn from U.S.

Sophia Dong

Sophia Dong

Photo courtesy of Sophia Dong

When it comes to environmental protection, China can learn from the United States, a visiting scholar from that country told an audience in Tehama Hall on the Chico State University campus Monday night (March 30).

Struggling to make her English understood, Sophia Dong said that the Chinese people have a deep love of nature, but in the rush to industrialize and lift themselves out of poverty, they have not done a good job of protecting the environment.

At one point she spoke of a famous song in China that expressed people’s feelings about nature. Called “My Country,” it’s “a very beautiful song that sings to a river,” she said. “In the song, the river is a metaphor of our country, and things that happen in the river have close linkage with our human emotions, with our lives, with our feelings. In our minds, the river is a sacred river, and we hope that we have a beautiful river that’s clean and kept sacred, just like our country.”

Dong teaches Marxist philosophy, formal logic, and foreign Marxism (especially ecological Marxism) at the School of Marxist Studies at Huazhong University of Science & Technology in Hubei, Wuhan, China, about 400 miles west of Shanghai. Her research interests are ecological Marxism and postmodern philosophy.

For about an hour, she gave a general overview of the environmental problems facing China. Her lecture was titled “China: Its Environment, Its Future” and was accompanied by slides.

Rivers figured prominently in her talk. One she mentioned was the Songhua River, which is a tributary of the Heilong River, which runs along the border between the Russian Far East and China. In 2005 a benzene explosion in a petrochemical plant on the river released large amounts of toxic chemicals into the river. As a result drinking water for the city of Harbin, the 10th-largest in China, was cut off for several days.

“A lot of people suffered,” Dong said grimly.

One man asked if any of the affected people were paid anything by the Chinese government. No, Dong replied. “The Chinese government tried first to prevent the pollution from spreading and did their best to resume the water supply,” she said.

Dong went on to say that about a year later the Songhua River was polluted once more, and water was again cut off. All of this caused a big chain reaction: Because the river flows downstream into Russia, a domestic environmental issue became an international one.

The Songhua River incident and other examples of environmental destruction that Dong cited show how weak China’s foundational laws are when it comes to environmental protection.

“China is a developing country, you know. We have weak economic foundations and limited investments in environmental protection. This makes the environmental protection lag behind the economic development,” Dong said, “The ecology is vulnerable. We should keep a balance between human interaction and nature.”

Dong said that China is learning from the United States about how to set environmental laws but has its own particular problems to solve. The country is exhausting its natural resources in the rush to industrialize, and the government thus far sees environmental problems as a headache, rather than as potentially destabilizing factors.

Although China has made some progress environmentally, it still faces significant problems with air pollution, water pollution, dust pollution, species extinction, destruction of vegetation, topsoil loss, global warming and desertification. She estimated the annual cost at $200 billion.

“I think that we can learn from U.S. such as to establish comparatively perfect laws,” Dong acknowledged. But China is not alone in this regard, she added. “Environmental problems [are] a big problem, not only in China but also in the United States,” she said. “It is a global problem.”