I woke up this morning and considered going outside. Lately, I have been avoiding the outdoors here in Chengdu, in Sichuan province, because I fear the industrial haze and the cough I seem to develop whenever I spend more than a few hours out and about. There are ominous smells here: acrid metallic clouds of gas with something like formaldehyde that have me breathing as shallowly as I possibly can when I pass through them.
Despite this, last night I was reconsidering my aversion to the Chinese outdoors, wondering if I was being paranoid. Sunlight is still moderately healthy. And after all, I drink heavily filtered water, wash any fresh vegetables I buy several times (they recommend using diluted bleach as well, but I refuse to trade one poison for another), and I live, sleep, run and work out in a heavily insulated building with industrial grade air filters going 24/7.
I also drink lots of coffee, which I seem to remember reading somewhere renders me all but impervious to cancer.
But then, after my coffee, any anticarcinogenic confidence I had evaporated when I sat down to check email and a friend of mine had forwarded on a ghastly article entitled “Made in China: Cancer Villages,” by Lee Liu, from Environment Magazine. The article goes into great depth about China’s unprecedented levels of cancer and the “grow first, clean up later” approach to industrial development driven largely by the forces of economic globalization.
The article itself is superb: well-written, clear, and thoroughly researched. Worth reading. Here are some highlights:
Various forms of Chinese media and Internet sources have reported a total of 459 cancer villages across 29 of China’s 31 provincial units, the two exceptions being Tibet and Qinghai.
In the past 30 years, death rate due to lung cancer increased by 465 percent and has become the most deadly cancer in China. Cancer, the number one cause of death in urban China, accounts for 25% of deaths.
Liu’s report continues:
Water contamination from industrial pollution is believed to be the main cause of cancer villages, and there is a close relationship between China’s major rivers and the location of cancer counties.
Because Chinese media and academic journals are governmentally controlled, their reports tend to be conservative about politically sensitive and negative subjects. However, there have been no reports disputing the cancer-village phenomenon.
The lack of reports disputing the cancer catastrophe is genuinely surprising to me, but this does not mean that the press freely reports on these matters, or that citizens have much power to do much about it:
Local protests are sometimes organized and run by village leaders, mostly likely the village’s secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) branch committee, the village’s top leader. Dou Xian, CCP secretary of the Douzhuangzi Village, led a six-village (three from Tianjin and three from neighboring Hebei) alliance to fight against polluters, many of which were later shut down by the government. For telling the media how many villagers had died of cancer, Wang Linsheng in Shenqui, Henan, was fired as Huangmengying village’s CCP secretary and was accused of “leaking State secrets,” a very serious crime in China.
China appears to have produced more cancer clusters in a few decades than the rest of the world ever has. Liu’s report cites several major factors for this: A “grow first, clean up later” approach to development, enormous rural-urban disparities that leave extremely poor farmers and others in the countryside to drink straight from highly polluted rivers, a lack of free media and democratic ability (to publicize the issue and, then, to protest and militate for change), lax environmental laws and corrupt courts that rarely punish polluters, and — this the most relevant for people outside of China — economic globalization:
Industrial pollution would have been less severe if China were not the world leading manufacturer of chemical products. Globalization may also be related to the income and consumption disparity. China’s suddenly wealthy are inspired by the lifestyle of the wealthiest people in the world. High-end luxurious goods are readily available, and their shopping habits and changing tastes are reshaping global trade flows of flashy cars, gold, elephant ivory, and dried seahorses. Availability of those goods and the possibility of migration to a more developed country push for a never-ending demand for wealth, and China’s elite are firm supporters of the “grow first” development policy.
Liu’s fine report stays properly focused on China, but it’s worth noting just how interconnected the planet’s systems are. You cannot have dozens of Grade-5 toxic rivers flowing through a country this large without that poison leaking into the system, seeping throughout the oceans and all marine life, metasticizing through the atmosphere, and permeating simply everything. My point in saying that is not to point an alarmist finger at big bad China, but to underscore how we are all, for better or worse, in this together. We in the Western world honed and perfected the industrial processes most to blame, and we erected the market forces, system of economic globalization, and blind worship of materialism now very much driving the Chinese industrial cancer juggernaut.
Yes, we. Us. We’re to blame. For not using even the feeble democratic mechanisms our badly listing society still places at our disposal. For letting our government sell us out at Copenhagen. For letting rich people and corporations hijack our governments and economies while we all went on participating in this mistakeholder economy. For worshipping a materialistic way of life that’s quite clearly not sustainable in a world without one have for every hundred or hundred thousand have-nots. For driving cars once it’s well-known how hideous they are from almost every angle. For plastic, for television.
I do believe I could rant for pages about all the ways this was utterly predictable and heartbreakingly avoidable. But I won’t. I’ll just say that chickens coming home to roost isn’t just a phrase for Malcolm X to invoke as the inevitable payback for slavery and repression of Black Americans, or for Ward Churchill (among others) to use to describe the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. It’s just about the right phrase for describing how the cancer of us — us being those actively engineering or “merely” participating in globalized industrial capitalism — will most certainly get ours. And we’ll drag millions, probably billions, of poor and largely blameless people (and animals) into an early mass grave with us.
Chickens coming home to roost.
Would that it were not so.
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Photos courtesy Wikimedia Commons. The “Capitalist Pyramid” illustration at the top is a famous Industrial Workers of the World (Wobbly) poster from 1911. The IWW was unique in many ways, not least because it was the only union that welcomed women, immigrants, and black Americans into the same organization. I led off this post, ostensibly about industrial criminality and health issues in “communist” China, with the Capitalist Pyramid to make a point about power, independent of facile ideologies or propaganda. China is not a communist state, anymore than the United States, strictly speaking, is a democracy. Sorry: you can call a plutocratic oligarchy where 1% own 99% “democracy” if you want, but I won’t be joining you in such foolishness. I think there’s a lot to recommend an anarchist understanding about states, the nature of power, government, and people: states exist to monopolize force and monetize and extract labor from their subjects. From this perspective, the core distinctions to be made between China and the United States are not about “freedom” but about scale and respective terms of engagement with economic globalization.
This post was first published on April 29, 2010