NGO Tells Shanghai Residents: Walk, Don’t Drive

April 12, 2011 § 2 Comments

“Walk, don’t drive.”  That was the message of the Green Pedestrian Crossing campaign, sponsored last year by the China Environmental Protection Foundation.  Launched in car-crazed Shanghai, the campaign spread to 15 other Chinese cities and, according to the Foundation, reached “3.92 million people and increased general public awareness about environmental awareness by 86%.”

How the Foundation arrived at these figures is not entirely clear.  But the figures–and their accuracy–aside, the campaign, as captured in the following 2-minute video, was highly original.

In the words of the China Environmental Protection Foundation, the award-winning campaign  (Adfest 2011 “Best of Show”; Gold Design Lion at Cannes International Advertising Festival 2010) “demonstrated to the public that even an ordinary moment could be ‘green,’ and that taking one small step can make a significant contribution to protecting the environment.”

Whether it made a dent in China’s driving mania–or in the country’s carbon output–is doubtful, but the Green Pedestrian Crossing campaign was certainly eye-catching and deserving of all the awards it garnered.

Burning through Money?: Tomb-Sweeping Day in China Goes Green

April 8, 2011 § 1 Comment

You’re dead, but according to traditional beliefs, you’ll rest more content in the spirit world if you are outfitted with some of the comforts you had in life.  This is where your descendants come in: every year on tomb-sweeping day they converge on your burial site to spruce up the site, to celebrate with family who have gathered from far and near, and to replenish your needs for the following year.

Tomb-sweeping day, or the Qingming festival, falls every year as it has now for thousands of years, just after the Spring equinox (April 5 this year).  It’s a day for the living to reunite with family members, to pay their respects to the dead, and to enjoy the warming spring air.  But you too are looking forward to it, because you need stuff, just as generations of ancestors before you have.  You’re keeping your fingers crossed that your descendants will have given careful thought to what provisions will get you through another year.

Of course they will bring oranges, cigarettes, watermelon seeds, shoes, and maotai liquor, because they’ve done that routinely for the past ten years or so, knowing full well how much you enjoyed those things in life.  You’re less confident that this year they’ll bring the cash you need to cover normal expenses, mahjong bets, and occasional bribe to gain preferential treatment in the spirit world.  They’re naturally aware that you, like ancestors in all the neighboring graves, are expecting money (a mainstay of the holiday for centuries), but this year the living have expressed a new concern about the economic and environmental effects of provisioning ancestors with money (see Xinhua).

It turns out that in 2010 people spent 1.5 billion dollars on money and other gifts for ancestors.  That’s paper money, of no use in the living world.  The money, joss paper as it is called, is burnt at gravesites, its essence then transmitted to ancestors for use in the spirit world.

The 1.5 billion dollar cost alone wouldn’t stand in the way of Chinese descendants caring for ancestors.  But people are now calculating the toll on the environment as well. There’s the deforestation that results from the manufacture of the money: more than 1000 tons of papers bills were burnt on last year’s tomb-sweeping day.  The environmental costs continue: 1000 tons of burning paper spews a lot of particulate matter and ash into the air.  Living people have become worried about the pollution and the health effects on the descendants of burning money.  One of them told Xinhua News: “At this time of year, people burning thick wads of yellow-colored paper cash can be seen on the streets. The ashes make the streets dirty and the air sometimes would become suffocating.”

And then there’s the concern with fires.   Last year, burning paper money and other paper goods set off 1651 fires, leaving 17 people dead.  This year, the Ministry of Security has urged fire control bureaus to be more vigilant and “to identify fire risks and prevent major fires during the festival.”  Police departments are expected to increase patrols at sites where fires are most likely to be lit (see People’s Daily). You’re hoping that your cemetery isn’t one of high interest to the local police department.

It’s not just the paper money that’s on your wish list.  There’s the Mercedes Benz that you had always coveted in the world of the living.  Your eldest son was aware of just how much you wanted to own a luxury car.  You’re hoping, almost beyond hope, that he remembers your disappointment and buys a paper Mercedes to transmit for use in your spirit world.  Some of the Mercedes even come with their own drivers!

And it would be wonderful, of course, to get an iPad 2.

But this expectation is pretty unrealistic—you know there’s been a run on them, and paper shops throughout the country simply can’t keep them on their shelves (see Reuters; PC Mag.com).

And there’s always the danger you won’t get anything but the routine oranges and a bit of maotai.  You’ve heard of families that have gone totally low carbon and environmentally friendly on tomb-sweeping day.  Mr. Zhang, who above complained about the suffocating air of burnt paper money, stopped the practice of burning gifts to his ancestors altogether.  He remarked, “In the past we would burn fake paper money for our ancestors on this special occasion. But presenting flowers or silk ones began gaining popularity in Hohhot last year and we have decided to shift to the new way of doing things…It is more environment-friendly.”

High on China’s Radar: Economy, Environment, and Social Well-Being

March 9, 2011 § 1 Comment

Premier Wen bows to the National People's Congress before delivering his "Report on the Work of the Government"

 

This past Saturday, Premier Wen Jiabao delivered his 2011 “Report on the Work of the Government” to the 3000 delegates gathered in Beijing for the National People’s Congress.  The report, delivered annually, is comparable to U.S. President’s State of the Union Address, laying out the successes of the past year and the direction the government plans to take in the next year.  But, as this is a year that the Congress will issue the next Five-Year Plan (the 12th), Wen’s report looks beyond 2011, down the road as far as 2015.

Parsing the “Report on the Work of the Government” is no easier than parsing the State of the Union address.  It is long on ideals, goals, and aspirations, and short on details, short on plans for implementation.  It reflects, we can assume, the concerns of the leadership; and it reflects, no doubt too, what the leadership perceives the people may expect from the government in the coming years. Yet there is one important difference with the State of the Union Address: the SUA presents the views of one person, the President, and perhaps those of his party’s leaders—but not those of the opposition party; the “Report on the Work of the Government” presents the collaborative views of the entire CCP leadership.  What this means simply is that while the goals put forward in the “Report” might never be realized, it won’t be because an opposition party stands in the way.

Bulleted below are points from the “Report” that strike me as significant or interesting, followed by a brief comment or two.

GDP is to grow by 7% annually over the next five years.

This has caught most China watchers by surprise, as the 7% target is down from the 7.5% figure of the previous 11th Five-Year Plan (and down from the 8% figure for 2010).  The day after Wen delivered the report, Xinhua News led with the headline:  “China Prepares to End GDP Obsession.”  That’s probably going too far, but the question remains, why the reduction? « Read the rest of this entry »

China’s Economic-Environmental Balancing Act

October 8, 2010 § Leave a comment

Beijing is caught in a balancing act.  The leadership is determined to maintain at least an 8% annual growth in GDP, because, as they see it, economic prosperity is the underpinning of social stability.   But this same leadership also appears to be genuinely concerned with the range of environmental problems the country faces.  The official Chinese press, including the English-language China Daily, People’s Daily, Xinhua, and Global Times, reports everyday on the devastating effects of greenhouse gas emissions, climate change, water contamination, coal-produced energy, and deforestation, and on the steps being taken–or under consideration—to rein these problems in.

Consider the case of the automobile.  Measures taken by the Beijing government to reduce the damage done by the automobile to the environment include: providing rebates to consumers for the purchase of more fuel-efficient cars (approximately $400); creating a plan to invest $15 billion in a 16-company alliance whose mission is to research and develop standards for electric and hybrid vehicles; requiring that every car in Beijing be kept off the streets on one specified day of the week (determined by the last digit of the license plate); and encouraging public transit use in the major cities by maintaining rider-friendly rates (about 30 cents).

Still, in big cities the streets are choked with cars and the air is choked with carbon emissions—and matters are getting worse, much worse, daily.  Why not impose a congestion tax, which requires drives to pay a fee to use the city roads at peak hours?  Why not charge $4000 for a license plate in Beijing and Chongqing and Tianjin and other cities, as is the case in Shanghai, to limit the number cars and to raise necessary revenue to expand the public transit system?  Why not impose a hefty sales tax on large, fuel-inefficient cars?   In other words, why not do still more to protect the environment?

The answer comes down to this: even as officials take steps to curb the ravaging effects of the growing dependence on the automobile, they are, nonetheless, counting on the car industry to strengthen China’s economy.  China is pinning its future economic development, in part, on car manufacturing, hoping to become a major producer of automobiles as well as a major consumer.  (This year it surpassed the U.S. as the world’s largest automobile market.  And just this Wednesday the Wall Street Journal blog reported that “China’s top 30 auto groups are expected to have combined capacity to build 31.24 million vehicles a year by the end of 2015, up from 13.95 million at the end of 2009.”)  In short, the auto industry is regarded as essential to China’s future economic prosperity—and it’s this economic prosperity that will promote the government’s much talked about  “harmonious society.”

The example of the car makes a larger point: the Chinese government is, no doubt, becoming environmentally more aware, taking aggressive steps to promote clean air.  But, given the choice, the insistence on the almost sacred 8% GDP figure will, at least for the time being, trump environmental goals.

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