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When 1.3 Billion Become Environmental Refugees

Smog in Beijing. Image from Wikimedia.org (CC: AT)

Smog in Beijing. Image from Wikimedia.org (CC: AT)

Editor's note: This article was written by Chu Hon Kueng, an experienced environmental activist from Hong Kong. The Chinese version was published at inmediahk.net on January 24, 2015. This English version, translated by Serena Tsang, is published here at Global Voices under a content partnership agreement.

I put forward the idea that China should move its capital when Beijing was covered by toxic smog early last year. A year has passed, and apart from the “shock therapy” of “APEC blue”, the air quality in Beijing is still sickening. While some people are worried that Beijing residents could turn into environmental refugees and run away, let's face the reality—the majority of mainland China's 1.3 billion people are, in fact, already environmental refugees.

This may sound like an exaggeration. The idea, however, that the whole of China's population are “environmental refugees” was posited some time ago by Feng Yongfeng, a pioneer environmentalist in who recently received the 2014 China Top Ten Social Change Maker award. Feng stated, “Nowadays in China, there are hardly any measures to save, appraise and aid the environmental refugees. They have to bear [the consequence of environmental pollution] entirely by themselves.”

The word “bear” is loaded one in China, where people have had to bear so many other costs of the country's economic progress. Today, China's urban population outnumbers its rural population. The basic needs of urban dwellers are simple: clean air, clean water, safe food and good transportation. Yet, in which city in China can you breathe clean air, drink clean water and find food without additives? Not to mention that most of the cities are surrounded by miles of jammed highways and garbage-dumping sites.

The term “refugee” usually refers to the victims of disasters, wars, religious and racial persecution, etc. In a nutshell, people who are forced away from their homes into exile. “Environmental refugees” are those forced out of their homelands by the degradation of environment. Here are two examples: The first is the Chernobyl disaster in 1980s, when hundreds of thousands of people within a 30km radium of the nuclear power station were evacuated. The second is the sinking of the South Pacific island nation Tuvalu due to the rise of sea levels resulting from global warming. The small country has had to appeal to its neighbors Australia and New Zealand for help.

In China, the threats resulting from environmental pollution will not kill people instantly. But they will spread like cancer cells in cities, towns and counties, through rivers and over mountains, slowly ruining ordinary people's health and quality of life. But you cannot excise or medicate away the effects of pollution from rivers and mountains the way you can some forms of cancer. The wealthy may seek foreign citizenship as a form of political insurance, but the majority of people who remain in China might either be insufficiently aware of the problem to run away from it, or simply don't have the capital to do so. Although it is unlikely that Chinese refugees will seek refuge worldwide, as in the political fable Yellow Peril, the prescription for the illness of environmental degradation will be a huge challenge to the country.

Even if there won't be a flood of environmental refugees in the near future, there's still reason to be anxious. Every year, in autumn and winter, Hong Kong's Air Pollution Index flies off the charts, an indication that the impact of pollution cannot be fenced off by borderlines. The “world's factory” of Zhujiang Delta, China's economic hub, might as well be called “the world's kitchen”. People earn handsome sums of money, while leaving toxic substances in the air, soil and water.

In South China, vast swaths of farmland are polluted by heavy metals, and who knows how many of the area's produce ends up in Hong Kong? The pigs, cattle and goats that imported into Hong Kong, what kind of feed and growth hormones are they fed with? For water the risk is lower, as we are selfishly pumping water directly from the less polluted Dongjiang River to Hong Kong through sealed water pipes. But who knows what will happen in the future?

Over the past few weeks, residents in Guangzhou have protesting the pollution of of their drinking water resources. A villager watering plants with reddish wastewater told a Mainland media reporter: “This is poisonous water and shouldn't be used for irrigation”. My friend in Mainland who runs a civil society organization sighed: “I am 35 years old. I cannot drink clean water in my hometown. In Guangzhou we can only drink water from Zhaoqing. I don’t know where my daughter will be able to find clean water when she is my age.”

Recently, in Northern Zhongshan City, residents surrounded and blocked a garbage incinerator that was polluting the environment. Instead, however, of pressing the own to improve the operation, local government officials arrested the residents. Supporters started a phone calling campaign and gathered outside the police station, but no one answered their demands and there was no response from the police station. The police even demanded that people to delete their social media posts about the incident before they would consider releasing those arrested.

Mainland China's only strategy to solve the problem of cities being surrounded by garbage-dumping sites is the building of incinerators all across the country. It's a business that is sure to make huge profits. Whether the facilities include proper pollution prevention measures is another story, which explains the repeated protests concerning the construction of garbage incinerators. According to Feng Yongen, the ones affected are refugees who failed to escape, and hence are forced “to bear [the consequences of environmental pollution] all by themselves.” Yet it also means that there will be no end to the protests.

The citizens of Hong Kong cannotsolve the pollution problem in China: the country is too vast, and some of the problems are structural. Yet, if this massive country cannot control its pollution, the whole world will be affected. We cannot simple sit still and watch each other die. We should seek to understand the problem and show our support for people's environmental protection actions. We could also make use of the official channel between Hong Kong and Guangdong that addresses regional environmental issues. To them we should express our concerns and request better monitoring of pollution, in order to prevent this cancer from spreading further.

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