I was driving to work this morning when I heard, for the first time, the re-broadcast of a BBC World Service from April. Reporter Mukul Devichand interviewed environmental activists in Beijing who quite understandably claimed not to understand his questions when he uttered the dreaded “D” word (democracy).
You can click on this link and read the full transcript, but unfortunately the Podcast seems to have been removed.
What struck me most of all about this programme, though, were some closing comments from the famous enviironmental campaigner, Ma Jun.
“You know when you sit there in a Western country blaming China every
day – you know the Chinese Government, Chinese court – blaming them every
day for this and that, the result will be very very limited. Legal responsibility
is on our side but it’s also in the meantime, you know people in the Western
countries enjoy cheaper clothing products from China. Why? Probably you
know the cost is on our rivers. You know the rivers have been turning to you
know black, yellow and all kinds of colours sometimes several times a day. I
think you know we got to recognise you know the cheaper products have its
own impact. We recognise there are gaps in our governance, in our
enforcement structure and we try to improve that. But in the meantime, do we all want to allow this multinational companies to take advantage of the loophole?
We’ve pushed for strengthening the enforcement, we push for the use of market incentives to deal with our problems, but in the meantime I think all the citizens who care about the environmental issues should also think about what we can do to deal with
this problem. Otherwise when China has strengthened its enforcement, these
companies when they sit across this table, they literally say we’re going to
move to Vietnam if you keep doing this.”
Note the paragraphs in bold. It’s easy to criticise China from a Western standpoint, but how much are western shoppers – who are used to cheap, cheap and more cheap from China – to blame for the multi-coloured rivers, poisoned water supply and unbreathable air that are causing hundreds of thousands of premature deaths a year?
And how many chemicals companies, hands on their hearts, can really say that they check the environmental standards all the way down the line to the finished-goods manufacturers in any product chain?
You can make sure your chemical plant has state-of-the-art technologies and adheres fully to Responsible Care requirements, but you will still want to build that plant where the competitive advantage lies.
So if China has become too expensive because of higher environmental and labour costs, the choice might be Vietnam.
What hope is there for a new global climate change deal when corporate interests are allowed to override the bigger picture?
Enough of a rant. I am going home to play with my 19-month-old son and make sure he doesn’t suck too hard on any of his plastic toys that are made in China. (likely nearly all of them!)