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Tom Watkins

Tom Watkins

Something Stinks in China

May 16, 2014

There is an opportunity to make “green” off of China’s dirt.

Something stinks in China. The water, the soil and the air. Their mess creates opportunity for Michigan.

There is only so long that an environment can remain polluted without incurring serious and long-term consequences. In many places in China, the environment is so spoiled that it is difficult to see how it might bounce back. China passed that point years ago.

Anyone who has spent time in Beijing knows how poor the air quality is there from the moment you step our of your hotel. The U.S. Embassy in Beijing, China actually measures Beijing’s Air Quality

In a clean environment you can truly see the top of a ten-story building.

Early this year the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences claimed that Beijing’s pollution made the city almost “uninhabitable for human beings”.


On a recent trip to Shanghai, I sat in a second story Tea House on Nanjing Road enjoying the hustle and bustle of local people and tourists enjoying a summer evening. But as dusk washed over the city, I noticed flakes fluttering in the beams of car headlights. My mind registered snow – but this was August in Shanghai! What, I thought were snowflakes was actually air pollution particles large enough and in such quantity to look like a winter wonderland.

The Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection provides its own air quality data for cities throughout China. You can view this information in Chinese at Only three of the 74 Chinese cities monitored met official minimum standards for air quality last year, underscoring the country’s severe pollution problems.

Yet even with these bad numbers, there is great skepticism among Chinese citizens on the accuracy of their reports.

In a Wall Street Journal article, China’s Environmental Ministry reported, “Nearly one-fifth of China’s arable land is polluted. The new report confirms the worst fears of environmentalists and researchers about the effects of decades long rapid industrialization on the country’s soil.”

Bloomberg reported “The silver dust that falls from carelessly managed mines is the hydrochloric acid used in China to process raw graphite into a usable form. The acid is highly corrosive and when released untreated as waste water into the environment is harmful to all forms of life.”

I can’t tell you how many Chinese banquets I have attended that while I am enjoying the delightful seafood of squid, muscles, fish, cray fish, shrimp and other water delights, I am reminded how few bodies of water in China I have seen from which I would want to eat anything from.

Actions have consequences. Burning dirty coal, continued deforestation, lack of environmental controls, and a desire to fast-forward the economy to create – in Deng Xiaoping’s words, “To get rich is glorious” – comes at a price. Getting rich with little or no concern for long term environmental impact is coming home to roost in China today.

Environmental hotspots in China range from lead poisoning to acid spills and sickening ‘smog’ in all cities of significant size — in China ALL cities are of significant size, hence, ALL China, is polluted.

I have been to places in Xinjiang, Tibet and Zhoujiagou, that remain pure and picturesque — but most of China feels, and IS dirty, unhealthy, and environmentally hazardous.

China must address this growing problem – pivotal to its social and political stability.

The Pollution Spills Over

What happens in China does not stay in China. Its environmental problems are becoming a global problem. A recent study published by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (National Academy of Sciences) suggests that “large amounts of pollution that travel from China—and the environmental and health issues they create—stem from our demand for cheap goods manufactured in China.”

Certainly America fouled our environment during the industrial revolution. It wasn’t that long ago that one part of our home – (HOMES: The Great Lakes: Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie and Superior) — containing 20 % of the world’ fresh surface water, was in danger. Lake Erie was so polluted years ago that it caught fire. When I arrived in Detroit in 1969, the air in Detroit stank. Today both are cleaner.

Jerry Xu, President of the Detroit Chinese Business Association ( said, “companies can help China clean up its environmental mess, we have the most advanced technology and experience coupled with China’s willingness to invest to clean up its air and water. It is the right formula for a win-win situation … China’s leadership realizes a poor environment is hurting its GDP. The environment is costly on people’s health which cause significant medical and social issues. Also it affect multiple generations making China look bad at home and around the globe.”

Stuart Lloyd Hart, one of the world’s top authorities on the implications of sustainable development and environmentalism for business strategy is currently the Samuel C. Johnson Chair of Sustainable Global Enterprise and Professor of Management at the Johnson School of Management at Cornell University. He hit the nail on the head when he said, “China has an enormous opportunity to lead the world in ‘Green Leap’ innovation by focusing their development strategy for the interior and west of the country on building the cities of tomorrow using green leap entrepreneurship and base of the pyramid business models to lift the 700 million rural poor out of poverty.” See more information on Green Leap innovation at:

Michigan’s know-how in cleaning up our own messes can be put to good use in China. It is a big world and neither China or America is an island unto itself in this world. What happens in one country impacts the other – and all of humanity. With forward-thinking and leadership, Michigan can literally make green off of China’s dirt.

China need not wallow in its mess alone and Michigan can clean up.

Tom Watkins is a 2014 Emmy nominated producer who has had a lifelong interest in China sparked by a great fourth grade teacher. He has worked for over three decades to build economic, educational and cultural ties between the US and China. He is advisor to the University of Michigan Confucius Institute, Michigan’s Economic Development Corporation and Detroit Chinese Business Association. He can be reached at or follow Watkins on twitter @tdwatkins88

May 15, 2014 · Filed under Tom Watkins



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