EPISODE 2: A Beautiful China

12 MARCH 2018

Rivers are at the heart of China's economic development, but recent research has shown they are also critical in transporting plastics into the ocean. Our guests discuss the importance of rivers to this issue, and how possible solutions developed in China's top government circles work their way down to the local level.

Christine Loh, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology
Laurent Lebreton, The Ocean Cleanup
Lincoln Fok, Education University of Hong Kong
Feng Hu, China Water Risk
Xu Yuanchao, China Water Risk
Zhang Chun, chinadialogue


Hi. My name is Sam Bekemans. Marcy and I spent many, many hours making this documentary series possible. And now that the series is out, I realise there is just so much info that never made it to the final cut! So if you'd like to find out more about this issue, the people we interviewed, or the details they mention; this is the place. I'll try my best to add all the links and info you might be looking for, but you can always reach out to us on our contact page if there's more we can help you with.

China's main rivers | © Lizardpoint

China's main rivers | ©Lizardpoint

In episode 2, we started by briefly touching upon the importance of rivers in Chinese culture. Marcy mentioned King Yu of Xia (ca. 2100 BCE), aka Yu the Great. He's the royal figure portrayed here by Song Dynasty painter Ma Lin. King Yu, like the Xia Dynasty he founded, is shrouded in mystery - small wonder since the first written records didn't pop up till a thousand years after his supposed year of death.

Yu is said to have harnessed the rivers, and stopped a devastating flood from ruining the lands. He allegedly did so through innovative irrigation systems and levees. He is also said to be a shapeshifting demi-god. The latter is yet to be confirmed, but scientists did find evidence of a great flood that may have been the origin of the legend. 

King Yu of Xia |  Ma Lin/Wikimedia Commons

King Yu of Xia | Ma Lin/Wikimedia Commons

Yellow River flood of 1887 | Unknown/ Wanhuajing

Yellow River flood of 1887 | Unknown/Wanhuajing

The story of Yu the Great is just one example of the historic importance of rivers and the skill to control them. From Yu the Great to the modern obsession with building dams, taming the river systems has been tied to the heavenly mandate Chinese leaders need(ed) to secure. As The Economist writes:

Success or failure in flood control and irrigation can furnish or remove the Mandate of Heaven. The Yellow river catastrophe of 1887 was seen as evidence that the Qing, the last dynasty, was losing its mandate.

So that brings us to the current state of China's rivers, which is not so good. Rivers around the world are contaminated with agricultural run-off, toxic wastewater discharge, and illegal dumping of solid waste. The Guardian compiled this sobering picture gallery of polluted rivers. For the purpose of our documentary series, we only looked at plastic, and found this map:

Mass of river plastic flowing into oceans in tonnes per year |  Nature

Mass of river plastic flowing into oceans in tonnes per year | Nature

Laurent Lebreton |  Linkedin

Laurent Lebreton | Linkedin

The team that published this research in Nature was led by Laurent Lebreton, so Marcy rang Laurent up in his New Zealand home to find out more. 

Laurent: We basically categorised all land into different watersheds and for every watershed we estimated how much run off there is. That’s how we figured out the five rivers that are most likely to carry waste into the ocean, and three of those are in China. The number two and five are in India and Cameroon.

The research by Laurent and his team also leaned on previous studies that tried to put a number on the pollution levels of local river systems. One of these studies was that of Lincoln Fok, an Assistant Professor at the Education University of Hong Kong. 

20 most polluting rivers |  Nature

20 most polluting rivers | Nature

Lincoln Fok |  EDUHK

Lincoln Fok | EDUHK

Marcy: Lincoln studied microplastics on Hong Kong beaches. He and his team combed 25 local beaches, finding an average of 5,500 pieces of microplastic per square meter. That’s twice the amount found on US beaches, and still 50% more than found on the coast of South Korea. They also noticed that beaches facing west contained a lot more of this type of pollution, and west is where the mouth of the Pearl River lies.
Lincoln: If we found more deposition on the west coast, that naturally means there is a significant source of this pollutant in that area. We believe that this large river is one potential and significant source of microplastics into the estuary. 
Hong Kong and the Pearl River | ©CC BY 3.0 Croquant/ Wikimedia Commons

Hong Kong and the Pearl River | ©CC BY 3.0 Croquant/Wikimedia Commons

You can listen to more of Dr. Fok's interview on our Listen page, in a segment produced for Radio Television Hong Kong.

One thing we left out of our episode is the seasonality of this river pollution. Lincoln noted that there was a lot more plastic on the Hong Kong beaches during the months of monsoon. This also helped him to the conclusion that the plastic must be coming from the Pearl River, as it swells in monsoon times and carries the waste that was just out of reach in dry months. Laurent confirmed more plastic washes into the ocean during seasons of heavy rainfall, a correlation clearly depicted in this image from the Nature paper. 

Seasonality of regional inputs of river plastic to oceans |  Nature  

Seasonality of regional inputs of river plastic to oceans | Nature 

These findings put a heavy burden on China's river administration. Something the central government has acknowledged in recent years, as Feng Hu of China Water Risk told us:

Feng Hu |  CWR

Feng Hu | CWR

Hu: In 2014, the premier Li Keqiang declared war on pollution including air pollution and water pollution, starting more stringent actions from all departments within the government to tackle these issues.

One of these actions Hu mentioned is the 2015 Water 10 Plan. The full Chinese text can be found here, but China Water Risks provides us with some of the key points here. The Water 10 Plan, or Water Pollution Prevention and Control Action Plan, enforces stricter standards for wastewater discharge and tightens a few loopholes. As Debra Tan of China Water Risk writes, "Across China, textile, dyeing & finishing and pulp & paper industries will be hardest hit." Unfortunately it doesn't seem to touch the problem of plastic waste in the river systems, but the plan does answer a question about the government's intentions, says Debra: "How serious is China? Very."

Christine Loh in the studio with Marcy and audio engineer Carsten Martens | © AyaRecordingStudio

Christine Loh in the studio with Marcy and audio engineer Carsten Martens | ©AyaRecordingStudio

At the 19th Party Congress, held in October 2017, Xi Jinping called for a Beautiful China. We invited Christine Loh to the studio to explain this concept. 

Christine has an impressive political career, highlighted by her work as Under Secretary for the Environment in the Hong Kong government from 2012 to 2017. She also founded public policy think tank Civic Exchange and is now an adjunct professor at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

Christine started by saying the notion of a Beautiful China signals a new way of looking at development of the country: a new approach to improving the living standards of the people, while caring for the environment. 

Comparing China's poverty rates | ©World Bank/GPF

Comparing China's poverty rates | ©World Bank/GPF


Christine: The last thirty years have really been about how to get people out of the most dire poverty, and the Chinese government has now gotten to a point where they can say "well, we think we have gotten rid of the worst kind of poverty."

The rate of poverty alleviation in China is indeed impressive. At the 2016 G20 in Hangzhou, Xi Jinping repeated the claim that 700 million people were lifted out of poverty since the economic reforms of the '80s. The World Bank even estimates that number is higher than 800 million. As you can see from the chart 'Evolution of Poverty', this is an immense feat compared to other developing regions.

But again we must be cautious in our optimism, writes Jacob Shapiro in Geopolitical Futures

Jacob: The problem with these data sets should already be clear. If you factor in population growth, you can make the claim that China has lifted 800 million people out of poverty if you define poverty as living on less than $1.90 or $3.10 a day. This doesn’t say anything about how well those lifted out of poverty are doing. A rural household living on $1.91 a day by this standard wouldn’t be counted as suffering from extreme poverty, even though by any objective measure a household earning that much on an annual basis would be cripplingly poor.

And then there's the income gap between urban and rural communities, and between coastal and inland regions, as apparent from these two infographics:

Rural areas falling behind | ©GPF

Rural areas falling behind | ©GPF

Income differences between coastal and inland areas | © GPF

Income differences between coastal and inland areas | ©GPF

A lot of work remains to be done on poverty alleviation, but it is fair to say the progress made is extraordinary. With income levels steadily rising, 

Christinethe Chinese government have been travelling on a path of thinking about what they want China to be - a vision for China.

And that is what Beautiful China is all about, a vision of what China should strive to become. And this means more emphasis on environmental protection. But how does this idea go from the Great Hall of the People, down to the local officials? Christine explains there are two ways to make sure local administrators toe the line: Education and Evaluation.

Everyone in an administrative position regularly goes to Party School (if they're a Party member) or another leadership school. Here, cadres are instructed about policy, party thought, and best practice.

Xi Jinping in his role as head of the Central Party School | ©Xinhua

Xi Jinping in his role as head of the Central Party School | ©Xinhua

"It is also superficial and biased to think that cadres go to the Party schools just to be obedient to the Party," says professor Zhen Xiaoying of the Central Institute of Socialism in this China Daily article. "It is a precious chance for officials from all over the country to exchange ideas on governance."

Xi Jinping himself ran the top party school from 2007 to 2013, and you can tell he is serious about their importance: "Quite a few comrades don't realise the significant roles the Party schools have played. Many think their existence doesn't make a difference. These thoughts must be corrected." 

Secondly, the evaluation. 

Christine: The second thing is that you have to show performance. For quite a number of years, this is not just about the pursuit of GDP; You have to show that you have hit environmental targets. 

The Diplomat has this great article explaining the system of evaluations in China. In it, Fulbright Scholar Tucker Van Aken  talks in detail about the different kinds of targets, the effect they have on policy, and how these targets are crucial for the survival of the Party. 

In a nutshell, there are three types of performance targets: the soft targets, hard targets and priority targets. Only the priority targets have 'veto power'; failing them will result in punishment. The one-child policy was one of those veto targets.

Environmental targets used to be strictly 'soft' targets, meaning they were left to non-leading cadres and not subject to pressure or control from higher-up. But then in 2006, in the 11th five-year-plan, certain environmental mandates were elevated to 'hard' and 'priority'-level targets, making them in many ways equal to objectives like economic growth and stability. This according to Harvard Environmental Law Review.

Zhang Chun |  chinadialogue

Zhang Chun | chinadialogue

The water quality index |  China Daily

The water quality index | China Daily

To hear some examples of this shift towards environmental responsibility, we spoke with Zhang Chun. She is a senior researcher with our partner organisation chinadialogue

Chun mentioned the water classification system, ranging from potable in Class 1 to severely polluted in Class V+.

According to the latest five-year-plan, 70% of water monitoring systems should show a Class I or II quality level. While the Yangtze and Pearl river seem to be on track to reach that target, others like the Yellow River are trailing behind. In some rivers, researchers have even spotted a trend of "more good water, but also more really bad water", i.e. increasing proportions of Class I, II and III water, but also an increase in Class V+ water.

Slight improvement in the state of China's rivers | China Water Risk

Slight improvement in the state of China's rivers | China Water Risk

Feng Hu of China Water Risk brought up the increased spending in research and development, partly to help reach these environmental targets. 

Hu: In the last year we already saw the percentage of R&D in GDP reach 2.1%, which is equivalent to many developed countries. And China wants to increase this percentage to 2.5% by 2020.
China's R&D spending to reach OECD levels | © AAAS

China's R&D spending to reach OECD levels | ©AAAS

Xu Yuanchao | China Water Risk

Xu Yuanchao | China Water Risk

Lastly, we spoke with Xu Yuanchao, also of China Water Risk. We were interested in a project the central government had successfully piloted, called the 'River Chiefs System'. Yuanchao wrote an article on the topic, which you can find here.

Yuanchao: For each part of a river, there is a person who is in charge of that river. If the river is not going well then the person will be blamed and that will impact the person's administrative assessment, which probably will affect the person's future promotion.
Algae in Lake Tai |  Reuters

Algae in Lake Tai | Reuters

The administrative assessment Yuanchao mentions is that cadre evaluation procedure I talked about earlier. The scheme was trialled in Wuxi County, near Shanghai, where Lake Tai suffered an outbreak of algae in 2007. The disaster threatened the water supply for a vast number of inhabitants around this vast lake, just smaller than the United Kingdom. To deal with the crisis, the surrounding waterways were divided into segments, and 'River Chiefs' were appointed to control the quality of each length. This was so successful that the government decided to implement the scheme throughout China by the end of 2018.

In the next episode, we'll be speaking to experts on waste management, to find out why China shocked the world in January by refusing to process the West's recyclables any longer.