How Fair Is Reporting On China's Environment?

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If anyone wants to read an uplifting, positive portrait of the environment in China today, this feature (and photo essay) at Mother Jones is not that. Departing by car on a metaphor-rich trip westward from Beijing, Jacques Leslie guides us deep into the folds of the country's looming and existing eco disasters and the opportunities tucked within. "As it happens," he writes in a sanguine moment, "many of the best ideas for moving toward sustainability are already getting a tryout in China... Yet as smartly conceived as many of these efforts are, virtually all are pilot projects still overwhelmed by the immensity of the problems they take on."

With a glut of damning statistics, quotes, and stops along the highway at all the key landmarks -- U.S.-style consumerism, health crises, cross-Pacific pollution, and of course cars -- the article makes for some depressing reading. And at a time of a lot of criticism of China (and plenty of angry responses), it leaves us with a question: is this, and many other damning reports on China's environment, fair? One thing that got me thinking was an email from my friend John Romankiewicz. He's one half of the team behind China's Green Beat, which is a series of straight-forward (and increasingly fun) video podcasts on China's pollution and its solutions. Last weekend, he led a workshop at People's University in Beijing to help college students make their own inspirational videos on the environment.

The inspiration to make optimistic, solutions-based videos came from my own personal reaction to negative foreign media on China, pieces like the New York Times series "Choking on Growth." While extremely informative and very well reported, after reading such articles, it seems as if there is no hope, why would anyone even try and help China's environment. In Chinese "mei you banfa 没有办法".

When we in developed countries talk about China's environment, it's important to remember that alongside the country's lax environmental laws and poor enforcement, our own consumption habits help to underwrite China's coal-fired growth. (Leslie points this out, but doesn't quite follow develop it.) When we point the finger at China, we should remember to take a good look in the mirror too. Nick Stern wrote about the responsibility of Western countries just before Bali.

To China's chagrin, This won't stop journalists from reporting on China's dire eco situation (or its human rights record, or its food safety, etc.), and it shouldn't. Western media may even have a greater responsibility to keep the heat on given the limitations that the Chinese government imposes on domestic media. Smartly, the New York Times included Mandarin text and audio along with their Choking on Growth series.

But there can still be something unbalanced and even sensational about foreign environmental coverage of China. That China has 16 of the world's 20 most polluted cities is a widely reported fact, but that it has the world beat on solar hot water heaters is clearly not as sexy a story.

Beyond the question of fairness is whether the harsh media coverage is anti-Chinese. Sometimes "pollution" sounds more like a convenient metaphor for Western fears about China, another unproductive divider between "us" and "them." 

Following a November entry by The Atlantic's James Fallows about the Western media's obsession with Beijing's pollution at his China blog, Graham Webster at Transpacifica asked for some perspective in environmental reporting on China, in a post titled "Are Pollution Stories Anti-Chinese? Sometimes, yes":

Whether or not it's the only focus of the "Western" press ... putting across the message that "holy moly these people have dirty cities" does not create the understanding we'll need to put together real solutions in the future.

Recently at Spiked, which is running an interesting series on Western China-bashing, Tim Black wonders if harping on Olympic air pollution simply calms the West's insecurities, while keeping us from good dialogue. 

Demoralised, anxious and desperately wanting purpose, Western elites have sought ever-deeper refuge in the semblance of a rationale offered by environmentalism. In such a context, economic growth and development, once the source of capitalist legitimacy, have acquired a threatening aspect. As one of the most rapidly developing nations on earth, under Western eyes, China appears as merely the most potent symbol of baleful modernity.

It is from this perspective that pollution, the problem of 'Beijing's smog', is too easily understood not as a practical problem with a practical, technological solution, but as an indictment of China's economic development, and of China itself.

If one danger of China-hating media coverage is that it shuts off our ability to better understand and address what's going on in China, another danger is shutting off Chinese audiences. The infuriated responses across the Chinese media and blogosphere to the Western media's coverage of Tibet show just how damaging simply the perception of China-bashing can be. The brand of nationalism that has emerged as a result will certainly not help in forging common ground with China over Tibet--and perhaps other issues too.

To be sure, few Chinese citizens could deny the country's dire environmental situation. But what might happen if the Western media's coverage of China's pollution also starts to be commonly perceived as an opportunity for sanctimonious sniping?

In this context -- and considering how much environmental education may be needed both about China and in China -- balanced reporting is important. This isn't just a matter of putting pollution into historical and economic context. It also means reporting on some very positive solutions China has up its sleeve (just read what Worldwatch president Christopher Flavin has to say). As John from China's Green Beat writes,

In fact, there are good things going on, and in my view, the best way to inspire and encourage people (from citizens to businesses to governments) to lead greener lives and make greener investments is through smart, fun, and optimistic media.

China's state-run media may be optimistic, but it's not necessarily "smart" or "fun." One media outlet that more often takes a balanced perspective is China Dialogue. Founded by former BBC China correspondent Isabel Hilton, the online magazine is rare in that all of its content, from articles to comments, is bilingual, in the hopes of getting Chinese and English-readers to share opinions and ideas. Among other projects, China Dialogue is sponsoring a contest that will follow the China's Green Beat training session.

Certainly, it is crucial that the Western media's reporting on China's environment be as critical as it would be anywhere else. In doing so, it needs to also be both accurate and fair. Even for the Western press, which we consider to be free, it is dangerously easy to skimp on at least one of those.

Mother Jones: The Last Empire

Mother Jones also offers a handy "by the numbers" chart, and a separate, earlier rundown of the green movement afoot. See also Elizabeth Economy's panoramic China environment piece at Foreign Affairs.

How Fair Is Reporting On China's Environment?
If anyone wants to read an uplifting, positive portrait of the environment in China today, this feature (and photo essay) at Mother Jones is not that. Departing by car on a metaphor-rich trip westward from Beijing, Jacques Leslie guides us deep into

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