Putin Xi

Another thing Chinese and Russians have in common: they both like finishing off a meal with a round of cough-inducing liquor. Image source: ITAR-ITASS/Barcroft Media

So far, this blog has examined China’s relationship with its archrival, its emerging competitor, and its archnemesis. Although China is ringed with nations and increasingly plays a vital role all around the world, there’s 1 other country with which it has a deep and important relationship that takes some explanation to understand: its Eurasian imperial counterpart, Russia.

The historical trajectories of China and Russia share many similarities. Both are vast empires that grew from smaller (but still very big) nuclei along river valleys into 2 of the world’s biggest countries, reaching deep into the Asian continent. Both were historically dominated by warlike nomads who were able to conquer them despite their much smaller numbers; the Mongols, the greatest of these peoples, even conquered both and incorporated them into a giant continental empire. Both managed to eventually turn the tables on them and dominate the nomads in turn thanks to their numbers, their bureaucrats, and the aggressive promotion of their culture and writing systems. Both propped up their empires with absolute emperors who claimed divine backing for their rule.

Despite this, for most of Chinese history Russia was a distant concern. (Asia is BIG.) It wasn’t until the 1600s, when Russian fur traders and explorers (often the same people) headed east across the Siberian expanses, that the 2 empires really came into contact. Part of Siberia was traditionally held by the Manchus, a nomadic people in northeast China who conquered the whole country in the 1600s. Sensitive to Russian encroachments, they attacked a Russian fort on their land and established the Sino-Russian border with the Treaty of Nerchinsk (1689). Another treaty (Kyakhta, in 1727) fixed the border with Mongolia, allowed for bilateral trade, and guaranteed Chinese expansion into Xinjiang (the northwest).

Amur Acquisitions

The colored areas used to be part of Manchuria (and therefore China), but were annexed by Russia in 1858 (brown) and 1860 (pink).

These early stages in the relationship might have been peaceful and subdued, but by the late 1800s the tables had turned. Russia was resurgent, powerful and expanding further east. It wanted a warm-water port on the Pacific (most of Siberia’s coastline is frozen). China was weak, technologically inferior and beset by imperialist vultures. The opportunity was ripe, and Russia seized it by annexing the easternmost territory it had long craved in 1858 and 1860. It then built a port, Vladivostok, in its southeasternmost corner near Korea, and a railroad (the famous Trans-Siberian Railway) linking it with Moscow and the rest of Russia. In order to link more conveniently with the corner Vladivostok is lodged in, Russia wrangled concessions from the beleaguered Manchu Empire to extend railways across Manchuria (northeast China). And because the Liaodong Peninsula in that part of China is so strategically situated, it extracted control of Dalian (Dalniy), the port there, and built its own naval base at nearby Port Arthur. By 1900, Manchuria was clearly part of Russia’s sphere of influence, and it began to develop industry and support Russian commerce there. In Chinese eyes, it had become another imperialist vulture — it joined the multinational expedition to suppress the Rebellion of 1900, for example.

Manchu railways

Manchuria is a strategic region bordered by Mongolia, Russia, Korea, the Yellow Sea and the Beijing region.

This was not to last, though. Another imperialist vulture, Japan, had its eyes on Manchuria, since it was beginning to take over Korea (which lies southeast of Manchuria). It felt threatened by imperial expansion so close to home and coveted Port Arthur in particular. In 1904, it started a war with Russia and beat it. Russia’s defeat helped spark an internal uprising in 1905, since the war was deeply unpopular. Burned by the whole experience, Russia retreated from China and turned its attention back toward Europe. China’s government was also deeply unpopular and discredited by this time, and inspired partly by the Russian example, revolutionaries overthrew the emperor in 1912. Russia would go on to have a successful revolution in 1917, when the Bolsheviks (radical Communists) overthrew a short-lived democratic government.

From this point on, Sino-Russian relations dramatically improved. The Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin, believed that imperialism was the final form of capitalism, and denounced Europeans for preying on weaker, poorer foreign countries. They felt sympathy for the Chinese as another long-suffering peasantry undergoing a painful revolution and reckoning with the modern world. As such, the various imperialist humiliations that Russia had exacted from China were lifted in 1919 (although Mongolia was separated from the Chinese orbit and made the 1st member of the Communist Bloc, that is, a Communist regime under Russian control). Some Chinese revolutionaries looked up to Russia as an exciting, daring experiment in social reform, and as a possible “third way” between Occidental imperialism and Oriental lethargy. Sun Yat-sen, the leader of the (mostly ineffectual) Republic of China that claimed to succeed the Manchus, welcomed advice from the Comintern (a Russian-controlled organization that sought to spread Communism around the world), took his party in a much more leftward direction, and praised Lenin.

The 1920s and ’30s were a complicated time for Sino-Soviet relations (the Soviet Union being the successor to the Russian Empire). On the plus side, the Republicans managed to seize control of most of China by 1928 under Sun’s successor, the general Jiang Jieshi. On the minus side, Jiang was much more conservative than Sun, and in 1927 he turned on the Communists that had allied with his party and massacred as many as he could. While the Soviet Union remained loyal to the battered Communists, it didn’t want to alienate the Chinese regime either, and tried to placate both sides, giving military advice to the Communists while urging them to seek reconciliation with Jiang. The Communists refused and kept on fighting. They finally reconciled during the Japanese invasion (1937-45), but went right back to fighting again afterward. And this time, the Communists won, startling their Soviet patrons by pushing the Republican government out of China altogether (it remains to this day in Taiwan).

With a giant part of the Eurasian landmass under Communist control, the 1950s were a glorious time for Sino-Soviet relations. The USSR showered China with economic, military and technical aid and advice on how to carry through a Communist revolution. They teamed up to support Communism in China’s neighborhood (Korea and Vietnam). China’s new dictator, Mao Zedong, paid a visit to Moscow in 1949 and treated his Soviet counterpart, Iosif Stalin, as a wise uncle. Thousands of Chinese students followed him, visiting the USSR to study the principles of a Communist state apparatus.

But strains quickly developed. The Chinese were annoyed that Stalin had taken advantage of China’s postwar disarray to reimpose some of the old imperial Russian restrictions on Chinese sovereignty, strip Manchuria of valuable industrial assets, and occupy part of Xinjiang. Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchyov, struck Mao as a boorish, ignorant bumpkin with no right to treat him as the junior partner in the relationship. The Chinese were incensed at Khrushchyov’s denunciation of Stalin’s crimes and annoyed at Soviet reforms under his rule, seeing them as backpedaling and going soft. For their part, the Soviets were unnerved by fanatical Chinese programs like the Great Leap Forward (which ruined Chinese agriculture and industry) and China’s belligerence against Taiwan, America and India. The battle-hardened Chinese leadership was willing to risk nuclear war; the Soviet Union saw no need to jeopardize its new relationship with India over some faraway mountains.

By the ’60s, the new Communist giants were enemies. The rift widened as China tried to pry other Communist countries away from the Soviet orbit (it only got 1 taker, Albania, although other Eastern European countries took advantage of the dispute to extract concessions). Chinese rhetoric only grew more heated during the Cultural Revolution, which fired up Chinese society behind a Mao personality cult and slavish adherence to his doctrine. The Soviet Union moved troops to its long border with China, sparking a battle along the Amur River in Manchuria. China began to fear the Soviet Union as the expansionist power other countries saw it as. To knock it off balance somewhat, Mao met with America’s president, Richard Nixon, and mended China’s frosty relations with America (and, thereafter, America’s allies like Japan). It worked: the Soviets backed away from their confrontational posture and rhetoric.

Thereafter, Sino-Soviet relations settled to a cool, guarded state. After Mao died in 1976, China undertook its own reforms carrying it away from rigid adherence to Communist orthodoxy. Both countries lost interest in exporting revolution. The Soviet Union’s reforming dictator, Mikhail Gorbachyov, was interested in mending relations and paid a visit to Beijing in 1989. He was received warmly, but the Chinese thought he was going way too far with his reforms, which combined economic restructuring (good) with liberalization of the political climate (bad). They showed him what they thought of the demonstrators in Beijing that marred his visit by murdering them. Gorbachyov refused to take similar ruthless measures, and as a result, the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

The collapse of the Soviet Union ultimately led to a dramatic improvement in Sino-Russian relations. The new Russia is a much smaller, weaker, and politically less important country. Meanwhile, China has left behind the era when it depended on foreign aid and has steadily accumulated power and influence. The tables have turned: China is now the emerging superpower, while Russia is a Great Power that sees China as a source of economic vitality.

Neither country is Communist anymore, China having altered its economy to a freewheeling capitalism with heavy state influence. The Cold War is over. Yet the outlines of the Cold War dynamic are still visible in international politics. Both China and Russia resent the West for winning the conflict and spreading its world order everywhere. Both see it (and America especially) as arrogant and cocky and see a need for a counter-balance to keep it from growing too powerful and confident. This has had the discernible effect of driving the 2 countries back into each other’s arms, and they regularly block Western initiatives at the UN that they see as hindering dictatorship or enabling imperialism.

That being said, China and Russia have taken different approaches to the post-Cold War world. China has opened itself up, welcoming foreign investment and becoming a growing investor abroad in turn. It has a major role in international institutions and global supply chains. It is challenging America for supremacy in East Asia but is so far a minor player elsewhere. Russia seemed to be taking a similar path at first, although its energy-based economy and clientelist networks kept it from being as dynamic as China. But under its secret-agent-turned-dictator Vladimir Putin, it is much more suspicious and contemptuous of the West. It defied Western objections in 2014 by annexing Crimea, a part of Ukraine, and harassing that country with a separatist insurgency, and it still works against American interests in Syria by propping up its dictatorship. It antagonizes its western neighbors by holding war games on their borders and flying planes unnervingly close to NATO’s. Its propaganda is much more overtly anti-Western and portrays America as a corrupt, hypocritical wannabe imperialist and Europe as its spineless has-been lackey.

China isn’t quite willing to go this far, but it has historic resentments against the West as well. It has always seen itself as the center of the world (the Chinese term for China is “middle country”), but is acutely aware that it doesn’t always have international affairs under control. It’s nervous about Western countries and their allies like Japan who emphasize democracy, human rights and a free media and tends to see the masses as a fearsome, threatening force for chaos. (Both China and Russia have seen their fair share of revolutions.) It’s much more comfortable with dictatorship and a controlled political environment in general. This means it is much more likely to trust Russia than the West.

Harbin Cathedral

Harbin Cathedral, the grandest legacy of Russian influence in Manchuria

… But bilateral tensions remain. Lingering resentments about Russia’s imperial role, stinginess after the 1949 Revolution, and its “betrayal” within a decade continue to shape Chinese perceptions. Russian architecture throughout Manchuria is a visible reminder of Russia’s role in shaping that region. China also isn’t quite ready to antagonize the West as blatantly as Russia is. Annexing parts of other countries is the kind of old-fashioned imperialism China hates; intervening in foreign wars isn’t much different. For Russia’s part, it is perennially nervous about the massive population disparity between Manchuria (109 million) and Siberia (36 million; note that Manchuria is much smaller too). Buffer countries like Mongolia and the ‘stans of Central Asia have already shifted from Russian control to Chinese patronage; there is a worry that southeast Siberia might be next. Its history as part of Manchuria long ago doesn’t help.

The future of Sino-Russian relations remains uncertain, but by and large China is friendly with Russia, certainly more so than with any of the other countries I’ve covered so far. With Western sanctions biting into Russia’s economy, China is a vital market for its gas — the 2 countries reached a $400 billion deal right after the Crimea annexation in 2014 — and its most important trading partner ($95 billion in 2014). There is plenty of room for Sino-Russian cooperation: they oppose global freedom of information over the Internet, NGO activity, and Western meddling in general. State-sponsored hackers may have different methods (China cares more about industrial espionage, while Russia focuses on sowing discord and confusion), but the 2 countries share the goal of undermining Western dominance. They held a joint naval exercise in the Baltic Sea, in European waters, a month ago. China is a major market for Russian weapons and military technology. Given the similarities in China’s and Russia’s pasts, their shared national interests, and China’s growing power and confidence, it seems unlikely to expect another Sino-Russian rift anytime soon.



As an international relations buff, one of my pet peeves is when people can’t tell the difference between China and Japan. They have close links and many cultural similarities. Japan owes much of its civilization to Chinese influence. Chinese and Japanese people superficially look similar. There are other cultures that get confused often, like Spain and Mexico or Ireland and Scotland. But I still find the confusion hard to forgive. Anyone with at least a little knowledge of international affairs should be able to tell the difference between these 2 countries, since there are many, and fundamental ones too. China and Japan were never the same country and developed in isolation for most of their history. Their cultures are very different. It would be like confusing Russia with Britain — but I honestly feel that the difference is even greater.

Someday I may write a blog post on the many factors that distinguish China from Japan, but for now I’ll focus on one aspect that’s often misunderstood: language. Language is probably the easiest and fastest way to tell where something is from (written language in particular). It’s also something that’s rarely well understood by those who don’t try to actually learn the language, since languages are so complicated. In addition, language is considered a core element of culture, indeed one of its fundamentals, and a basic way of dividing them.

Does Japan use Chinese characters? Yes. This is a common source of confusion and probably one of the main reasons China and Japan are so often confused with each other. The details, of course, are a little complicated, so I’ll explain.

Chinese characters are logograms, meaning that each one represents a different concept (like “honor”) or thing (like “wall”). They are famous (or notorious) worldwide for their complexity and distinctiveness. In fact, they’re the only logograms that are still used (aside from some minor languages that use Chinese-derived script). While Chinese characters represent things, they also have pronunciations, since those things have their own pronunciations. Confusingly, the pronunciation often changes depending on the context; you have to learn which one to use based on the context. Many Chinese characters look abstractly like the things they represent (like 川, “river,” or 心, “heart”), but most are too complex for that; instead, a typical formula is to use one element (a “radical”) that represents the concept, and another element that gives a clue about the pronunciation. For instance, 腕 (“arm”) contains the “moon” radical (月), mostly used for body parts, and the radical 宛, which shows you that it’s pronounced wan. And just to make it more confusing, the thing Chinese characters represent also changes depending on context; so 明 can mean “clear,” “bright” or “understand.”

China, as the fount of culture in East Asia, spread its writing system to other countries; this included Japan. But the Japanese language is very different from Chinese. Not all of it can be expressed through Chinese characters. As a result, the Japanese developed their own writing systems, hiragana and katakana, to represent these words. Both hiragana and katakana (together called kana) are syllabaries, meaning that each character represents a syllable (so Japanese is thought of as made up of syllables rather than letters). Hiragana looks like this:


And katakana looks like this:


Both were originally derived from Chinese characters, but katakana is a more direct borrowing, as you might be able to tell from the blocky, straight lines. (Some of them, in fact, are just unusually simple Chinese characters.) Historically, katakana has been used more often, but in a series of post-World War II writing reforms hiragana was installed as the main script for representing basic words.

Does that mean katakana is old-fashioned, or no longer used? Hardly! Katakana is still used all the time in Japanese, but to represent foreign or made-up words, or just to write sounds with no obvious meaning. This means that Japanese, uniquely among languages, uses 3 scripts together. And I don’t mean like Serbo-Croatian or Hindustani, either (those languages can use either of 2 different scripts). In order to read Japanese you have to learn all 3 scripts, since they are used together. Reading any Japanese text will confirm this. Here’s a sample:

レゲエ は、狭義においては1960年代後半ジャマイカで発祥し、1980年代前半まで流行したポピュラー音楽である。

The first word is “reggae,” which is foreign, so it’s written in katakana. Katakana appears again with ジャマイカ (Jamaica) and ポピュラー (popular), both English words (the vast majority of the foreign words incorporated into Japanese are English). The Chinese characters you see express difficult or advanced concepts: 狭義 (narrow sense), 発祥 (originate), 音楽 (music). As for the hiragana, they mostly appear as particles, which are very basic 1 or 2 syllable words like は (is), で (in), まで (until), いつ (when), and so on. The final word, ある (“to be”), is an example of something so basic that it’s not usually written in Chinese characters, as is おいて (as for).

Do you have to use all 3 scripts together? No. The two kana sentence examples above prove that. But to Japanese, they look awkward. The hiragana example would almost always be written with several Chinese characters to express advanced concepts. The katakana example is a strained attempt to use cheesy English adjectives to describe a dress (called “one-piece” in Japanese, hence written in katakana). It is certainly possible to stick to kana only (or even just hiragana, if you can manage the difficult task of avoiding foreign loanwords), but in almost any situation, Japanese just don’t do it. (The main exception I can think of are children’s books, since kids can’t read Chinese characters yet.) Foreigners might pull their hair out and gnash their teeth at the prospect of memorizing thousands of Chinese characters that are much more complicated than the kana they could be written as instead, but Japanese don’t care. It is The Way Things Are Done, and many, many hours of elementary school education are devoted to drawing Chinese characters to drill their use into kids’ brains.

Why does Japanese use Chinese characters still? It’s a difficult subject that’s a little too complicated for this blog post, but suffice it to say that it can be easier to read (provided you know the characters) and immediately understand the concepts. The hiragana example sentence above looks like a blur to Japanese speakers; the Chinese characters separate concepts and words more. Japanese contains lots of words that sound the same, but using Chinese characters makes it obvious which meaning is meant. There are lots of opportunities for wordplay that would die if Chinese characters were phased out. And, probably most fundamentally of all, the Japanese are used to it and are uncomfortable with such a drastic change.

While Japan uses Chinese characters, there is a distinction between the Chinese characters used in China (hanzi) and the ones used in Japan (kanji). Kanji were simplified in the aforementioned postwar writing reforms, mostly using shortcut versions common in China. As a result, kanji aren’t quite the same as hanzi. Here are some examples of differences:

Simplified Chinese Traditional Chinese Japanese

But that’s not all! As you can see in the table above, there is a distinction between Simplified Chinese characters and Traditional Chinese characters as well. China simplified its characters in the 1950s as a compromise between just switching to the alphabet and grappling with tens of thousands of complicated characters. Other Chinese-speaking countries (Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore), overseas Chinese communities, and Korea and Vietnam continue to use Traditional characters. The difference between these characters can be quite drastic, as seen here.

Simplified Traditional

So effectively, there are 3 different kinds of Chinese characters: Simplified, Traditional, and Japanese (kanji). Where do the Japanese variants fall? If you’re interested in learning Chinese characters but aren’t sure which type to choose, I recommend Japanese, actually, since they fall roughly midway between Simplified and Traditional in terms of complexity. They lean Traditional, however; kanji readers have an easier time negotiating Taiwan than China. Those who don’t care about Japanese and just want to learn Chinese usually opt for Simplified given how much more important China is than other Chinese countries. (This wasn’t always the case, though: during Communist rule, China was so closed-off from the outside world that foreigners got more use out of learning Traditional.) The downside is that deciphering Traditional characters is much harder for Simplified-readers than vice versa. In any case, Traditional characters are still sometimes used in China, and anything from before the 1950s obviously uses them, so most students of Chinese pretty much have to learn them both at some point or to a certain extent.

Can Chinese-speakers read Japanese (and vice versa)? Sort of. Since they’re all basically the same characters, Chinese and Japanese can read many of each other’s texts. Simplified characters are hardest for Japanese to decipher. Snatches of phrases, or scattered words or concepts, are decipherable or the same. But entire sentences are hard to figure out. Japanese uses kana, which Chinese don’t know or use; meanwhile, Chinese uses a bunch of characters that Japanese doesn’t (because it substitutes kana for them). Some words are also expressed with different characters in the different languages; the classic example here is 手纸/手紙 (“hand paper”), which means “toilet paper” in Chinese and “letter” in Japanese. Basically, Chinese and Japanese can read parts of each other’s writing, but nowhere near enough to make out long passages.

Besides, even if they could read each other’s languages, they wouldn’t be able to speak them… which brings us to the spoken part of Chinese and Japanese.

This is what spoken Chinese sounds like:

As you can tell, it’s a tonal language. That means vocal tones go up and down while speaking. Each word must be expressed with the right combination of tones to convey the meaning properly. Chinese also contains sounds like dung, huang, sher, bien, chiao, fuhng, and shwei. Examples of Chinese names include Xu Jinglei, Hou Xiaochun, Li Ying, Zhou Nong, and Wang Renmei — in other words, they’re short and usually follow a 1-2 syllable combo. Chinese place-names look like Cao Hai, Xiexing, Ningxia, Yangming Shan, and Qingdao. (Note that they aren’t necessarily pronounced that way. Explaining how Chinese is pronounced is a little off-topic, but for example, “c” is like ts, “x” is like ksh, and “q” is like ch.)

On the other hand, spoken Japanese sounds like this:

Completely different, right? It’s not tonal — vocal tones are consistent and smooth. Japanese generally is more flowing than Chinese, which is choppy. The language also sounds very different; it is very vowel-heavy, and the vowels are the 5 basic ones (a, i, u, e, o). Consonants are also pretty simple, and syllables come in basic combinations (ka, tsu, shi, no, me — nothing like shlang or crap). Examples of Japanese names include Tsutomu Okumoto, Hiroko Kitahashi, Nobuo Okunoki, Fumiko Uchida, and Kenji Shimizu — they’re longer than Chinese (and there are also many more of them). Japanese place-names look like Kyouto, Saitama, Fukuoka, Biwa-ko, and Shikoku. They are easy to pronounce; it was not difficult to figure out how to romanize Japanese (that is, render it in the Roman alphabet).

Despite many similarities in Chinese and Japanese cultures, the languages actually have different roots. Japanese is unrelated to Chinese. In fact, it’s unclear what other languages Japanese is related to (well, probably Korean). It’s even unclear where Japanese people originally came from. The most likely explanation is somewhere in Siberia, leading some scholars to claim linguistic similarities with obscure Siberian peoples and even the Finns (who are way, way, way far away on the other side of Russia).

That being said, there are similarities between spoken Chinese and Japanese too. Japanese imported a lot of Chinese vocabulary along with its characters, and like French vocabulary in English, these words now fill up the Japanese dictionary and make up the bulk of Japanese words. Many of them sound fairly different, however. Here are some examples:

(Mandarin) Chinese Japanese English
gānbēi kanpai Cheers!
(pronounced “ssuh”) shi four
dìguó teikoku empire
ānquán anzen safety

Note that this flow wasn’t just 1-way, either: after Japan’s epochal Meiji Revolution, when it opened up to European influences and modernized, China adopted a bunch of words for “modern” concepts like “revolution” (Japanese: kakumei; Chinese: geming) and “telephone” (Japanese: denwa; Chinese: dianhua) from Japanese.

Does all this seem confusing to you? In fact, there are a few factors I still haven’t considered. 1 is other Chinese languages. You see, the language commonly known as “Chinese” is actually Mandarin, the official and dominant Chinese language. But there are others, like Wu, Cantonese and Xiang, and they have their own sounds while sharing the Chinese characters. It’s hard for foreigners to tell from the characters whether the language is Mandarin or something else. And then there’s Korean, which sounds sort of like Japanese but has sounds and a cadence all its own. It stands out clearly from its neighbor languages with its distinctive writing system, hangeul, full of circles and short lines.

But I think those are too much for this blog post. You shouldn’t have to be an expert to tell the difference between Chinese and Japanese. Remember these basic facts:

  • Spoken Chinese is tonal and choppy and uses comparatively short names.
  • Spoken Japanese is not tonal and flows and uses simpler sounds than Chinese and comparatively long names.
  • Written Chinese uses complex characters. If they’re more simple, they’re from China; if they’re more complex, they’re from somewhere else (Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, etc.).
  • Written Japanese uses both Chinese characters and simpler kana symbols together.

Yes, there are ways of telling from the specific Chinese characters used, but for ordinary people this is probably asking too much. Thank you for reading, and good luck!


China Smog

Image source: Imgur

China’s economic development over the past 40 years has been nothing less than astounding. 660 million people have been lifted out of extreme poverty since 1981. Its economy has doubled on average every 7 years. Today China exports as much in 1 day as in an entire year when it first opened to the global economy. It is one of the world’s economic engines, and it continues to be a model for rapid development for emerging countries regardless of its current economic and fiscal issues.

But with rapid development comes great costs, as we saw earlier in Indonesia. The environment gets ravaged and damaged at a rate as furious as wealth gets created and money gets exchanged. Tragically, China has also become a poster child for the environmental consequences of frenzied economic growth and development.

As Mark Elvin documents in The Retreat of the Elephants, China’s disregard for the environment has deep historical roots. It’s been under strong central government rule and an intensive agricultural society for a very long time (since the beginning of civilization, in fact). China spread by chopping down its forests, farming its fields and diverting water to irrigate them. Animals like elephants were driven to the edges and wiped out (often eaten). While it’s true that Chinese poetry and art have detailed and sentimental depictions of nature and China’s amazing scenery, a Chinese tradition of ecological devastation and environmental exploitation is at least as old and noticeable.

This destruction only accelerated under Communist rule. China became determined to finally catch up with the West, and the resulting “Great Leap Forward” program threw all caution to the wind. A campaign to encourage backyard iron smelting made smokestacks sprout all over the countryside. A campaign to eradicate obnoxious pests like sparrows led to a pest of locusts instead. A massive dam was built over the Yellow River at Sanmenxia, leading to increased silting of an already very silty river. Deep plowing techniques exhausted the soil and contributed to erosion.

Communism is a fading memory in modern China, but the assault on the environment continues. The most visible sign of this is undoubtedly air pollution. Anyone who flies into China probably notices the thick haze that blankets much of the east (the important part). In China’s major cities, more often than not, the sun is blotted out by a low-lying layer of clouds. Although this was traditionally described as “fog,” it’s actually smog.

Power Plant

A coal power plant in Inner Mongolia. Image source: ChinaHush

China’s horrendous smog comes from a variety of factors. One of the chief culprits is coal, which is China’s main power source. 80% of China’s power comes from coal power plants, and China is responsible for half of coal power generation in the world. Coal blocks are also frequently burned for heat in Chinese homes in the winter. All this means a lot of massive smokestacks scattered around the east, spewing odious black smoke into the sky. Then there are the cars. While China is traditionally a biking country and Chinese still bike often, with increased wealth many people have bought cars too. But since “many people” adds up to over 300 million in a country as humongous as China, that’s a lot of engines pumping a lot of exhaust.

These 2 factors are the most prominent, but there are a bunch of minor ones. The other fossil fuels (oil and gas) are burned frequently too. Noxious gas vapors escape from nozzles during fueling in gas stations. China’s many, many, many factories and mines usually pollute in some way or another. Restaurants pump their black smoke into the air. Construction sites (of which there are many) spread dust. Farmers traditionally burn leftover straw on the same week each year, adding more smoky haze each time. The Yellow Valley takes its name from yellow dust called loess that drifts through the air each spring, an environmental phenomenon that’s given northern China bad air since time immemorial anyway.

Vehicle exhaust, smoggy power plants and dust are common worldwide. Industrializing countries usually belch out a fair bit of pollution. But China is almost a perfect storm of pollutants exacerbated by frenzied development and dense population. It was bad enough to make organizers worried about the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, which compelled them to crack down on driving in that city during the games. But the problem’s gotten even more severe in recent years, with air quality and visibility in Beijing descending into catastrophically bad levels. On really bad days you can’t even see the other side of the street, and breathing outside is like smoking cigarettes. Many people opt to just say inside; those who venture out wear masks.

Lake Dongting

Lake Dongting in central east China. Image source:

Manufacturing and industry have also taken their toll on China’s water. Toxic chemicals are regularly pumped into rivers and lakes, wiping out fish and making it hard for people to get drinking supplies. Rivers have turned lurid red or pitch black or bloomed green with algae. Lake Tai, a major lake in the Yangzi Delta area, has been polluted by a combination of cyanobacteria, algae, garbage and toxic waste. Some farmers find their skin blistering and peeling away from contact with their irrigation water. The Yangzi river dolphin and Chinese alligator are probably on the road to extinction, at least in part due to foul water. Countless small streams have died under the deluge of chemicals, grime, garbage and poop and the effect of intensive diversion. China’s major rivers — the Yellow, the Yangzi, the Huai, the Pearl, take your pick — have all been beleaguered under the twin assaults of disgusting industrial discharge and unsustainable commercial and residential use. The people of the Huai valley wrote this poem to summarize the gradual corruption of their water:

In the ’50s, we washed our food in the clear river.
In the ’60s, we irrigated our fields with its waters.
In the ’70s, we saw our river turn black and oily.
In the ’80s, we watched dead fish float to the surface.
In the ’90s, we too started to fall sick.

The usual Chinese response to this devastation has been, as before, disregard. China is overwhelmingly focused on economic growth. Most ordinary Chinese people worry more about making money than breathing clean air or swimming in clean water. The government is determined to make China great again, and this means more factories, more jobs, and more cars on the roads. As the “fog” misnomer exemplifies, it has waved away even the most obvious signs of pollution and even denied and covered up the health problems that inevitably follow from it.

But by the 2010s, ignoring the problems has become harder and harder. Partly this is because the worst days of smog in Beijing are just that unendurable; people stay home and restrict their breathing when they venture outside. Outrages in the provinces could be swept under the rug by corrupt local officials, but the national government can hardly ignore the consequences of its own policies in Beijing. It’s also because the growth of social media, especially a microblogging site called Weibo, has provided a handy forum for people to vent about their local pollution problems. Last year the CCTV journalist Chai Jing produced an Inconvenient Truth-style documentary about the pollution crisis called Under the Dome (after the American TV series). The government took it offline after a few weeks, but not before it had racked up 300 million views — an impressive achievement for a country with around 700 million Internet users. (If you’d like to watch it — and I highly recommend it — you can see it here).

China Smog 2

This personal photo of the Yi River near Luoyang gives a more representative picture of what smog in China looks like.

So what can be done about this? The good news is that China is definitely trying to clean up its act. In the past, complaints from foreigners about its greenhouse gas production were countered by whining about how the West had developed by ravaging the environment and polluting the atmosphere, so it was China’s turn now. Now China is much more cooperative in international climate change conferences and makes pledges to cut its emissions. China’s dictator, Xi Jinping, has made pollution one of the government’s key priorities. Efforts are being made to reduce the country’s dependence on coal power and promote other fossil fuels. China is also the world’s biggest market for renewable energy, like wind, solar, biofuels and geothermal, and the government invested $125 billion into it in 2012 and ’13. Private companies are rushing into the renewable energy field and sometimes succeed. Xinjiang, China’s vast northwest desert, is a tempting source of both sunlight for solar power and wind for windmills. The government is also upgrading the country’s energy grid to be more efficient. No matter how much contempt the government might have for its subjects, smog affects everyone, and the frequency with which pollution prompts protests pushes it to act.

But it’s easy to get discouraged too. One of China’s general problems is a lack of law enforcement, and this definitely comes into play with the environment. China has a Ministry of Environmental Protection, but it’s toothless and takes a back seat to other ministries. Corruption and fraud are endemic; polluting truck drivers lie about their emission ratings and officials don’t follow up with major polluters’ pledges to clean up. The oil industry has deep influence in the government (it is dominated by state-owned enterprises) and pushes for lax emissions standards. China is extremely censorious, and no matter how worried officials might be about pollution, their impulse to silence critics or even whistle-blowers is strong. The Under the Dome story is one example of this; another is pollution levels in Beijing, which were only exposed for how awful they really are thanks to the US Embassy.

The biggest problem might simply be the government’s priorities. China is determined to industrialize and grow. Partly this is the result of a national determination to catch up with the West and Japan and assert Chinese greatness. The industrialization drives of Mao Zedong, China’s dictator from 1949 to 1976, were designed to catch up to British steel production; America is now the country China targets as a rival to surpass. It’s also the real justification for the Communist Party’s rule; widespread prosperity and economic opportunity have won it popularity. Any economic slowdown is considered a national security risk because it undercuts the Party’s legitimacy. So local officials are graded and promoted based on how good their jurisdiction’s economic statistics are. It might seem like a meritocratic system of governance in the best Chinese tradition, but it’s also an incentive for shoveling money into smog-belching factories, mines and power plants.

China’s future is uncertain. This makes it both a fascinating and devilishly frightening country to study. Its environmental prospects are no different. Some observers (like Mark L. Clifford) are optimistic, pointing to the increased political and financial support for innovative, environmentally friendly companies and the high risks of perpetuating polluting firms (pollution is estimated to cost China about 10% of its GDP). Others (Elizabeth Economy, Jonathan Watts) remain pessimistic, thanks to the above factors and things like the Chinese leadership’s love of big, fancy, expensive and impressive engineering projects and the sheer size of China’s population and its hunger for stuff. I waffle, but lean more towards pessimism, given how dire China’s pollution problem was already by the ’90s and ’00s and how blatantly the government ignored it then. But China’s response will probably be schizophrenic; it has both jailed or beaten up critics and whistle-blowers (for making it look bad) and acted on their concerns (to prevent criticism from spreading… or maybe out of sympathy too).

China’s frustrations should be understandable. The world has followed this path before. Britain, America, and Eastern Europe have all coped with soot-black air and poisonous water before; other developing countries, like India, grapple with identical issues now. China still produces less greenhouse gas per person than the West. A lot of that smog is produced by foreign companies operating factories in China but ignoring environmental regulations because they can. So constant China-bashing over pollution is unfair. But it is also the world’s biggest and most problematic polluter, and until serious health outrages like whole villages stricken with cancer or a river choked with 6,000 pig carcasses subside, environmentalists (or anyone, really) will keep haranguing it, both at home and abroad.

Who knows? Pollution might revive China’s love of moustaches.