There is a widespread belief that the Chinese authorities and people are indifferent to the state of the environment and that the country’s environmental problems are only getting worse. At the same time, the Chinese are very much interested in the sparsely populated areas of the Russian Far East, which are in danger of becoming new Chinese provinces due to the influx of migrants from China.
Which of these statements are true and which are myths? We will recall the stereotypes about China from the 1990s and early 2000s and try to figure out which of them are true and which are fiction.
Beijing is considered one of the most polluted cities on the planet. The concentration of harmful pollutants in Beijing’s air is many times higher than the maximum allowable concentration for airborne pollutants. The main sources of pollution are traffic (about 35%), dust from non-stop construction (up to 25%), and emissions from industrial plants.
In addition to the human factor, sandstorms from the Gobi Desert contributed to Beijing’s air pollution until the mid-2000s. Chinese authorities have been working on the problem since the late 1990s. A “green ring” of planted forests has been created around the Chinese capital, halving the number of sandstorms from 20 days a year in the 1970s to just 10 days today.
In addition to planting forests around the capital, other measures were taken to combat air pollution. To reduce emissions from internal combustion engine vehicles, the city has introduced a weekday driving ban and banned high-emission vehicles from the roads. For large industrial facilities, Beijing has set strict emission limits and required the control of certain coal combustion sources.
By the end of 2022, the average concentration of PM2.5 particulate matter in Beijing is expected to be reduced by 45% from 2012 levels.
Pollution of the Amur River
The right bank of the Amur River, which belongs to China, is home to the country’s largest industrial enterprises. In the autumn of 2005, a massive explosion at the Jilin Petroleum and Chemical Company chemical plant released large amounts of benzene compounds into the Songhua River (one of the largest tributaries of the Amur River). Toxic contamination also affected Russian territories.
China’s decision to release clean water from reservoirs into the river helped reduce the concentration of dangerous chemicals. Another contributing factor was the construction of dams that prevented contaminated runoff from entering the river. After the accident, China built about 200 wastewater treatment plants and moved factories away from the Songhua River.
Although there were no more accidents of this magnitude, the quality of the Amur’s water still leaves much to be desired, according to the results of ongoing regional monitoring. The main causes are pesticide-contaminated soil, runoff from abandoned factories, and massive discharges of untreated sewage. But it would be wrong to put all the blame on China. The Russian side also contributes to the pollution of the river: according to the latest studies of ice cores, the pollution of the Amur River is also caused by the activities of Russian companies and by the domestic waste that enters the water from the Russian side. The President of Russia has declared that cleaning the banks and coastal waters of the Amur River is one of the priorities of the country’s development until 2024.
Migration to the Far East
Is it true that China is about to take over the Russian Far East? The “horror stories” about the Chinese threat to the Russian Far East appear regularly in the media and on social media. But how true are they?
According to the Russian Federal State Statistics Service, between 1997 and 2015, the number of migrants from China to Russia ranged from a few hundred to 6,000–9,000 per year. According to the 2010 All-Russia Census, the population of the Far Eastern Federal District was 6.293 million people. Apparently, the influx of migrants from China does not exceed a tenth of a percent of the local population.
At the same time, the number of labor migrants from China grew steadily from 2004 to 2008. The Chinese influx was most noticeable in the border regions of the Far East. Residents of Blagoveshchensk recall that at that time, large numbers of Chinese workers could be found at construction sites and in the markets, while signs in Chinese began to appear on shops and banks in the capital of the Amur Region. Statistical data show a significant increase in the number of Chinese tourists since 2010. Businesses in the Primorsky Krai reacted quickly: signs in Chinese appeared on jewelry and souvenir shops.
According to experts, the Chinese threat to Russia is unlikely. Chinese people prefer to settle in large cities and economic centers with developed infrastructure and choose areas with warm climates. Notably, China itself is extremely unevenly populated: about 6% of the population lives in the northern and western provinces, while 94% prefer the central and eastern parts of the country, which are more economically developed and have a more pleasant climate.
Ghost Towns vs Green Building
Ghost towns—nearly uninhabited greenfield metropolises—are part of the modern Chinese landscape. Most of them were built during China’s construction boom in the early 2000s, when the Chinese government tried to stimulate the economy by boosting the real estate market. The bubble burst, however, and the glut of real estate proved useless.
The phenomenon of ghost towns also raised environmental concerns: dust from multiple construction sites hung in the air, and rivers were polluted with construction waste. Given that green building standards did not emerge in China until 2006, it is clear that the buildings of the early 2000s did not meet environmental standards and, in fact, caused significant environmental damage.
Today, China is experiencing a green building boom. Chinese authorities are offering tax incentives and subsidies to green developers. Developers are exploring green renovation projects to retrofit existing buildings with green features, improve energy efficiency, and reduce CO2 emissions; and the rapid development of technology and environmentally friendly materials will reduce the high cost of green building. We may even see “green renovation” programs for ghost towns in the future.