Steven Zhang

Views from the Factory: What Do Chinese Manufacturers Really Think About Environmental Protection?

(Via Flickr/二泉印月)
(Via Flickr/二泉印月)

When I visited Mr. Liang’s LED factory in Zhejiang, I saw a building with so many machines that it made my head whirl. I asked Mr. Liang about how he thought his factory was doing with respect to huanbao环保: in Chinese, the term huanbao means both the act of being environmentally friendly and the state of environmental protection. Despite the heavy electricity usage of the factory and some heavy chemicals used in manufacturing the process, Mr. Liang told me: “We only use electricity, our products are RoHS certified, and we don’t pollute into the water or air, therefore, we’re huanbao.”

I have spent the past year interviewing Chinese owners and managers of factories for Chinese companies about environmental protection, and found that, like Mr. Liang, they tend to view environmental protection through the lens of China’s economic development. Their views of the matter are focused almost exclusively on the effects of environmental damage to personal health. These views, in turn, affect the way they control the environmental impact of their factories.

“Not enough to eat”

I usually began my interviews by asking the factory managers to describe their thoughts on China’s past 50 years in terms of economic development versus environmental protection. Many responded with a similar story:

Before the 1970s and China’s economic liberalization, most people were poor. There “was not enough to eat.” When one doesn’t have enough to eat, one does not think about such things as huanbao. But since there was not nearly as much economic activity back then as there is now, things were still relatively huanbao.

For many of my interviewees, this was personal. Nine out of my 15 interviewees were over the age of 40 and grew up in the countryside, meaning they personally experienced “not having enough to eat.” Mr. Liang, who grew up on a farm in Jiangxi, told me: “When I was a child, I ate just rice and vegetables all the time. Meat was a luxury. I was always in some semi-hungry state, unable to concentrate on my studies. I didn’t have enough to eat.”

At the same time, some interviewees felt nostalgia for the past, one noting, “Pesticides were rarely used and everything was huanbao and safe to eat.” A few even voiced a wish to return to those simpler, more innocent times. “We [China] plunged into economic development in hopes of gaining a happier life, but I’m not sure if material wealth has made us any happier in the long-run,” said Mr. Hu, a plant manager for one of the largest chemical companies in Zhejiang province.

Interviewees stated that during the 1980s and 1990s, as economic growth came into full swing, not many Chinese had the education or consciousness to even think about environmental problems. They also reported that their predecessors, the factory managers and owners of the 1980s and 1990s, received very little education, partly due to the suspension of higher education during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, and therefore did not think about the environment at all.

In the past decade or so, many noted that environmental protection and environmental consciousness have improved. Better education seems to be one reason for this: 14 of the 15 interviewees obtained some form of higher education, be it trade school, technical school or university, and 9 of 15 went to university (including all of the interviewees under age 40).

Better environmental protection, however, does not necessarily mean good environmental protection. Although Mr. Li, the manager of a 500-employee injection-molding factory, told me, “Laws have gotten stricter: factories in our area can no longer dump our waste directly into the creek like we used to. We have to filter the waste water first,” he admitted that the filtered waste water was still far from original quality and often induced algae blooms in the creek.

In addition, increased environmental consciousness has not necessarily resulted in an improved environment. As Ms. Jin, a younger manager in her thirties at a 1000-employee furniture factory noted, “I don’t have much to say about China’s environment except that it’s getting worse and worse.”

Still, it was clear from my interviews that environmental consciousness and laws are getting better, though there was disagreement as to why. Some interviewees, as Mr. Feng, a 20-something manager of a small 100-person rubber factory alleged, “All this stuff about huanbao is forced. No one who works at a factory really cares about this intrinsically. Our level of cultured-ness人口素质 is just not there yet. Government laws are the only reason anyone cares about huanbao.” On the other hand, people like Mr. Hu, the plant manager for the large chemical company, said, “Education is the most important thing. Huanbao laws only work because we [company managers] care about huanbao intrinsically to a certain degree.”

Factory size seemed to play a role in the difference of opinion. Managers and owners of smaller factories generally held the former opinion, while those of larger factories, perhaps more concerned about projecting a good image for their global customers and clients, generally held the latter opinion.

Huanbao is tied to personal health

Factory manager’s views on China’s economic and environmental changes determine how they define huanbao. For many of them, having a better environment is merely an extension of China’s 40-year old struggle (and their own struggle) for better quality of life, not two opposed concepts, as some posit. Economic development is one aspect of progress, since it generally leads to a better standard of living (though, as some of my older interviewees admitted, not necessarily a happier life). Environmental protection, to the degree that it affects their quality of life, is another.

For my interviewees, any human activity was a huanbao problem if it directly affected their personal health. That included air pollution, water pollution, soil pollution, and hazardous chemicals embedded into products: these were all huanbao problems that they cared about and cared to address in their factories. For an example, Mr. Su, the owner of a small injection-molding factory in Zhejiang, argued: “We have a small filter that filters our water outflows, and water pollution is the only thing our factory emits, so we’re huanbao.

However, some human activities that are commonly thought of as environmental problems in the West were not perceived as huanbao problems to my interviewees. These included climate change and wildlife conservation. Several interviewees claimed that the global climate change agenda was a political instrument created by the US to control China’s economic growth. As for wildlife destruction and endangered species, one interviewee described it as a natural process: “One species of animals dies away, and another one will come about. That is natural selection.”

Direct pollution

Based on my research, most factory managers determined whether or not their factory was huanbao based on two criteria: whether the factory’s pollution was within limits set by local environmental bureaus, and whether the final products met national or international standards for toxicity. A few of the larger companies’ factories that were trying to sell their products internationally talked about being environmentally responsible organizations and having a more holistic view of huanbao, but most factories focused mainly on abiding by the rules.

Unlike many factories abroad, all of the Chinese factories I visited sold their trash to recyclers, eliminating most on-site waste. My interviewees almost always viewed the ultimate responsibility for proper waste disposal as falling on the companies that purchased the waste – despite some examples of questionable processing.

Chinese factory owners and managers also prioritized reducing energy consumption, but from a business/cost perspective, not an environmental perspective. Saving electricity was good for cutting costs and made the factory more efficient. That 65% of China’s electricity is supplied by coal, and coal-generated electricity is especially impactful, was not a factor in their reasoning.

An optimistic outlook

The Chinese factory owners and managers interviewed reported being optimistic about China’s environmental future. Fundamentally, they did not believe that environmental problems were irreversible. With little concern for climate change, for example, none of them voiced any form of alarmism during their interviews.

Perhaps this had to do with their backgrounds (and those of Chinese factory managers in general). Ten of my 15 interviewees came from a science or engineering background in college or trade school. Most were “geeks” at heart who loved the technology their factories used- from simple injection molding machines to high-tech LED manufacturing robots. This was especially apparent every time I was taken on a factory tour by these managers, where my hosts leaped at the opportunity to explain the intricacies of every machine.

This trust in technology is tied into their thoughts on huanbao: these managers believe that scientific research would inevitably lead to less-polluting manufacturing equipment. Mr. Hu, example, said as much when he told me, “Besides education, how we advance society and make China more huanbao is through science.”

Finally, from a historical context, China has a long history of managing the environment to suit human needs, including widespread deforestation even before Marco Polo, and engineering a change of course for the Yellow River in 1194. All these point to a very instrumental view of the natural world: It exists for the benefit of people. I believe this attitude continues today for these factory managers.

Based on all these factors – lack of alarmism, trust in technology, and the continuity of historical Chinese trends – my interviewees had a relatively optimistic view of China’s environmental future.

The broader impact

The environmental consciousness of Mr. Liang and the other factory owners will be a determining factor in how China’s environmental future unfolds.

Another determining factor will be the environmental consciousness of ordinary Chinese citizens — or putong laobaixing普通老百姓. Scholarly articles show that the average Chinese may have similar viewpoints to these factory managers: caring about the environment when it directly affects them and having an instrumental view of the natural world. However, with the continued rise of grassroots Chinese NGOs and protests, environmental awareness could increase. Mr. Zhu, a manager at a 1000-person toy company, told me that in his view, “Social media, NGO pressures, and grassroots journalism does more than the government in terms of encouraging huanbao behavior.”

While this research cannot be considered representative, and the interviewees may have been reluctant to disclose the complete truth, their testimony may provide a closer look into how environmental protection and conservation is viewed by those whose actions can have a real effect. Chinese factory managers and owners are key stakeholders in any discussion or policy on China’s environment.

Above all, these testimonies show that Chinese factory owners are people no different from many others. Their backgrounds, worldviews, and work environments have shaped their attitudes towards the environment and its protection. As China continues to develop and deal with environmental issues, an understanding of the past and present may be the only way to protect the future.

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Steven Zhang

Steven Zhang is a ’12-‘13 Fulbright fellow based in Hangzhou. He recently graduated from the 7th class ever of Olin College of Engineering. You can read more factory stories on his research site, Made in China: stories from Chinese factories.
  • TheBeijingBlackLung

    Steven, you’ve not really said much here… You interviewed 15 plant managers – this is a frightenly small sample size in the world’s LARGEST manufacturing environment. In one three-week trip to Shenzhen I spoke openly & freely with 24 plant managers who READILY gave their opinions & practices in regards to pollution… The most frightening viewpoint I’ve heard to date is: “why do you Westerners hate pollution so much? You know what I see when I look at pollution? Money – the more production, the more pollution, the more pollution, the more money!”

    As with most tealeafnation articles, this is naught but fluff – an inability to say anything definitive; however, you have touched on ONE important factor, this – many & strong environmental regulations do not mean many & strong environmental enforcements… Laws do not equal change! As rampant corruption is hindering government enforcement, other methods of responsibility have a fair chance to arise.

    I’m sorry, but working in manufacturing in China, I had hoped for a better & deeper analysis here… (Focus on geography, industry, differences in regulation, foreign vs local manufacturing, manufacturing best-practices & outcomes therein, etc…) If you have further & deeper information, I’d be interested in seeing it…

    • Steven Zhang

      Hey BLL- to give you more background on my project, perhaps it’ll be helpful context. My project was not doing a survey, but rather doing an ethnography, which means I trailed people around for the day (or multiple days), and followed their work in the factory. The interview was only a part of my research method.

      You could argue about whether ethnography/qualitative research in general is valid (http://goo.gl/LkzvtQ) and how useful it is, but that’s another story.

      As I wrote in the article, I’m not trying to make representative claims for all Chinese manufacturers, just to show the issues I saw. Even if I spoke with 1000 plant managers, it wouldn’t be representative of the hundreds of thousands of manufacturers in China.

      As a sidenote, I did triangulate my conclusions by talking to several Chinese environmental science/engineering professors in the area- many of these professors act as consultants to companies. One of them HAS worked with hundreds if not thousands of companies over his career, and he did say that these themes were representative of his experience too (but again, we can’t be too sure about what that says about Chinese manufacturing general)

      You have a good point with enforcement of environmental regulation. In the smaller factories, I did see examples where the threat of fines from the EPB encouraged the factory managers to install pollution-reduction equipment, etc. In the larger companies, not so much.

      You could read the other essays on my website (madeinchina.stevenzhang.com) that describe my factory visits in detail. You might find something interesting there. But it might be light on the deep analysis side.

      Also, be happy to chat in person. I’m in Beijing semi-often.

  • Laowai Kan Dao Le

    Great article thanks for posting.
    I like how you point out generational, educational, and size differences.
    I’m looking forward to future posts on your website

  • David Dunn

    Sorry for the late post. I think this survey is all wrong. It doesn’t matter what people say, but rather what they do. You could have the plant manager saying, “Oh yeah, we now have to be very serious about pollution, we have all of these gauges etc…” but none of this really matters. You need to take measurements, for instance, test the factories liquid discharges before and after. Did they actually do what they said? I think you would find that rhetoric and reality are often not the same.

    I remember some years ago a German guy telling me about the 5 mobile laboratories the German government paid for (at 1M each) to help the Chinese government to monitor whether factories we actually reducing their air pollution or not. My sounrce was a German company that did SCR and air preheaters (I can’t remember the name.) Anyway, what you do with the mobile lab is get it close (say 1 Km) from a power plant and the lab would be taking samples and you could tell whether the plant was running their flue gas desulfurization equipment and roughly how they were doing on NOx. The gift was in 2005. Our last meeting was 2010 and the outcome was that the equipment was hardly used. The regulators had a lot less clout then the polluters, so even if you found out that the plants were polluting heavily and falsifying their emissions data, you can’t do anything about it.

    Also on the issue of power plants, most power plants outsource their environmental performance. These environment companies operate the FGD, the back pass ducting and the stack measurement. So even if you were to interview the power plant people, they wouldn’t really know what is going on.