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We saw:  Airplanes, our first look at Beijing


We saw:  Airplanes, our first look at Beijing


We saw:  Summer Palace, Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City, Peking Duck


We saw:  Great Wall, rickshaw ride, Beijing hutong


We saw:  Great Wall, rickshaw ride, Beijing hutong


We saw:  Beijing school, Big Wild Goose Pagoda


We saw:  Terracotta Warriors, Shaanxi Museum


We saw:  Terracotta Warriors, Shaanxi Museum


We saw:  World Financial Center, downtown Shanghai


We saw:  Jade Buddha Temple, the Bund, Chinatown


We saw:  Jade Buddha Temple, the Bund, Chinatown


We saw:  Airports ... and too much of the Shanghai tarmac

What will the people say if everything, even pollution, still made in China?

In China, the color red represents fortune and joy, and the color green means health.

Or it means I'm in Xi'an and have just blown my nose.

The air there, and elsewhere in the country, is foul — a noxious mix of the smog from belching factories and sand that blows in from the Gobi Desert. It assaults the nasal passages with ferocity, rendering the populace phlegm-throated and bloody-nosed. The Chinese are an industrious lot, though, and have made made the best of things — surgical masks not only keep particulate matter out of schnoz and lung, they are fashion accessories.

Driving into the city from the Xi'an airport, it was impossible to see the horizon. Earlier, in Beijing, it was only on the second day of our trip — after a front blew some of the crud out the air— that Debi and I could look out of the window of our 12th-story hotel room and see a mountain range looming no more than a mile away. We scarcely saw blue sky until the final leg of our trip, in Shanghai, which was clean by Chinese standards but not without the dint of pollution.

Before our trip, I told an acquaintance of our travel plans. She prattled on like some bark-muncher about how China leads the way in green technology. Indeed, China produces more solar panels and wind turbines than any other country but producing them and using them clearly — or unclearly, in the case of Chinese air quality — are not the same thing. Anyone who waxes poetic about the environmentally conscious People's Republic is to be ignored or committed.

Or at least brought along on the trip so they can see and smell how full of crap they are.

Not that China doesn't talk big about environmental protection. In 2008, for example, Beijing made it illegal for retailers to offer free plastic bags to customers. Now, customers have to pay extra to carry home their knock-off medications, tainted baby formula and lead-laden toys in a bag.

Gotta start somewhere, I suppose.

This hardly makes China a green-leader, however. Which is why I assert it was quite audacious when the head of one of the nation's environmental ministries lectured G8+5 nations about obedience to the Kyoto Protocols during the 2008 Climate Change Dialogue forum in Brazil. Never mind that Chinese air quality is reportedly a factor in making cancer the leading cause of death in 30 Chinese cities and 78 counties. Never mind that only 1 percent of the country's 560 million urban-dwellers breathe air deemed safe by European Union standards, according to a 2007 report. Never mind that Chinese factories use 20 percent more energy to produce a ton of steel than the international average and 45 percent more to produce concrete, of which is it is the world's largest consumer.

Hey, China — heal thyself before treating the rest of us, OK.

Bad as the smog was, we didn't even see the worst of China on our trip. According to a 2004 article in China Daily, none of the cities we visited were among the country's 10 most offensive in terms of air pollution. I can only hope that's because those rankings are now dated and Beijing and Xi'an spent the past seven years furiously playing catch-up.

But somehow, I doubt that is the case.

Dry noses, sticky eyes and aching throats became travel companions. One of the chaperones, Lori Lundgaard, was half amused and half appalled when on our first night in Xi’an, the hydrogen peroxide solution she used to clean her contact lenses erupted out of the container. She rinsed everything down, put her contacts back in the cleaning solution … and the hydrogen peroxide bubbled out again like a science-class volcano.

China, in short, has big pollution problems, the scale of which makes anything in America seem piddling by comparison. We fret over a little second-hand smoke wafting past us on a sidewalk and have serious discussions about whether smoking should be allowed in cigar bars. (I won't wax too sanctimonious on this point: I must admit, although I hated reformed smokers when I indulged, I find second-hand smoke increasingly annoying as I grow older. )

The people in China do smoke far more than those in the United States — and in places where Americans would no longer tolerate it. But frankly, I didn't see as many people smoking in China as I was told to expect. I surmised this is one of the few happy benefits of wretched air: Why would anyone in China waste the money on a pack of butts? Smoking and breathing are redundant there.

Don't even get me started on the water quality.

China is larger than the United States, and our sojourn through it was the rough geographical equivalent of a tour limited to a box that would contain Washington, D.C., Nashville and Orlando. In other words, there's quite a bit of diverse landscape we didn't see. Frankly, I don't know any more about that vast land than the American who made out like every day in China was Earth Day. It also merits mention that there are genuinely beautiful sights there — the Summer Palace in Beijing, the Yu Yuan Garden in Shanghai, the area surrounding the Terracotta Warrior excavation in Xi’an.

But we also observed a lot through the windows of tour buses and airplanes — and most of it was a brown, largely deforested landscape. Spring had not sprung during our visit, it is true, as temperatures seldom got above 57 degrees. But mountainsides appeared treeless, and valleys were … well … whatever is the opposite of "verdant." Indeed, only about 8 percent of China's land is arable, which is a problem in a nation of 1.3 billion people where oxen still pull plows through terraced rice paddies.

China has long struggled to feed itself, and the challenge of keeping the people hydrated is nearly as mighty. The country has adopted some clean-water controls, but they are not uniformly enforced — and in some areas, not enforced at all. Thus, according to a documentary Debi and I watched before our trip, a Chinese leather-tanning factory can spew so many heavy metals into a river that poisoned fish and algal blooms obliterated the fishing industry that had sustained families downstream for generations. Silting also is a problem in the world's most hydroelectrically constipated nation.

China has not entirely ignored the problem. (How could it? People have to drink and crops have to be irrigated.) The government-mandated that water companies raise quality standards by July 2012. They have their work cut out: 27.6 percent of the nation's surface water fell into the lowest classification of the Water Quality Index. More than 35 percent of drinking water is not drinkable — a figure as alarming as it is semantically paradoxical.

China's environmental condition might be uniquely poor, but its environmental politics could prove downright common.

Right now, China is hellbent on economic expansion, and it is experiencing growing pains and environmental dilemmas other industrialized nations experienced a century ago. If it follows a Western path, once the country achieves a certain level of affluence, it will use its purchasing power to buy cleaner air, cleaner water and a greener landscape.

After all, what's the use of getting rich if you’re condemned to live in a pig pen?

Indeed, if you can peer through all the smog, there are signs this transformation already is occurring. For one, the country is party to the Stockholm Convention, pledging to reduce organic pollution, which includes plans to remediate sites damaged by pesticides, PCBs and other pollutants.

For another, after the largest mass migration in human history — millions of peasant farmers seeking opportunity moved to urban areas for factory jobs — many who have made their fortunes in the cities are leaving their wheezing throats and itchy eyes behind and returning to more pastoral life in the countryside.

There is an obvious impediment to higher living standards for the majority of Chinese, however.

Yes, some Chinese are getting filthy rich — damn near literally — but many more are still desperately poor by Western standards and appear destined to remain so for the immediate future. That's because China's rise to economic prominence is predicated in no small part upon using the cheap labor its massive population affords to produce goods consumed elsewhere. As such, China's competitive advantage is in many ways threatened if the wages, productivity and standard of living rise.

Politically and economically free economies overcome this problem largely through competition. It is difficult to exploit workers where companies have to vie for their labor, and their standard of living is raised by technological innovation that increases industrial productivity, despite some initial labor-force displacement. Moreover, in free societies, productivity and purchasing power tend to rise together (though not always in perfect concert.)

But crony capitalism, socialism and communism can distort market incentives and stunt the spread of its benefits across the workforce.

If those doing business in China come to see the Chinese people as a vast, untapped market — and many industries, particularly the automotive industry, are doing that — they will have an incentive to see their purchasing power grow. If not, puny wages and sub-standard working conditions will keep most of the populace poor.

How long Chinese workers would stand for this remains to be seen. The average citizen has no real ability to change the system from within. The government is simply the tool of the Communist Party, which is a pretty clubby bunch that indoctrinates all but doesn’t admit everybody.

So long as there is enough bucolic countryside to satisfy the thin slice of party members and the beneficiaries of their dalliance with capitalism, the only immediate pressure to clean things up will come from other nations. But the international community has been too busy bestowing most-favored-nation status, selling its debt to China and inviting it to sit on security councils and scold their long-standing members.

That means the rank and file might be left to their own devices if the party and its government don’t clean up their acts of their own accord. If it comes to that, my money — sad to say — is on officialdom, which has been amazingly efficient and definitive in its efforts to quash challenges.

If you doubt that, stand at the spot in Tiananmen Square where tanks crushed student protesters, and take a deep breath.​

Even in the countryside, near the segment of the Great Wall we visited, it was hard to find fresh air in China.

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