Masking the Truth

Chip Jacobs and William J. Kelly uncover the deadly details of China’s smog crisis in ‘The People’s Republic of Chemicals’

By Justin Chapman, Pasadena Weekly, 12/18/2014

The truth is a bitter pill to swallow for the Chinese government, which has been putting all of its energy into ratcheting up the nation’s economy and making money while glibly ignoring the health of their people and the quality of their land, water and air.


By all indications, the communist/capitalist country’s future looks even bleaker, with no signs of its drive to become a global economic superpower slowing down anytime soon, according to “The People’s Republic of Chemicals,” the latest book by investigative reporters Chip Jacobs and William J. Kelly.


More than a biting critique of China’s economic choices, which have led to the country’s current environmental crises, the book is also call to the Chinese government to curb its pollution and do the right thing, not only for itself, but the rest of the planet.


In the past few decades, China has gone from impoverished, insular culture to a global economic industrial powerhouse. And that unchecked growth has had consequences of outrageously painful magnitude. Just ask the millions of Chinese residents who have lost relatives to various forms of cancer and other excruciating and completely unnecessary diseases directly caused by coal and other industrial exhaust. 


Cancer villages, peasant uprisings, corruption at every level of society and tales of human struggle are interwoven with a gripping narrative. This truly impressive treatise of investigative reporting is a searing indictment of humanity’s disregard for itself. Every page leaves readers shaking their heads in disbelief, with every fact and figure illuminated by ornate prose and evocative passages.


Through advocacy journalism, environmental activism, smog analysis, case studies and human stories, the book provides historical context that is absolutely critical to understanding why the Chinese so unashamedly abandoned their health in exchange for American currency. It explains why Chinese culture has come to be so different from most other nations, how it has been more or less a closed, xenophobic society that has grown into a culture dominated by paranoia and fear. It shows how a government that is afraid of information, and afraid of an educated, intelligent populace, is bound to make catastrophic mistakes.


Kelly and Jacobs, authors of 2008’s “Smogtown: The Lung-Burning History of Pollution in Los Angeles,” take us on a detailed and compelling recounting of China’s history, through the centuries of imperial oppression, the opium trade, the downfall of Chiang Kai Shek and the rise of Mao Zedong. They look at the dubiously named Great Leap Forward, the deadly and tyrannical Cultural Revolution, then the switch (aided unapologetically by the United States) to full-fledged state-directed capitalism by way of Deng Xiaoping (the “Architect”), who, according to the book, “put China on the road to becoming the world’s most productive nation, with a concentration of power and chemical plants, steel mills, metal smelting facilities, mines, factories, and assembly plants previously unknown in human history.” 


Their goal was to make China the leading economic superpower in the world, and today money is everything. Young women starve themselves for weeks to save enough money for Gucci bags and young men simply can’t get married without having a good job, a car, an apartment and money. Status and cash now reign supreme in China.


While it is easy enough to tell them to control their excesses, multinational oil, coal and other industrial production companies have trillions of dollars invested in these industries. They’re making too much money to change course now. It would need to be a society-wide decision, but no one wants to be the first to give up profits and kowtow to the demands of environmental activists.


So there it is: greed is the direct cause of pollution. As Kelly and Jacobs so eloquently illustrate, this is probably going to get much worse before it gets better.


“The economy of the People’s Republic today isn’t like the lumbering Soviet’s was, even though its government frequently acts like a Kremlin-style puzzle palace. Nor is its manufacturing ethos comparable to Hitler’s prewar Germany. Europe, the US — it’s not comparable to them, either. New species that it is, China 2.0, some believe, will eventually succumb to the ‘Environmental Kuznets Curve’ that plot-points the intersection where a modernizing society demands better air and water from its caretakers. Yeah, right. Neither we nor the experts trying to untangle this quilt of ambiguities can predict how and when Asia’s populace will reach their breaking point.”


It certainly doesn’t seem anyone there is interested in real solutions. Just look at all the shenanigans they pulled to make their air somewhat close to breathable for Olympic athletes in 2008, as if they were really fooling anyone.  After the games were over, the air got even worse. Kelly and Jacobs coined the term “growthsmogagist” to describe the money-hungry, GDP-growth obsessed smog apologists who pervade every level of Chinese society. China is now a pollution panopticon, a type of prison in which everyone polices themselves and each other in an attempt to “save face,” whatever that means in a place where you can actually chew the air. 


When my fiancée and I traveled to China for three weeks in spring 2013 to attend our friends’ wedding, 16,000 dead pigs were floating down the Huangpu River. We visited Shanghai, Ningbo, Hangzhou, and Beijing. The air pollution in each of those cities was horrendous. There was just this thick layer of filth that permeated the air everywhere we went. To top it off, just about everyone smokes in China, and it’s allowed indoors, even in restaurants. So we’d go inside to get some respite from the pollution and it would be just as bad indoors. It made breathing difficult after a while. 


The most interesting part, though, was how Chinese residents denied the extent of the problem. “Oh, it’s not that bad,” someone said to me when I pointed out the fact that we hadn’t seen the sun once in four cities over three weeks. This person had lived in the United States, so they knew better. But Chinese culture dictates that only the Chinese can criticize China, and just about everything is considered an insult. 


One of the cities we visited, Hangzhou, is called a paradise on earth, and we certainly found it to be just that, as it’s the city in which we were engaged to be married. As one famous song puts it, “There is a paradise in heaven, on earth there is Hangzhou.” It is one of the most beautiful places we have ever been. How sad it was that we couldn’t see how beautiful it should have been, because of the overwhelming pollution. 


Beijing was particularly bad, certainly the worst out of all the cities we visited. There was a permanent hazy, smoggy fog that hung in the air, making it hard to see long distances with any clarity. Being outside was like being in the bedroom of a lifelong smoker.


Coming home to Los Angeles was a breath of fresh air in comparison, which tells you all you need to know. For the gritty, staggering details — as well as what needs to happen in order to reverse this terrifying ecological calamity — read “The People’s Republic of Chemicals.”

“The People’s Republic of Chemicals.” by William J. Bill Kelly and Chip Jacobs, 333 pp., $24.95, published by Rare Bird Books.