Social Responsibility and the Environment: An Ethical Challenge for U.S.-China Relations

Since the 1970s, climate change has played a major role in international relations and policy for both developed and developing countries. The fear of climate change’s impacts has spawned numerous agreements, conventions, protocols, and bilateral and multilateral meetings to provide short- and long- term solutions to tackle this problem. However, despite these efforts, climate change remains a looming international threat, and it seems that those fears stemming from environmental issues intensify with every passing year.
Of late, China has been the frequent object of global media attention over its environmental issues. Notable events include the frothy, blood-red water that flowed in the Yangtze River in September 2012, which to date, officials have been unable to explain, and Beijing’s "Airpocalypse" that occurred in January 2013, in which residents living in the capitol likened the atmosphere to that of an airport smoking lounge. In February 2013, China’s environment ministry even acknowledged the existence of “cancer villages,” areas where the illness has affected the lives of many Chinese citizens due to exposure to pollutants. Finally, the more recent Hog Scandal, in which a total of around 18,000 pig carcasses were removed from Shanghai’s Huangpu River in March 2013, has sparked more public anger over China’s environmental crisis and the government’s transparency over environmental information.
In response to the heightened media scrutiny, the Chinese government announced new plans and policies intended to limit pollution and create greener development projects. For example, in February 2013, the Ministry of Finance issued an official report, stating that they will devise a taxation system that would impose an environmental tax that would replace the current pollutant discharge fines. A month later, in March 2013, Beijing’s municipal government announced a budget of U.S. $16.1 billion to tackle the smog with stricter management of car emissions and build new facilities to recycle water and upgrade sewage plants. Beijing aims for the completion of these plans by 2015, and given the rate that China can develop, it is likely that the capitol will reach its goal.
China also has an ally in the fight against environmental degradation and climate change: the United States. In September 2007, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency-China Environmental Law Initiative was launched. Representatives from the EPA traveled to China to meet with Chinese environmental officials and law experts to enhance the country’s existing environmental laws. Since 2007, China has hosted bi-annual conferences with EPA’s General Counsel to investigate compliance and update legal provisions written in the initial framework. In addition to this Initiative, U.S.-based nongovernmental agencies like National Resources Defense Council, for example, have assisted in the establishment of programs that promote clean and renewable energy and energy efficiency in China. The recent dialogue on climate change and the increased outcry for environmental reform has further strengthened this cooperation between the two nations. On April 13, 2013, the U.S. and China released a joint statement regarding the creation of a Climate Change Working Group. Its mission is to research and develop ways in which the two countries can cooperate in order to combat climate change in preparation for the next annual Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED) scheduled to be held in Washington, D.C. in July 2013.
This bilateral relationship between China and the U.S. now hinges on their cooperation in this area. Together, they are responsible for nearly half of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions, and although China has surpassed the U.S. as the largest CO2 polluter due to their high consumption of coal, America’s per capita carbon footprint is comparatively larger. Due to their bustling economies, it is projected that they will consume more coal and oil (among other types of energy) in the coming years. Both China and America have laws and regulations in place that protect their environments, and with the S&ED drawing near, both nations will discuss implementing more policies and laws in their respective countries. However, the problem is not the drafting of policies and promulgating these regulations, it is the implementation and follow-through of such regulations, not only by the governmental officials and agencies but also by its people. The greatest ethical challenge facing U.S.-China relations is social responsibility.
Social responsibility focuses on both a corporation’s and an individual’s moral obligation to act for the benefit of society as a whole in order to achieve and maintain the balance between the environment and the economy of a country. Working together as part of a community and realizing that one’s actions will affect the whole is something the Chinese understand. At its core, this traditional culture stresses the importance of collective interests to achieve societal harmony. Unfortunately, social responsibility is an area in which China is lacking on both levels in today’s society. China’s local officials are only rewarded for the economic growth in their region, and environmental components are not included within this reward system. This creates loopholes in regulating and monitoring environmental infractions, and thus, manufacturing factories and other industries have been caught polluting the air, water, and land. These corporations seek economic growth over environmental protection, which destroys the equilibrium of economy and ecosystem.
Individuals are also at fault for the current state of China’s environmental degradation. The growing middle class in China has revolutionized the consuming culture in the country, from restaurant take-out to energy. In addition, this growing middle class has also taken an interest in an environmentally healthy way of life. Economist Don Coursey argued that as income levels increase, so does the demand for environmental quality. Residents from cities like Dalian and Ningbo, which hold populations that are mostly within the middle-class income bracket, have protested against environmental issues and the government’s lack of transparency regarding these issues. Working together as a community, the citizens of both cities were successful in their goal of halting the development of petrochemical plants within their city limits. However, these “not in my back yard” movements are only exceptions to the rule.
“Laobaixing” or the “common people” are often seen spitting carelessly in public spaces on the streets of Beijing, for example, without regard to the multitude of signs that prohibit such an action. Cigarette butts are haphazardly discarded on national treasures like the Forbidden Palace. Many of them are lodged in between the crevices of the marble slabs along the stairs that lead to many of the imperial halls and rooms. Moreover, citizens have taken to using the restroom in areas not designated for such purposes. In many Chinese cities, which include major cosmopolitan areas like Shanghai and Beijing, mothers lift their children over trash cans instead of finding a proper bathroom, and in a more recent surveillance video that has gone viral, a woman is recorded relieving herself in a public glass elevator before she exits with her companion. This ambivalence toward the concern over others’ right to an environmentally healthy communal space should be investigated and rectified before more regulations for environmental protection are put into place. If citizens ignore these basic responsibilities to their surroundings, what other responsibilities and regulations will they ignore, and how could these regulations work without citizens who abide by them?
A poignant example of the lenient rule of law toward environmental infractions and the lack of social responsibility is the Styrofoam law that was put in place in 1999. Decree Number Six’s purpose was to stop the careless disposal of Styrofoam tableware which caused the “white pollution” during the 1990s by phasing out the production and use of the product. However, despite the ban, these actions were still ongoing. When the government called for a lift of the ban in February 2013 to take effect in May 2013, many Chinese citizens were stunned to find out that such a ban had ever existed because manufacturing of the disposable tableware never stopped.
However, the ethical issue of social responsibility also falls upon the United States and other developed nations as well. Globalization has created a connected world, in which citizens of one country are not beholden to just their country alone, but to other countries too. In this manner, the U.S.’s high consumption of low-cost goods has contributed to the problem of pollution in China. This is most prevalent in the electronics and fashion retail manufacturing industries. U.S.-based companies take advantage of the lax environmental regulation in China by developing their manufacturing headquarters in one of China’s many Special Economic Zones. In addition to a variety of other factors, like cheap labor, the cost of the goods produced in China is less than if that same product was manufactured domestically. Americans’ choice for cheap goods and corporations’ preference for economic growth over environmental protection do not serve the greater good in our connected world.
Moreover, Americans’ high consumption of electronics in the ever-evolving industry also affect China’s environment. Every six months to a year, an improved version of a phone or laptop is designed and produced, and rare earth minerals, like yttrium, are continuously mined and processed in various sites in China to accommodate this need due the country’s monopoly over these rare earth elements. The extraction and processing of these minerals are just as hazardous to the environment and human health as the mining and extraction of coal, which releases methane gases into the air. Processing rare earth elements yields large amounts of toxic waste and gases that are difficult to contain and dispose. In a country that already struggles to manage its solid waste like Styrofoam and greenhouse gases from the burning of coal, these additional hazardous wastes only exacerbate China’s environmental degradation. The choice of purchasing the next generation iPhone, for example, becomes an ethical dilemma in which consumers must ask themselves if they would pay more for an electronic good if they knew that the environment would be preserved for future generations in the production process.
Finally, American companies are also responsible for China’s increased import of waste, particularly e-waste. In 2010, a 60 Minutes exposé on American e-waste recycling facilities discovered that most of these companies export the unwanted electronics to China instead of recycling domestically as advertised. China has become the destination for castoff electronic goods. Used computers, television sets, and mobile phones end up in the southern ports from overseas, mostly from developed nations. Most of this e-waste is illegally distributed to people in the countryside where workers huddle around makeshift workstations that consist of a barrel with an open flame that is fueled by scraps found in the area. There, workers burn the electronics to glean trace metals, such as gold and copper, to make their daily earnings for survival. The burning of these materials produce toxic runoffs that pollute the air, land, and groundwater tables, creating a water resource problem for the country. Again, the high consumption of electronic goods worsens the environmental crisis in China and another facet of the ethical dilemma of social responsibility presents itself.
Despite this ethical challenge of social responsibility that affects both nations, as well as the world due to globalization, one thing is for certain: China and the U.S. can learn from one another’s cultures and experiences, and through cooperation and determination, solutions will arise from a strengthened bilateral relationship. After all, since the 1970s, the understanding of climate change and the environment has changed and progressed for the better, and technologies in this field have advanced with each generation. Under the new leadership of President Xi JinPing and Premier Li KeQiang, the promise of environmental reform rings clear in their recent public addresses on the issue, and China’s plan for vigorous development in renewable energy that stemmed from their eleventh five-year plan will no doubt continue. Furthermore, the current U.S. government has shown nothing but support in the fight against environmental crisis and climate change.
The linkages of environmental, social, economic, and political issues between China and the U.S. are now more prevalent than ever before. The cooperation between these two countries and the success of their climate change dialogue in the summer of 2013 could potentially have positive impacts on future climate change policy on a global scale. It is imperative that the U.S. and China seriously consider tackling the ethical challenge of social responsibility that has affected both nations, if not for the millions living in the U.S. or for the burgeoning population living in China, but for the seven billion people inhabiting this planet.
Author 1: Susana SueTing Liu
University of St. Thomas
Nationality: USA
Author 2: Hillary ShiYuan Jing
East China University of Political Science and Law
Nationality: China

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