Saturday, March 29, 2014

When A Butterfly Comes Back to Life and Flap Its Wings . . .

Since China’s Opening Up in the 1980s, its government has been navigating the murky waters of GDP growth and economic incentives to put its people on the path out of poverty. Its success is unquestioned, but putting millions into the global middle class came at the price of environmental degradation and deteriorating health and welfare of the Chinese people.

The blind pursuit of wealth and economic growth is not self-contained—as China emerges a global power, the rest of the world feels the impact from the Chinese ambitions. Commentators are starting to recognize this problem: when a butterfly in China dies from pollution, the whirlwind of social change in places like Brazil ceases. So when China flexes its muscle to bring that butterfly back to life, the world watches for the gale of disruptive force that reshapes whole industries for the better.

In more recent days, China began to enforce a “Green Fence” around its trash import and material harvesting businesses. It is a campaign aimed to strengthen waste import standards to mitigate the environmental problems associated with the waste management industry. To some, this is detrimental to business. The increased cost and delay for inspection hurts the bottom line for those who export trash to China. It also hurts Chinese businesses looking to harvest the trash and process them for precious materials. Down the supply chain, other businesses are hurting for material supply that once came from the spew of the dirty business.

But this is not just about the bottom line. The abrupt changes seem to suggest a sudden grasp of a Chinese backbone. China no longer wants to be the dumping ground for the world’s problems. It now demands higher standards by limiting “unrelated material” to no more than 1% cutting the transportation of unrecyclable trash. Recycling companies also face fees assigned at the ports for storage while waiting for inspection. Sure this slowed things down a bit, but it has also raised standards all around—recycling businesses are forced to consider cost and efficiency when they process their recyclables. The regulators are also forced to look at their own trash deposit laws and drive up the standards locally.

Yet not all is well. The Green Fence does seem to drive a “race to the bottom” problem—those who aren’t willing to change their recycling standards and practices are looking for the next dumping ground: Africa, India, Vietnam, Turkey.  If it's not possible in China and the profit margin is thin, let's look elsewhere to see who is stupid enough to take on the burdens.

Well, I for one have no answers to this quandary. It is a question left to those who sees their self-worth beyond the glittering coins. It is a questions of existentialism that every nation must ask of itself.

A friend of mine once asked what I thought of Chinese Existentialism. Pontificating as a self-disrespecting existentialist, I began the answer with a “to me . . . .” Put aside the egocentric, Chinese existentialism is about looking past the present problems and working towards bettering oneself for the future. Yet, that is only a third of the whole. An honest Chinese person accepts the Way within the peace of the Chinese psyche and then offers kindness to the things that he has no control.

At the core of Confucianism is the idea that every man woman and child deserves the opportunity and owes the obligation to work hard. Without it, society would not more forward. The structural integrity of Confucianism is the order of things—a hierarchy built on respect and learning. Taoism teaches us to be at peace with oneself and the world around us. To accept the Way is not only to be ignorant and blissful; it is about knowing one’s place in the grand scheme of things and accept the outcomes that we have no control. The Buddhist in a Chinese psyche extends compassion and goodwill towards others. It bridges the gap between the Confucian work ethics and the Taoism laissez-faire mentality to create a socially balanced collectivism.

From these three, we see the Chinese as individuals working together towards common goals. That is a self-respecting answer to the question posed: “to the Chinese, existentialism is about knowing who we are and doing something about it.” While many criticize the Chinese government for corruption, the Chinese people for lack of civility, and the Chinese society for its carelessness, I see China as a maturing echo of the once proud culture--now with a proper backbone.

The controversies of Green Fence aside, it is deeply disturbing that others are more willing to bend to the will of profits and pollution rather than standing up to demand better things.

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