What Chinese factory bosses really think about environmental protection

Factory owners and managers cite cost efficiency and public health as greater priorities than climate change or conservation

When I visited Mr Liang’s LED factory in Zhejiang, I saw a building with so many machines it made my head whirl. I asked Mr Liang how he thought his factory was doing with respect to huanbao: in Chinese this means both the act of being environmentally friendly and the state of environmental protection.

Despite the high electricity usage of the factory and some heavy chemicals used in manufacturing, Mr Liang said, “We only use electricity, our products are RoHS [restriction of hazardous substances] 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.

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 liberalisation, 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.

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 province, 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.”

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 increased, few Chinese had the education or consciousness to even think about environmental problems. The factory managers and owners of the 1980s and 1990s had received very little education, partly due to the suspension of higher education during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s.

The role of education

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

But despite improvements in environmental protection, it is still far from good practice. 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,” yet admitted that the filtered waste water was still far from original quality and often caused algae blooms in the creek.

Still, it was clear from my interviews that environmental consciousness and laws are getting better, though there was disagreement as to why. Some interviewees, like 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 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.”

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 into products. For 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 by 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 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 organisations 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 rubbish 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 prioritised 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.

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 will inevitably lead to less-polluting manufacturing equipment. Mr Hu said as much when he told me, “How we advance society and make China more huanbao is through science.”

This article was first published by Tea Leaf Nation. You can read more about Steven Zhang’s findings on his blog: Made in China.