Dispatches from China: William Wan reports on China's struggle with pollution, politics and Tai Shan

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William Wan
Friday, October 29, 2010; 1:00 PM

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William Wan: s religion reporter and undertook a two-month reporting trip through China. The last time I had spent that much time in China was as an exchange student about a decade ago. Since then, the seismic shifts have simply been amazing and fascinating. Looking forward to your questions!

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Pollution in Lake Tai: Lake Tai is in a wealthy province. One can easily think of the economic, recreational, and public health benefits of a Lake Tai with clean water. Is there any prospect of the Chinese government relocating chemical factories to poorer areas? Wu Lihong is a hero, he has a lot of guts.

William Wan: Thanks. I found this story particularly interesting to work on because it let us get into the nitty gritty of what exactly is holding up environmental progress on the local level. In the case of Tai Lake, as with much of China, it's simply economics. Until the political powe of green issues can overcome the the power of economics, it's look like an uphill battle.

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Public participation in China: As Chinese society opens, even if slowly, is the public able to make its views known about the pollution, at least those whose lives are directly affected by this pollution? I know their current system allows this to happen, but in time, will the public be able to start having an impact and reducing this pollution at least to improve the quality of their own lives?

William Wan: That's an interesting question--the push from individuals is one of the key forces right now in environmental fight. In a lot of cases, their able to say what they believe, but when that starts cutting into businesses you see some of the pushback from companies, including intimidation like in Wu Lihong's case. It's something that seems to be easing though. Strong-arm tactics giving way to more subtle pressures

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China: Tai Shan the panda: Did you find the devotion of Tai Shan's American fan club endearing or bizarre?

William Wan: A Tai Shan question! So I have to admit I had seen the panda a total of one time before going over to China. To be honest, a lot of people view these people as crazy or bizarre, but once you spend a few hours with them...there's something about the earnestness that totally wins you over.

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China: communism: What do you see as the evolution of China's Communist Party in a nation where capitalism rules and the Party exists less as an ideological unifier and more of the government's instrument of social and political control?

William Wan: This is one of the key questions, isn't it? For decades, one assumption in the West was that with capitalism would come democracy. What you're talking about is a subtle idea that's bloomed since then. I think so much of what exactly the communist party and the gov of china looks like in general will depends on the next leadership...a highly-anticipated changeover that's happneing in 2012

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China: cultural faux pas: Living in China and speaking Mandarin, did you have any embarrassing or amusing cross-cultural missteps or language mistakes?

William Wan: ha...too many to count. I speak Cantonese and Mandarin and the differences/ensuingconfusion are overwhelming. In the past, I've asked for toilet paper in a restaurant when what I meant to ask for was napkins!

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China: Immigrants: What do you think of Beijing's ongoing efforts to contain immigrants to the city in walled compounds for "safety" reasons?

William Wan: This is a fascinating story, been covered a lot of late. I think the "walled cities" come with such historical baggage, internationally. Some compare it to ghettos. On other hand this mass migration of workers is like an unstoppable force in China. It's got some parallels to the migrant worker issues we struggle with ourselves in the West -- US and Europe.

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China: Censorship: Is it feasible for China's internet censors to keep policing Facebook, Blogspot, Twitter and other influential social media sites as they crop up?

William Wan: I honestly don't know, but the Chinese firewall is such a flexible and moving wall. It blocks somethings sometimes and other things other times. I think that's one of the things I found actually surprising that it's not a simple monolith

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China: propaganda: What was your view of the sophisticated and wide-reaching multi-lingual government-run media?

William Wan: The state-owned media was hugely impressive to me. They've got thousands of journalists across the country...the size of a small country, working on news. THe rise of Xinhua News Agency, I think is an underreported story in the coverage of media. With the shrinking budgets, fights over AP, Xinhua could soon be providing news to a lot of sites and papers, not just about China but global coverage.

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China: resources: What do you think will happen when China's rampant consumerism and natural resource use catch up with the country? Is there a plan to reduce pollution?

William Wan: There are plans...reams and reams of them. We waded through stacks of statistics, mountains of projections and contingencies for this story. To be fair, the problem facing China is humongous and complex. You have a nation pushing onto the global stage to become a world power. The government's trying to balance economic growth -- crucial to keeping its people stable and happy -- with the cost on their environment.The other big problem they face is that land, air and water have become so polluted at this point. They're focusing simply on stopping it from getting worse -- an enormous accomplishment if they can pull even that off.

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China: population: How do you think China's huge and exploding population shapes the Chinese experience and outlook?

William Wan: Great question. This is one of the defining forces in daily life, I think. The sheer amount of people on the streets, in the subway, on the streets, in classes. It affects your mental outlook on life I think to know you are one of 1.3 billion in the country. This is an outsider's perspective, but I think there are times when that comes as a comfort and times when that can be a little intimidating.

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Migrants and Pollution: I've read recently that the pollution and the tension between poor migrants and rich, coastal area merchants could eventually undermine China's stellar economic growth. What are your thoughts on these topics?

William Wan: One thing that surprised me is how permeable that divide can be. People can go from rural to urban and back to rural in the same generation. It's not so clear cut. The bigger and more problematic divide is this gap between rich and poor...a subject I tried to tackle in this story about philanthropy:

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William Wan: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/09/16/AR2010091607171.html

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Pollution in general: I studied in Shanghai in 1984 for a semester. The tap water was gray and undrinkable unless first boiled. Has that changed any in urban areas or is all tap water still gray and undrinkable unless boiled?

William Wan: Funny question. Water at least in the urban centers -- Beijing, Shanghai, Wuhan, etc -- not colored or visibly unattractive, but everyone boils. Drink unboiled at your own stomach's peril!

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Free Trade vs. Fair Trade: Over the last 30 years, politicians in both US parties touted free trade as the key to global economic growth, and China has benefited financially at least in the short run. But focusing on free trade without sufficient focus on fair trade (labor, environmental and civil rights protections) is in essence unfair. That is, shouldn't the US should demand that as countries with developing economies become more prosperous they provide similar wages, working conditions and environmental protections we have in this country? Otherwise, the global economic playing field remains tilted against the US.

William Wan: Interesting economic question. There are a lot of people more qualified than me to answer this, but I would say one of the interesting things about China is that it's straddling this category right now of "developed" and "developing" country. In so many ways, it's pushing for dominance -- world's 2nd biggest economy now, fastest computer (did you guys see that fascinating news yesterday), biggest, tallest, first, best. But at the same time you're talking about a country that's still got huge swaths of undeveloped rural areas. With elderly peasants eeking out a living on largely abandoned farming towns. It's an complex and interesting position.

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food: what was your favourite meal in china?

William Wan: My wife makes fun of me for this, but I actually loved the 7-Eleven by our office. (Yes, 7-Eleven's exist in China). To the detriment of my body, one of my favorite things about traveling is experience the junk food of a foreign culture. Think it says a lot about each place. My favorite from China was plum ice tea flavored & "numb & spicy hot-pot" flavored potato chips. Don't know what it says about China, but yum!

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William Wan: Okay...think we're about ready to wrap up. News never stops! Thanks for all the questions, everyone. It's always fun to talk about China.


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