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Rise or Demise?

Updated on Jul 02, 2008 – SCMP

Thirty-five years ago, when I made my first visit to mainland China, I was appalled by what I took to be the backwardness and poverty of the place. People lived simply, dressed simply and rarely threw anything away.

On the rare occasion when they visited a restaurant, they invariably took the leftovers home, with food from various dishes all dumped into one metal container. And when they went shopping, they brought their own string bags. Shops did not provide plastic bags and purchases were wrapped in newspaper.

In the summer, people endured the heat since virtually no one had air-conditioning, certainly not at home and, usually, not in the office either. Paper fans were ubiquitous. At night, many people moved their beds out on to the streets to get away from the ovens that were their homes.

In the north, in winter, piles of cabbages were piled up outdoors, with refrigeration provided by nature ensuring that the vegetables would not go bad for months. By and large, people lived in walkups. Lifts were virtually unknown, except in government offices.

Bicycles were the king of the road, with a few cars carefully threading their way through the traffic, their honking drowned out by the tinkling of the bicycles.

Paper tissues were unknown; people used handkerchiefs that could be washed and reused. In fact, there was very little garbage of any description because nothing was thrown away that could be used again in some way. The consumer society had not reached China and, it seemed, Chinese were being left behind.

Fast forward a few decades and you now have a country that is as much into conspicuous consumption as anywhere else. Today, highways crisscross the country and bicycles have vanished from avenues, to be replaced by cars. Restaurants in the big cities throw away uneaten food even though many of the poor who live in the interior would be grateful for the scraps.

China has now caught up with the modern world. After three decades of rapid economic development, the soil is now poisoned, as is the water and the air. In the race for modernity, China has even overtaken the United States as the world’s leading emitter of greenhouse gases.

Environmental protection, which was not talked about much 35 years ago, is now on everyone’s lips. And, ironically, it turns out that the way Chinese were living in the 1970s, before the country launched its industrialisation drive, was far healthier than the way people live today, squandering nature’s resources. The 1970s lifestyle, it turns out, was sustainable while the present one is not.

Instead of China learning from the outside world then, the outside world should have learned from China. Then, we would not be faced with the dire threats not just to our way of life but to life itself.

It is ironic that use of plastic bags, which I saw as a sign of modernity 35 years ago, should now be a sign of the ignorance and backwardness of a society where the people do not appreciate the damage that they are doing to the world and their descendants.

Paper, it seems, is really much better for wrapping up purchases, since paper is biodegradable but plastic bags stay around for years. They clutter up drains and pollute the soil as well as the water we drink and the air we breathe.

Now, I realise that the proliferation of plastic bags is not the sign of a developed society, but of gross stupidity and selfishness.

It is good to see that China, which entered the age of plastic bags later than most societies, is moving decisively to reduce their use. Starting this month, retailers are not allowed to give free plastic bags to their customers. In addition, China has made it illegal to produce and distribute ultra-thin plastic bags which are normally only used once and then thrown away.

The legislature in Ulan Bator, capital of Mongolia, apparently responding to the Chinese action, urged residents on Thursday not to use thin plastic bags and to replace them with paper or cloth bags. Isn’t it time that Hong Kong followed suit?

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator.

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