Factory Owners and Confucius on the Environment

Hangzhou-based Fulbright fellow Steven Zhang has been conducting research on how the management of factories in Zhejiang province view environmental protection. After describing the term huanbao (环保), Zhang describes his experience discussing the state of the environment with Chinese factory owners and managers in a post for Tea Leaf Nation:

When I visited Mr. Liang’s LED factory in Zhejiang, I saw a building with so many machines that it made my head whirl. I asked Mr. Liang about how he thought his factory was doing with respect to huanbao 环保: in Chinese, the term huanbao means both the act of being environmentally friendly and the state of environmental protection. Despite the heavy electricity usage of the factory and some heavy chemicals used in manufacturing the process, Mr. Liang told me: “We only use electricity, our products are RoHS 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. Their views of the matter are focused almost exclusively on the effects of environmental damage to personal health. These views, in turn, affect the way they control the environmental impact of their factories.

[…]Above all, these testimonies show that Chinese factory owners are people no different from many others. Their backgrounds, worldviews, and work environments have shaped their attitudes towards the environment and its protection. As China continues to develop and deal with environmental issues, an understanding of the past and present may be the only way to protect the future. [Source]

As Zhang’s piece surveys a contemporary Chinese outlook on environmental issues, the South China Morning Post digs deep into the archives of Chinese culture to cover a Confucian revival of environmental consciousness:

It is probably the oldest recorded ecological comment in the world. Some 2,300 years ago the Chinese philosopher Meng Zi, known in the West as Mencius, noted the impact of human activity on the natural world around him.

He wrote: “The woods on Ox Mountain were once beautiful. Because they were on the edge of a large country, they have been attacked with axes and hatchets, so how could they remain beautiful? … People seeing its denuded state assume that it never had been otherwise, endowed with rich resources. Yet how can this state be the true nature of this mountain?”

In modern China, it is almost impossible to see “the true nature” of almost any part of the country. […]

[…]Last month, a major new development in Confucian ideas and commitments was launched. The Confucianists of China issued their first ever statement on the environment. In it they questioned the destructive basis of contemporary Chinese development and proposed instead a vision of humanity playing a caring role, not a destructive one.

This statement argues that what the world needs is a spiritual humanism founded on Confucian values: “What Mencius reminds us of is a core Confucianist value that this world is a precious heritage passed on to us from our ancestors and it is a resource entrusted to us by numerous generations yet to come.” [Source]

Amid a revival of Confucianism in Chinese politics and academics, traditional modes of Chinese thought have previously been identified as natural philosophical guardians of the environment. For more on Steven Zhang’s research, see his blog “Made in China: Stories from Chinese Factories.”  Also see prior CDT coverage of China’s environmental situation.


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