China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2005/Sep

Material and spiritual pollution

At the end of a long day, tourists and business people return to their hotel rooms and turn on the television. Idly flipping channels, they find the news in Mandarin. After a couple of minutes, those with good ears start hearing fazhan. The images may be those of businesspeople in suits and ties, women at a conference, Tibetans in colorful clothing, a factory, harbour or farm, yet the commentator cannot speak two sentences without uttering fazhan at least once. What is this term and why is it so important?

Fazhan (發展) means “development” or “growth.” Fa means “issue forth” or “develop,” and occurs in compounds for dough rising, seeds sprouting and people bringing their talents into play. Zhan means “unfurl” or “unfold,” as in compound words for spreading wings, putting on an exhibition or opening up. Fazhan sounds like natural growth, organic development, something quite positive. In earlier decades, the preferred term was jinbu (進步) “progress,” with overtones of a strident march forward. Jinbu has been heard and seen in print less often in recent years.

A century ago in the west, people wrote “progress” with a capital P, as in the “Progress of Civilisation”. Then World War I began in 1914, followed by other horrors in the 20th Century and people’s confidence in “Progress” was shaken. The optimistic mantra of the French philosopher Henri Bergson (1859-1941), “Every day in every way I’m getting better and better!” did not outlast him. Later in the last century, people began to worry about the side effects of progress, such as pollution. The first Earth Day was held in April 1970. Told of dire predictions for the future of Planet Earth, someone quipped, “The future is not what it used to be.” Other people even wrote about the limits to growth.

Limits to growth? Karl Marx had an insight which is the “Gospel truth” to every capitalist in the world today: the economy simply has to continue growing, or it will be Armageddon for capitalism. If and when growth stops, then there will be no place to put money where it will yield a good return on the investment. So interest rates on bank deposits and bonds will fall towards zero, and stocks will no longer pay dividends. Marx called this the Final Crisis of Capitalism and predicted that it would happen in the mid-19th century.

Why didn’t growth stop long ago? Population growth was made possible by opening new land to cultivation and later by better yields per acre. Technological innovation came to the rescue repeatedly. Population growth has acquired a bad name in certain countries, but the global economy still looks to a steady stream of inventions, innovations and improvements in productivity to keep humming. Most Chinese still have faith that “science is all-powerful.” In the face of challenges such as the rising price of petroleum, science had better be all-powerful. If science does not find a substitute for oil before long, then we are all headed for serious pain, both in socialist and in free market economies.

Every year, millions of people leave the Chinese countryside in search of a better life in a big city. They need jobs, which means that the economy simply cannot stop growing.

But progress (or development) brings pollution. When Japan and the west began paying attention to pollution, the Cultural Revolution was raging in China. Capitalism pollutes the environment, there is no capitalism in socialist China, therefore there is no pollution in New China – or so some ultra-leftists reasoned 35 years ago. Today China pays serious attention to the quality of its water and air, and strives to implement sustainable development, that is, continued growth that will not be halted by pollution.

Wuran (污染) means pollution. The first character means not just “filth,” but also “corrupt” as in “corrupt official.” Ran means “dye,” as in soaking cloth in a dyeing vat. Polluted air soaks deep into the lungs, and polluted water stains whatever it touches. The transition to metaphor is easy. There was a crime movie made in Hong Kong around 1980. Early in the film, a police detective brought a white sweater to a tailor with the request to dye it black. She answered, “It is easy to take something white and dye it black, but hard to dye black cloth white” – a clue to the audience as to the detective’s downward path.

It is easier to contain pollution (in either sense of the word) than to clean up the mess after it has widely dispersed. Someone defined the First Law of Ecology: “You can never throw anything away. It always goes somewhere.” And pollutants have a way of moving long distances from their point of origin. The best course of action is not to generate any toxins in the first place.

Around 35 years ago, when pollution hit the headlines in the United States, a Catholic newspaper published a cartoon. A husband and wife were carrying their small children and stepping carefully over sewage discharge pipes labelled “pornography” and “violence”, while a smokestack in the background was spewing forth “foul language”. The cartoon was captioned, “the toxic waste dump in which we all live.”

The Catholic Church tried to reduce the spread of spiritual toxins with the Index of Forbidden Books, first published in 1559 and updated every several years. With the rise of Hollywood, the Legion of Decency was formed in 1934. When it condemned a movie, the resulting consumer boycott slashed attendance at those few theatres that dared to show it. Hollywood practiced self-censorship for a generation and filmed many classics under those restrictions. But the Index was dropped in 1971 and the Legion of Decency faded away quietly by 1975. Rather than giving Catholics a long list of forbidden titles, the ideal now is for Catholic adults to internalise a sense of what is edifying and what is trash, and so to gravitate towards what uplifts people instead of debases them. Thus the Signis column in the Hong Kong Chinese Catholic weekly, the Kung Kao Po, does not focus on condemning the bad movies but on recommending the good ones in its movie review.

Qin Shihuang, the first emperor of a unified China, burned books and buried scholars alive around 220 BCE to silence all voices of dissent once and for all. Many ancient works were lost, but the surviving literati wrote the key texts from memory as soon as it was safe to do so. The last dynasty, the Qing, went to considerable effort in the 18th century to ban dirty books and to destroy any writings of secret societies. In 1949, the new government inherited the tradition of a strong central government as custodian of what the public can read. Leninism reinforced this trend to restrict information to those who needed to know. During the Cultural Revolution, one and only one bookstore in Beijing stocked books in foreign languages and those were all by Marxist authors from socialist states.

As China began to reform and open itself to the outside world in the late 1970s, new ideas began to enter. Not all of them were welcome. Deng Xiaoping said “When you open the door, some flies and mosquitoes will fly in,” meaning some bad influences would unavoidably find their way into China, but as nuisances, not as lethal threats.

Yet by October 1983, too many flies and mosquitoes were biting. So Beijing launched the Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign aimed at smuggling, prostitution, profiteering, pornography, democracy and freedom of speech. Post offices were reminded not to let people mail bibles and a certain kind of photo magazine. The campaign fizzled after nine or ten months, as much for lack of enthusiasm by those who were supposed to promote it as for any other reason. By mid-1984 the focus had shifted to economic reforms for faster growth. There is a bigger payoff in attracting foreign investment for a new factory than in catching a few people circulating banned literature.

Much environmental pollution comes from scattered sources. The state has enacted “green” legislation, but it takes many eyes, ears, and noses at the local level to catch violators. This is an excellent opportunity for non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to play a role and recruit volunteers who care about the beauty and safety of their surroundings. Yet the government is suspicious of NGOs and wants to bring them within a regulatory framework. Do NGOs have contact with foreign counterparts? What exactly do they discuss at their meetings? Might they be up to something criminal or subversive?

Think of religions as spiritual NGOs. Religion does not focus on economic growth. The “Gospel of Wealth” (have faith and God will reward you in this life) is a distortion of the Gospel of Jesus. In 1967, Pope Paul VI wrote Populorum Progressio (Progress of Peoples) in which he stated, “The way to peace lies in the area of development.” (art. 83) Pope Paul VI called for justice among nations and the Wall Street Journal dismissed his encyclical as “warmed over Marxism.” Later, Pope John Paul II reminded people on numerous occasions that life is about “being more,” not “having more.”

Looking ahead, the jury is still out as to just how powerful science and technology will be in solving our various problems. The energy and ecology crises may prove to be only annoying speed bumps – or thick concrete barriers – on the road to a more prosperous future for China and for the rest of the world. Christians of different denominations have been developing a set of teachings on justice, peace and the integrity of creation. These resources are worth having on our common journey.