[Marxism] China’s Environmental Woes, in Films That Go Viral, Then Vanish

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Apr 29 10:47:52 MDT 2017

(A reminder why we shouldn't go overboard on China becoming the top 
producer of alternative energy.)

NY Times, April 29 2017
China’s Environmental Woes, in Films That Go Viral, Then Vanish
The Saturday Profile

BEIJING — Achieving fame was not hard for Wang Jiuliang, but staying in 
the spotlight has proved more difficult.

His career as a documentary filmmaker has followed a distressing 
pattern: spectacular internet reactions to his movies and videos on 
environmental topics, followed by their rapid disappearance from the web 
in China.

The latest, in January, was a video showing him standing before a large 
screen displaying appalling photos of indiscriminate quarrying and other 
environmental woes and delivering a talk about them. In one, 
mountaintops have been obliterated. In another, an aerial shot, a rocky 
landscape has been pockmarked with gaping holes where the stone was 

The video became an instant internet sensation, but four days after it 
was posted it disappeared.

Another documentary of Mr. Wang’s, “Plastic China,” about the plastic 
waste industry, which was screened at the Sundance Film Festival this 
year, also went viral in January before quickly disappearing from the 
internet in China.

The wiry, 40-year-old Mr. Wang said he had no idea who had deleted the 
items or why. “Some invisible power,” he joked in a recent interview 
over coffee in Beijing’s central business district.

Before the talk on the environmental destruction from quarrying, Mr. 
Wang had spent the last decade filming China’s mostly unregulated 
garbage dumps and their environmental impact. He produced two critically 
acclaimed documentaries that made him an authority on the subject.

His first, “Beijing Besieged by Waste,” released in 2010, explored the 
garbage dumps encircling China’s capital. Before then, few Chinese 
thought about where the waste went. The scenes of people and sheep 
grazing through the piles of garbage, and of trucks apparently dumping 
whatever they like with no authorities in sight, were a shock to most.

“It is very important work, a milestone,” Ma Jun, the director of the 
Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, said in a telephone 

Born a peasant’s son in a village in China’s eastern Shandong Province. 
Mr. Wang sold cellphones and vegetables to save for college, finally 
making it to the Communication University of China in Beijing, at 26, to 
study photography.

In 2008, a year after graduating, Mr. Wang went back to his village to 
shoot a photo project and was horrified by the devastated landscape he 

“I spent my childhood summers catching locusts and fish. Now where are 
they? Are there still tadpoles and frogs in the creek? No,” he said. 
That prompted him to question what had happened and who was responsible.

That quest drew him into environmental issues and he became curious 
about garbage and where it went in Beijing. Following garbage trucks, he 
found hundreds of trash dumps outside Beijing’s fifth-ring road. The 
dumps, he found, were unregulated; trucks brought in whatever they liked 
without supervision.

After three years of filming — and 9,300 miles on his motorbike — he 
marked on Google maps all the dumps he found. At the end, he produced 
“Beijing Besieged by Waste.”

The Beijing government has since cleaned up more than 80 percent of the 
garbage dumps, Mr. Wang said. “I found some answers. But I also started 
to have more questions,” he said.

In 2011, wanting to learn more about how garbage is recycled, Mr. Wang 
went to California. In one of the biggest waste recycling companies in 
Oakland, a manager pointed to a truck loaded with containers of plastic 
waste that was about to be shipped to China.

“I’m not a nationalist at all, but somehow his words provoked me,” Mr. 
Wang said. “Because I saw this junk — dirty and detrimental — going to 

Another six years’ work went into finding and documenting what happens 
to imported plastic waste. The discovery shocked Mr. Wang. Thousands of 
family-run factories operate in the open air shredding the waste plastic 
into small particles to sell to factories in southern China, which then 
make them into new plastic goods. The air and nearby rivers are heavily 
polluted, he found. Workers sifting through the waste with their bare 
hands are often pricked by used needles.

“I’m not against recycling plastic waste, I’m all for it,” Mr. Wang 
said. “But absolutely not this kind of raw method of recycling without 
protection and producing more pollution. The profit and cost is 

For one and a half years, Mr. Wang lived in a rented place near the two 
families he filmed, in a small town largely dependent on recycling 
imported plastic waste in Shandong, his home province. He hung out with 
the families every day, eating together and sometimes helping them with 
the work.

The final product was “Plastic China,” an 81-minute film featuring the 
two families, and a 26-minute version that explains the industry itself 
and every character in its chain, like waste suppliers in the United 
States and Europe and Chinese workers who make their living from the trade.

The longer version is nonjudgmental, showing the tough conditions faced 
by people scratching out an existence in a tough business with 
razor-thin margins. Its images are raw and bleak: dying fish in a nearby 
contaminated river are picked up for a family meal; a baby is born amid 
mountainous heaps of plastic; Yi Jie, 9, eldest daughter of one of the 
two families featured, cut pictures of ballet flats from an English 
magazine, just to have them to look at.

Yi Jie was not going to school when Mr. Wang started to film, because 
her father said he did not want to pay the fees. When Yi Jie turned 11, 
Mr. Wang and the film’s producing companies spent their own money to 
send Yi Jie back to her hometown in Sichuan to go to school.

“They work for scanty wage and their health is impaired. This needs to 
be addressed from different sectors in a society,” Mr. Ma said.

Mr. Wang said there were handsome profits to be made from plastic waste, 
but mostly in the international trade.

But “Plastic China” does not seek to criticize specific groups of 
people, said Ruby Chen, one of the film’s producers. Rather, she said, 
everyone should reflect on their own roles in the trade after watching 
how the two families live.

“If I’m a policy maker, how to solve problems? If I run a small factory, 
is there a better way to do things? If I’m a boss, is it really 
necessary to use all this plastic packaging?” said Ms. Chen, joining the 
conversation with Mr. Wang over coffee. “People who have watched it have 
told us: ‘I will need to think carefully whether to use plastics.’”

Mr. Ma compared Mr. Wang’s films with Rachel Carson’s book “Silent 
Spring,” a seminal work that helped start the environmental movement. 
“Recycling plastics could have been a good thing, but if it isn’t done 
well, it causes secondary pollution,” he said. “Plastics can’t be 
degraded or buried. So it’s very important to mobilize people to reduce 
using them.”

Mr. Wang said he was perplexed by the censorship of his work on the 
internet. “Our goal is to let more people see it,” he said. “We hope 
they would pay attention and changes could be made. But if the channel 
for communication is jammed, I have to reconsider what our efforts mean.”

Still, it is not stopping what the filmmaker is, in his own words, 
destined to do. “He won’t stop caring. Otherwise he couldn’t even sleep 
at night,” Ms. Chen said with a laugh, “He is unrelenting. If he thinks 
this is important, he does it at all costs.”

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