Responsible tourism in China

To discuss responsible tourism in China is to open an entire gamut of opinion. Yes, there are problems, but some are problems in an ancient eastern context, which are hard to fathom in a western mindset. China has become the poster child for pollution, but isn’t actually the world’s most polluted country and ranks below India. Similarly, we cannot condone China’s inhumane approach to animals, but the clue is in the name; Traditional Chinese Medicine is based on a practice of over 2,000 years old. There has never been a law passed in the country regarding the treatment of animals, which is not to say that ill treatment is right, but is to comprehend that as a culture, compassion for animals is simply not ingrained in the Chinese psyche.
Nobody should be asked to agree with the issues that clearly exist in China. But, to travel successfully there, the key is to understand them and to see that, as deep-rooted as China’s problems may be, innovations such as their ever-expanding rail system and commitment to hydroelectric power are proof that somebody, somewhere within their tightly controlled state is taking note.

People & Culture

The Key issue: Human Rights

The issue of human rights in China is a very tricky one to address. There are certainly some problems, but there are problems in pretty much every country in the world, so it is a bit hypocritical for any other nation to tar China with such a harsh brush. Having said that, the main problem with China is the state’s constant drive for control and the need to represent an image of perfection – very minimal begging; litter; graffiti; prostitution; crime – to outsiders looking in. With this all comes a human price and there are obvious human rights abuses against anyone who goes against the country’s communist system.

There are still gulags in China, camps created over 50 years ago, now referred to as ‘re-education camps’, that hold thousands of inmates who are made to undergo laojiao – re-education through labour. These camps are an archaic and eerie throwback to the years immediately after China’s communist revolution when they were used to silence political opponents and most people outside of China have no idea they exist. There is no legal process involved in locking someone up for ‘re-education’ and today the camps are used to incarcerate ‘undesirables’ – prostitutes, beggars, drug addicts, and those who speak up too loudly against injustice.

One way that China’s human rights problem manifests itself to tourists is the making Chinese of areas that historically are not very Chinese. Take Tibet, a formerly independent region that became unified into China after it was invaded and occupied in 1951, and the Xinjing province - the far west province of China where you head for the Silk Road tours. Historically, these areas had very few Han Chinese people and were full of minority populations, but there has been a very concerted effort over the last 10-15 years to relocate hundreds of thousands of Chinese people into both areas to redress the balance of Chinese versus minority populations and therefore make the regions more controllable. Tibetan resistance has been less than that in Xinjing where, sadly, there has been consistent riots and disturbances between the Chinese and the Uyghur separatist population there, leading to discontent and loss of life.

Similarly with Burma, the country’s reform has sparked a diplomatic feeding frenzy as Western, Pacific and Asian governments vie for position and influence there, and there are increased rumours of corruption on China’s part. Though China has been a political friend to Burma over the years, public protest over the country’s copper mining and energy pipelines, amid accusations of land grabbing, environmental disregard and, crucially, the ruthless displacement of Burmese people with the help of Burmese forces, can surely only fuel anti-Chinese feeling.

On a positive note, China’s Premier, Li Keqiang, announced on his appointment in 2013 that the authorities were working intensively on a plan to reform the country’s ‘re-education’ system, though as yet officials and police in China still wield enormous power. The only thing truly clear is that China’s concept of freedom and human rights is very underdeveloped and has a long way to go.

What can you do?
The answer here is very straightforward: it’s not what you can do; it’s what you can’t. China is a very proud country and their mindset is one you should neither try and permeate through questioning nor change with your opinions. Small things you can do surreptitiously without causing problems for anyone are to support any local minority villages you might visit by eating locally and hiring local guides wherever possible.
Liddy Pleasants, from our vacation specialist Stubborn Mule, shares her opinion on the issue of human rights in China: “There is little that we can do in China where human rights is concerned and the difficulty is that in China you have to be very careful. If you charge in and start making noise about the treatment of someone in China, then it’s highly likely that you, or worse still the person you think you’re defending, will be arrested. The best and most useful thing you can do is to learn about the issues that you may face while in China and come back with an educated opinion, which you can then put to use volunteering for a human rights association back in the UK. Trying to do something while your there runs the risk of endangering yourself and the people you’re trying to help.”

Development vs rural migration

For many, the rate at which China has developed to secure its rank as the world’s second biggest economy is admirable and the country is representative of a hugely successful future. But there is a question mark that looms over whether they value economic development over everything including the health and well-being of their citizens and even the air that they breathe.

Three decades ago, China was underdeveloped. So to catch up with other countries it poured vast sums of money into roads, bridges, office buildings and factories, which meant dizzying rates of growth. Regardless of the heavy pollution this has caused, it seems this massive surge in development has reached a point of diminishing return with regard to the Chinese population who simply don’t have enough money to spend and for whom all the investment has become not so much wealth creating, but wealth destroying, leading to increased rural migration by countryside dwellers in pursuit of more cash.

Though this might evoke a sad image of second generation Chinese heading off and leaving land unattended and their elderly parents bereft, you never actually see a piece of land in China that’s not being worked on, so it’s likely that actually farming methods, though primitive, have simply got a little bit easier and require less manpower. The issue with rural migration is not in the death of farming, but in rural dwellers chasing an unattainable dream in the city, falling on hard times and being deported back to the countryside, or worse still a re-education camp, by a state that sees them as underachieving and unnecessary.
When China decides to do something, they get it done and they get it done fast, there’s no denying that. But if China is to keep growing, its growth has to come from consumption and the government needs to put steps in place – such as increased wages for factory workers and the elimination of residency laws that penalise people who move – that will make it easier for Chinese people to spend money.

Wildlife & environment

The Key issue: Pollution

China’s pollution problem is out of control. The Environmental Protection Agency’s air-quality scale rates any pollution above 300 as unsafe to breathe and, according to guidelines, under these conditions people should stay in their homes with an air purifier running and remain still. It is not uncommon in China for 19 days in any given month to exceed that 300 threshold, in fact readings above 500 are more usual. In January 2013, the reading reached an unbelievable 886, a figure that just thinking about makes your head hurt, and that is comparable to a life lived permanently within a crowded smoking lounge.

Now throw in the 100 million cars that drive on China’s roads and the picture (but certainly not the air) becomes clearer.

Sadly, this isn’t the worst of it and the ultimate finger of blame where China’s eye-watering pollution levels are concerned must be pointed firmly at the coal-burning electrical plants that have powered the country’s breakneck economic development. China burns 47 percent of the world’s coal, which is roughly equal to the total used by all the other countries in the world combined. The air in Beijing, a city regularly enveloped by thick, toxic, grey smog, is now too heavy to be dissipated by prevailing winds.
There are entire towns in China known as ‘cancer villages’, which have been written off as so polluted that simply living there represents a huge cancer risk, and then there’s the water. Local rivers run full of industrial effluents and contaminants, and more that 50 percent of the country’s surface water is so polluted it can’t even be treated to become drinkable. This isn’t a ‘let’s pick on China’ list. This is fact, and actually a very tame summary of how, ironically, China’s growth has slowly but surely been killing the green lungs with which the country breathes.

Thankfully there is a 'but'. Hugely relevant is the Chinese government’s admission that cancer villages do exist, which shows that the issue of environmental pollution leading to poor health is drawing attention – a very good move by China who doubtless could do without the next generation Erin Brokovich slapping them with a massive bill.

Urumqi, in China’s far west, a city that once shouldered the dubious accolade of being China’s most polluted city, is now enjoying its clearest skies in decades thanks to the perseverance of its Blue Sky Program, which has replaced thousands of coal-fired boilers with natural gas boilers. Additionally, innovations like the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River, which is the world’s largest hydroelectric power station and is producing vast amounts of power, show clearly how much China is trying to reduce the problem and, of course, there are many more dams being built to add to the assistance.

There is no question that China is finally addressing its life-threatening pollution problem and the pertinent point is that they recognise that alternative fuel sources must be found and are making steps to provide them.

What can you do?
Unfortunately, China’s pollution levels are on such a huge scale that there’s little you can do to reduce them. What you definitely shouldn’t do, though, is not go to China. Advising someone not to go to China for fear of developing a respiratory illness is like advising someone not to go to America for fear of getting shot. There are areas of China that are more polluted than others, so if you’re worried about it, spend your time walking the Great Wall or taking pictures in the country’s lesser-explored southeast. If you’re spending time in Beijing, do as the locals do and grab a face mask. Otherwise, our best tip is not to add to the problem: make sure you only get taxis in and around the cities when absolutely necessary.
Olly Pemberton, from our partners Exodus, shares his opinion on China’s pollution problem: “The pollution in Beijing can be widely attributed to a few things, namely traffic and industry. A surprising fact I was told while in China is that during Chinese New Year alone the peak level of particle pollution in the air increases by close to eightyfold, and that’s just down to the huge number of fireworks with which they celebrate. Add to this the incredible amount of growth that’s going on in the country and of course you have a huge problem, though thankfully China’s attempts at addressing the problem are slowly becoming as newsworthy as the problem itself.”

Animal tourism and traditional medicine

There is no two ways about it; China’s treatment of animals is indefensible. The dog and cat fur trade is out of control with millions being slaughtered every year in the most horrendous ways, but sadly this is just the tip of a very brutal and bloody iceberg. Unsurprisingly, the treatment of animals – beautiful endangered species included – at so-called ‘parks’ across the country is utterly inhumane; they are starved, beaten and often fed to one another in cramped and squalid conditions.

Let’s not forget the ‘medicinal’ purposes for which animal parts are put to use. Despite claims that the exotic lotions and potions sold in China under the umbrella heading ‘Traditional Chinese Medicine’ can cure all ills, the animal parts used in them, such as bear bile, tiger bones and rhino horn, are extracted in the most barbaric ways causing nothing but pain, extreme discomfort and, in most cases, death of the animal involved.

What can you do?
There is only one place you should ever visit in China where animals are involved and that’s the Chengdu Panda Breeding and Research Centre. The work they are doing has literally helped a species survive and should be commended and supported. Anywhere else? Do not go. Don’t even go near it. There are no laws in China governing acts of cruelty to animals and it is absolutely inexcusable what the majority of defenceless creatures are put through at these places. The same goes for any Traditional Chinese Medicine involving animal parts – tiger bones or penis, bear bile, rhino horn – avoid it like the plague and be extra sure of what ingredients make up any cosmetics or creams that you buy. As for fur, it may look pretty and feel warm, but only on the animal’s skin that it was grown to protect. There are more than enough fake furs that feel and look authentic, so if you really must then grab a non-animal knock-off, much more preferable than walking around with a skinned cat across your shoulders we’re sure you’ll agree.
Liddy Pleasants, from our partners Stubborn Mule, shares her opinion on the treatment of animals in China: “There are practices at the Chengdu Panda Centre that people still may not like. For example, you can pay a lot of money to get your picture taken cuddling a baby panda, which is maybe a little controversial. But that said, when I first went to China 20 years ago, something like only three pandas had ever been born in captivity and now consistently Chengdu have babies being born. So ultimately they are preserving a species there in a way that otherwise would not happen, so personally I think it’s a good thing. With the exception of the panda center, the advice I would give to anyone traveling to China would be to avoid animal tourism altogether – you won’t be missing out on anything because you wouldn’t enjoy the experience anyway.”

Responsible tourism tips

Surprising for their conservative nature, the Chinese are pretty open-minded when it comes to revealing clothing, and vests and short skirts are common sight. When visiting temples and monuments, it is advised that both men and women wear long-sleeves and trousers. The Chinese are big on appearance, so never confuse casual with scruffy – messy hair and creased clothing will do you no good in restaurants and hotel check-ins. If you are invited to visit someone in their home always take a gift – premium alcohol is widely appreciated – but do not expect an open acknowledgement. Chinese people spit – everywhere. It’s just the way it is. Chinese people, particularly men, also love to smoke. Handing out cigarettes is considered a respectful gesture and non-smokers should decline politely. Privacy is almost non-existent in China; don’t expect much space to quietly contemplate at sights and don’t be surprised if someone strikes up a conversation while you’re sat on the loo. The locals’ penchant for obvious curiosity can get a little frustrating, you will be stared at, pointed at and said ‘hello’ to numerous times. Just try and adapt to it quickly as it’s not meant to cause any offence. The Chinese love a business card and they’re handed out to everyone at every opportunity. Wherever possible have your own business card to hand back, but, most importantly, make sure you study their card with intent before putting it away and never put it in your back pocket. In southern China particularly there is a growing concern about gangs of child beggars being organised by adults to make money from innocent tourists – they may tug on your heartstrings, but ignore their pleas and move calmly on; giving in will only make it worse. Ladies – don’t be offended if you’re with a man and are ignored: the Chinese will assume that any man in a pairing will be the one wearing the trousers. The Chinese have a relatively relaxed approach to homosexuality, but it’s advisable to act with caution regarding open displays of affection.
Written by Polly Humphris
Photo credits: [Page banner: Emile Guillemot] [Human Rights: Joseph Chan] [Pollution: Brady Bellini] [Animal tourism and traditional medicine: Animal Equality International]