The River Gone Black

As I further slip into the cadence of this upbeat Shanghai life, things, once considered bizarre and outright wrong, now qualify for the titles of mundane and well accepted; this especially goes for topics concerning the standard of sanitation. However, I was recently reminded of my (involuntarily) subdued concerns last week when I found my apartment threshold loitered by the grounds-crew. It had to be anywhere between 5 – 7 of them, well equipped with (disfigured) brooms, buckets and Mr. Muscle soaps and, unbeknownst to me, they were lined up to fight the thriving cesspool that accumulated outside my kitchen window. After accessing the situation and realizing that I was soon embarking on my final moments with my living, neighboring pollutant, I snagged my camera to catch the final shots of what I whimsically, but appropriately dubbed “The River that Gone Black.”

It’s only sheer coincidence that the cleaning crew came to our apartment moments after Fuji’s class ended, and even more improbable that they were there on the first day of our discussion of the The River Runs Black by Elizabeth Economy. The conjunction of these odds forced me to revisit our initial Shanghai days, wrought with complaints over the Tonghe’s inhospitable conditions and overall cleanliness (or lack thereof). The incessant sulfuric smells, the occasional insects, and the mounds of rubbish are all mere examples, and all of which raised questions on the infrastructure that allowed things to be this way. With slightly irascible members in our group, needless to say, there were outcries to fix our current conditions (and I must say that I appreciate my currently clean kitchen view). I furthered my thoughts with, if these personal accounts are of the microlevel, then would the 500,000 protests (loc. 408) mentioned in the book be the macrolevel? Would the corollary then conclude that all of the overarching developmental problems of macrolevel China obstinately trickle down to the microlevel and leave us with what we figure as haphazardly constructed?


I first came across the phrasing “haphazard development” within our first few days in China, and I specifically remember Fuji used the poorly constructed drop-ceiling as an example. I wanted to rhetorically suggest that if the construction adequately fulfilled its function, then why be concerned with the manner of its construction. Elizabeth, however, disputes that notion with her alarming statistical data on the connection between haphazard development and environmental degradation. She figures that what maintains this tendency is the maxim of “first development, then environment,” (loc. 1892), despite the fact that the costs exceedingly outweigh any benefits.

Rhetoric on the environmental protection is gaining momentum and dynamism in Chinese society, and thus desire and need to rectify this collective goods dilemma is too. However, this progressive direction is tenuous and only seems to take root on a superficial level; only by suffocating the deeply routed environmental exploitation that had marked/marred Chinese history would this movement blossom. Conversely, the previously mentioned maxim is tenacious and is instinctual trend of the masses. It just seems that concern for the environment isn’t as genuine on a systemic level. Elizabeth mentions the governmental efforts to clean up of lake Dianchi, but officials concluded it would take 30 years to revert it back to sanitary state because of the monumental damage. What was more shocking is that that figure doesn’t even include the governments (in)ability to prevent nearby polluters (loc. 2416). It’s gut-trenching to know that even after Dianchi’s cleanup, there is promulgated concern that the lake will face threats of pollution.

This example of the blatant disregard and apathy for the environment, despite all efforts to revitalize is an overwhelming and ever-present concern that plagues contemporary China. In ways, my microlevel analogy seems farfetched, but I hold that there is some merit in it, primarily because of the disregard for space. What is environment to its people but a magnified take on space to a man… I look outside my window where my cesspool was and I see an agglomerate of cigarettes, trash and debris in its place. I now wonder to myself if this continual apathy for the surrounding spaces looms something comparable but magnified for macro China.