Toto, I Don’t Think We’re in Hong Kong Anymore

We’ve just come from capitalist Hong Kong, where about 30% of the population lives in public housing, and no one can be denied a college education for lack of money. But here in smog-choked Shenzhen of the socialist People’s Republic, we are besieged by beggars: old widows and young people with birth defects, standing or squatting in the shadows of unimaginably futuristic skyscrapers and luxury hotels. 

And tonight, I was treated to a shock. I went out alone to stroll around the district and find a bowl of curry rice, when I wandered down a street-market block. Old women dancing for alms, accompanied by young people afflicted by every sort of birth defect; massage parlor peddlers clinging to my elbow; invalids crouched against walls. I felt like Bogart in some sordid Kasbah, or Han Solo in that weird bar.

And then she appeared. A haggard woman, pushing a flat cart, like the kind they use at Home Depot. At first, I didn’t look at the cart, not wanting to meet eyes. But there was no avoiding it: There was a human body lying on that cart! A swollen, bug-eyed young man. The eyes were red and wet, and I doubted the eyelids could cover them. Dead? No, alive. Or somewhere in between. And there was a bucket on his middle for alms. My stomach churned, and my eyes fled in horror.

My mind raced back to a remote village clinic in Uganda, when medical missionary Jennifer Myhre motioned to me to go outside lest I succumb to my nausea right there in the malnutrition ward. But that was a tiny village on the furthest outpost of one of Africa’s smaller countries. This is one of the most vibrant cities in the world’s largest country.

We are, I’m afraid, glimpsing the future for the almost 20% of the world’s population that lives in China. Birth defects and environmental threats to public health are spinning out of control.

Here’s the bottom line: Approximately every 30 seconds, a Chinese baby is born with birth defects due to pollution. And beyond them, diagnosed birth defects are driving a tsunami of abortions by desperate parents unable or unwilling to care for a deformed baby.

The Chinese government itself reported this in 2009. Jiang Fan, China’s Vice Minister of National Population told the China Daily: “The number of newborns with birth defects is constantly increasing in both urban and rural areas.”

They are worst in coal-producing regions, far from where we today. Chinese authorities discovered that birth defects increased 40% between 2001 and 2006, as China’s explosive growth drove massive increases in coal burning, without effective regulation of emissions and toxic waste.

“So many people are wondering why, when our lives are supposed to be getting better, there are more and more babies born with birth defects and couples who are infertile,” said Huo Daishan, an environmental activist from Henan province who has been fighting factories whose pollution he believes has caused disease clusters along the Huai River.

By contrast, you’d think (wouldn’t you?) that Americans would be thankful for the environmental protections we enjoy. So you might be surprised to hear the howls from many in Congress and in the presidential primaries last month when the EPA finally issued rules governing emissions of mercury and other toxins from coal-fired power plants. They’ve promised to reverse those rules as soon as they get the chance.

I can only wish that they had the chance to wander the nighttime streets of Shenzhen with me. It’s a shocking sight, and there’s no guarantee that it can’t happen in our country.

Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.
J. Elwood

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