For months, the West has been attacking China for tightening control of its rare earth exports. The assault is likely to escalate, as China recently announced it would slash its rare earth export quota by 37 percent for the first half of 2011. China is also introducing more stringent environmental standards for the rare earth industry, which are likely to send many small businesses in the industry into possible bankruptcy.
The country’s environmental concern is fully justified. Its actions taken in the past months, and those to be taken in the months to come, are totally legitimate.
During the months of debate, few in the West have talked much about the appalling environmental degradation and health hazards caused by China’s rare earth industry.
Many companies importing China’s rare earth elements like to brag about their high environmental and ethical standards and good corporate citizenship, yet they are quite willing to source these raw materials from Chinese producers that observe minimum environmental and labor standards. Maybe the standards they claim only apply to their activities in their home countries. Their exploitation of resources and cheap labor in developing countries is something they don’t like to acknowledge.
If they claim their standards apply everywhere, they should go and live in one of the rare earth mining towns in North China’s Inner Mongolia autonomous region, East China’s Jiangxi province or Southwest China’s Sichuan province for six months or longer. The air they breathe and the water they drink should contain enough doses of toxic chemicals to clear their minds.
I am pretty sure that they would prefer wearing gas masks all day, including when sleeping.
Many workers in China’s rare earth industry are not that fortunate. They wear no masks but cover their faces with towels. Waste from the processing, often radioactive, has been randomly dumped, polluting the water system and farmland.
For years, the heavily polluting rare earth industry has been a source of frequent complaints, sparking protests from local residents.
China has 36 percent of the global reserve of rare earth elements but is producing 97 percent of the world’s output. Many developed countries, such as the United States whose reserve is as large as China’s, have cut down their rare earth production due to their own environmental concerns.
Some wealthy nations have reportedly cashed in on cheap Chinese rare earth exports for their strategic metal reserve for the next decades.
For China, the rare earth industry typifies the serious environmental and social costs of the country being the world’s manufacturing workshop.
The West likes to charge China for its low environmental and labor standards. But when China takes action to raise its standards, the West cries foul, because the moves hurt their selfish commercial interests. This is sheer hypocrisy.
The importing nations should instead help Chinese mining and extraction companies improve efficiency with their state-of-the-art mining technology, so that the industry can improve its environmental protection.
The West should applaud China’s move toward improving the environment instead of denouncing it. Western companies should apply the standards they use at home in China and contribute to the country’s environmental protection efforts instead of undermining them.
China should remain steadfast in its decision to clean up the rare earth industry. It should even act more aggressively, because toxic elements from rampant rare earth mining and extraction are claiming a high toll on the nation and the population every day.
The author is deputy editor of China Daily US Edition. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.