A year in China: bad air, bad debt

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    On the morning of September 24th, a group of men broke into the Shanghai home of Chen Zhongdao and Xie Guozhen, bound and gagged them, threw them into the back of a van, and detained them in a nearby courtyard while a crew hired by the local government district of Xuhui razed their home, located on some of the most valuable land in Shanghai. Legal experts say Illegal demolitions like this are on the rise as China's economy slows and local governments scramble to maintain GDP growth through land sales.

    - Rob Schmitz/Marketplace

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    December, 2013: A view of Shanghai during its worst smog on record. This year began with the "airpocalypse" in Beijing and ended with record levels of air pollution in Shanghai, as China grapples with the environmental fallout of three decades of unprecedented growth. See the next slide for the same view on a clean air day.

    - Rob Schmitz/Marketplace

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    August, 2013: The same view of Shanghai as the last slide on a clean air day.

    - Rob Schmitz/Marketplace

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    April, 2013: Farmers in Liuchong Village, in China's Hubei province, have united to protest water and air pollution caused by Dasheng Chemical, which operates a local phosphate mine and fertilizer factory. Villagers blame a rapid rise in cancer cases in the village on the company and the negligence of the local government.

    - Rob Schmitz/Marketplace

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    April, 2013: To escape the pollution and the stress of the big city, Wang Yongjun, Xu Yan, and their young daughter moved to the mountain town of Dali in Western China's Yunnan province from the southern metropolis of Guangzhou more than a year ago. In that time, they says they've met more friends in Dali than in their 14 years in Guangzhou. More urban Chinese are choosing to escape what they see as an increasingly unhealthy life in the big cities.

    - Rob Schmitz/Marketplace

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    April, 2013: 42 year-old Zhang Runxiang suffers through the late stages of uterine cancer. Zhang, who died two days after this photo was taken, is the latest victim of environmental neglect one of China's dozens of 'cancer villages.' Zhang's family says runoff from phosphogypsum dumped by Dasheng Chemical has contaminated their drinking water, causing her cancer.

    - Rob Schmitz/Marketplace

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    June, 2013: Dozens of skyscrapers under construction in the port city of Tianjin. In ten years, officials hope the district of Yujiapu will be one of the world's largest financial centers. Parts of the city are replicas of landmarks in Manhattan, such as Rockefeller and Lincoln Centers. Local real estate analysts say developers and investors are selling their investments in Yujiapu at a loss, nervous about the future of China's economy.

    - Rob Schmitz/Marketplace

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    September, 2013: Shoe factory owner Gao Shenyi sits in his storefront along Wenzhou's 'Shoe Street'. Business has been bad this year, exacerbated by a rise in loan defaults throughout China's shadow bankings sector. Dozens of Wenzhou businessmen unable to pay back their loans have gone missing or been found dead.

    - Rob Schmitz/Marketplace

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    November, 2013: A propaganda mural in rural Shanxi province reads: "Giving birth to a boy or a girl is equally good." In November, China's government announced modifications to its one-child policy that will allow couples who were only children to have two children.

    - Rob Schmitz/Marketplace

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    June, 2013: Graduates from Fudan University in Shanghai pose for a photo on campus. According to a recent state survey, China's college graduates are four times as likely to be unemployed than someone who hasn't studied past elementary school.

    - Rob Schmitz/Marketplace

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    The drinking water for the village of Majiapo in Shanxi province is contaminated by acid mine drainage - discharged water containing sulfuric acid and other heavy metals from a coal mine operated by the Yangmei Group. This type of pollution is common in China's coal country. Water pollution is becoming a bigger problem as China drains its fresh water resources to satiate the demand of its growing cities.

    - Rob Schmitz/Marketplace

As we look at the biggest stories of 2013, what stands out to Marketplace China Correspondent Rob Schmitz is the idea of "forced transparency" in two specific areas of China: bad air quality and bad debt.

AIR QUALITY. Some people may have first started paying attention to the air pollution in China during the 'airpocalypse' in Beijing earlier this year, along with this month's bad Shanghai smog. And that has shifted focus to the hard truths of China's economic growth. Lung cancer deaths are up, and so is frustration from everyday Chinese who must live with the heavy pollution. 


BAD DEBT. Then, there was an interbank lending crisis in China in June.  China’s credit bubble got too big, and the "shadow banking" industry posed a huge threat to the world's second-largest economy.  Schmitz says there is "tons of bad debt" in China's economic growth model, which is built on the premise of, "borrow, borrow, borrow; and build, build, build."  For years, China could hide it. But like air pollution, it's now out there for all to see.

"We'll see more events like this in 2014, where the government can no longer hide from its own people," Schmitz says, "because the fallout from 30 years of economic growth at all costs is becoming more and more obvious to everyone here."

About the author

Rob Schmitz is Marketplace’s China correspondent, based in Shanghai.


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