I am in Tianjin where the smog is thick. It creates grey on grey cityscapes and irritates eyes and throats. My niece, a lovely and talented young woman jokes that, “Chinese people have iron lungs,” instantly showing up the dystopian anxieties that animate cyberpunk and urban fantasy (as popular literary genres, not simply as lifestyle choices).
I remember similarly edged jokes from my mother’s relatives and friends when we went back to the UP, where iron mining and tree harvesting for the paper mills had reshaped the wild north. “That,” they said with a half apologetic laugh when they glimpsed our pinched noses, “that is the smell of money.”
One of the consequences of industrialization, smog becomes meaningful through the stories we tell about it. My understanding of the relationship between smog and stories jives with Laclau and Mouffe’s elegant reformulation of the opposition between realism and idealism. To paraphrase from Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, a rock exists outside human thought. However, what we do with that rock (place it in a garden or throw it at our neighbor, for example) only becomes meaningful through what they call — following a string of literary minded postmarxist philosophers — discourse.
I take the term discourse to overlap with what anthropologists (especially after Geertz) have understood by the term culture. Culture comprises the patterns through which we “make sense” out of all we encounter. Was it a wink or a blink? Culture tells us that that flick of the eyelid was a message (oo la la), while another was just the body doing its thing (keeping the cornea moist). The critical edge to discourse analysis or critical ethnography lies in acknowledging that there is stuff undulating beyond and lapping against the beaches of coherence, stuff which can only be recognized and acted upon through the stories we tell about the world (his eye started twitching after he went to war; that flick of the eyelid is neither a flirt nor a natural function, but a symptom of post traumatic stress disorder).
So back to smog stories.
One smog story is the price of doing business. Industrial manufacturing produces smog, along with paper, toys, and smart phones. This smog story tells us that pollution is the inevitable outcome of modernization and modernization benefits society as a whole. However, when we talk about Chinese iron lungs, we are accepting smog as the inevitable consequence of industrialization. And perhaps in a one to one trade this would make some kind of equitable sense, if for example the people breathing in the smog actually could purchase relatively cheap paper, toys, and smart phones. But those high-quality cheap goods are shipped overseas. Instead, in Tianjin we are left with smog, shoddy goods and overpriced, possibly counterfeit products. This explains why those residents who can make shopping trips to Hong Kong and South Korea do so.
Consequently, another smog story alludes to the resentment that Hong Kong residents feel for the numbers of Mainland visitors who have reshaped the SAR’s tourist and commercial landscapes. These visitors are used to spending a lot for dodgy goods; paying the same price for certified products (or can be trusted products as they are known in Mandarin) is a no-brainier. The result, however, has been to drive up local prices, making it more expensive for Hong Kong people to purchase items. Hong Kong people who aren’t benefitting from this cross-border trade understandably don’t like a process which lowers their quality of life. Meanwhile, those who are getting richer from the process go shopping in the US, Canada, and Europe. In this sense, Mainland cross border tourism to Hong Kong is like Tianjin smog stories. A few people are enjoying the profits and everybody else is sucking up the carcinogens.
But people are not carcinogens and so this is where the story gets complicated, why why why inquiring mind want to know do we put up with systems that run on carcinogens and distrust?
Most smog stories split the narrative along cultural lines. I have heard Hong Kong people complain that “they” let children pee off a train in public spaces. And I have heard Mainlanders say scornfully, “they” were colonial slaves and didn’t do anything about it then, so what’s the fuss now? But in fact these stories are interwoven. Many Hong Kong people I’ve spoken with don’t understand the extent to which ordinary Mainland people have paid the physical price for the SAR’s prosperity and relatively clean environment. Similarly, many Mainland friends don’t know that there were protests in Hong Kong during the 1960s and are only vaguely aware that Hong Kong people have kept the memory of Tiananmen politically alive.
Breathing smog hurts. Today, I’m wondering how we might clear the air both here and there when we’re telling different smog stories.
Update: impressions of Tianjin Smog and the City’s colonial architecture, October 19, 2014.