Academic journal article China Perspectives

Beyond the China Seas

Academic journal article China Perspectives

Beyond the China Seas

Article excerpt

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In the People's Republic of China, much like in the rest of the world, consumption rates for electrical and electronic appliances (hereinafter e-appliances, i.e. television sets, computers, mobile phones, refrigerators, air-conditioners, etc.) have soared in recent decades, and the trend shows no signs of weakening.(1) Due to their rapid obsolescence, these consumer goods are also discarded in ever greater numbers.(2)What becomes of them is therefore a matter of concern, especially for the environment. But the question of how to deal with these objects is a complex one, for several reasons. First, they form a heterogeneous category, which includes a multitude of devices, components, and materials, the properties of which vary greatly. Some of them are technologically elaborate or require a wealth of resources to make, transform, or unmake, while others are relatively simple. Some fetch high prices and have dedicated global markets, whereas others lack any commercial value. Some contain toxic substances that, if released, can damage the environment and human health. Others, by contrast, are rather harmless.

Second, the design and adoption of an official system for dealing with discarded e-appliances is a highly political issue. The validation by state authorities of certain technologies and business models as appropriate, and the parallel condemnation of others, reveals a particular conception of what these objects are and where their value lies. It also implies a decision about to whom they should be entrusted and for what purpose. The parameters of a given "waste regime," a concept I borrow from Zsusza Gille, (3) result from power struggles and have far-reaching consequences. They guide material and financial flows into new directions, make certain social actors more legitimate than others - thus allowing them to play a predominant role - and affect the quality of the environment.

In China, the market for used e-appliances has undergone important changes in recent years. Small but well-networked economic actors, who used to have a collective monopoly on the trade and transformation of these commodities, are now starting to face competition from big industrial groups backed by the central government, academia, and the media as well as international and non-governmental organisations. The latter coalition(4) has framed the issue as an environmental one by insisting on the pollution caused by small-scale recycling workshops and claims that the establishment of a state-sanctioned system would put an end to this.

Against this assumption, which has now become commonplace, I argue in this article that genuine concern for the environment plays only a secondary role in the central government's endorsement of a recycling system centred on material recovery and tailor-made for large industrial groups. Rather, this evolution is to be understood in terms of the dynamics of competition between those who control the trade at present and those who seek to control it in the future.

This claim is based on several insights, two of which need to be highlighted up front. First, China's state-led "system for the management of waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE)" (dianzi dianqi feiqiwu guanli zhidu ...) is not nearly as green as its proponents would have people believe. The so-called "formal" (zhenggui ...) and "informal" (fei zhenggui ...) sectors of the economy(5) are often juxtaposed when it comes to judging environmental performance, and in the vast majority of cases, the comparison is based on one sole criterion, namely the impact of dismantling and processing activities. This is supposed to - and generally does - make big recycling plants seem cleaner and more efficient than small recycling workshops. To be fair, however, one should also take into account at least two additional factors:

(a) the multitude of other activities in which actors belonging to the informal sector engage as well - and which are systematically ignored, downplayed, or criticised. …

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