LEGISLATION: Is U.S. Garbage Being Dumped In China?

Pick up a newspaper in China and, chances are, you'll read a story about garbage.

Lately, the government-managed press in China has been running many articles about how the United States is dumping yang leji (foreign garbage) throughout the country. The stories accuse Ameri-cans of ignoring their environmental obligation to the world.

For example, the New China News Agency said, "The recent discovery of American garbage in a suburb of Beijing has aroused a great deal of anger and concern among the Chinese people, with many asking the same question: How did 'foreign garbage' sneak into our country? The major reason is that some developed countries, including the United States, keep trying to transfer their harmful waste to developing countries, such as China, in order to avoid their own troubles."

Another article in the China Daily wondered: "Is the United States acting like a responsible international community member as it demands others to be? If the government is at all concerned about human rights, it should do something to stop the dirty business."

Of course, China is hardly in a position to claim the moral high-ground in international activities. For years, the American music in-dustry and computer software manufacturers have accused the Chinese of openly pirating copyrighted material. Meanwhile, federal and state law enforcement agencies have claimed that Chinese firms are smuggling AK-47 assault rifles to U.S. gangs. And humanitarian groups here and abroad allege that Chinese leaders reportedly deal with growing numbers of orphans by starving them.

The central government's rigid control of everyday life in China makes it convenient for outsiders to fix blame on the political leadership for all kinds of wrongdoing. However, this view naively underestimates the smart, cagey and ag-gressive wheeler-dealers in China, who have mastered the art of dodging less-than-efficient inspectors or who manage to keep their activities out-of-sight altogether.

In fact, the foreign garbage problem, though real, is not significant. Nevertheless, the Chinese press seems anxious to inflate its importance as if such reports could counterbalance the charges from a-broad about business piracy, gun-running and child abuse. Holding one's ground against foreigners has always played well in domestic politics throughout the world.

Chinese reporting style typically overlooks, perhaps intentionally, the fact that for years, China has had a paper shortage. To deal with the problem, the country has been importing waste paper. However, not all of the imported paper is clean; some shipments are contaminated with other kinds of waste.

Chinese law forbids waste importation. Although shippers and customs officials try to be alert, some cargo handlers and businesses in China and elsewhere reportedly outwit the few official watchdogs by marking "waste paper" on containers filled with dirty diapers and even used syringes.

For its part, the United States has given credibility to the media blitz and said, through its Beijing embassy, that it wanted to help stop the problem. A foreign service officer even prom-ised U.S. assistance to any official Chi-nese probe of illegal shipments. So far, the government has not formally accepted the offer.

Problems in perception exist on both sides. Some Americans assume that Chinese officials directly support music and software piracy and arms smuggling. Actually, such ac-tivities probably are run by individuals and small groups. Factory managers with political or family ties to the central government, local officials or the military will likely continue to escape any kind of crackdown. Meanwhile, many Chinese sincerely believe that the U.S. government officially endorses the world-wide dumping of gar-bage.