Very little information about what’s happening in China is getting out to the rest of the world but there are some resourceful people from Canada who were able to get in with film cameras and take some extraordinary footage of the catastrophic environmental devastation on a scale that’s never been seen before; from mountains of toxic electronic waste material seeping into the water supplies, to the destruction of whole cultural towns and villages.
The Chinese government is so sensitive to criticism, that the documentary crew was followed around by government officials and told what they may and may not film but they sometimes found ways to secretly film areas that are off limits. Although Edward Burtynsky is careful not to politicize his images or give any opinion about what he sees, you get a sense throughout the film that there is a manipulation of the population at work to destroy its own heritage for the sake of being modern and competitive.
In their pursuit of progress, families are torn apart, their children sent to work far away in factories where they grow up in cubicles for years on their own to help the family survive while their lands are being taken away with little compensation. The elderly, who are attached to their homes and stubbornly refuse to leave, get no support. All this is photographed in mesmerizing shots of surreal landscapes and Orwellian working conditions.
China’s industrial revolution is leaving massive scars on the country’s landscape as well as its citizens. The government’s radical plans to modernize China have caused the largest migration of people within the country from rural ancestral lands to worker factories the size of cities with extremely harsh working and living conditions.
China is paying a huge environmental and human cost for its new status in the world as the new economic powerhouse. Whole generations of young Chinese are being forced out of their home villages to work in dangerous and substandard conditions to produce cheap products for the whole world. Whole districts are being dismantled brick by brick to fuel the new vision of a modern China.
Almost no one outside the country has any idea of the scale of suffering and destruction as the government keeps a tight lid on any information that might be seen as having a negative impact on its plans. Anyone who complains or attempts to expose the horrible conditions is quickly silenced by brutal means. Some well-known Chinese artists who have connections to the West have been able to expose the government’s brutality to a certain extent. Ai Weiwei is one such person working from inside the country to expose the extraordinary lengths the government of China will go to, to keep its people from speaking out, at great personal risk to his own safety.
There are a handful of films and documentaries available that attempt to expose the human and environmental cost of progress in China; Shower (2000), Up the Yangtze (2008), Last Train Home (2009) and Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (2012). For more information read ‘Migrant workers, women and China’s modernization on screen’.