Vassar Stories

Environmental Issues inside the World’s Second Largest Economy

Ten years ago, a group of Vassar students traveled to China over spring break to study the country’s burgeoning economic growth. This year, geography professor Yu Zhou and political science associate professor Fubing Su hosted another spring break trip, and this time the students focused on the impact of that astounding growth on China’s environment – smoggy air, polluted streams and rivers, and countryside that is being swallowed by rapidly expanding cities.


“The trip in 2006 was about China’s emerging economic development,” Su says. “Ten years later, we are seeing some of the results of that development, including many environmental issues that need to be addressed.”

Zhou, who like Su is a native of China, said most tap water is not drinkable, and she notes that while the air quality in major cities is better now than if was just a few years ago, levels of carbon dioxide and other harmful substances are often dangerously high. But Zhou also says she’s encouraged to see the steps China is taking to combat these problems. “The Chinese government is definitely attuned to alleviating air and water pollution,” she says.

The 27 students enrolled in the Asian studies course Zhou and Su are co-teaching were joined on the 12-day tour by six other faculty members, dean of the faculty Jon Chenette, and sustainability coordinator Alistair Hall. The Vassar contingent toured Shanghai, Beijing ,and several smaller cities and towns, and they met with students, faculty, and administrators at two Chinese universities where they discussed future collaborations and student exchange opportunities.

The students who made the trip say they learned a lot in a very short period of time about China’s rapid economic expansion and some of the consequences of that expansion. And some say they’re already using what they learned to make decisions about their future courses of study.

Neal Bhandari ’19, of Las Vegas, says he plans to write his final paper for the course on the effects of urban growth on farmers and others who are displaced because they are in the path of such growth. “I’m interested in how urbanization is affecting families – how the Chinese government is coping with rapid growth and how the people are responding.,” he says. “My family is from India, where the economy is also exploding , and I saw some similarities in China to the ways India is coping with growth.”

Lisa Je 18, a chemistry major from New York City, says she enrolled in the course principally because her parents had immigrated from China to the United States when they were teenagers and she wanted to learn more about the culture. But when she learned how the Chinese were combating some of their environmental issues, Je says, she became interested in ways chemists can play a role in addressing these issues. “Some of what I learned on the trip opened some paths for me,” she says. She will be focusing on environmental issues in a chemistry internship this summer at the University of Wisconsin.

The severity of air pollution in some cities has spurred the Chinese government to implement some progressive environmental laws and policies and build an impressive public transportation system, says Makeba Walcott ’19, a biochemistry major from Brooklyn. Walcott plans to write her final paper on incentives China has enacted to promote the use of electric bicycles as an alternative to gasoline-powered motorcycles and motor scooters.

Unlike gas-powered vehicles, the battery-powered bikes don’t require a registration fee, and most Chinese cities have built adequate bike lanes, Walcott says. “It definitely helps the air quality that China has taken these steps,” she says. “And overall, the infrastructure and transportation system was well designed and well maintained. The trains were much better than the ones I ride in New York.”

Lennon Jones ’16, a history major from La Crosse, WI, says he was impressed with the scope of improvements China is making to address its environmental issues. “We saw many state-of-the-art water treatment systems that have been built in the last few years,” Jones says. “In many ways, China’s authoritarian government can get more accomplished in  a shorter time than a democratic government can. The state apparatus can make the necessary improvements without having to worry about being voted out of office because of the added expense.”

Jones says he did learn of instances in which citizens have successfully challenged  the authority of the government to arbitrarily acquire their land as cities expand. But he says most landowners do elect to give up their property. “People are offered fair prices, and we saw one housing development where farmers were given units to live in and were still able to farm some of their land.” Jones says.

Jones and other students on the tour say one of the most moving experiences they had was a tour of Tiananmen Square in Beijing, where hundreds of Chinese protestors, most of them students, were killed by Chinese soldiers in 1989. “Fubing Su and Yu Zhou were both students in Beijing at the time, and it was an emotional experience to hear them talk to us about it,” Jones says.

Biology professor Kate Susman, one of the faculty members who accompanied the class on the tour under a grant from the Luce Foundation, says she too was moved by the visit to Tiananmen Square. “None of the students on the trip had even been born when the massacre took place,” she says, “but for those of us who remember it, it was moving to be standing there.”

Susman says she was encouraged by the connections she and other faculty made at the two colleges they visited, East China Normal University in Shanghai and Central Normal University in Wuhan. She met with a biologist at Central Normal University who was conducting research in her field of study, the effects of certain pesticides on the central nervous system, and says she is hoping to find a way to have some of his research published in the United States. Susman says she will incorporate some of what she learned on the trip in a freshman writing seminar she will teach in the fall.

Others who made the trip under the Luce Foundation grant, in addition to Hall and Chenette, were biology professors Mark Schlessman and Jodi Schwarz, geography professors Mary Ann Cunningham and Brian Godfrey, and chemistry professor Stuart Belli.

Chenette says some of the information exchanged by the Vassar group and faculty and administrators at the two Chinese universities will soon show up in Vassar classrooms and laboratories. “This trip enabled us to gain a critical mass of knowledge that will have an impact on our curriculum,” he says.

Su says he was pleased with what he and the students and faculty had been able to accomplish in China in just 12 days. “All in all it was a great opportunity for us to show our students many facets of China,” he says. “The rapid urbanization is creating a lot of issues, but a lot of progress is being made. The students were exposed to a lot in a short time, and so was I. Much of what I saw on this trip was new to me.”

--Larry Hertz

Posted Friday, May 6, 2016