But is the issue a danger to the teas of China -- or/and, by extension, to those who drink them? CHA DAO recently asked several internationally-known internet authorities on tea to comment. Their responses follow.
I. NIGEL MELICAN, Managing Director of TEACRAFT LTD and NOTHING BUT TEA LTD, sent this email:
I hadn't seen the SF Chronicle link before now. Reading it dispassionately, I cannot disagree too much with the underlying message (the elite look after themselves). But some of the examples are so laughable (e.g. eggs injected with dye) as to cast doubt on the whole. Working in China in the 1980s, I was impressed by how much the very successful administration of the country reflected the pattern established in Imperial times. Of course Soviet Russia also emulated in many ways (good and bad) the ways of the Tsars.
What the article did not touch on specifically was tea.
I recognize your concern that the record should be clear and honest about the effect (or lack of effect) of industrial pollution on China tea. However, my short time in China (a month each in 1984 and 1985, in Yunnan and Hainan) chasing an elusive tea development project does not really equip me to write with authority on current agronomic practices in their tea gardens. I am convinced (though without evidence) that the EU regulations on pesticides in imported teas have reduced the occasional excesses found 15 years ago. I chided a Chinese tea supplier with having included a very small mummified frog in a sample of silver needles and their horrified response and abject apology was assurance that 'foreign matter' in tea is taken seriously. In view of the stereotypical American belief that everything Chinese is polluted, one could silently be relieved that small frogs still thrive there sufficiently to hop into the tea dryers.
II. STEPHANE ERLER, webmaster of the internationally renowned TEA MASTERS blog, writes:
Chinese tea has long been mass-marketed as a healthy, almost miraculous, drink, preventing heart disease, cancer etc ... However, in recent months, China is more and more associated with dangerous products (lead in toys, dangerous chemicals in toothpaste and even poisonous pet food) and with pollution due to its fast rate of industrialization. Now we are seeing some reports that question whether Chinese teas are in fact healthy. The way people now start to associate China with lax enforcement of quality controls is thus a real threat for the Chinese tea industry. This mostly concerns those teas that people drink 'for health benefits.' For the more advanced group of tea lovers who love tea for its taste and flavor, this is less of a problem. Our noses and taste buds have been trained by years of tasting to find good tea. And you can't have a good tea that is polluted or poisoned. High-quality tea doesn't grow in polluted soils. Good teas are not made by sloppy workers, but by careful professionals.
This is why it's so important for tea lovers to learn how to taste and test their tea. In this first step, you yourself are performing quality control. Chemical tests and certifications may be useful tools to get scientific evidence about a producer. But the lack of dangerous chemicals is just one side of the problem. A tea lover is more demanding: he also wants nice flavors and a sweet lingering taste.
The major problem we have with the awakening of China is that millions of Chinese tea lovers can now afford to purchase the best teas. These are not reserved for export or for the party leadership anymore. I recently drank a truly excellent Lapsang Souchong. The seller of that tea claims he's friends with Jiang Zemin (the former boss of the Communist Party). But he will sell to anybody (who understands tea) nowadays, provided you can pay the price. That means that high-quality tea prices are generally going up. From a short-sighted, egoistic point of view, this may seem bad for tea drinkers, but it also means that tea farmers have more and more incentives to make top quality teas for their increasingly affluent clientele.
For a single natural product like tea, our senses are really up to the task to select the best and safest leaves. I wouldn't worry about the quality of Chinese tea, as long as I control what goes into my mouth.
III. SEBASTIEN LESEINE, co-founder and co-proprietor of JING TEA SHOP, had the following to say (these remarks are a revised and expanded version of notes he originally sent to the Teamail group at yahoo.com):
Recently, in many media, including Internet fora, China has come under fire for polluting the environment -- and for its lack of intervention in the matter. There are two reasons for this. Contrary to what many people think, the Chinese news media do talk about pollution, and they do deserve some credit for taking the problem seriously. But the issue is a more personal one for me, as it touches on the topic of Chinese tea. Pollution, if not fought, will have effects on tea (and anything else); but for now tea growing areas are still well preserved and cases of tainted tea are related to wrongdoing in other respeccts -- not to ecological disasters.
Why is China having a hard time fighting pollution? The answer is simple: “It is caught between its response to outsourcing requests from Western nations (and their own industrial expansion), on one hand, and its inability to contain the harmful emissions all this activity generates, on the other.” All of this was very well put in an article recently published in Forbes Magazine.
In that same article ("America's Most Polluted Cities"), the top 10 most polluted cities in China are listed. I have added a few annotations of my own here:
1. Lin Fen, Shan Xi Province (Shan Xi province produces mainly coal and vinegar, but no tea)
2. Yang Quan, Shan Xi Province
3. Da Tong, Shan Xi Province
4. Shi Zui Shan, Ning Xia Hui (famous for Traditional Chinese Medicine [TCM])
5. San Man Xia, He Nan Province (this region is mainly famous for their Shaolin Temple. There was one tea famous from there: Xin Yang Mao Jiang)
6. Jin Cheng, Gan Su Province (famous for their ramen)
7. Shi Jia Zhuang, He Bei Province
8. Xian Yyang, Shan Xi Province
9. Zhu Zhou, Hu Nan Province
10. Luo Yang, He Nan Province
In an article recently published in The Guardian, Urumqui gained the title for most polluted city in the country. Linfen, meanwhile, moved down the list due to measures taken by the government. Some of these were quite drastic, such as shutting down 160 out of their 196 iron foundries (as mentioned in an article published on treehugger.com). It wouldn’t be giving enough credit to China to think that their government isn’t taking this environmental issue seriously, knowing that in 2004 alone, pollution has cost them 511.8 billion Yuan (approximately US$65 billion) -- 3.05% of China's total gross domestic product. Moreover, at least 2,000 lawsuits are filed against polluters in China each year.
For the environmental situation in China, absolutely nobody -- least of all the Chinese people -- is trying to deny that China is having ecological problems. Polluters appear on TV; cases of poor villages' crops destroyed by pollution appear on TV; illegal mining accidents appear on TV. And for those who are caught, there will only be few options: a long prison sentence, the death sentence, or suicide. Sentences are not commuted. I am confident that soon we will also see some changes in the law. The first one might very well be the fixed fine for pollution which is set to $US25,000 no matter the gravity of the act.
An article on the China Daily website, which includes the same list of 'worst cities' as the Forbes list cited above, offers a list of the top 5 most environmentally friendly cities in China (see below). From the same article is another list as well, this one of the cities with the most effective pollution control. The key word here is “control,” and it should be enough to restore anyone's hope. Cleaning a nation's environment is possible only by taking the right measures for everybody: the government, the economy, and the people.
Top five most environmentally friendly cities in China:
1. Hai Kou, Hai Nan Province
2. Zhu Hai, Guang Dong Province
3. Zhan Jiang, Guang Dong Province
4. Gui Lin, Guang Xi Zhuang Autonomous Region
5. Bei Hai, Guang Xi Zhuang Autonomous Region
Top five cities with most effective pollution control:
1. Nan Tong, Jiang Su Province
2. Lian Yun Gang, Jiang Su Province
3. Shen Yang, Liao Ning Province
4. Su Zhou, Jiang Su Province
5. Fu Zhou, Fu Jian Province
We should look at China like a big football (soccer) team at the start of a season, with brand-new players. It takes at least 2 years to build up a true good team, so let’s imagine how hard it can be to do this with a country of 1.3 billion people. Although central and local governments do not envision the whole concept of management identically, sometimes they can be on the same page. And when this happens, it truly shows that the Chinese, like any other people, do appreciate green over cement. This is the case with an environmentally friendly vision of "eco-cities" as noted in an article in USA Today. A 1.3 billion Yuan project consists in a city three-quarters the size of Manhattan, and powered by solar energy, wind, bio-fuels and recycled organic materials. The project is so appealing that London Mayor Ken Livingstone, who visited it, wants to build one on his own near the river Thames.
China, which has a lot more to offer to the world than just cheap labor, and which has been under the most severe scrutiny for the last two years now, does deserve to be treated with fairness -- if not by governments, then at least by us. Pollution is a global problem that needs global solutions, which the main actors are not so interested in pursuing, as they will hurt their short-term goals. It may take a long time before real change happens as the majority of us, the victims, spend our time pointing the finger at each other -- while people holding the key to a better life “use statistics as drunken men uses lampposts -- for support rather than illumination” (Andrew Lang).
As a tea seller living in China and exclusively dedicated to Chinese tea, I fear for this most important part of Chinese culture, which at first blush seems set to disappear in the “meanderings” of big consumption and environmental destruction. Is the future of Chinese tea lovers encapsulated in either bottled tea or potentially harmful loose leaves? I do not pretend to know everything about the production of tea in China. But I do see things moving on the environmental issues in China. And, thanks to my master, whose family was one of the first to set up a tea shop in Guang Dong province during the Qing Dynasty, I am well situated to look at the history of tea -- past and present.
For the tea to be sold in Guangzhou's Fang Cun Tea Market (which currently includes over 3,000 shops for tea and tea-related items, and is still building), the tea must be taste-tested. There is a lab for this. In addition, tea buyers can also bring the tea they have bought there to be tested. This is offered as a public service.
On the private side, vendors (if they know where to go) can buy tea from "tea sellers" who buy from tea makers that will have the tea tasted by foreign companies. You can even choose your standards: USA, Japan, Germany. One of our suppliers at Jing Tea Shop is a tea company that meets the standards of both Germany and the USA.
As mentioned above, tea-growing areas in China are still very much in good shape. In these growing areas there are a few families that have been farmers/makers/sellers for decades, indeed for generations. These are the people that you can only approach if you know someone -- and it is always best to know someone when navigating a market of thousands of potential suppliers, and knowing that the best productions are reserved (often a year in advance) for good clients/friends. If you can make the connection and get in touch with these people, go to their location, and see with what love they do their job, then you will know that they are serious about the environment.
It is ironic that I now find myself defending China the same way I defended the USA when I was in Europe.