August 25, 2008

Plight of the Little Emperors

When Dawei Liu was growing up in the coastal city of Tai'an during the 1990s, all of his classmates—95 percent of whom were only children—received plenty of doting parental support. One student, however, truly stood out from the rest. Every day, this boy went from class to class with an entourage of one: his mother, who had given up the income of her day job to monitor his studies full-time, sitting beside him constantly in order to ensure perfect attention. "The teacher was OK with it," Liu shrugs. "He might not focus as much on class if his parent wasn't there."

Across China, stories of parents going to incredible lengths to give their only children a competitive edge have become commonplace. Throughout Jing Zhang's youth in Beijing, her parents took her to weekly resumé-boosting painting classes, waiting outside the school building for two hours each time, even in winter. Yanming Lin enjoyed perfect silence in her family's one-room Shanghai apartment throughout her five-plus hours of nightly homework; besides nixing the television, her mother kept perpetual watch over her to make sure she stayed on task. "By high school, my parents knew I could control myself and only do homework," Lin says. "Because I knew the situation."

August 24, 2008

China in Africa: Young Workers, Deadly Mines

Adon Kalenga works seven days a week collecting minerals from the ground with his bare hands.

He is 13 years old and lives in Katanga province in the Democratic Republic of Congo. He has no home and can't afford the $6 a month it costs to attend public school in this central African country of 62 million. Sometimes he sleeps in the streets; other nights he spends in an orphanage.

Mostly, he works, earning about $3 per day. He's one of 67,000 people in Katanga who earn a living collecting stones infused with two minerals that are in demand worldwide: copper and cobalt. Reddish-brown copper is used to make the electrical wires needed to light the world's cities. Cobalt, a silver-gray metal, is used to make jet engines, ink and mobile phone batteries.

Katanga, a region of green rolling hills that's bigger than California, is home to 5.5 million people. The province in the south of Congo contains 4 percent of the world's copper and a third of its cobalt reserves, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

The minerals Adon and children like him wrest from the red, hard earth find their way to smoky smelters on the edge of impoverished towns near the mines. Most of these rusting, hand-fed furnaces are owned by companies based in a faraway country, one that was founded on an ideology that exalts the rights of workers: the People's Republic of China.

``My life is hard,'' says Adon, wearing black rubber boots, a hooded sweatshirt and ripped jeans that sag on his skinny frame.

`I Don't Know Why'

Adon's left shin is scarred from a fall during a mine landslide three years ago that killed workers, including four young friends. He spends the day around unstable, hand-dug mineshafts, using his bare hands to fill sacks with ore.

He then hauls the rocks down a steep trail. At the end of the path, he works knee-deep in a stream, the kind that has spread a cholera epidemic throughout much of Katanga. The boy's hands are raw from washing rocks in a metal screen.

August 21, 2008

Air-conditioning: Our Cross to Bear

When it's hot and humid out and the air-conditioner's not running, America suffers. Babies break out in rashes, couples bicker, computers go haywire. In much of the nation, an August power outage is viewed not as an inconvenience but as a public health emergency.

In the 50 years since air-conditioning hit the mass market, America has become so well-addicted that our dependence goes almost entirely unremarked. A/C is built into our economy and our culture. Stepping from a torrid parking lot into a 72-degree, air-conditioned lobby can provide a degree of instantaneous relief and physical pleasure experienced through few other legal means. But if the effect of air-conditioning on a hot human being can be compared to that of a pain-relieving drug, its economic impact is more like that of an anabolic steroid. And withdrawal, when it comes, will be painful.

We're as committed to air-conditioning as we are to cars and computer chips. And a device lucky enough to become indispensable can demand and get whatever it needs to keep running. For the air-conditioner, that's a lot.


August 6, 2008

California's Potemkin Environmentalism

In January 2007, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger stood before the California legislature in Sacramento and delivered his fourth State of the State address since his improbable 2003 election. It was a rhetorical tour de force that would win him widespread acclaim. "California has the ideas of Athens and the power of Sparta," said Schwarzenegger. "Not only can we lead California into the future; we can show the nation and the world how to get there."

Schwarzenegger especially celebrated California for its leadership on energy and the environment. Just three months earlier, he had signed the Global Warming Solutions Act, committing California to reducing greenhouse-gas emissions to 1990 levels—roughly 25 percent below today's—by 2020, and all but eliminating them by 2050. The Governator then lambasted the Bush administration for failing to tackle global warming: "It would not act, so California did. California has taken the leadership in moving the entire country beyond debate and denial to action." Such performances have helped establish Schwarzenegger as a national figure, even a statesman, on the environment. In April 2007, he posed for the cover of Newsweek, spinning a globe on his finger under the banner leadership & the environment, and in September, he even addressed the United Nations on climate change.