This extract is from the introduction to sci-fi author Chen Qiufan's 'Waste Tide'. Published in 2013, the novel tackles the topic of e-waste in the Guangdong province of China. The author was one of The World Economic Forum's cultural leaders at the Annual Meeting of New Champions 2019, which took place from 1-3 July in Dalian, China.

Read more about the event here.

Most of the important things in the life of Chinese people happen over dinner conversations. The same goes for Waste Tide and I.

I visited Shantou, my hometown, in the summer of 2011 to attend a childhood friend’s wedding. It takes about three hours one way to fly from Beijing to Shantou down in Guangdong province, not including city transportation and the time spent waiting at the airport. The wedding dinner was costly in terms of both money and time: many attendees were flying in from different cities all over China.

Every Chinese person will experience dinners like this many times in their life. A lot of those dinners will end in people fighting over paying the bill (yes, sometimes even escalating into fistfights), drunken mess, or blatant obscenity.

Thankfully our dinner didn’t turn out like that.

My friend from middle school, Luo, mentioned a small town not far from where we lived: Guiyu (Gui means “precious” and Yu means “isle”, so the name of the town literally translates into “precious isle”; Gui, written as a different character with the same pronunciation, also means “silicon”, making Guiyu sound like “silicon isle”). Apparently, the American company he worked for had been trying to convince the regional government to establish eco-friendly zones and recycle the e-waste, but some local authorities had been standing in their way.

“It’s difficult,” he said, a little too mysteriously, “the situation over there is…complicated.” I knew the word complicated often meant a lot.

Something about his speech caught the attention of the sensitive writer’s radar in my brain. Intuitively, I realized there must be a deeper story to uncover. I took a mental note of the name Guiyu and proceeded with the dinner.

The information I found online afterwards was shocking. Guiyu turned out to be one of the largest e-waste recycling centers in the world, and local workers, without any protection or prior training, manually processed tons of e-waste on a daily basis. In one of the most widespread photos of Guiyu, a boy seeming no older than five sits on top of a pile of discarded circuit boards, computer parts and colorful wires, yet the relaxed look on his face could almost make people mistake the mountain of trash for Treasure Cove at Disneyland.

A place like this was only about sixty kilometers away. I decided to go and see for myself.

After more than an hour’s trip on the wobbly #123 bus, I arrived at the Guiyu central terminal. Still dizzy from the ride, I hailed an electric tricycle that looked as if it was about to fall apart, and told the driver to go to wherever trash was usually taken.

At first, the bleak scenery along the road wasn’t any different from other rural areas in China. However, as the tricycle entered the central zone of waste processing, I could not turn my eyes away again.

…Countless workshops, little more than sheds, were packed tightly together like mahjong tiles along both sides of every street. A narrow lane was left in the middle to allow carts to bring in the trash for processing.

Metal chassis, broken displays, circuit boards, plastic components and wires, some dismantled and some awaiting processing, were scattered everywhere like piles of manure, with laborers, all of them migrants from elsewhere in China, flitting between the piles like flies. The workers sifted through the piles and picked out valuable pieces to be placed into the ovens or acid baths for additional decomposition to extract copper and tin, as well as gold, platinum, and other precious metals. What was left over was either incinerated or scattered on the ground, creating even more trash. No one wore any protective gear.

Everything was shrouded in a leaden miasma, an amalgamation of the white mist generated by the boiling aqua regia in the acid baths and the black smoke from the unceasing burning of PVC, insulation, and circuit boards in the fields and on the shore of the river. The two contrasting colors were mixed by the sea breeze until they could no longer be distinguished, seeping into the pores of every living being.…

This was not fiction. This was the reality.

I tried to talk to the workers, but they were extremely cautious in front of me, perhaps fearing that I was a news reporter or an environmental activist who could jeopardize their work. I knew in the past that reporters had snuck in and written articles on Guiyu, articles which ended up pressuring the government into closing off many of the recycling centers. As a result, the workers’ income was significantly impacted. Although the money they receive was nothing compared to the salary of a white collar worker in the city, they needed it to survive.

Unfortunately, I could not stay for any longer. My eyes, skin, respiratory system and lungs were all protesting against the heavily polluted air, so I left, utterly defeated.

A few days later I returned to Beijing. My office there was spacious, bright and neat, equipped with an air-purifying machine, a completely different world from the massive trash yard that I had witnessed. Yet sitting there, I could not get that tiny Southern town out of my head. I had to write about it.

Read more about Chen Qiufan's novel here.