At a recent celebrity-studded Fortune Forum, where all the participants were either European business leaders or high-profile politicians, the vice-minister of China’s State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA), Pan Yue, gave a talk on the Chinese environment that cast a shadow over the glittering assemblage, pointing out that China’s “global factory” might be fast becoming a “global garbage dump.”
While the fact itself was hardly a revelation, more surprising was Pan’s use of this special occasion to point it out. China’s environment is not a professional issue but a political issue — politics is the very root of the problem, which stems from an entire society’s unilateral pursuit of rapid economic development. The government is finally admitting its mistake ten long years after academics pointed out the perverse nature of its development principles.
“Ecological refugees” on the rise
This ten-year delay may mean that China has missed a golden opportunity to protect the environment at a time when ecological disasters were constantly reported by the media. On this point one cannot fault China’s media for not doing their job. Relatively speaking, China’s environmental problems are not a high-risk political issue, and many media outlets have devoted extensive coverage to them. Every year on World Environment Day, many newspapers publish special issues devoted to the environment. However, compared with the desire and “capacity” for development of many of China’s governmental agencies, this attention has been insufficient.
For example, in the cattle-producing regions of Inner Mongolia and Qinghai, many herdsmen made their fortune through excessive production in the early years of reform. According to figures published by the National Statistics Board, in the counties of Maduo, Zhiduo and Qu Malai, located in the source region of the Yangtze, Yellow and Lancang Rivers, the cattle grazing capacity exceeded one million head in the 1980s, and per capita income was among the country’s highest. On the other hand, ecological degradation caused an increasing number of nomadic plateau herdsmen who traditionally followed water and grass resources to become so-called “ecological refugees” in what was then China’s wealthiest region. The reason for this deterioration is obvious enough for any herdsman to explain: the grasslands have been overgrazed and the current generation “has eaten up the food of future generations.”
Water has always been the most important natural resource of this so-called Three River Source region, and its ecological degradation is not only harmful to local interests, but ultimately affects the sustainable development of the economy and society all along the Yangtze and Yellow River basins.
Areas better endowed with natural resources have in recent years experienced social resistance against ecological disasters. One example is last year’s Hanyuan incident in Sichuan Province, provoked by the forced relocation of local residents to make way for a reservoir renovation project. But protests by an estimated 100,000 people were repressed, and the dam renovation was immediately put back on the agenda.
All over China many dams are under construction, with government officials considering only the profits gained from public projects, and completely disregarding the people’s livelihood. Recent incidents of large-scale revolt by residents of the Dongyang Huashui region of Zhejiang Province were directly related to serious industrial pollution. Local citizens had apparently been expressing their opposition through a variety of channels from the day the factories were built, but were unable to stop the local government’s profit-focused development.
China’s environmental pollution is not limited to the incidents mentioned above. Anyone reading SEPA’s annual report will be shocked by the current state of China’s environment. The World Bank estimated that losses attributable to air and water pollution amounted to 8 percent of China’s GDP for 1995, and the Chinese Academy of Sciences calculated a loss equivalent to 15 percent of GDP in 2003.
In a press interview, SEPA’s Pan Yue cited experts as saying that because the vast western regions and ecologically vulnerable areas have difficulty sustaining their existing populations, 22 provinces and cities need to shed some 186 million residents, but provinces and cities that could accommodate extra people, such as Guangdong, Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai, Liaoning, Zhejiang, Fujian, Heilongjiang and Hainan, can take in at most 30 million people, leaving the remaining 150 million as potential eco-refugees.
In fact, even without reading the SEPA report, China’s ecological degradation has become a stark reality impossible to ignore.
The encroaching desert
In 2004, Asia’s largest desert reservoir, the Hongya Mountain Reservoir in Gansu Province, dried up completely. This means death for the Minqin Oasis, the natural barrier between the Badanjilin and Tengeli Deserts nicknamed “the boat in the desert sea,” which relied on the Hongya Mountain Reservoir for its survival. In the past twenty years or so, thousands of rich Minqin farmlands have turned to desert, and dozens of villages have been abandoned, producing tens of thousands of ecological refugees. The disappearance of the Minqin Oasis means that Northern China’s three great deserts — the Badanjilin, Tengeli and Kumutage — will merge into one and swallow up even more land.
The plight of desertification is also threatening a world cultural heritage site — Dunhuang in Gansu, as described in a recent New York Times article. A bright green lake in the middle of an oasis, Crescent Lake earns its name from its perfect curve surrounded by Gansu’s Dunhuang Mingsha (Singing Sands) Mountains. Spanning some 300 meters east to west and more than 50 meters north to south, with a depth of five meters, the lake has never flooded even after long periods of rain, and has not gone dry after long droughts. But Crescent Lake began shrinking in the 1970s and is now about one third of its original size.
Local residents attribute the shrinkage to the government’s earlier promotion of agriculture in the region. Now local officials have introduced a strict policy that bans new farmland, migrants and wells. There are also proposals to divert water from a river in Tibet, though implementation is far from certain. Although local residents have started to worry about the disappearance of Crescent Lake, they remain obsessed with short-term profit. In 2004, more than 430,000 tickets were sold for visits of the nearby Mogao Caves, and even more people visited Crescent Lake. The growing local population puts even more pressure on the environment.
These are but two examples of China’s rapid desertification, which is further illustrated by two statistics: China’s total acreage of desert land has reached 1.743 million square kilometers, exceeding the country’s total arable land. Desertification is now progressing at a rate of 3,436 square kilometers annually. Trees and grass that were planted fifty years ago in Xinjiang, Gansu and Inner Mongolia in an effort to control desertification have mostly withered due to lack of irrigation, which in turn has destroyed the subsoil and accelerated ecological degradation. Even the poplar tree, nicknamed the “invincible desert plant,” has been dying out in massive numbers. Nothing can withstand the onslaught of the sand.
Looking back, anyone can see that the much-touted “Great Northwestern Development” program promoted by the Chinese government in 2000 was a huge mistake. But when this author wrote “Environmental Concerns Regarding the West’s Great Development” it was dismissed by many as paranoia.
The Yangtze River system — a new Yellow River?
During the summer of 1986, this writer had occasion to take a boat tour of the Three Gorges Dam from Chongqing, accompanied by the Yangtze Navigation Board’s chief engineer, Mr. Rong. Leaning against the boat railing, gazing across the Yangtze’s unending waters, Mr. Rong spoke a great deal about the ecological situation of the Yangtze River system. Of all the things he said, what struck me most was this view: “The Yangtze will very likely become the second Yellow River.”
I have recalled his words many times in the past 20 years, every time there was an incident involving the Yangtze. When construction started on the Three Gorges Dam, I immediately felt that the Yangtze was truly following in the wake of the now moribund Yellow River. The suffering of Three Gorges residents who were forced to relocate was not even my primary concern, because the long flow of history never ceases, and human suffering is eventually washed away by time; only the rivers and mountains last forever. After the turmoil of the 1980s and 1990s, the Chinese people now have a major outlet for their material aspirations; but the damaged caused by the “drying of all rivers and polluting of all sources” will earn us the opprobrium of future generations for our irresponsible ways and our lack of conscience.
The Three Gorges Dam construction began amid a great outcry of opposition. Some say it was the brainchild of a Hydrology Engineering Department driven purely by profit, but I don’t believe that a single department, however profit-driven, could push through a project with such long-term negative repercussions. Since the beginning of the reform era it has been clear that every engineering project is actually a huge corruption-producing machine. As soon as the machine is running, everyone around it is able to share in the profits. So far only a small number of officials involved in the embezzlement of relocation and construction funds have been exposed, but I believe that every project related to the Three Gorges Dam will allow a handful of officials and their cohorts to “get rich first.”
Although China has strictly forbidden all negative media reports regarding the Three Gorges Dam project, an article exposing “ten unanticipated problems” of the project was posted on the Internet in 2004. The “ten unanticipated problems” were: 1) the development of large cracks in the Three Gorges Dam; 2) the inadequacy of the dam’s flood-protection reservoir; 3) to necessity of moving displaced residents a second time; 4) a shortfall in relocation funds; 5) the difficulties of the relocation; 6) the extent and permanence of pollution in the Three Gorges region; 7) the difficulty of clearing silt; 8) the large number of valuable cultural artifacts threatened; 9) the number and extent of geological disasters; 10) the length of time that navigation would be interrupted.
Among these “ten unanticipated problems,” three are directly related to the ecological integrity of the Yangtze River system. A Xinhua dispatch dated January 18, 2002 stated that since 1982 there have been more than 40 major geological disasters in the Three Gorges Dam region, including1,500 cave-ins and mudslides. Of these, 957 were located below the 135 meter mark set as the dam’s original water level in 2003. The pollution caused by dam construction and by the industries and inhabited areas along the banks of the Yangtze has reached an unprecedented level. Statistics indicate that in 2003, industrial and urban wastewater output exceeded 250 billion tons, of which 90 percent flowed untreated into the Yangtze. The Yangtze has gradually lost its self-cleaning, self-regulating function, exacerbating the extinction of rare animal species and the tainting of drinking water for riverbank residents. One expert claims that cancer cases have become rampant around the river basin.
Last year China staged a “10,000 Mile Walk for the Protection of the Yangtze.” After their examination, many experts concluded that the Yangtze River system has entered a severe crisis, and that if effective measures are not taken, the river’s ecology will reach the point of collapse.
The Chinese respectfully referred to both the Yellow River and the Yangtze as “Mother River.” However, the Yellow River has already been squeezed dry by generations, and future generations may well also be deprived of the benefits of the Yangtze.
Too little too late?
Pan Yue was not presenting a uniquely bleak vision of China’s environment. The State Environmental Protection Administration has been reporting on the situation of China’s ecological degradation since the mid-1990s, as China’s population has grown while its arable land and natural resources shrink. Approximately one-third of China’s surface area is subject to acid rain, and 41 percent of China’s seven major river systems have a water quality below level 5. The annual incidence of “red tide” algae growth along the coasts has tripled compared with twenty years ago. One fourth of China’s population has no access to safe drinking water, and more than one third of city dwellers breathe dangerously polluted air. Five of the world’s ten most polluted cities are in China.
Some problems can be solved once people are aware of them, but in some cases knowledge comes too late. Some problems can be solved in other countries, but not in China, and environmental problems are among them. The severe limitation resources impose on population and economic development is something I examined in the late 1980s in my book, Population: China’s Sword of Damocles.” I observed that from the Qianlong period of the Qing Dynasty, China has experienced constant social unrest as a result of conflicts between its population and its natural resources, and that one of the causes of the Taiping Rebellion was the pressures of overpopulation.
However, this view met with more criticism than favor. Some people pointed out that Japan’s population imposes even greater pressure on its resources, and if they have been able to develop, so should China. However, as I pointed out in my book, the economies of both Japan and Singapore were able to take off because of population shifts that provided an optimal age distribution for contributing to economic development in comparison with the number of people requiring economic support. In addition, both places focused on environmental principles early on. China’s economic development, in contrast, is still very much hampered by its population pressures.
The main problem is that with the generally low level of education in the Chinese population, very few people are aware of the importance of environmental protection. To this day, many policy makers still believe in the longstanding Chinese attitude of “development first, environmental protection later.” Many people who have returned to China after studying overseas are likewise enamored of pushing China into prosperity along this route, taking the process further by advocating, “pollute first, then clean up.” By the time Pan Yue pointed out that “there is no way for our economic performance to compensate for the combined ecological, social and political crisis,” China’s environmental situation was already untenable.
Local governments sacrifice the environment for economic development not only because they are ill-informed, but also because they are poorly monitored. Last year, SEPA recommended that the economic costs of pollution and ecological degradation be included in a “Green GDP” oversight system to encourage the government and enterprises to improve resource management. However, technical and conceptual problems involved in changing the rules of the officials “game” halted the project in its initial stages.
The Chinese Communist Party’s attitude toward the environment can only be compared to that of the Mongol rulers of the Yuan Dynasty, who converted good arable land south of the Yangtze into pastureland for cattle against strong resistance from land-deprived peasants. The “capacity for reform” (which is tantamount to the “capacity for destruction”) of today’s communist government, backed by modern technology, has overwhelmingly surpassed that of the Mongol rulers. For example, the Mongols could never have caused the amount of damage that will be inflicted on future generations by the Three Gorges Dam and the South-to-North irrigation project.
Ultimately, China’s ecological problem is indeed a political one and must be solved by political means. Systemic causes notwithstanding, the government must show the same enthusiasm for popularizing the principle of environmental protection as it does in inculcating Party culture and ideology. The fact that a responsibility that should be shared by the entire nation has been left to appeals by a handful of “damage controllers” such as Pan Yue illustrates not only the deplorable nature of the situation, but also the Chinese people’s tendency to hope for some kind of “messiah” to deliver them from their troubles.
Translated by Nancy Li
Author’s and editor’s notes:
See Pan Yu’s speech to the Fortune Forum, May 20, 2005, “Zhongguo huanjing wenti de genyuan she women niuqu de fazhanguan” [The root of China’s environmental problems is our distorted view of development], transcribed on the Web site of People’s Daily, http://env.people.com.cn/GB/1072/3401137.html.
 “Sanjiangyuan zhongxin: quanguo shoufudi lunwei ‘shengti nanmin’ qu” [Three rivers basin: prime arable land becomes a region of ‘eco-refugees’], Xinhua, November 18, 2004.
 “Wuran shiyu guihua, kouwen Zhejiang Dongyang Huashuihe shijian” [Pollution stemmed from plan: An inquiry into the Huishui River incident in Dongyang, Zhejiang], Diyi Caijing Ribao, May 10, 2005.
 “Zhongguo shengti de chengshi weiyan” [China ecological threat to prosperity] Southern Exposure (Nanfeng Chuang) February 2005.
 Jim Yardley, “A Crescent of Water is Slowly Sinking into the Desert,” The New York Times, May 27, 2005.
 “Zhimian shengti weiji” (Immediate Ecological Crisis), Southern Exposure (Nanfeng Chuang), January 2005.
 He Qinglian, “Xibao da kaifa de huanjing yousi,” written in September 2000 and posted on the Web site of China Affairs on August 30, 2001, http://www.chinaaffairs.org/gb/detail.asp?id=4861.
 In 1985, in the early stages of China’s openness and reform period, Deng Xiaoping stated that some regions and some individuals would be allowed to “get rich first” in order to improve the prosperity of all of China. See “Hu pledges to inherit Deng’s political legacy,” August 23, 2004, http://www.china-embassy.org/eng/gyzg/t152038.htm , and “Deng Xiaoping: Yang yi bufen ren xian fuqilai,” http://news.xinhuanet.com/newscenter/2005-01/16/content_2467918.htm.
 Anonymous, “Shi nian shige mei xiangdao: sanxia gongqing xianru kunjing,” May 30, 2004, posted on a number of Web sites, including http://www.peacehall.com/news/gb/china/2004/05/200405301529.shtml.
 Nanfeng Chuang, February 2005, ibid.
 He Qinglian, Renkou: Zhongguo de xuanjian, 1988, Sichuan Renmin Chubanshe.