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The Greatest Leap: Overcoming China’s Looming Environmental Crises [ 2006.01.25 ]

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- The Greatest Leap...
PART ONE

Let’s start with the facts, shall we? China is big. Geographically it’s the third largest nation on earth, but more importantly it is the most populous. In the first eight days of 2004, over one third of a million births had already taken place, adding to the 1.3 billion or so extant inhabitants. The preceding figure, to the social researcher, presents a source of indefinite theoretical observation regarding Chinese society, but none more important, one could argue, than that relating to the state of the environment. After all, the environment is formative to society, and thus its continued maintenance is imperative to the future existence of the human race. The empirical nature of the ‘environment’ is too massive to be incorporated holistically here; however it is precisely this type of arduous challenge which must be undertaken by China’s current and future leaders if a desire for having a stable, functioning, and prosperous society is to be met. The ‘thorn’ in China’s ‘environmental side’ comes about from its position as a developing nation. The inherent human desires to increase power and accumulate wealth mean that industrial and urban development occur at the cost of environmental and social welfare. Nations ‘on the up’ such as China are therefore expediting the associated environmental damages involved in the processes of economic development through their rapid undertaking of social progress. The case of China though is particularly precarious given the magnitude of its population, exemplified by the fact that around a quarter of the earth’s population controls as little as seven percent of the world’s arable land. Clearly environmental management of the utmost efficiency is necessary to maximize, as much as humanly possible, the sustainability of China’s natural resource base. The three-pronged question is has this, is this, and will this be done? In answering this question it is necessary to provide an account, albeit brief, of the recent history and the current status of China’s environment. This background allows for the assessment of domestic Chinese environmental policy with the emphasis being on the future direction of such governance.

1949 is arguably the most notable year in China’s political history, and the regime change of national governance into Marxist socialism altered the lives of 540 million people and bore an influence over some nine million square kilometres of natural environment. Since the evolution of the so-called ‘modern nation state’ the relationship between humans and their natural surroundings has largely been guided by public policies, particularly with respect to agricultural production and natural resource use and extraction. Therefore the recent and current quality of the environment in all countries has been and still is largely determined by governments and their institutions. Unfortunately for the Chinese environment in the 1950s contemporary domestic policy did not give preference to matters regarding the state of the natural world. The signs were ominous when Mao Zedong wrote in an article just prior to the instalment of communism, “It is a very good thing that China has a big population. Even if China’s population multiplies many times, she is fully capable of finding a solution; the solution is production”. From the onset of his reign it was apparent China’s inaugural communist leader believed that the best, or perhaps even the only way, to lead China into the future was to establish an almighty nation of industry. Given the phenomenon of global industrialisation few could argue with his rhetoric that indeed it was imperative to initiate industrial development. The preceding 100 years in China had been a testament to the fact that the highly industrialised nations of the ‘western’ world did indeed wield significant authority in matters of global trade, commerce, and military supremacy.

If China wanted to banish forever the threat of being itself a colony then its future focus on industry was necessarily narrow. Unfortunately Mao’s vision of national strength appears to have neglected the environmental costs associated with industrial processes, as during his tenure the environment of the country he led was completely devastated. The extent to which Mao disrespected China’s natural landscape was so great that some have even come to describe his ethos as warlike in regards to environmental interaction. There seems to have been one underlying motivation spurring Mao on, coupled with a determined stance of ignorance. Firstly, Mao purposed that all ecological resources such as trees, wildlife, and water were either industry’s inputs or alternatively its hindrances. As such they were to be treated accordingly, that is either extracted or altered beyond the laws of natural regeneration, or removed or controlled without consideration for nature’s linkages and stasis. Accompanying this sentiment was a complete rejection of modern scientific theory from the western world coupled with the denial of all predating Chinese customs and traditions. The absolute Marxist theory was all Mao needed to explain and then popularly confer the government’s stance on environmental control relative to industrial output. In other words, by choosing to dismiss all knowledge from the world outside of China balanced, reasonable, and unbiased decision making with respect to natural resource efficiency, and corrective and preventative measures for maintaining environmental integrity couldn’t possibly be administered. The results were catastrophic.

The ‘Great Leap Forward’, initiated by Mao in 1958, presented two main lines of environmental problem. The first came about from the over extension of the natural resource base, the second from the poor practices of agrarian production. In the first, a broad-scale multi-faceted alteration of China’s various ecosystems took place. To fuel heavy industry energy was needed, meaning that deforestation was inevitable, and in some areas of the Yangtze valley whole forests where denuded, chiefly for steel production. The removal of such forest cover within the catchment of the world’s third largest river led to repeated episodes of large scale flooding which can be experienced even to this day. Conversely the need for water in manufacturing processes meant that whole rivers where diverted, dammed, and even had there flow reversed leading to periodic drought in many regions of the country. Similarly entire mountains were literally flattened, dug up to give way for agricultural and pastoral land. Such drastic alteration in all cases leads to environmental anomalies of both a geo-hydrological and ecological nature and as such Mao had instigated the ruining of an already depreciating landscape. Secondarily, the agricultural industry upon which China so desperately depends has also played its hand in environmental degradation, but again chiefly because of national strategy. The problem with agriculture is that if it’s practised negligently it invariably leads to a great depreciation in the quality of land. Dependence on chemical inputs over knowledge and traditional practice only serves to disrupt the natural productivity of crops over time. When land gets degraded beyond immediate agricultural efficiency there is a tendency to abandon it in favour of other still profitable land. In the case of China such land has always been swallowed up by two contrasting gluttonous mechanisms. Whilst in the west the ever encroaching Gobi continued to increase its desertification of arable land, in the east of the country urbanisation through rapid population expansion and Mao’s drive for industrialisation played a similar role in dominating former cropland. This attack on both fronts has left China today with little to reflect on in positive terms from Mao’s agricultural leadership and environmental stewardship.

In the last 50 years China has witnessed a steady decline of environmental quality to the point now where some elements face a critical period of re-establishment just to ensure their existence. China is currently experiencing a desertification rate of 150 000 hectares annually, chiefly in the North-western regions of the country, and it is suggested up to a quarter of this is directly attributable to agricultural failings. Since only 10 percent of China’s land is considered fit for crop farming it is a terrible statistic that one third of such countryside has been lost to deserts since the sixties. Another component in critical need of attention is China’s forests. Despite the Chinese Communist Party’s recognition that re-forestation was a ‘good thing’, and that an alleged 28 million hectares were planted by the government in 1958, China had not until recently increased its forest cover to over 10 percent of the national area. In fact during the decade beginning 1980 almost 13 million hectares could be subtracted from the national forest area total. Perhaps China’s biggest concern certainly from a more humanitarian perspective is the natural resource of water. The current renewable freshwater stock is only large enough to sufficiently supply about 250 million people, and over 200 cities including Beijing are suffering from inadequate provision. Furthermore over half the population, 700 million people, lack access to water that is free from effluent or industrial pollutants and is ideally suitable for consumption. To this extent 36 billion tonnes of untreated industrial waste water is till being released each year into China’s water courses, entering the water table and generating untold widespread impacts. Most alarming of all may be China’s quality of air. Since the atmosphere is boundless and common to all people’s of the earth any one nation needs to appreciate the external problems it may be administering. Such is the case for China where air pollution in some cities averages greater than 10 times the prescribed limit from the World Health Organisation and Beijing itself is the third most polluted city in the world. If China were to concern itself with the bigger picture than it would be forced to acknowledge its enormous contribution to global climate change through both greenhouse and ozone-depleting gas emissions. As the world’s third largest producer and consumer of energy it subsequently also ranks third in output of carbon dioxide, releasing 2.4 billion tonnes in 1989 alone. On top of this is the regional problem of acid rain, whereby China’s mining of sulphurous coal results in a downturn of the quality of the water cycle and all the land which is a part thereof. It is these types of major issues that present the challenge to leaders at all levels for the improved governance of China’s environment. Next week I look at China’s attempts to govern its natural resources and environment from the past through to the future.

Bernard Laidlaw


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