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The Chinese Miracle?

China’s Environmental Crisis: An Inquiry into the Limits of National Development

by Vaclav Smil
M.E. Sharpe/East Gate Books, 257 pp., $16.95 (paper)

Over the last few months the news and reportage about China have become almost incomprehensibly divided between two points of view. According to one set of reports, China is now confirmed as an economic “colossus,” shaking off all the trammels of the past, yearning to host the Olympics in the year 2000, a haven for speculative growth investments in real estate and transport “infrastructures,” bursting at the seams with raw industrial and technical energy, and with a huge dedicated work force ready, at low wages, to multiply their own and foreign investors’ profits at exponential rates.1

But this same country, according to other reports, is now producing an entire new generation of illegal emigrants, men so desperate to leave their homes in rural China that they are prepared to pay up to $30,000 in agonizingly accumulated cash to Chinese smuggling gangs, in return for a dangerous and protracted boat trip to the United States, with the constant threat of blackmail, physical abuse, and even murder from their fellow countrymen. Elsewhere in China, furious farmers are sacking government offices and destroying property to protest a corrupt government’s endlessly accumulating taxes and supplementary “fees.”2

Vaclav Smil, building on more than a decade of research and thinking about China’s environmental problems, has now produced an ambitious study that helps us to understand both these extreme perspectives, as well as the many gray areas in between. Indeed, he emphasizes his own determination to be eclectic by starting his study with a score of brief vignettes, urban and rural, north and south, winter and summer, that remind us of China’s range and diversity, and of the difficulty of generalizing with accuracy. His overall conclusion is deeply depressing: China’s apparent current prosperity, built on a foundation of decades of ideological simple-mindedness and ecologically disastrous agricultural and industrial practices, is inherently fragile, and faced with a host of interlocking challenges that are apparently insuperable. “There are no solutions,” as Smil puts it, “within China’s economic, technical, and manpower reach that could halt and reverse these degradative trends—not only during the 1990s but also during the first decade of the new century.” But the nature and speed of the decline itself can be at least modified by a number of actions—if China can find the leadership and the will—that would pool “rational economic strategies, price reforms, technical innovations, managerial innovations, and law enforcement.”

Vaclav Smil, a professor at the University of Manitoba, writes that he is a realist, treading his own careful way between the two schools of thought that dominate much current environmental scholarship—he calls the two schools the “catastrophists” and the “cornucopians”—because though he eschews all optimism about the constructive role of huge populations and the creative possibilities of modern science to come up with new solutions (the “cornucopian” vision) he does not therefore believe all is hopeless as the “catastrophists” do. But his list of the problems facing China is so formidable that those ebulliently caught up in the excitement of China’s current development boom should reflect carefully on his arguments.

Smil divides his analysis into five main subjects—population size, land and water availability, quality of life under “modernization,” energy sources, and food production. On population, he finds that China’s state estimates have been often based on “incomplete reporting and unrepresentative sampling.” The most likely estimates for China’s population, based on present knowledge, seem to be for 1.25 billion by the year 2000, and for around 1.45 billion by 2025. This year of 1993 will see a peak of 125 million Chinese women being in the best childbearing years (aged twenty-one to thirty), but if current levels of birth control are maintained, that figure could drop to 110 million by the year 2000. Even so, China’s population will probably increase by a number equal to that of Japan’s population in the next decade, and by the equivalent of that of the United States in the next twenty years or so.

The human and social consequences of these figures are hard to guess at (one might note that one would-be emigrant from Fujian to the United States, now aged twenty-seven, who was interviewed this June, mentioned casually that he was one of nine children, reminding us how recent has been the enforcement of the one- or two-child limitations, especially in poor rural areas).3 When one adds to this the fact that only 0.1 percent of Chinese women surveyed expressed a wish to be childless, that a quarter of women wanted at least three children, and six out of seven of all women were pregnant within one year of their marriage, Smil concludes that despite his “opposition to abortion” and his “rejection of coercive excesses,” he finds it “impossible to dismiss the case for vigorous birth control.”4

This regretful judgment is reinforced by the long-range resource calculations to which Smil dedicates the following chapters of his book. One of these is China’s desperate shortage of water, and the currently wasteful policies that are followed in industry and agriculture, and the reckless contamination or exhaustion of existing water supplies. Smil reflects on a large number of variables here: changing styles of life in cities, the effect of the unchecked spread of tube wells, the possibilities of south-to-north water diversion plans, the rapidly expanding use (following Japanese models) of plastic sheeting in crop raising, the uncertain effects of the immense Three Gorges Dam project on the Yangtze River, which will displace millions of people, the shrinkage of arable regions and the intensive tilling of former lake beds, the conversion of former grasslands into deserts, the erosion of upland soil, and the silting up of reservoirs (at ten times the speed projected by government engineers in some cases).

As for quality of life, Smil reflects on an equally wide range of matters affecting it, including diet, life expectancy, housing densities, car and railway use (and forecasts), telephones, and the prevalence of rats. The uncertain social consequences of changes in Chinese life are exacerbated by changing mobility patterns. There is currently a so-called “floating population” of unwanted and unregistered Chinese migrants and fugitives estimated at well over a million in Beijing, and probably more in Shanghai. Furthermore, with the steady increase of China’s farm machinery from around 10 billion watts in the mid-Sixties to almost 300 billion watts in 1990, Smil estimates that some quarter of a billion rural Chinese have, in practical terms, been “freed” for other forms of labor. Those farmers remaining productively on the land, and benefiting from Deng Xiaoping’s privatized contract farming, need, according to Smil, 150 fewer “persondays” per hectare (2.47 acres) than were used in the Maoist communal agriculture to produce the same output. If one estimates China’s sown cropland at around 150 million hectares, such a change “would amount to the one-time displacement of some seventy-five million laborers.”

With less dramatic figures, but with equal clarity, Smil also discusses the complex problem of how we should analyze China’s GNP and the comparative purchasing power of the Chinese today. By arguing for a comprehensive use of the system that would gauge Chinese resources by means of “Purchasing Power Parity” with the Western nations, rather than on the previous highly misleading US dollar equivalents, Smil anticipated the shift made two months ago by the International Monetary Fund. The sudden change in the calculation strategy made by that august body seemed at one leap to pitch China from around tenth to possibly the third position in the list of world economies. But Smil is much shrewder in this book than many recent commentators have been in pointing out the parallel absurdities of the IMF’s using Purchasing Power Parity in such a way as to grossly inflate the consumption patterns and productive power of China today.

On the related topics of energy and fertilizer use and production, Smil is at his most detailed and his most depressing. Though he feels many of China’s astonishing inefficiencies and inappropriate policies in using energy and fertilizer could be intelligently addressed by the government, he finds very few such initiatives are being taken. The unchecked use of soft coal in power stations and for cooking has led not only to terrible air and water pollution, but also to a continued dearth of electricity owing to the inefficiencies of the antiquated plants (per capita daily electricity consumption in China is the equivalent of one 60-watt bulb for thirty minutes, estimates Smil). The abandonment of traditional farming practices, with their tried-and-true methods of conservation (use of nitrogen-producing legumes like beans and peas, night-soil, effective rotation), has not been adequately matched by the vastly increased and wastefully used growth of the chemical and fertilizer industry. Among Smil’s practical suggestions for coping with these problems, he gives high priority to making Chinese farmers and consumers pay realistic (instead of vastly subsidized) prices for both water and coal—but that step, so likely to increase already large rural and industrial problems, and to lead to new inflation levels—is unlikely to be risked by the government. In the meantime, the amount of arable land shrinks constantly in the face of new highway, airfield, industrial plant, and housing construction, and the strain on China’s lessening resources grows ever greater.

On a trip to China this June, it was easy for me to see examples of what Smil is talking about. For instance, driving one day down the new fourlane toll road that links Nanjing to the Grand Canal city of Yangzhou, the fields were full of ripened winter wheat in waving abundance. Hundreds of workers were out, hand-sickling and hand-stacking the grain. In the cleared fields, gleaners—old men, women, children—moved slowly through the stubble, picking up individual heads of grain and stuffing them into sacks. In the gleaned fields, ducks, chickens, and water buffalo scratched and rooted for final traces of grain. In the worked-over fields the heavy soil was being turned by plows, flooded, and the new rice shoots planted by hand, forming rows of shimmering green among the gold. Our car acted, along with all the other cars, trucks, and buses on the highway, as a perpetually moving threshing machine, as the tires cruised through mounds of freshly harvested grain that the farmers swept across the turnpike’s level concrete surface in widening circles with their twig brooms.

But this scene, which I had also witnessed in earlier years on quieter, less traveled country roads in China, had an air of imminent catastrophe on such a major highway. Much of the traffic refused to slow down at all, and brushed right past the farmers’ legs with horns blaring, and insults traded back and forth. In several places, police were out on the toll road, attempting to mediate between these opposing perceptions of the road’s purpose. And at the same time, everywhere one looked on the two-hour journey, the lush fields of this prosperous region were being intersected or uprooted by new overpasses and their approach roads, by gleaming whitetiled gas stations, often spaced less than a mile apart, and by the enclosing walls and construction rubble of sleek new factories.

The slogans painted, as in Maoist days, on all and any walls that ran near the roadside, were usually commercial advertisements for the local industries, for nearby restaurants and village stores, or were hygienically admonitory: “Absolutely no peeing here.” But sometimes they had a political tone that seemed to point to lingering echoes of Tiananmen Square or to the Party’s mounting reputation for corruption: “The People’s taxes go to the People,” and “The Army loves the People, and the People love the Army.”

Clearly, as Smil points out, despite the occasional rhetoric of a few oldguard faithful and their younger sidekicks, the Maoist patterns of ideological control have pretty much vanished. This was brought home to me by a different kind of scene this same June. Walking through the city of Nanjing late on a hot night, I found myself unexpectedly in the middle of an informal book market. Under the pale glimmer of the infrequent street lights, scores of dealers had laid out their wares in rows around a huge traffic intersection. The books and magazines were on the ground, in jumbled piles on top of plastic sheeting or strips of cardboard, forming two huge concentric circles on the sidewalk, following the contours of the traffic circle. A potential buyer could walk slowly between the rows, peering at titles, stooping to pick up a potentially interesting item whenever he chose. There were much-thumbed science and language textbooks, dog-eared Chinese classics, translations of Western novels, film and “love” magazines, colored calendars with Renaissance or Impressionist paintings, kung-fu and adventure paperbacks, folios of Chinese calligraphy, and small editions of recent Chinese poetry.

At the sight of a strolling Westerner, virtually all the vendors rummaged through their wares and at once called out “Mao, Mao!” as they waved the “Little Red Book” of Mao Zedong’s thought, individual volumes of his collected works, state propaganda, glossy magazines from the 1960s filled with his photograph, or else the round enameled or metallic “Mao badges” that had once been the mandatory decoration for everyone during the Cultural Revolution. Not once did I see these Maoist books or badges proffered to the Chinese. The inference was clear enough: “Only the Westerners still care about these things.” When I didn’t buy the Maoist materials, the vendors nodded resignedly, and replaced them on the ground—it had been worth a try.

Smil’s book is a formidable achievement, and draws on an exhaustive range of information. Where perhaps it fails is in giving us a sense of the multifarious personal lives that are creating this new combination of hope and despair, of growth and backwardness. Of course this is hard to do in any study conceived on such a scale as this one, but as I reflect back on his book I am reminded of some of the people I and my closest friend talked to in China early this summer, and of the many ways they are making do in this uncertain new world. One, a gentle and brilliant young scholar in the social sciences with his Ph.D. dissertation just published, lives with his wife in an alley at the back of his research unit, in a single room so tiny—it is about eight feet by six—that they literally cannot keep their little son with them, but have had to send him off to live with relatives five hundred miles away. They do not have even the solace of being with their one allotted offspring as they pursue their chosen careers.

Another young man, a Ph.D. in computer science, has resigned from his governmental research unit and founded his own small company, which is moving aggressively and successfully to claim a market share in a particularly complex field of the computer software industry. Though he and many of his highly educated group of eight co-workers are married to highly trained professional women, only men are allowed in the company, so that they will not be “distracted.” To get the office space they need in the heart of a major city, at a rate they can afford, they have rented the top floor of an elementary school from the principal—who has rented out another floor to an innovative T-shirt company, and sells slots in his school playground at night to the new generation of affluent urbanites who can find no parking spaces. In their schoolrooms (a kitchen and toilet are included in the deal) the nine young industrialists eat all their meals on the premises (they have a cook, a young woman from the country eager for the work), and have cots available if they are working around the clock.

Some distance away, a harried but dedicated doctor struggles to keep his hospital for seriously disabled children financially in the black. Nobody wants these kids, whose disabilities span the range from clubfeet and harelips to incurable brain disorders. Help, too, is hard to find, for the work is grinding. But he is making do, in part, by putting the children in closer quarters than he would like, and renting out the freedup space to two other “enterprises”—an out-patient cancer clinic and a computerized dating service. Another young man, forced to fend for himself as a child during the long years of the Cultural Revolution, when both his parents were imprisoned for their past political heresies, is now a businessman with international real estate contacts, and owns two vacation houses in different parts of China—each with a swimming pool. Who is to say where these four young men, and the millions like them, will take their nation? They live under the shadow of Mr. Smil’s projections, but they seem ready for just about any challenge that the fates—or previously prodigal generations—have managed to dump on them.

  1. 1

    A nice example is Business Week’s “Special Report,” “China: The Making of an Economic Giant” (May 17, 1993) or the “Emerging Markets” report of Bear, Stearns and Co. (June 2, 1993).

  2. 2

    See the many news stories on the June wreck of the Golden Venture near New York and the San Francisco pier landings in late May. Also The Washington Post, June 13, 1993, “Beijing Confirms Peasant Riots.”

  3. 3

    The New York Times, June 20, 1993, “Where Chinese Yearn for ‘Beautiful’ US.”

  4. 4

    This conclusion is the exact opposite of that put forward by Chi-An, a former birth-control worker in the PRC, now a US resident, as “told to” Steven Mosher in A Mother’s Ordeal: One Woman’s Fight Against China’s One-Child Policy (Harcourt Brace, 1993).

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