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China’s Assault on the Environment

In 1956 Chairman Mao wrote the poem “Swimming,” about a dam to be built across the Yangtze River. This is its second stanza:

A magnificent project is formed. The Bridge, it flies! Spanning
North and South, and a Natural Barrier becomes a thoroughfare.
A rocky dam shall stand athwart the western river,
Cutting asunder the mists, and rains, of Wushan
Until the precipitous gorges yield a lake of tranquillity.
The Goddess, should she remain alive today, shall yet marvel
at changes in the world.1

The poem distills the Chairman’s heaven-storming attitude toward nature, the attitude that, as Judith Shapiro eloquently and persuasively shows in her new book, so heavily damaged the Chinese environment that it seems to me, although not quite to Ms. Shapiro, that much of the air, water, forests, and grasslands may not recover. Mao’s fatal defiance of the natural world is summed up in his slogan Ren ding shengtian (“Man Must Conquer Nature”), which in the Fifties and Sixties found further expression in countless Soviet-style posters of muscular young men and women striking heroic attitudes as they smashed their way through mountains and across rivers, overcoming everything in their path. Mao’s slogan contradicted the traditional notion of Tianren heyi (“Harmony Between Nature and Mankind”), depicted in Sung, Yuan, and Ming dynasty paintings in which lakes, rivers, and mountains dwarf tiny figures calmly enjoying their natural surroundings.

Shapiro makes three big points. First, although Mao unquestionably bears a heavy responsibility for the destructive assault on the Chinese environment in the second half of the twentieth century, he had plenty of help, not just from his comrades in the leadership but from ordinary people and intellectuals who either hoped that conquering nature would make their lives better or were afraid of what happened to those who disagreed with the Chairman. Secondly, for centuries Chinese farmers felled forests, stripped and terraced hillsides, and dammed, channeled, and polluted their streams and rivers. Finally, while the notion of overcoming nature is less urgently ideological in post-Mao China, environmental degradation has continued apace during the reformist drive to get rich by almost any means. Although there has been considerable economic growth during these years, many of the gains are open to question and require detailed scrutiny.

Judith Shapiro, who teaches environmental politics at American University and lectures on the subject to Chinese audiences, made her reputation as coauthor of Son of the Revolution with her then husband, Liang Heng.2 The book told the story of Liang’s childhood and youth and the destruction of his family during the Cultural Revolution. In After the Nightmare and Cold Winds, Warm Winds, Sha-piro and Liang described the plight of Chinese intellectuals in the post-Mao years. Now, in Mao’s War Against Nature, Shapiro has chosen Communist China’s assault on the environment as her new theme. One of her examples of Maoist and post-Maoist hubris is the Three Gorges Dam across the Yangtze River, which Chinese and foreign critics have called a last-gasp monument to the Communist Party that must be understood as another of the “Maoist megaprojects” both aimed at the mastery of nature and suppression of human freedoms. Only four years ago, in 1997, at the completion of an early stage of the dam, President Jiang Zemin noted that such projects “express how, from ancient times, the Chinese people have had a strong struggle spirit of reforming nature, of ‘Man Must Conquer Nature.’”

As I write this review we have had further news of what has been happening at the Three Gorges Dam, one of China’s mightiest man-made efforts, and already one of its most disastrous.3 According to Human Rights Watch, four farmers are in serious trouble:

He Kechang, Rang Chongxin, Jiang Qingshan, and Wen Dingchun are among thousands of residents of Gaoyang township, Yunyang county, Chongqing municipality due to be resettled, as the county is in the middle of what will become the dam’s reservoir area. Three of the men were arrested in mid-March after they had traveled to Beijing with petitions detailing systematic embezzlement of funds set aside for resettlement…. They are expected to be tried at the end of April on charges of disturbing public order, leaking state secrets, and “maintaining illicit relations with a foreign country.” The last charge is apparently a reference to their contacts with the international press in Hong Kong.4

In 1981 the Party formally condemned Mao for disasters and catastrophes from 1957 until his death in 1976, although the damage he did to the environment is never mentioned. And although his huge portrait still looms over the main gate into the Forbidden City and taxi drivers hang little Mao charms on their rearview mir-rors, it is rare for the Chairman to be invoked in support of contemporary policies. Indeed, the twenty-fifth anniversary of Mao’s death has just passed unmarked in China. Ms. Shapiro insists, however, that the environmental politics of the Mao years remain a legacy “only partially acknowledged by China’s current leadership, which has contributed to the current grave environmental situation in China.” The bad situation includes some of the most polluted air anywhere in cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou; poisoned and inadequate water supplies; environmentally related health problems so vast that if treated “they would negate much of the region’s economic growth”; erosion, salinization, desertification, deforestation, overgrazing, and the resulting floods. Vaclav Smil, an environmental expert at the University of Manitoba, argues along the same lines in Feeding the World that “environmental pollution and ecosystem degradation” incur costs that are “equivalent to at least 10 percent of the country’s annual GDP, and that roughly one-fifth of that cost is attributable to losses of agricultural production.”5

The relationship between humans and nature under Mao is so transparent and extreme,” Shapiro emphasizes, “that it clearly indicates a link between abuse of people and abuse of the natural environment.” In the Mao years, she makes plain, the degradation of nature came about through the efforts of millions of Chinese, in which traditional values of obedience to superiors and a long history of extracting as much as possible from the natural world played their part. She points out, however, that over the centuries some Chinese peasants and farmers had practiced forms of tilling, water use, grazing, and forestry that were not damaging to the environment, and that they abandoned these reluctantly, despite Mao’s charisma and the power of the state.

Shapiro illustrates her major points with striking examples, many of them known to China specialists but given here in a detailed account that anyone interested in China or the global environment will find shocking. To illustrate Mao’s greatest catastrophe—his encouraging unchecked population growth—and a disastrous runner-up—the construction of big dams—Shapiro describes the careers of two of the Chairman’s major victims. On July 1, 1957, Ma Yinchu, a graduate of Yale and Columbia and president of Beijing University, issued a report on population which was published in the Party’s People’s Daily four days later. The essence of Ma’s report was that China’s development was being handicapped by the size of its population. He advocated contraception, late marriage, sex education, and rewards for small families (all of which have been adopted as policies since 1980), but not abortion.

Within a few months Ma became the target of an extensive press campaign of abuse. Tens of thousands of wall posters denounced him. He was shunned in the humble village where he had been born, and by 1960 had been sacked as president of his university. He was rehabilitated only in 1979, when he was ninety-eight, and died three years later. Ma had challenged two of Mao’s most heartfelt beliefs: that Western science had little to teach China and that there could never be enough people. “We are not afraid of a population of 800 million or one billion,” Mao said in 1958, during the Great Leap Forward, which led straight to the famine of 1959–1961. “…When all the people are college educated, they will naturally practice birth control.”

Such remarks came at a time of persecution of hundreds of thousands of intellectuals, including scientists.6 It became plain that to disagree with the line of the moment was to court arrest, internal exile, torture, and death. Eventually, in 1964, when the population was already almost 700 million, Mao looked again at the statistics and admitted, “This is serious.” The Party secretary—of the party that had persecuted Ma—at the Ma Yinchu Lower Middle School told Shapiro, “If Mao hadn’t suppressed Ma, we wouldn’t be having such problems with family planning.” A further irony, according to Shapiro, is that Ma believed the Communist Party was China’s best hope, and he sought to use his courage and scholarly rigor in its service. Mao and the Party chose instead to persecute him. This loyalty to that Party, and for so long, remains, for me at least, one of China’s most distressing and mysterious tendencies.

A second example, in which Shapiro describes how “the belief in the triumphal human domination of nature… mirrored the totalitarian impulse in the human political world,” is the persecution of Huang Wanli, China’s greatest hydro-engineer. According to legend, China’s prehistoric rulers, by dredging and constructing dikes, redirected rivers and controlled floods. Tourists today are escorted to vast ancient irrigation projects. Mao was especially interested in controlling the Yellow River, which runs 5,500 kilometers from the Tibetan plateau to the sea, accumulating so much silt along the way (hence its name) that for much of its course the river flows high above the plain, in some places by more than twenty-five feet. The river often spilled over its dikes, which were then built higher and higher; when they burst, the floods were worse than ever. The debate among those who wished to control this mighty stream, the world’s third-longest, was whether to build one enormous dam or smaller ones along its tributaries. In the early Fifties, Soviet advisers, relying on Moscow’s reputation in China as “elder brother” and on their experience in massive hydroelectric projects in Siberia, recommended a huge dam, to be known as the Sanmenxia. The problem of silt, which would have jammed the generators, was to be solved by draining it off through sluices. Work began in 1957. By 1960 the dam had risen to 340 meters and the sluice gates had been cemented shut, perhaps to increase the dam’s Mao-pleasing grandeur. It was finished in 1962 and, even after the sluice gates were eventually reopened, has caused nothing but trouble.

Huang Wanli, born in 1911, and educated at Cornell, Iowa, and Illinois, had worked on the Norris Dam with the Tennessee Valley Authority. A professor at Qinghua, China’s MIT, he surveyed 3,000 kilometers of Chinese rivers on foot, gaining close experience of the relationship between dams, sediment, and flow. Worried about the design of the Sanmenxia project, Huang noted that seeking to contain sediment with one vast dam was a dangerous attempt to “fiddle around with nature.” In the fateful year 1957 he criticized the design of the Sanmenxia dam at a meeting of more than seventy experts who urged him to yield to Soviet advice.7 Huang banged on the table as he insisted on his position. He soon outlined his scientific views in a short story about a road with a faulty foundation, in which he criticized toadies “who mouthed socialist pieties….”

  1. 1

    Swimming,” Mao Zedong, 1956, in The Writings of Mao Zedong, edited by John K. Leung and Michael Y.M. Kau (M.E. Sharpe, 1986) Vol. 2, pp. 83–84.

  2. 2

    Knopf, 1983.

  3. 3

    For a vigorous discussion of this project see Dai Qing, The River Dragon Has Come! The Three Gorges Dam and the Fate of China’s Yangtze River and Its People (M.E. Sharpe, 1998).

  4. 4

    China: Imminent Trial of Three Gorges Dam Protestors,” Human Rights Watch, April 20, 2001.

  5. 5

    Smil makes the further point that official sources “substantially underestimate” China’s arable land and that with proper policies yields, which are not substantial by world standards, could be increased.

  6. 6

    For an account of the Great Leap and ensuing famine, in which upward of 30 million people died, see Roderick MacFarquhar, The Origins of the Cultural Revolution, Volume 3: The Coming of the Cataclysm, 1961–1966 (Columbia University Press, 1997); for a comprehensive description of the famine, see Jasper Becker, Hungry Ghosts: China’s Secret Famine (London: John Murray, 1996).

  7. 7

    The Soviet Union’s assault on its own environment is vividly described by Murray Feshbach and Alfred Friendly Jr. in Ecocide in the USSR: Health and Nature Under Siege (Basic Books, 1992). In 1990, crowds in Red Square, weary of the government’s boasts that their country would overtake American living standards, carried cynical signs proclaiming “Let Us Catch Up With and Surpass Africa”( p. 267).

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