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Friday, January 06, 2006

Scenes from China's Industrial Revolution

I received this by email (thank you). It's a long article, but worth taking the time to read. It's a description of China's industrial revolution with looks inside factories, at worker's lives, at the movement from the countryside to the city, and at the social, political, and environmental consequences of industrialization told through the eyes of a visitor:

Letter from China: The Great Leap: Scenes from China's industrial revolution, by Bill McKibben, Harper's Magazine (December 2005): On the flight from Newark to Beijing, I read the following small item in the China Daily:

According to media reports, several air conditioner installers have fallen to their deaths in the last couple of days in Beijing alone. As the sweltering summer heat sweeps the country, sales of air conditioning units are booming. This has naturally led to strong demand for installation services. The spurt in installation service demand has left many firms under staffed, so some are temporarily recruiting untrained installers to cash in ... [Some] even refuse to provide safety belts to installers in order to save costs.

The article - evoking as it did a hazy urban sky filled with plummeting air-conditioner installers - coincided perfectly with my mental image of China, so I tore it out and filed it away. I'd done the same thing a hundred times before, creating for myself a carefully imagined China full of smog-blackened cities where people wore gas masks against the clouds of coal smoke; savagely Dickensian factories where young women were paid slave wages; a heedless and rapidly expanding consumer class hell-bent on buying cars and appliances with no regard for the environmental costs of their consumption. I wanted to see it for myself, to indulge in the kind of disaster tourism that makes one gaze agape at the sheer can't-take-your-eyes-off spectacle of it all, like the visitors who flocked to Niagara to watch boats filled with zoo animals wash over the falls. And then come home with head-shaking cautionary tales about what this combination of heedless growth and ecological unconcern meant for the future of the world. That was the plan, anyhow.

The "watch out for China" narrative offers something to every American. Liberals can be repulsed by China's destruction of the environment and conservatives can portend the rising hegemon of the East. Americans from across the political spectrum can frown upon China's dismal disregard for personal freedom - jails filled with Falun Gong devotees, always Tiananmen hovering in the background. The problem with actually reporting about a place, however, is that you start collecting stories, and they never quite fit. It's not that any of these angles are wrong - there are countless well documented stories of nightmarish factory conditions, human-rights violations, local corruption, and environmental folly - but even taken together they don't come close to adding up to China. And they allow us to ignore what might be most crucial about the emerging nation: the ways it is starting to resemble our own.

On my third day in China, still slightly jet-lagged, I piled into a VW Jetta driven by a Beijing software designer named Wen Jie and headed for the "Rongcheng Industry Zone" about 100 miles southwest of Beijing - one of hundreds of such zones spread along China's coastline. We took an empty new highway out of the city. That highway joined another, and another, till finally we exited the toll-road system altogether and plunged into Third World rural chaos: overloaded trucks, flocks of sheep wandering across the street, a landscape scarred by tiny brickworks whose owners had mined out the top few feet of much of the surrounding landscape. And, covering every other bit of available land, the underlying green order of corn and rice fields, punctuated at irregular intervals by men and women, straw-hatted, backs bent, hoeing under the hot sun.

The Rongcheng Industry Zone turned out to be less grand than it sounded - a rural district with a higher density of factories and (another) brand-new highway, this one leading directly to Tianjin, the largest manmade port in China. We stopped at the Hebei Rongcheng LeJia shower-curtain factory to pick up its owner, Bao Jijun, who wanted to show us his and some of his friends' operations.

Now, given what I'm going to say, it matters how I came across Bao. I had avoided registering as a reporter with the Chinese government, and so I was spared a tour of some showpiece installation. On the other hand, the owner of any dark satanic mill or prison-slave-labor operation was surely bright enough to keep an American with a notepad away. In fact, I found Bao in as random a way as I could imagine: a friend in Vermont, where I live, introduced me to Wen (the software designer), who in turn introduced me to Bao, a kind of shirtsleeve cousin, who'd been making shower curtains since 2002.

Before showing me his factory, Bao wanted us to visit the Hua Xin Li Dress Co, Ltd, which was by Chinese standards a venerable firm. It had opened its doors in 1987, right around the time that Deng Xiaoping had begun to allow any such enterprise. From a home factory with five or six employees, it had grown into a medium-sized enterprise with several hundred workers. "'First Quality and Prestige Supreme' is our aim", says the company's brochure; on the day we visited they were churning out slightly garish yellow dress shirts for the Eastern European market. The factory was three stories tall, and on each floor young women, and a few young men, in white company T-shirts sat, four abreast, in front of new sewing machines imported from Japan. It was a hot day, but big fans moved plenty of air around. There was a busy hum, but not a din. The women worked fast, especially the button-sewers at the end of the room, but not frantically. A large red banner hung over the middle of each room reading, in Chinese, "The Customer Is God and the Market Decides Everything".

What "the market" had decided was that these women would earn about 10,000 yuan a year (fifty cents an hour).{1} Two thirds of them commuted from the surrounding villages. The rest came from the provinces and lived behind the factory, in a dormitory with a water pump and a clothesline out in the courtyard. I cannot tell you if this was a hard life or even an acceptable life, but later, as we drove away from the factory, we did pass field after field of those men and women with bent-over backs.

After our tour of the Hua Xin Li Dress Co, Ltd, we got back in the Jetta and headed down the road to the Gold Pioneer Cow shirt factory, where in similar (although smaller) rooms young women and some men were sewing track suits for Germans, black vests for hotel waiters, and - under the Tact Squad label - dark blue uniforms for American cops. Gold Pioneer Cow also makes men's suits for the Chinese market. "In China, the requirement is that if you get married you need to have a wedding suit", the owner explained happily.

And then, at the end of a dusty road, we returned to the shower-curtain plant. Bao Jijun is in his early forties, tall, lean, and vigorous. He'd started his business three years before in a Beijing apartment with his wife and two other workers; within six months he was renting space at another factory; within a year he had leased this place. Now he had a hundred employees. We wandered through the workrooms, watching kids - almost everyone was between eighteen and twenty-two, as if the place were some kind of shower-curtain college - smooth long bolts of polyester onto huge tables, sew hems and grommets, fold the finished curtains into plastic bags, pack them into cartons. It's hard to imagine a much simpler product than a shower curtain.

Because of the summer heat, everyone worked from 7:30 to 11:30 and then again from 3:00 to 7:00. We'd been there for only a few minutes, in fact, when all labor ceased and everyone poured down the stairs into the cafeteria for lunch. Rice, green beans, eggplant stew, some kind of stuffed dumpling, and a big bowl of soup: 1.7 yuan, or about twenty cents. While people ate, we wandered into one of the dormitory rooms for girls (the boys were off a separate hall). Each room had four bunk beds, one of which was for storing suitcases and clothes. The others were for sleeping, six girls to a room. There were stuffed animals, posters of boy bands, stacks of comic books, little bottles of cosmetics. One desk to share, one ceiling fan. Next to the dormitory was a lounge with a giant TV and twenty or thirty battered chairs; the room next door had a Ping-Pong table. "Any of my workers who can beat me", Bao said, "gets a bottle of beer".

Virtually all of Bao's employees come from the province where he grew up, a couple hundred miles to the south. He let me interview as many as I wanted, with Wen acting as interpreter. He was especially pleased with my first pick, Du Peitang, a nervous twenty-year-old with a goofy grin and very bright eyes. His father had died and his mother had remarried and moved away, so he'd grown up with his grandparents. His first job had been as a guard at an oil company in Shandong province, but it paid only a few hundred yuan a month and there was no room or board. One of his relatives introduced him to Bao, who had the reputation of being nice to his workers, so he'd come to work, earning about 1,000 yuan a month. From that salary, he'd been able to save 12,000 yuan in a little less than two years - a pretty big stake. In another year or two, he said, he'd have enough to build a small house back home and get married. For fun, Du said, he played Ping-Pong and watched TV - a good plan, because, as Bao pointed out, buying a single Coke every night would come near to halving Du's savings.

The next worker I talked to was Liu Xia, eighteen years old, a lovely young woman nervous as hell about talking to a strange American who inexplicably and impertinently wanted to know about her life. "There are four people in my home. My parents, my elder brother, and me. My parents aren't healthy. They do farm work, but my father has a bad knee, so my mother carries most of the load. I really wanted to help her. And my brother could go to college, but it would cost a lot. He is in the Shandong University of Science and Technology, studying mechanical engineering." In fact, it turns out, he had graduated just a week before, thanks to her earnings here at the curtain factory. I asked her if she had a stuffed animal on her bed like everyone else. Her eyes filled ominously. She likes them very much, she said, but she has to save all her earnings for her future.

I could tell stories about this one factory for a long time. It was hot the night before we came, for instance, and so everyone had slept on the roof, and Bao had told them the old Chinese story about the spinning girl and the cowboy and the creation of the Milky Way. But I'll desist - for all I know, I'd stumbled into the one decent factory in all of China. After all, Chinese workers reportedly lose 40,000 arms, hands, and fingers to industrial accidents every year.

For his part, Bao says he thinks he's in the seventieth or eightieth percentile of factories, judging by working conditions. One reason his factory is decent is because he's a good guy. Another is that he sells some of his shower curtains to Ikea. The company sends an inspector, unannounced, several times a year to check on the living spaces and the number of toilets and so on, and slowly these inspectors have been checking off the improvements. "It adds to the cost, but I appreciate it. I regard the requirements as help to reach the level of a factory in a developed country", Bao says with a kind of Rotarian pride.



Depending on the model, Bao can make a shower curtain for about 21 yuan. He can sell one for about 24 yuan. When you buy a similar shower curtain in an American big-box store it retails for about $30, or about 240 yuan. But Bao doesn't do much business directly with American-owned retailers. When a pair of buyers from the States came to visit a few months earlier, they had told him they could sell millions of curtains. But he would somehow have to drive the price down to 18 yuan. Which would mean, say, getting rid of the Ping-Pong table, or adding a few hours to the workday, or doubling the price of the soup.{2}

Seeing the sheer volume of industrious labor in those few factories began my education. But it was only toward the end of my four-week visit, in the city of Yiwu, that I really began to understand not only the scale of China's manufacturing enterprise but the force of the momentum behind it.

I'd taken a packed and sweltering train from Shanghai to Yiwu, which despite being home to more than a million people didn't even appear in my 900-page tourist guide to China. Yiwu is home to the International Trade City, where you can see sights every bit as awesome as the terracotta warriors of Xian or even the Great Wall. The place is only two-fifths complete, but the two huge buildings already standing - they each look like the Empire State Building laid on its side and mated with a fleet of aircraft carriers - demonstrate the unavoidable truth that anything that can be made can be made cheaper in China.

Take, for instance, the "Suit cases and Bags, Including School Bags" section of the International Trade City. There are about eight hundred 10 x 12 stalls, each representing a different factory, each showing its wares to buyers in the hope they'll order lots of ten or twenty or thirty thousand. There are stalls with duffel bags, change purses, wallets of every kind. Fanny packs, metal lunchboxes, jewelry cases. It's a kind of headquarters of dubious English: "I dream of being the best basketballer in the town". "Durable Performance Based on the 58's 123-45 Vintage Spirit". "My grandfather has white hair like snow". I stared for a long time at a backpack that said "All Things Grow with Love" before I figured out that it looked weird because it was grammatically correct.

"Suitcases and Bags, Including School Bags", took up only half a floor. The story above was entirely devoted to "Hardware Tools and Fittings", which is another way of saying pretty much everything on earth: knife blocks, car jacks, chaise longues, surge protectors, lint rollers, jumper cables, carabiners, bike pumps, rubber bands, cheese graters. One stall had thousands of those Lance Armstrong "Livestrong" bracelets in a rainbow of colors. Lucky rabbit's feet, singing birthday cards, nail clippers, safety pins, ratchet sets, thigh exercisers, bathroom scales, toilet-bowl deodorizers, plaid wheelchairs, feather dusters, meat-pounding mallets. Dozens of models of magnetic patriotic ribbons for the backs of American cars ("Freedom Is Not Free"). Pruning shears, putty knives, carafes, egg cups, cake-decorating nozzles, depilatory machines, giant martini glasses, immersion heating coils, disposable cameras, hip flasks, sake sets, mortar and pestles, cereal dispensers (like you see on the buffet at the Motel 6), rolling pins, exit signs, sander belts, key rings, rubber gloves.

In the "Regular Toys" section of Building 1 there are hundreds of stalls offering variations on those weird squishy rubber balls: skull-shaped balls whose eyes pop out when you squeeze, "yucky maggot balls". Not to mention boogie boards, plastic hand grenades, squeaky mallets, bow-and-arrow sets, toy pianos, "small chef" ovens. After twenty minutes of walking you emerge into the "Electric Toys" section. ("Does thinking the son and daughter become the scientist? Then start growing from the electronic toy bricks! Train pilot! Look for the Bill Gates!") And then the "Inflatable Toys" section, and then, biggest of all, the "Fabric Plush Toys". The next floor is divided between artificial flowers and hair ornaments - you suddenly realize that there are three billion women on this planet, many of whom would probably be happy to have ribbons in their hair. And above that, miles of kitsch - the "Tourism Crafts" section, which could stock every gift shop on earth, with light-up Virgin Marys, "African" carvings, novelty bottle openers, refrigerator magnets by the millions. And on the top floor, the stalls that bring the world Christmas. Groves of artificial trees blinking with LEDs, squads of Santas playing electric guitars and riding exercycles and spinning hula hoops. Tinsel tinsel tinsel.

Once I'd been to Yiwu, sights I'd seen earlier made more sense. Chunming, for instance, was a tiny rural town in the hills of Sichuan. We'd spent the night before in Chengdu, the provincial capital, which is larger than New York City. Chunming was an hour's drive away, but it was the usual world apart. Most of the men worked up the hill at a makeshift coal mine, trying to avoid the cave-ins and explosions that claim a hundred miners a week around the country. The place was pretty bleak.

With my translator, a young environmental journalist named Zhao Ang, I wandered up to the first house we came to. The place was actually pretty big, a series of interlinked and crumbling courtyards. It had belonged to the local landlord until 1949, when it was expropriated in the wake of the Communist victory and given to seven or eight families to share. A few pigs slept in the room next to the kitchen. There was one girl we could talk to here, Zhao Lintao (no relation). She was twelve years old, and proudly spoke the English she'd learned in the overcrowded village school. When we asked her about her life, though, she was soon in tears: her mother had gone to the city to work in a factory and never returned, abandoning her and her sister to her father, who beat them regularly because they were not boys. The government was taking care of her school fees until ninth grade, but after that there would be no more money. Her sister had already given up and dropped out.

Multiply that story by half a billion and you will begin to understand why the biggest migration in the history of the planet is underway in China, why there are always more bodies to sit behind those sewing machines. Tens of millions of people leave desperately poor farms every year to work at the factories that feed Yiwu. By one estimate the country needs to add an urban infrastructure equivalent to Houston every month just to keep pace. More than a hundred cities in China have populations that top a million. And even so, the countryside still bulges.

What struck me about China, in fact, was not so much the teeming cities as that teeming countryside. China has a third of the planet's farmers and one fourteenth of its farmland. In places, the average farm plot is a sixth of an acre - smaller than many American houses. About 800 million people, roughly 65 percent of China's population, are crowded onto those tiny farms. And on average they are earning one third the income of city dwellers. It is easy to see why the United Nations predicts that by 2030, sixty percent of Chinese will live in the cities. With a massive effort, that number might be held down to fifty percent. But since about one percent of Americans currently work as farmers, down from 39 percent a century ago, we should be able to understand this tide.

Not that the path to the city is easy. The gulf between urban and rural Chinese is as profound as the racial gulfs that plague our own country. Here, for instance, is a small item that appeared one day in the section of the China Daily that runs down comical stories from around the country, tales like "Widowed Swan Finds Love During Treatment" or "Princely Sum Offered for Return of Umbrella" or "Man Dislocates Chin in Laughing Incident".



Migrant workers are fresh out of luck if nature calls and they're anywhere near one public toilet in Zhengzhou, Henan province ... The female guard of the toilet is on a campaign to keep migrant workers from using her lavatory. She's even been known to yank any one suspected of being a migrant labourer out of the restroom no matter what state of undress they're in. The toilet's management said the practice was to keep the facilities clean. But it means a long trek to relieve themselves for workers at a construction site near the toilet, as the only other spot they can squat in is wasteland 500 metres away.

A teacher I met in Beijing said he had been appalled at the discrimination he faced when he moved to the city from his village in Inner Mongolia ten years ago. He joined a guerrilla-theater troupe that performed at factory gates and construction sites. One of their most popular plays was the tale of a girl from the country who came to the city and crossed the road in front of a bus, forcing it to slam on its brakes. "Someone in the bus had a cake and it smashed and the man was angry", the teacher said. "The bus driver said the girl was at fault. So the people taking the bus dragged her into the bus and yelled and screamed at her. She got very scared and jumped out the bus window and died."

The teacher, who taught the children of other new arrivals, and who was scared to give his name, said he and his colleagues thought calling those new arrivals "peasants" was "impolite" - he proposed "the people who come to the city for a job" or "the workers" or "new citizens" - but many such new arrivals will never become citizens of Shanghai or Beijing or anywhere other than the villages from which they came. Internal migration being such a major factor in Chinese politics, moving officially requires new papers, and those papers are hard to come by. It was considered a sign of great progress, in fact, when China's premier, Wen Jiabao, went on TV to announce that contractors would no longer be allowed to get away with their usual fraud - turning workers away from construction sites without their last month's pay, a scam that costs workers billions of yuan annually.

If you wanted to slow down the tide of people, you'd need to do something to raise rural incomes. And there are people trying. Ren Xuping, for instance, who lives about an hour outside of Chengdu, in the village-turned-city of Dayi. He was a poor peasant in 1987 when Heifer International, the Arkansas-based rural-development charity, gave him forty-eight rabbits and some instruction on how to breed them. "At first I didn't really believe it was something free", he said. "It was like some pie dropping down from heaven". Within a few years, aided by the well-known reproductive success of bunnies, he was a millionaire. But Ren was a particular kind of millionaire, one who'd become obsessed with Heifer's credo of passing on the wealth. He'd soon delivered up the requisite 100 animals for other farmers to use, but that was barely the beginning: he has since built a training school that, according to Heifer, has trained some 300,000 would-be rabbit farmers.

I spent an afternoon with Ren deep in the Chinese countryside, visiting poor farmers with new consignments of Heifer rabbits. The man can talk for a very long time (over stewed rabbit, spicy sauteed rabbit, deep-fried rabbit) about the advantages of bunnies. (They eat mostly grass, for instance, which can be harvested from recovering eroded hillsides. And every part of them can be used: Ren was opening a factory to make clothing and stuffed animals from rabbit fur.) But he was even more passionate about what rabbit income might mean for poor farmers. "You can make 10,000 yuan a year after two or three years", he said. "This can resolve the problem of supporting the old people and educating the children". The trick, he said, in full power-of-positive-thinking mode, "is to make a family become positive instead of passive. They can say, 'Oh, I live in a remote area, I'm illiterate, I'm poor'. That's a passive attitude, and it can be changed through things like Heifer. You want to make them become a bigger farmer, then an enterpriser. The key is they have to have a dream for the future, develop a mission. In so many cases, they don't have a dream, they just live day to day."

But the truth is, programs like Heifer's will help only so much. The push of the crowded countryside and the pull of urban opportunity are simply too strong. One sweaty night, I drove with Wen out beyond Beijing's fifth ring road, past a huge new condo development with its own McDonald's, and into a totally different world - a once-rural village now surrounded by city, soon to be swallowed up itself, but for the moment serving as home to tens of thousands of migrant families. At the north end of town, down a dark alley, we came to the home of Cao Zhonglong, fifty-seven years old, who came from Jiangxi province in 1987. "Our village didn't have enough food", he said. "There was not any meat, not any alcohol".

Cao's cousin had started a construction team, and so Cao went to work peddling a tricycle full of materials around job sites. Before long he'd learned ceramic tiling, then plastering and painting. He went into business on his own. He, his wife, and their three daughters shared a tiny room, one third of which was occupied by a tinier store. They slept in one bed. Throughout the night, people would stop in to buy beer from the cooler. And yet Cao was not a poor man. He'd saved enough to build two homes back in his village, one two stories tall and the other three. His mother lived in one, and he rented the other.

In Beijing, Cao had only enough money to live in a slum. But if he lived in his house in the countryside he'd have no way to make money. In any case, he had other things to accomplish in the city. His second daughter had, the spring before, graduated from university. She was now working for a joint-venture pharmaceutical company, at a starting salary of 2,400 yuan a month. I asked him if when she was born it had occurred to him she might someday go to university. He just looked at me and laughed.

We drove to Cao's first daughter's hut, a few slums away. She lives there with her husband, Wang Zhihua, who is also from the countryside, and who makes his money enclosing Beijing apartment balconies with glass. "I go to the apartment buildings", he said, "and I note the units where the balconies aren't yet enclosed, and I send them letters". With the money he's saving he plans to move back to the capital city of Jiangxi and start some business safer than fooling around on unenclosed balconies. In the meantime, he's putting his brother through college. The brother, who happened to be visiting the day I was there, speaks excellent English, even though he'd met only one other foreigner in his life. He's getting his degree in electronic-information-systems engineering and plans to start an Internet company.

I'd been in Beijing just a few days when I was invited to the monthly meeting of the Environmental Journalists Salon. I went with an American environmentalist, Randy Kritkausky, whose small nonprofit organization, ECOLOGIA, had helped launch the salon five years before. More than eighty people jammed into a hot and sweaty conference room off the main newsroom of the China Youth Daily.

Which was impressive: in the still tightly controlled political environment, this group was not precisely dissident, but some of its members skated closer to the edge than most Chinese would want to go. One of the day's presenters, for instance, was a retired teacher, Yun Jianli, who'd traveled from Hubei province in the south to rouse among these writers interest in the problems of the Han River. She showed photos of her brigade of activists walking more than a hundred miles along the water - which was gruesomely polluted by effluvia flowing from a hundred small factories - and of campaigners waving a huge green flag with "Save Our River" written in Chinese. She had a lot of pictures of herself at huge meetings, shouting into a megaphone, and of a riverside village of 300 people, 110 of whom she said had cancer. "We complain to the provincial officials, but we get no response", she said. Watching her was almost exactly like watching Lois Gibbs talk about Love Canal two decades ago.

Yun was typical of the kind of environmental activists who have arisen in China in the last few years. Chinese activists tend to focus on pollution in particular rivers and particular cities, as opposed to the more global concerns that increasingly worry Western environmentalists. By some accounts, there may be 70,000 protests a year in China, many of them over particular factories spewing out toxins. While I was there, Howard French wrote a remarkable story in the New York Times about a crowd of 15,000 who rioted to close a pharmaceutical plant at Xinchang. They said the plant had poisoned waterways for miles downstream.

The Chinese authorities, who value stability above all else, are attempting to respond. The Party, for instance, under the influence of European environmentalists, has pledged its commitment to what it calls a "circular economy". In, say, Denmark this would mean organizing industrial parks such that a power company, a drug plant, a wallboard producer, and an oil refinery would be located near one another so that they could use one another's wastes as raw materials. In China it's so far meant a large number of conferences and pledges and confident announcements - pilot projects to turn sulphur slag into fertilizer, promises that, say, Guangdong province would, since round numbers are big in China, "introduce standard clean production systems to 100 industrial enterprises, turn 100 heavy polluting enterprises into more clean and efficient operations and promote 100 types of new clean production skills and techniques". Given that there are millions of plants across China, it's hard to tell what any of this means, though the World Bank is ready to start spending and the restaurant next to the best hotel in Guiyang has an impressive list of German beers for the Teutonic experts who are arriving to dispense advice.

As it happened, I later visited a village near Guiyang devoted to another oddly green enterprise: organic peaches, each one individually wrapped in brown paper to prevent insects from causing trouble. China actually has a pretty good market for organic food, in part because consumers have good reason to worry about food safety. In one supermarket, I watched women wait in line for organic pork and saw mountains of eggs with individual "no harm" stickers. Demand is high enough to have blunted some of the momentum toward factory farming.

But the peaches, while delicious, were only half the story. Every house in the village had a biogas digester, a pit where manure and green waste rotted and gave off methane that in turn heated the wok and warmed the shower. (I even saw rice cookers converted to use the biogas.) According to local officials, forty percent of the 400,000 farm families in the Guiyang metro area will have biogas pits of their own within the next five years. That would be a good thing. Meanwhile, the small cement operations that squat beneath the limestone hills are slowly being closed down and consolidated, the better to control their emissions. That will be a good thing, too. And the local head of the Circular Economy office is signing contracts, buying (German) pollution-control equipment, training factory managers.

Such progress, however, is on the surface. Forget pollution for a minute - the bigger problem is that almost every natural system in China shows the effects of thousands of years of hard use and, especially, of the last half century of ideologically inspired misuse.

To get a sense of the burden the Chinese face, I got in a Chinese-made SUV one day in Beijing with Zhao Ang and a telecom programmer, Zhang Junfeng, who volunteers with a local environmental group that is monitoring the capital's water supply. Our goal was to follow the Chao River, the main source of Beijing's chief reservoir, as far upriver as we could. It was a trip none of us had taken before, and revealing in - well, in a hundred ways.

Each village we passed - and the villages essentially ran together without end - had one building with a long blackboard nailed to a wall. The blackboards turned out to contain the town records - the corn-planting schedule, the electricity fees. And a list of each of the recent births: name, date, whether it was the first or the second child for the couple in question, and whether it was legal or not. (Under certain circumstances, rural families can have two kids).{3}

Although the lowlands were covered in corn (and when you walked the rows you discovered that they were carefully interplanted with potatoes, something that doesn't happen on a tractor-planted Iowa industrial farm), the hills were essentially bare - without trees, eroding, a mess. In 1958, the Great Helmsman declared the Great Leap Forward. The people were to stop raising crops and start making steel in their back yards. Making steel required heat, which required wood, which required deforestation, and since not making steel would have been a bad idea, the hills were soon bare. The chaos of the Cultural Revolution led to a lot of tree-cutting too, and even the recovery from Mao took its toll - in 1979, when the "household responsibility system" was inaugurated and authorities divided communal land into individual plots, some people were afraid their neighbors would cut down "their" trees and so they axed them first.

Grasslands disappeared like forests. With newly prosperous urban markets for meat, the number of livestock swelled. American environmentalist Lester Brown, a longtime student of China, says that there are 339 million goats and sheep in the country, compared with seven million in the United States. "I've been in areas where the farmers have to put human clothes on their mohair goats to keep them from grazing one another", he told me. "There's nothing to eat". Without roots to hold the soil, much of the countryside has simply turned to sand. Deserts advance by hundreds of miles annually, and the dust storms of April and May are now a recognized Beijing season, just like spring and fall. Think Dust Bowl circa 1934 - only in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and with no vacant California left for the refugees.

The government has responded with tree-planting campaigns. On my way up to the Chao River, I was confronted with a grand vista - hundreds of brown hills that seemed to have broken out in a kind of acne. As I got closer, I saw that each white spot was in fact a small semicircular niche, maybe three feet round and two feet high, built of carefully stacked whitewashed stones - they were planters for trees, designed to catch water and nurture individual seedlings. I could see hundreds of thousands of them, the work of almost unimaginable man-hours. Pile all the rocks in one place and you'd have the pyramids.

When it comes to trees and erosion, the government seems also to have replaced the classic Communist sloganeering with stuff that sounds like it was written by bureaucratic Greenpeacers. One huge billboard I saw said, "Carefully operate the policy of the central government on forest management". Carved in ten-foot-tall chalk letters on one mountainside: "Keep the sand here and the water clean to make our area wealthy and serve Beijing!" The point, I guess, is that they've noticed they have a problem.

Which is not to say that they're necessarily solving it. Just as the Great Leap Forward produced great heaps of utterly useless pig iron, Maoist-style tree-planting has its critics. I'd earlier watched a Powerpoint presentation by Jiang Gaoming of the Chinese Academy of Sciences demonstrating that in one project after another three out of four trees had perished. "It's a foolish policy", Jiang had said. "It emphasizes construction, not protection". On the other hand, Jiang's solution to the dust storms was to speed up the migration to the cities so there'd be fewer peasants out grazing their stock on fragile soil.

Certainly all the activity had yet to make much difference to the Chao River, which was dry in spots and a narrow, sudsy channel across a wide, empty bed in others. We drove through one small town where farmers had hung a banner across the road: "For our children, give us back our clean water. Stop the gold mine!" Soon after was the mine itself. Farmers had clearly rioted there the day before, barricading the entrance with paving stones and splashing paint across the walls.

Still, the farther up the winding river we ventured the greener things got. We were climbing now - five, six, seven thousand feet up. The road was petering out, into rutted dirt and then into tracks, and then - well, at some point Zhao and I got out to walk while Zhang looked for some way to get through. We reached a village so remote that I was rewarded with a shriek from a small girl unused to tall white guys wandering around. We talked with an old man smoking a handmade pipe. Seven years ago, he said, the sand was very bad in this valley. Then the government paid them 4,000 yuan to fence a lot of it off from the animals. The grass had come back within a year or two, he said - and indeed now it was a sea of grass, worked entirely by men on horseback.

It's questionable, though, whether such changes will make any real difference to the encroaching desertification. Although the country's south is saturated, always trying to fend off flood, China's north is simply parched. As the flow of the Chao and other rivers has been siphoned off by the cities growing alongside them, Beijing has been drawing more and more of its own water from an underground aquifer - half or more of the water it uses comes from underground, and as a result the water table is sinking by meters every year. "Some northern cities will simply be out of water in eight or ten years", Ma Jun, author of China's Water Crisis, the one great environmental book China has yet produced, told me over lunch in Beijing one day. The earth subsides into sinkholes in dozens of places every year now, and fissures yards wide suddenly appear like earthquake faults. National Geographic recently came for a look and decided the country was committing "ecological suicide". To deal with the crisis, China's leaders have dusted off a plan that Mao dreamed up in 1952: construct 800-mile-long canals to carry water from the south to the north. That's an almost unimaginable idea, roughly comparable to putting Lake Superior in an aqueduct in order to let Phoenix keep watering its lawns. But it's a sign of the depth of the challenge that environmentalists, like Ma cross their fingers and hope for the best. "People in the north have been using water in a crazy way for the last fifty years because they knew it would someday flow from the Yangtze", he said. "Now the time has come for the promise to be realized".

But the problem, he quickly added, is that the extra water will probably just be used to fuel a new round of rapid growth. One of the million reasons the Chao has run dry is that Beijing has thirteen ski slopes in the surrounding mountains, all of them relying on manmade snow. And they've just opened a fourteenth, this one entirely indoors.

When we'd reached the head-waters of the Chao, we crossed a few valleys and drove back to Beijing along the equally dry White River - another of the city's main tributaries. But this time we were more interested in power than in water. Along the way we passed one new high-tension line after another. These massive, still-shiny steel towers crossed the mountains in the same lovely undulating ripples as the Great Wall; indeed we hiked to one ruined section of the wall to get a better look at the power lines, which represent an engineering feat on the same heroic/insane scale. In 2004, China added fifty billion watts of generating capacity to its electric grid. In 2005, it will have added another 65 billion watts. You can do the math any number of ways - they're adding two New Englands to their electric system annually, or half of India, or a Brazil. No power grid on earth has ever grown anywhere near that fast. Almost all of the new power comes from coal, which China has in cheap abundance; Party officials have announced ambitious plans to build two nuclear reactors every year until 2020, but even if they manage to pull it off, only about four percent of their electricity will come from atomic reactors. Essentially, China is going to burn coal - it will have passed the two-billion-ton mark this year. And even with that utterly unprecedented growth in supply, the country is stretched to the breaking point - twenty-four of thirty-one provinces had power shortages in 2004. "In some provinces plants operate only three or four days a week", said Yang Fuqiang, the Beijing-based vice president of the Energy Foundation. "You get five or six or seven percent loss in local GDP". In late July the Beijing authorities announced that the 4,689 local factories "will arrange week-long summer vacations for their employees in the coming four weeks" to save power, and then offset the holidays by "adopting a temporary six-day week schedule in the coming fall".

The explanation for this surge is relatively simple, and it has everything to do with those farmers streaming into the city: Yang, hunched over his computer in a Beijing office where the thermostat is turned to 82 to save energy, says the best guess is that more than twenty million people come to the cities every year. There they make enough money to start consuming power - in the city people get, say, small refrigerators or even air conditioners. And they get jobs making shower curtains and spatulas and suitcases, which also take some energy. And building even simple concrete huts for them requires all sorts of resources - five percent of China's fuel may go to producing cement alone. China makes more steel than any nation on earth - not primitively, a la Mao, in the back yard, but it still takes energy.

Oh, and cars. Ten years ago there weren't any. "Driver" was an occupation - you took Party officials around in a big black sedan. Today, China is the world's number-three car market. Demand is surging - vehicle sales grew ten percent in the first half of 2005 - and automakers expect to sell 5.6 million vehicles by year's end. Visiting the big car markets in Beijing is like going to a ball game in the United States - you park blocks away at a gas station where attendants wave you in; sidewalk vendors sell Cokes to the gawkers. (And teams of young men with big wooden clubs roam the car lot, looking for criminals.) It's a fascinating place to drive, because almost everyone is a tyro. The traffic patterns are unlike anywhere else in the world - people weave in and out constantly, merging from side streets without stopping - but crashes are relatively uncommon because speeds are low. Five years ago, you suddenly realize, these people were riding bikes.

Again, it's not as if the Chinese haven't noticed there are big problems that come with this kind of growth. By some estimates, eight or ten percent of the country's GDP is wasted dealing with pollution and the health effects it causes. In an interview of rare candor, Pan Yue, the country's deputy environment minister, told Der Spiegel that the country's economic "miracle will end soon because the environment can no longer keep pace. Five of the ten most polluted cities worldwide are in China; acid rain is falling on one third of our territory; half of the water in China's seven largest rivers is completely useless." But without that level of growth, there'd be no way to absorb the endless influx from the countryside. How are you going to keep people down on their sixth of an acre once they've heard that city dwellers eat meat!

Only with a level of repression that the post-Mao Chinese probably wouldn't tolerate, a level of repression that would shake the country's power structure. (And if that power structure fell, the democracy that replaced it would have many virtues, but controlling migration wouldn't be one of them.) That's why the country is busy building cars - because automaking, road-building, tire-patching, bumper-fixing, and gas-pumping are ways to build an economy. What's good for Shanghai Automotive, or so the thinking goes, is good for China.

And so the country is trying to muddle through. On the one hand, it must keep growing fast enough to absorb all that restless labor - the newspapers are already full of reports about college graduates unable to find jobs, and then there are those people pushed out of work in the vast and useless state heavy industries. And on the other hand, it must keep resource and energy use enough in check that China doesn't simply crash and burn. The official goal is to quadruple the size of the economy by 2020 while only doubling energy use - a target that's probably unattainable due to the huge growth in electric generation in the last couple of years. But devoted teams of Western planners arrive regularly with new schemes. Yang Fuqiang, whose Energy Foundation is funded primarily by the Hewlett and Packard fortunes, has managed to assemble an advisory council that includes twelve of the country's most senior officials. A vice premier comes to council meetings, listening carefully as plans are outlined for new building codes that would make apartments fifty percent more efficient than in the past, or price reforms that would end energy subsidies for heavy industry, or appliance standards - by 2030, according to Yang, "better household appliances alone would mean thirty fewer coal-fired power plants".

And the government has adopted most of these schemes, at least on paper. It has pledged to provide ten percent of the power with renewable resources in the next fifteen years - windmills are being built left and right, which is more than we can say. And some of what the Chinese are doing we couldn't even begin to imagine. In Shanghai, for instance, if you want a new car you not only have to go buy it, you have to bid for a license plate - in an effort to control the growth in autos, the city allows only about 6,000 new plates a month, and in June's auction they went for more than $4,000 apiece. Not only that, but they've built a remarkably good subway system, designed to persuade people to hold off buying cars. "Look, if you have a cheap, low-end metro, then the people who need to wear business clothes to the office simply won't take it", Ma Jun said. "And those are exactly the people with enough money to buy a car". The Shanghai metro has plasma screens on every car, delivering a continuous English lesson; the weekend I was riding the metro the screens were endlessly explaining the phrase "home field".

In 1997, when the world was negotiating the Kyoto Protocol, the US Senate, by a vote of 95-0, passed a resolution that forbade any American involvement in a pact that limited American emissions - "unless the protocol or other agreement also mandates new specific scheduled commitments to limit or reduce greenhouse gas emissions for Developing Country Parties within the same compliance period". Although the resolution didn't cite China in particular, the testimony made it clear that China (and to a lesser extent India) was the nation everyone had in mind. Kyoto would give them a "free pass". Their economy would be allowed an "advantage" if the Chinese didn't sign on. It's an argument still in circulation - John Kerry, who voted for the original resolution, said during last year's presidential campaign that he thought Kyoto should be renegotiated to make the Chinese start reducing their energy use. More than any other argument, this idea of "fairness" has derailed American participation in the only international attempt to do anything about the biggest environmental problem our species has yet faced.

It used to be said that the point of travel was to see your own home more clearly. So let's look. When you're standing in Shanghai, at the city's urban-planning exhibition, admiring the basketball-court-sized model of the city's future plan, with every skyscraper and apartment complex carefully detailed, you just viscerally know that there are two countries that really count right now. You just viscerally know that this is the story that will define the future. China and the United States are now the world's biggest consumers of raw material, and of food, and of energy. Are they therefore morally equivalent?

That's not just a rhetorical question - it's a deeply practical one. And answering yes has a certain straightforward appeal. Sometime between 2025 and 2030, China will pass the United States as the largest carbon emitter in the world - already it produces sixteen percent of the world's CO2 compared with our 25 percent. That is, they are now joining us in the task of undermining the planet's physics and chemistry.

The longer I looked, however, the less alike the two nations seemed. Take cars, for instance. Cars define America - their proliferation is the single physical item that makes our continent's civilization unique. We have nearly the same number of cars as we have people. In China the number of automobiles is growing fast. But if the Chinese sell six million cars this year, that will be eleven million less than the United States - in a population more than four times as large.

In fact, the size of China's population queers every discussion of numbers. If you're interested in global warming, it doesn't make moral sense to divide up the atmosphere by nations - if it did, then there'd be nothing wrong with Luxembourg producing as much waste as America. If you think about it for even a minute, the only unit that works is people - Zhao Ang, my translator, has as much right to the sky as I do, which is to say as much right to a car or a big house. And measuring by people, in 2025 or 2030, when China passes the United States as the world's largest carbon emitter, the average Chinese will still be producing only a quarter as much carbon as the average American. And of course it goes deeper than that - the reason the atmosphere is filled to the danger point with carbon is because we've already been filling it for two centuries, burning coal and oil to get rich while the Chinese have been staying poor. As Ma Jun - a daring environmentalist who's taken big risks to write his books - told me one day, "Nearly eighty percent of the carbon dioxide has come from 200 years of the industrial world. Let's be realistic. Those historic burdens have to be shouldered by those countries that have enjoyed the benefits." In any just scheme, it's not morally required of the Chinese to help solve global warming, any more than it's your kids' responsibility to work out the problems in your marriage.

This does not mean that the Chinese should burn all their coal. (After all, they'll have to deal with a wrecked world, just like your kids will have to deal with a broken home.) What it means is that we face an actual tragedy. The world, as it turns out, cannot afford two countries behaving like the United States. It lacks the atmosphere (and it also may lack the resources, as this summer's scramble for control over oil makes clear. We can't let the Chinese buy Unocal, because we need its reserves for us). And the reason it's an actual tragedy is because, right now, a rapidly growing China is actually accomplishing some measurable good with its growth. People are enjoying some meat, sending their brothers to school, heating their huts. Whereas we're burning nine times as much energy per capita so that we can: air-condition game rooms and mow half-acre lots, drive SUVs on every errand, eat tomatoes flown in from Chile. I understand that our country has people living in poverty, some of whom are now losing their jobs to Chinese competition, but that's simply our shame - we have all the money on earth, and we haven't figured out how to spread it around. China has hundreds of millions of people too poor to have clean water, and they sense that a few decades of burning coal might do something about that.

Which is why it seems intuitively obvious when you're in China that the goal of the twenty-first century must somehow be to simultaneously develop the economies of the poorest parts of the world and undevelop those of the rich - to transfer enough technology and wealth that we're able to meet somewhere in the middle, with us using less energy so that they can use more, and eating less meat so that they can eat more. (Indeed, baby steps toward such transfers of technology and wealth are enshrined in the Kyoto formula.)

One name for this kind of statistical mean is "Europe" or "Japan", whose citizens use half the energy of Americans. (And indeed the Chinese would almost certainly be willing to head in that direction. While I was there, for instance, they adopted new mileage standards for cars based on European standards - their showrooms are filling fast with tiny cars, like the Chery QQ, that come with 0.8-liter engines. ) But try to imagine the political possibilities in America of taking Chinese aspirations seriously - of acknowledging that there isn't room for two of us to behave in this way, and that we don't own the rights to our lifestyle simply because we got there first. The current president's father announced, on his way to the parley in Rio that gave rise to the Kyoto treaty, that "the American way of life is not up for negotiation". That's what defines a tragedy.

Here's another way to say it. On my last night in Shanghai, after about a month of touring the country, I ended up strolling the Bund, the strip of old European banking houses that faces the Huangpu River. On the other bank, in the Pudong District that China has made its great urban showpiece, huge towers rose in neon splendor - the Jinmao Tower, with the highest hotel on earth taking up its top thirty-four floors; the Oriental Pearl TV tower, its great kitschy globes glowing pink against the sky, the Aurora building, with its vast outdoor TV screen showing ad after ad. The vista was a little less grand than usual - the temperature had topped 95 degrees that day, so the government had decreed a power cut - but it was still enough to draw tens of thousands of spectators, content just to stand there in the dark and look. Many, perhaps most, were new arrivals from the countryside, in shabbier clothes and with ruddier faces than the city folk; they posed for pictures along the railing with the promise of the country glowing behind them.

I don't think in the end it's a real promise - I'm not sure China can escape the horrible environmental contradictions of its own growth (the soil is subsiding even in Pudong as Shanghai overpumps groundwater). I'm not sure globalization makes sense for the globe even if makes sense for China (in fact, I'm almost sure it doesn't - that 95-degree day was not unique; both China and the planet were suffering through the hottest year on record while I was there). I'm not sure that if the Chinese someday got as rich as we are they'd be any happier than us. That's why meeting in the middle makes so much sense. But in moral terms I am completely sure that that vista across the Huangpu River is filled with a kind of hope for the people who nightly drink it in, and that that hope is, for now, essentially innocent.

The only neon spectacle I've ever seen that compares is Vegas, with its pyramids and dancing waters. But what is Vegas? It's the search for some kind of new stimulus for the jaded. Some thicker meat and pricier alcohol, for people who've been packing away meat and alcohol for decades. Some attempt to figure out what more might mean when you've already had too much. Whatever else it is, China's not like that at all.



{1} At the moment, the exchange rate is at around eight yuan to the dollar. But for an approximate number, it works to just drop the last digit - 10,000 yuan is something like a thousand dollars.

{2} Ikea's slogan, which in the modern economy almost passes as humane, is "Low Price, But Not at Any Price".

{3} No one knows for sure how effective the one-child policy has been. One demographer estimates that China has as many as 37 million uncounted children, hidden at least in part because local officials don't like to report bad news. But total population growth is not the main force driving China's problems. And however cruel the legislation was, most people I talked to, in the cities anyhow, seem to have internalized it as an indisputable fact of life.

Bill McKibben, a scholar-in-residence at Middlebury College, is the author of many books, including The End of Nature and Wandering Home. His last article for Harper's Magazine, "The Christian Paradox", appeared in the August issue.

    Posted by on Friday, January 6, 2006 at 01:27 AM in China, Economics | Permalink  TrackBack (4)  Comments (15)


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