Far Eastern Economic Review

September 27, 2001


Witnesses To a Crisis

A revolutionary generation helped change the face of China--damming rivers, clearing land. Now, they look at their country's environment, and despair

By Velisarios Kattoulas / DATONG and BEIJING

FOR FIVE DECADES, China's leaders have repeatedly shaped and reshaped nature to serve their revolution. In the process, they have brought China to what many fear is the brink of an environmental catastrophe.

Few men understand this better than Shen Zhaoli and Lin Pei. One built dams; the other helped--at least briefly-- to turn barren grasslands into lush fields. Today, in their 70s, retired and in the twilight of distinguished careers, they look at China's environment--and despair . . .

Shanghai, 1949: Shen Zhaoli, a 19-year-old student, watches Mao Zedong's army enter the city. He's not worried. The troops are orderly, and in any case he's due to move away to Beijing to attend university later that year. Like his father before him, he plans to study engineering.

When he tries to enrol, though, Shen gets his first taste of Communist Party rule: The cadres have taken over admissions, and transferred him to hydrology. To eclipse the capitalist West, Shen is told, China needs hydrologists to build dams. To Shen, this makes no sense. But after graduating in 1953, he becomes intimately familiar with this plank of Maoist thought.

Shen spends much of the 1950s and 1960s building dams. In one fairly typical year, he spends six weeks cruising on rivers in the southwest of the country, searching for spots to erect new dams. It is an experience he shares with many of his classmates. When Mao came to power China had 23 large and medium-sized dams. By 1980 it had some 80,000.

Mao saw dams as a pillar of development, Shen says. By supposedly controlling flooding, improving irrigation and increasing farm yields, they would free peasants to work in industry. All too often, though, Shen says the dams caused more problems than they solved. In many cases, farmland upstream became waterlogged and unusable. In others, the dams became clogged with silt, causing huge flooding. And then there were the collapses: According to Judith Shapiro's authoritative new book, Mao's War Against Nature, 2,976 dams had collapsed by 1980. In one incident, the 1975 Shimantan dam break, Chinese environmentalists estimate as many as 230,000 people died.

Long before crumbling dams become commonplace, Shen started to have serious doubts about Mao. "There was no epiphany," says Shen. "But travelling around China in the 1960s, seeing for myself what was taking place, I came to realize we were squandering our resources." Today, he doesn't flinch from pinpointing blame: "What Mao did to China's environment was unforgivable. It was ill thought-out and ultimately disastrous. We're still paying for his mistakes . . . "

Wuhan, 1949: Mao's army takes over the city with neither struggle nor fanfare. Lin Pei, the son of a rich businessman, gives the revolution little thought. His mind is on the chemistry course he plans to start at Wuhan University later in the year. When Lin tries to register, though, he discovers he is already enrolled to study land-resource management. In Lin's case, the origin of his unexpected change is another of Mao's ardent beliefs: With ample will even the thinnest soils can be converted into lush farmland.

After graduating, Lin travels to western China in 1953. The country's population then is around half the 1.3 billion it will reach by century's end. Vast areas are unknown wilderness. Lin spends a decade in Xinjiang ostensibly mapping the area. China's leaders will use his research to draw up plans for vast collectivized farms. At times, local leaders seek out Lin's opinions. Most, though, ignore his warning that thin, marginal soil is unlikely to support intensive agriculture for long. Today, according to the Asian Development Bank, 28% of China is affected by desertification and 90% of its grasslands are moderately to severely eroded.

In spite of such experiences, Lin says he remained convinced of Mao's ultimate sagacity until the Lin Bao incident in 1971. According to the official account, Mao's handpicked successor was shot down in a jet over Mongolia after allegedly plotting to overthrow Mao. Says Lin (no relation): "Lin's death made me think 'what on earth is going on?'"

TODAY, LIN PEI is a slender man with carefully parted white hair and thoughtful eyes. He can look back on a career that saw him rise to become the head of the Department of Land Resources at the Beijing Agricultural University and a long-time consultant to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. Although he will soon turn 73, he keeps up to date with land research in China, a subject on which he is a leading authority.

For his part, Shen Zhaoli became vice-president of the China University of Geosciences in Beijing, and a dean of its hydrology department. A barrel-chested tennis buff from Shanghai, he sports a mop of silver hair and playful eyes. Later this year he turns 70. But like Lin, he closely follows new research; in his case, into China's water supply.

Such experience notwithstanding, in the grand debate about China's escalating environmental woes--Will China surpass the United States to become the world's polluter-in-chief? Might its land and water shortages stall its economic development? Could the mishandling of its environmental patrimony break the party's grip on power?--few bother to seek out the opinions of Lin, Shen or their contemporaries.

In the twilight of their careers, no one really cares what these old men have to say. Perhaps they should. For one thing, because of the possible political implications of China's blighted environment, the government has yet--and appears unlikely--to sanction a comprehensive, independent survey of the problem. Moreover, whatever information is collected is distributed only sparingly.

By comparison, since Shen and Lin made their first field trips as undergraduates in 1950, almost without a break they have spent more than two months a year conducting research at environmental hotspots across China.

No less important, in assigning blame and highlighting solutions, Shen and Lin have no vested interests. Environmental merchants of doom in the West rely on the unremitting gloom of their prophecies to maintain the flow of donations that keep their self-styled think-tanks running. Foreign experts must take care to stay on the right side of Beijing. Otherwise, they risk losing access to the scant information they do get. For Chinese academics, criticizing the government too harshly can land them in jail, as opponents of the Three Gorges Dam have discovered.

By stark contrast, in retirement--and with most of their children teaching at top universities in the U.S.--Shen and Lin feel comfortable playing a role familiar to patriotic Chinese academics throughout history: Criticizing their nation's leaders to help them become better rulers.

FOR BOTH SHEN AND LIN, few places better symbolize China's environmental problems than Datong, in northern Shanxi Province, west of Beijing. The city has attracted visitors since the 5th century, when the Northern Wei dynasty built a huge complex of Buddhist grottoes in caves just beyond the city limits. However, when Lin and Shen first visited in the early 1960s, they were there not to catch the sights but to look for ways to help the city contribute more to Mao's revolution.

Neither man liked what he saw. Examining farmland on the outskirts of Datong, Lin found chronic soil erosion and extreme poverty--the after-effect of the Great Famine of 1959-61, which flowed from Mao's decisions to leave the 1958 harvest unpicked and to clear forests to create mega-farms and power "backyard" steel furnaces. Similarly, Shen found rivers polluted by a recent boom in coal mining; this was inspired by Mao's madcap idea that with sufficient coal China's steel industry could surpass Britain's in a year: the so-called Great Leap Forward.

During almost a dozen trips to Datong over the next 40 years, the two men watched its environment deteriorate alarmingly. Visiting in the mid-1970s, Lin found soil erosion so dire that farmers were starting to switch from farming vegetables for food to hardier crops such as sorghum and corn for fodder.

The last time either of them visited was in 1999, when Shen attended a conference there. By then, the environmental problems were acute. Nobody had seen fish in nearby rivers for a dozen years. The city's sole aquifer--an underground water source--was in a parlous state. When water is pumped from an aquifer quicker than rainwater can replenish it, the water table--which normally runs parallel to the ground--sags to become what hydrologists call a "cone." At the lowest point of this cone, the groundwater is further away from the earth's surface than in the surrounding water table. It's rare for the gap between these two water levels to be much more than about 50 metres; in Datong, a recent study by Australian engineers showed it has reached 130 metres.

In a cruel twist, the 18 state-owned industrial plants responsible for most of Datong's environmental problems are now tapping the aquifer Datong relies on for drinking water, compounding its depletion. They no longer use local river water; in other words it is too polluted for the polluters. But their waste-water discharge pollutes the aquifer. Officials fear that if locals ever found out about the level of pollutants in tap water there could be "social unrest," according to an Australian environmental consultant who has just spent three months in Datong. The consultant adds that local officials believe that at current rates of consumption Datong's aquifer will run dry by around 2020.

Shen and his wife visited Datong's Buddhist grottoes after the 1999 conference, only to find the statues blackened by air pollution. The statues have since been cleaned, but Datong's environment has continued its steady decline. The soil remains unfit for growing vegetables. In a village north of Datong a farmer desperate for money planted a small plot with vegetables, which he planned to sell in Datong market. Miraculously, the vegetables survived. But they absorbed such large concentrations of pollutants that for two days the few people who ate them became numb below the waist.

To clean up their acts, the plants around Datong should invest in smokestack, water purification and other such technologies. But China lacks the cash to invest in such measures.

Shen and Lin argue such constraints leave Datong's politicians facing an unenviable dilemma. On the one hand, closing the plants would halt the city's environmental slide. However, with local unemployment at 10% and underemployment at 20%, politicians worry about straining the city's social fabric.

Conversely, allowing the plants to continue discharging untreated effluent carries the risk of not straining the social fabric but shredding it. Already, water, soil and air pollution are harming the health and productivity of Datong's 3 million residents. At an industrial plant with 5,000 workers the rate of skin and lung ailments is chronic. Hundreds have rasping coughs year round, and many women employees have suffered spontaneous abortions. Chillingly, Shanxi Province alone boasts at least another 1,000 such plants. "Tackling such problems is going to be very, very hard," says Shen.

WITH SLIGHT VARIATIONS, Datong's woes are replicated across China countless times. According to the Asian Development Bank, soil erosion, desertification, salinization and alkalization now affect more than a third of China's territory. And in vast parts of northern China per-capita water resources have already dropped to 360 cubic metres a year--a third of the level the World Bank defines as water scarcity.

In the late 1990s, China's leaders started grappling with such problems in earnest. In part, they responded to international pressure. China's environmental slide has long wreaked havoc beyond its border; most recently in the American Midwest, where sandstorms originating in northern China harmed crops. More important, leaders realized their muddied environment had potentially thorny implications for unemployment, economic growth, and their grip on power.

"The government wants to solve environmental problems for a whole host of reasons," Bruce Murray, the Asian Development Bank's representative in Beijing, says cryptically.

With that in mind, and by the standards of the past half-century, China is now tackling its troubles with uncommon urgency. Since 1996 it has cut sulphur dioxide emissions. It has shut some of its worst polluters and it is drafting legislation to stem further environmental degradation.

While many environmentalists find hope in such progress, Shen and Lin find it hard to be optimistic. "The way things stand today--especially in rural areas--at the very least it'll take 100 years to solve China's water problems," Shen says. Laughing ruefully, Lin calls himself an optimist. He figures reversing the damage to China's land could take as long as "200 years."

Why? To tackle its environmental crisis, Shen and Lin insist, China needs to accomplish a feat of social engineering unparalleled in human history: convincing 900 million peasants--who represent three-quarters of China's population but account for only 15% of its GDP--that protecting their environment will one day make them richer.

"In rural China--in other words, in most of the country--the peasants are blinded by the wealth they see along China's East coast," says Shen. "They want that for themselves. And they'll stop at nothing to get it, even if that means using land and water in a profligate way that ultimately slows the country's development. What can you expect? They're uneducated peasants."

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