The Great Leap: Scenes from China’s industrial revolution

Bill McKibben – Harpers

Letter from China
Copyright Harper’s (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.
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
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.

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