Copyright Harper’s Magazine
Letter from China
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.
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 understaffed, 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 bead-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…
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 ($.50 an hour).(n1) 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…
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
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 “Suitcases 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 hairlike 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 lounges, surge protectors, lint rollers, jumper cables,
karabiners, 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 3 billion women on this planet, many o( 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 mote 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, 60 percent of Chinese will live in the cities. With a massive effort, that number might be held down to 50 percent. But since about 1 percent of Americans currently work as farmers, down from 39 percent a century ago, we should be able to understand this tide…
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 had 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 7 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…
Please buy the December issue of Harpers or consult your library for the complete article — a highly recommended read.
Bill McKibben – Harpers
Copyright Harper’s Magazine