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Book Review

February 19, 2003

Literary warning bell

China’s Ecological Winter by Zheng Yi

Mirror Books, Hong Kong 611 pages

In Chinese

This book, the first comprehensive and penetrating study of the ecological disaster China is facing, is written by a novelist who is not an environmentalist by training or by profession.

The relationship between people and their natural environments has been one of the preoccupations of Zheng Yi’s fiction writing. One of Zheng’s early novels, The Old Well, written in the 1980s, won international acclaim when the film based on the novel was awarded the gold medal at both the Tokyo and the Hawaii International Film Festivals. The film movingly portrayed the life of mountain villagers in Shanxi Province and the hardships they endured due to a century-old water shortage. In his later novels, especially The Miracle Tree (1996), Zheng’s unique lyrical narrative is marked by a pervasive and passionate concern for the harsh ecological environment faced by his countrymen.

For years, Zheng has closely followed China’s rapidly deteriorating environment. He became obsessed with the subject, and in the end, shelved his next literary work-in-progress to spend three and a half years working on something which was neither his specialty nor a profitable endeavor. The result is a 611 page tome, entitled China’s Ecological Winter, which is divided into two parts.

Part I, entitled “Destructive Creation” and consisting of 15 chapters, depicts the all-encompassing ecological disaster facing China in excruciating detail, describing everything from wanton deforestation to relentless depletion of mineral resources. Meticulously researched and documented, Zheng’s account relies on a combination of statistics and case studies, which are both mind-boggling and clearly accurate.

China proudly boasts that it is “a big country abounding in natural wealth.” Its territory covers 960 million square kilometers—indeed one of the largest land areas in the world—but most of China’s natural resources have been mercilessly plundered and squandered throughout the past 50 years. Soil erosion alone has claimed 367 million square kilometers, complete desertification has destroyed 262.2 million km2 and an additional 37.8 million km2 are completely unlivable. Thus the livable area has been reduced to 300 million km2, less than one third of China’s territory. Since the 1950s, the population has more than doubled, while soil erosion and desertification have increased by 150 percent. To be exact, in less than a half century, the biosphere per capita has been compressed to one-fifth of its original size.

Since only 14 percent (or 2 billion mu) of China‘s territory is arable land, there is an average of 1.6 mu per capita, the world’s third lowest number. In recent years, this area has been reduced by approximately 79 million mu annually as a result of urban expansion, appropriation of land for village and township enterprises, non-agricultural construction and other man-made conditions that have caused soil erosion. In the past half century, China has lost two billion mu of its arable land due to man-made factors. The rapidly increasing population has caused China to reclaim and destroy 2.4 billion mu of arable grassland and woodland in order to sustain the population.

China ranks sixth in the world in terms of water resources, which total 2.8 trillion cubic meters. Yet, given the large population base, this averages only 2,200 cubic meters per capita, or about one-fifth of the world average. The over-exploitation of water resources through the years has greatly aggravated the water shortage. Since the early 1990s, an average of 400 million mu per year is affected by drought. In a country where the farming population comprises 70 percent of the total population, there has been a serious shortage of water for irrigation for more than a decade—as much as 500 million cubic meters per year. At the same time, 80 million people involved in agriculture and 60 million livestock suffer from inadequate drinking water.

In urban China, half of the 600 cities continue to suffer from water shortages. In order to ease this problem, China has resorted to the over-exploitation of groundwater, which has caused the water table to drop in 100 cities, and has built 56 colossal water tunnels, extending over 90,000 square kilometers, to supply water to some cities. Sinking has already occurred in 50 large and medium-sized cities.

To make things even worse, water pollution is becoming a serious issue. The amount of wastewater discharged daily nationwide is rapidly increasing: the rate was 30-40 million tons per day in the early 1970s, 75 million in the 1980s and over 100 million in the mid-90s, 80 percent of which is unprocessed and discharged directly into rivers, lakes and coastal waters. Further, riverbeds in over 90 percent of the cities have been drying up, so that potable water has become increasingly scarce. Three-fourths of the 50,000 kilometers of China‘s major rivers, including the Yellow and the Yangtze Rivers, are so polluted that few fish survive in them. All of the coastal waters have been polluted and the Bo Hai is now virtually a dead sea.

Air pollution has reached equally alarming proportions. On the whole, air pollution in Chinese cities indisputably ranks first in the world using any criteria. In addition to the air and water pollution, cities are also subject to growing stockpiles of garbage. According to a 1997 news dispatch from Beijing, a city known for its broad avenues and imposing structures, the city was already encircled by 7,000 garbage hills. Nationwide, garbage landfills claim 100,000 mu of land annually.

China has never been rich in forest resources; in fact, China’s percentage of forest cover ranks 100th in the world. Instead of conserving precious forest resources, however, the great majority of state forest farms have resorted to indiscriminate logging, which has resulted not only in the denuding of forest areas, but has also caused floods in many parts of the country and turned others into deserts. Wildlife that has forest as its habitat, including rare species on the brink of extinction, are hunted and sold for profit. The number of wild animals hunted has reached 130 million a year, 65 times the total number in the world.

China’s mineral resources rank third in the world. Yet, given its large population base, the average amount of energy and mineral resources per capita is not quite half of the world average even though the energy consumption per output value unit is three times that of the world average. China is marching towards energy exhaustion at a speed six times higher than the rest of the world.

After providing the reader with a comprehensive account cataloguing the ecological disasters, Zheng gives an in-depth analysis of the problems of the Chinese system in Part II of his book, “Creative Destruction.” According to Zheng, “The system of public ownership has deprived the land of flesh-and-blood owners.” All natural resources are at the government’s disposal. Peasants may be dispossessed at any time according to the political whim of their rulers. The Sanmenxia Reservoir illustrates this problem.

In 1956, when the reservoir on the Yellow River was under construction, the regime forced 300,000 residents to leave the fertile land where their families had lived for countless generations, and emigrate to desolate areas in the northwest. Hundreds of emigrants lost their lives when the government used armed force to suppress their repeated attempts to regain their homelands. Thousands of others died on the way back home or as a result of homelessness. After 30 years of struggle, the government reluctantly returned part of their land. Upon their return, however, the peasants found that their fertile land had been turned into a barren wilderness, managed by a state-run farm for all of those years. Meanwhile, the reservoir had itself generated ecological disasters, like so many other ill-conceived projects.

Zheng’s most significant discovery was that the system in which property rights are separated into the public right to ownership and the private right to use does the most deadly harm to China‘s environment. This dual system, which has been in practice since the beginning of “reform and opening up,” has brought about an unprecedented destruction of the environment and natural resources. As a result of this system, individuals and collectives alike treat the land poorly, with little regard for the consequences or the high cost to replace resources. In recent years, the annual cost of the degradation of China’s environment in order to maintain “high speed growth” is calculated at about three times the annual GNP.

Zheng is pessimistic about China’s ability to find a way out of its multiple ecological catastrophes unless the system responsible for these problems is radically changed. China‘s Ecological Winter is by no means just a political polemic, no matter how deeply the author may disapprove of the current regime. It is a scientific study based on objective facts, real figures and specific cases. Despite his bleak message and the loud alarm bell he rings warning of China’s ecological crisis, Zheng’s love of his homeland and the Chinese people permeates every page of this beautifully-written masterpiece.

Wu Ningkun is the author of A Single Tear—A Family's Persecution, Love and Endurance in Communist China, (Atlantic Monthly Press & Hodder Stoughton 1993). He now lives in Northern Virginia.