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China awakens to its
devastated environment

By Jasper Becker

Part 1: The death of China's rivers 
Part 2: Peasants bear the brunt of energy plans 
Part 3: China in an energy quandary 

In 1998, China suffered flooding so extensive that the central government was finally - and rudely - awakened to the devastating effects of thousands of years of environmental degradation and the accelerating damage that occurred when the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) erroneously thought it could bend nature to its will.

As the Yangtze and other rivers spilled over their banks, tens of millions of people were driven from their homes. More than 2 million soldiers, paramilitary police and reservists were called into service in what General Zhang Wannian said at the time was the largest military deployment since the 1945-49 civil war that put the communists in power.

While the rains were unseasonably heavy, however, the real concern was not the rain but the fact that there was no topsoil, there were no forests, and there was no ground cover to hold the waters in place in the mountains where the Yangtze originates. At least 4,000 people were drowned. Economic costs ran to more than US$36 billion. Wells were poisoned throughout the Yangtze River basin. Oilfields in Harbin were flooded.

Where before nature had to be harnessed to conform to the needs of the state, now there was a drastic change. The then premier, Zhu Rongji, suddenly announced an about-face. He set in motion a national ban on logging old forests and a huge reforestation program, and ordered restoration of some of the lakes. Under a 10-year scheme costing $12 billion and involving 300 million peasants, the state will empty its bulging state granaries to return fields into pasture and forest land.

The Ministry of Forestry envisages a 30-year plan to plant 26 million hectares of forest to reverse water and soil erosion that is described as perhaps the worst in the world. Under Mao Zedong, peasants had been encouraged to terrace steep slopes in the mountains and hills to create more fields to meet absurd grain targets. Now any terraces steeper than 25 degrees are to be replanted with grasses, bushes and trees.

Along the crowded floodplains of the Yangtze and the Huai, some 2.5 million peasants are being relocated under the slogan "return the field, restore the lake, build towns". Undaunted by the absence of any preparatory research, Zhu ordered them out and told them to abandon many of the thousands of kilometers of laboriously constructed dikes to restore Dongting Lake to its pre-1949 size.

The reality, though, is that it will take generations to restore enough forests to western China to curb the soil erosion and to stop the flash floods. It is not just the lamentable record of past mass afforestation projects - the "green great wall" announced in 1979 is just one of these plans - but the fact is that the tree plantations envisaged are nowhere near as useful at absorbing and filtering rainwater as natural forests with their thick undergrowth and leaf compost.

What is instead happening is a kind of public works in perpetual motion. The more problems the Party creates by altering China's plumbing system, the more dams it needs to solve the fresh problems created. In reality, China would have been better off controlling floods by preserving natural forests in the mountainous uplands, which absorb rainfall, and keeping the lakes and wetland in the lower reaches to absorb the summer floods. Trying to substitute nature's arrangements with man-made reservoirs has been a costly failure.

The CCP is now embarking on major dam projects whose purpose is simply to trap sediment. The Xiaolangdi Dam across the Yellow River, with a $1 billion World Bank loan, is one example. Another is the 220-meter-high Xiluodu Dam across the Golden Sands River. It is designed to cut by a third the silt that will otherwise accumulate in the Three Gorges Dam reservoir. Beyond the hidden cost of making these dams work - trapping the silt, resettling millions, cleaning the riverbeds, stopping the pollution - is the fact that many of these dams have a very short life in generating electricity.

Within 20 years, the Xiaolangdi Dam, for which nearly 400,000 people had to be moved, will probably be useless, as the reservoir behind it will have silted up entirely. None of the dams built in the Mao era along the Huai River have lasted more than 20 years before needing extensive and costly renovation. The Three Gorges Dam, which is supposed to have a 70-year life, is not likely to turn out to be any different.

Before construction started, the proponents of the Three Gorges deliberately misrepresented the true cost of building it, claiming it would cost just US$11 billion to build plus $5 billion for resettlement. Just what exactly the final tally will be is hard to say with certainty, but it will probably be about $70 billion instead of the $28 billion now talked about, thus making its electricity among the most expensive ever produced.

Certainly the dam-building serves other useful purposes. The vast infrastructure spending of the state - often on such boondoggles as a railway to Tibet, turning Beijing into an Olympic city, manned space travel, a maglev train to Shanghai, etc - are helping to keep the wheels of the economy spinning at the desired annual rate of 8 percent for a long time to come. Often the manpower used for these projects are convicts or soldiers whose labor costs next to nothing. Much of the Three Gorges construction work is carried out by units of the People's Liberation Army. Peasants say squads of prison labor are used to do the heavy work in constructing local roads and bridges.

The dams are also a form of subsidy to the underdeveloped regions in the west, where there is little foreign investment. And they serve to complete the colonization of the minority border lands of Tibet, Sichuan and Yunnan, by facilitating the migration of Han Chinese to these hitherto inaccessible mountainous regions.

Yet the human cost of these grandiose schemes is harder to put a price tag on. Although China has tried to learn from the mistakes made in resettling those displaced by such schemes, the Three Gorges project, like the others, is used to justify large-scale human-rights abuses.

When the project was put forward in 1991, the state claimed that only 750,000 people would have to be moved. In fact, by the time the project is finished in 2008, it will almost certainly be as many as 1.9 million, given the natural population increase.

There was no money for these people and the state probably never had any intention of compensating them. The original budget for resettlement was put at 17.5 billion yuan ($2.15 billion). By 2000, the resettlement budget was put at 28.7 billion yuan. But the true cost of rehousing them will probably be 100 billion yuan, most of which will have to come from the people themselves. The peasants in the reservoir area rank among the poorest in China, indeed in the world, with average annual cash incomes of about $120. Take Kaixian county, where 100,000 are being relocated out of a population of 1,468,000. During the famine of the 1958-62 Great Leap Forward, half the inhabitants of many villages perished.

After 1979, the locals were among the first to go out and seek work in the coastal provinces, and their remittances now amount to as much as a billion yuan a year, which support mosts of the rural population. Only the old and sick stay at home and tend the farms. The central government provides hundreds of millions of yuan in subsidies each year to the county and locals say all the government-owned enterprises are bankrupt or heavily indebted. There is little or no foreign investment.

A relatively large part of Kaxian's territory will be inundated - 464 square kilometers of cultivated land of a total land area of 3,969 square kilometers. In the first resettlement plan drawn up in 1995, only 10 percent of the migrants were supposed to be relocated outside of the district, so that 90 percent of them were supposed to be relocated on mountain slopes. After Zhu Rongji's decision to protect slopes steeper than 25 degrees, land had to be found for settlers elsewhere, and the majority are being relocated in Sichuan province or sent to Shandong province on the coast.

When the plans for the entire project were presented it was claimed that 20 million mu (1,334,000 hectares; a mu is a traditional measurement of land equivalent to 667 square meters) of undeveloped land - barren mountains and grassy slopes - were in the reservoir area, of which 4.2 million mu (280,140 hectares) was arable. Therefore, it was said that the displaced peasants could remain in the region. The industrial development of the towns was also supposed to create new jobs for landless villagers.

In fact, none of this turned out to be true. All the factories in the towns and cities in the reservoir area have been shut, leaving at least 100,000 workers without jobs. Then the ban on farming on steep slopes meant that 125,000 peasants had to be resettled in provinces far away on the coast.

The state repeatedly promised that those displaced would be given adequate compensation and guaranteed that they would enjoy higher living standards after moving. The state promised to budget 40,000 yuan per head in resettlement finding. None of this has happened either.

The resettlement funds were commandeered by local officials, who handed out 4,000-8,000 yuan in compensation. Many of those sent out of the reservoir area have demanded to return, complaining that they can find no work, are unwelcome, and in some cases attacked by the host communities. In general about 20 percent have returned on their own account. Others who settled in Qingdao or near Shanghai have organized protest marches. Those who stayed in their native counties have written numerous petitions, complaining that they have been squeezed by local officials who have used false figures when calculating their compensation entitlements.

The resettlement policies are drawn up by the central government in Beijing but are actually implemented by county-level governments according to their own regulations. Under a philosophy of "development resettlement", the state is free to avoid compensating people directly. Instead, state resettlement funds are often put directly into the hands of the local governments, which then spend it as they see fit on building new infrastructure or launching industrial projects.

The burden of the resettlement falls heaviest on the rural community and disproportionately heavily on the poorest of the rural poor. Many of these being moved earn about $120 a year. The system operates according to the principle that the poorer you are the less you get. According to one calculation, the poorest 40 percent of the relocatees will only get 20 percent of the allocated funds.

About 55 percent of those forced to move have been resettled in urban areas and, although they are treated better, they all complain of being cheated. The reason is simple. Compensation payments are based on a calculation of property values based on a government survey carried out in 1992, when China was still a planned economy, in recession and suffering from economic sanctions after 1989.

Ten years later, those displaced now have to buy housing sold 10 years ago at commercial prices, which as a rule of thumb cost three times what the government is giving them. Put another way, two-thirds of the resettlement cost of the dam is now being borne not by the state but by the people forced off their land or out of their homes who have no jobs.

The new housing is admittedly far superior to that which they left, with modern plumbing and more space than the cramped housing that no one had cared to invest in, in the knowledge that it would one day be abandoned. Even so, most of the urban population do not feel grateful but rather cheated and angry. The construction companies and the land are controlled by the Party elite, who are naturally getting extremely rich on the proceeds.

Even if all this attracts investment to a neglected area, those who come and invest in a region that is benefiting from impressive new roads, railways, airports and communication facilities are now free to employ whomever they want. This usually means younger people over 30, who are better educated and more adaptable, leaving the elder generation doomed to unemployment.

Although China has signed up to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and other treaties designed to provide freedom of movement, opinion and association, anyone daring to organize a protest is soon arrested. The dam-building serves to buttress a political system that elevates the demands of the state over the rights of the individual.

(Copyright 2003 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact for information on our sales and syndication policies.)
Aug 29, 2003

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