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November 2004: News

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CHINA: Harbinger of Our Future?

Background information in the following article was gleaned from many Internet sources and also the August 1, 2004, issue of the New York Times and the April 29, 2004, issue of The Christian Science Monitor.

Twenty-five years ago China dismantled its communes and started its drive towards industrialization. In the countryside former commune members were switched to land contracts (Chinese farmers are not allowed to own their land) and farm productivity greatly increased. Grain output rose from 90 million tons in 1950 to 392 million tons in 1998. Hundreds of millions of people had their lives improved as the economy was restructured.

Today China has the world's fastest-growing economy and is increasingly becoming urbanized. With 1.3 billion people and the addition of 11 million more each year, demand for goods keeps rising. More people with higher incomes means increased consumption of pork, poultry and eggs-all from grain-fed animals. In 2003 two million autos were sold; that is the number of cars already on the roads just around Beijing with another million predicted to join them next year. China is now the world's second largest oil consumer after the U.S. The country is having to find new housing for the millions of farmers leaving the land to take higher-paying factory jobs. Shanghai alone is planning to build ten "satellite cities" around the existing one-with no plans for public transportation.

Of course, this drastic national change in lifestyle has not been without its down side. The government has focused on building urban manufacturing and financial centers to the detriment of rural areas and their populations. Entrepreneurs have illegally seized farmers' land to build industrial parks and upscale housing developments for the country's newly rich. Industry and cities are being given preference in the competition for scarce water supplies, with water tables falling and major rivers now drying up long before reaching the coast. Overgrazing, unsustainable farming methods and drought have caused massive erosion of the land, particularly in the north, where most of China's wheat is grown. Dust storms are sweeping across the land, dumping their load on the cities of eastern China and even on Japan. Air pollution has become a problem with the proliferation of industries, automobiles and dust storms. Since the 1950s China has lost 36,000 square miles to desertification, with the Gobi desert now only 150 miles from Beijing. China's grain harvest has fallen in four of the last five years, with wheat production last year being 19 million tons less than consumption. Reasons given are loss of farmland to non-farm uses and desertification, lack of water, insufficient labor as former farm laborers flock to the cities looking for work, and the shift to higher-value crops as prices paid to farmers for grain crops drop.

The social cost of this new economy has been high. It has created wide disparity between the urban rich and the rural poor. "This year the number of destitute poor, which China classifies as those earning less than $75 a year, increased for the first time in 25 years. The government estimates that the number of people in this lowest stratum grew by 800,000, to 85 million people, even as the economy grew by a robust 9 percent. . Rural governments get almost no support from wealthier areas. They tax local farmers and impose endless fees to finance schools, hospitals, road building, even the police." (Joseph Kahn and Jim Yardley, NY Times, August 1, 2004) Many villages survive only because people leave each year and send money back to relatives.

Events in China may seem interesting but far away. However, they are already affecting the rest of the world. Because its cheaper manufactured products are swamping developed countries, China has vast foreign exchange reserves and can afford to compete in the world economy. In order to feed its people, the country recently started importing wheat, rice and soy, in the process driving up global food prices. If this trend continues, basic food for people in Third World countries will not be affordable and starvation will increase drastically. Even in "developed" countries, low-income people who are already having to make choices between food, housing and medicine will suffer. In future years, "a rice shortfall of 20 million tons [in China] in a world where annual rice exports total only 26 million tons could create chaos in the world rice economy." (Lester R. Brown, Earth Policy Institute, March 10, 2004) With an increasing number of cars on its roads, China is competing for diminishing oil reserves, again contributing to escalating prices. Although China's leaders are now concerned about food security and are offering subsidies to farmers to grow more grain, there is no guarantee that the other factors leading to low grain production will change and that China will once more become food self-sufficient.

The situation in China provides a unique opportunity to get a perspective on the genesis of the many problems now impacting the rest of the world-particularly the "developed" world. Seeing the industrialization that has taken place in China in just twenty-five years is like watching a fast-forward movie of our own process of moving from a rural to an industrial economy. Cause and effect become much more apparent. We can see that withdrawing water from the earth at a faster rate than it is replaced will cause water shortages; that unwise and unsustainable farming practices will erode the land and cause pollution; that encouraging industrialization at the expense of agriculture will lead to food shortages; that ignoring a widening disparity of income structure and services will create an underclass of disaffected and perhaps rebellious people. Perhaps most important, we can see that building an economy on a rapidly depleting resource is unrealistic.

China is a good reminder that Earth is a small planet whose ecosystems have been severely impacted by our non-optimal actions. We are all affected and all need to open our minds and hearts to help create and pursue solutions.



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