China’s Assault on the Environment

In 1956 Chairman Mao wrote the poem “Swimming,” about a dam to be built across the Yangtze River. This is its second stanza:

A magnificent project is formed. The Bridge, it flies! Spanning
North and South, and a Natural Barrier becomes a thoroughfare.
A rocky dam shall stand athwart the western river,
Cutting asunder the mists, and rains, of Wushan
Until the precipitous gorges yield a lake of tranquillity.
The Goddess, should she remain alive today, shall yet marvel
at changes in the world.

The poem distills the Chairman’s heaven-storming attitude toward nature, the attitude that, as Judith Shapiro eloquently and persuasively shows in her new book, so heavily damaged the Chinese environment that it seems to me, although not quite to Ms. Shapiro, that much of the air, water, forests, and grasslands may not recover. Mao’s fatal defiance of the natural world is summed up in his slogan Ren ding shengtian (“Man Must Conquer Nature”), which in the Fifties and Sixties found further expression in countless Soviet-style posters of muscular young men and women striking heroic attitudes as they smashed their way through mountains and across rivers, overcoming everything in their path. Mao’s slogan contradicted the traditional notion of Tianren heyi (“Harmony Between Nature and Mankind”), depicted in Sung, Yuan, and Ming dynasty paintings in which lakes, rivers, and mountains dwarf tiny figures calmly enjoying their natural surroundings.

Shapiro makes three big points. First, although Mao unquestionably bears a heavy responsibility for the destructive assault on the Chinese environment in the second half of the twentieth century, he had plenty of help, not just from his comrades in the leadership but from ordinary people and intellectuals who either hoped that conquering nature would make their lives better or were afraid of what happened to those who disagreed with the Chairman. Secondly, for centuries Chinese farmers felled forests, stripped and terraced hillsides, and dammed, channeled, and polluted their streams and rivers. Finally, while the notion of overcoming nature is less urgently ideological in post-Mao China, environmental degradation has continued apace during the reformist drive to get rich by almost any means. Although there has been considerable economic growth during these years, many of the gains are open to question and require detailed scrutiny.

Judith Shapiro, who teaches environmental politics at American University and lectures on the subject to Chinese audiences, made her reputation as coauthor of Son of the Revolution with her then husband, Liang Heng.2 The book told the story of Liang’s childhood and youth and the destruction of his family during the Cultural Revolution. In After the Nightmare and Cold Winds, Warm Winds, Shapiro and Liang described the plight of Chinese intellectuals in the post-Mao years. Now, in Mao’s War Against Nature, Shapiro has chosen Communist China’s assault on the environment as her new theme. One of her examples of Maoist and post-Maoist hubris is the Three Gorges Dam across the Yangtze River, which Chinese and foreign critics have called a last-gasp monument to the Communist Party that must be understood as another of the “Maoist megaprojects” both aimed at the mastery of nature and suppression of human freedoms. Only four years ago, in 1997, at the completion of an early stage of the dam, President Jiang Zemin noted that such projects “express how, from ancient times, the Chinese people have had a strong struggle spirit of reforming nature, of ‘Man Must Conquer Nature.’”

As I write this review we have had further news of what has been happening at the Three Gorges Dam, one of China’s mightiest man-made efforts, and already one of its most disastrous.3 According to Human Rights Watch, four farmers are in serious trouble:

He Kechang, Rang Chongxin, Jiang Qingshan, and Wen Dingchun are among thousands of residents of Gaoyang township, Yunyang county, Chongqing municipality due to be resettled, as the county is in the middle of what will become the dam’s reservoir area. Three of the men were arrested in mid-March after they had traveled to Beijing with petitions detailing systematic embezzlement of funds set aside for resettlement…. They are expected to be tried at the end of April on charges of disturbing public order, leaking state secrets, and “maintaining illicit relations with a foreign country.” The last charge is apparently a reference to their contacts with the international press in Hong Kong.4

In 1981 the Party formally condemned Mao for disasters and catastrophes from 1957 until his death in 1976, although the damage he did to the environment is never mentioned. And although his huge portrait still looms over the main gate into the Forbidden City and taxi drivers hang little Mao charms on their rearview mirrors, it is rare for the Chairman to be invoked in support of contemporary policies. Indeed, the twenty-fifth anniversary of Mao’s death has just passed unmarked in China. Ms. Shapiro insists, however, that the environmental politics of the Mao years remain a legacy “only partially acknowledged by China’s current leadership, which has contributed to the current grave environmental situation in China.” The bad situation includes some of the most polluted air anywhere in cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou; poisoned and inadequate water supplies; environmentally related health problems so vast that if treated “they would negate much of the region’s economic growth”; erosion, salinization, desertification, deforestation, overgrazing, and the resulting floods. Vaclav Smil, an environmental expert at the University of Manitoba, argues along the same lines in Feeding the World that “environmental pollution and ecosystem degradation” incur costs that are “equivalent to at least 10 percent of the country’s annual GDP, and that roughly one-fifth of that cost is attributable to losses of agricultural production.”5

“The relationship between humans and nature under Mao is so transparent and extreme,” Shapiro emphasizes, “that it clearly indicates a link between abuse of people and abuse of the natural environment.” In the Mao years, she makes plain, the degradation of nature came about through the efforts of millions of Chinese, in which traditional values of obedience to superiors and a long history of extracting as much as possible from the natural world played their part. She points out, however, that over the centuries some Chinese peasants and farmers had practiced forms of tilling, water use, grazing, and forestry that were not damaging to the environment, and that they abandoned these reluctantly, despite Mao’s charisma and the power of the state.

Shapiro illustrates her major points with striking examples, many of them known to China specialists but given here in a detailed account that anyone interested in China or the global environment will find shocking. To illustrate Mao’s greatest catastrophe—his encouraging unchecked population growth—and a disastrous runner-up—the construction of big dams—Shapiro describes the careers of two of the Chairman’s major victims. On July 1, 1957, Ma Yinchu, a graduate of Yale and Columbia and president of Beijing University, issued a report on population which was published in the Party’s People’s Daily four days later. The essence of Ma’s report was that China’s development was being handicapped by the size of its population. He advocated contraception, late marriage, sex education, and rewards for small families (all of which have been adopted as policies since 1980), but not abortion.

Within a few months Ma became the target of an extensive press campaign of abuse. Tens of thousands of wall posters denounced him. He was shunned in the humble village where he had been born, and by 1960 had been sacked as president of his university. He was rehabilitated only in 1979, when he was ninety-eight, and died three years later. Ma had challenged two of Mao’s most heartfelt beliefs: that Western science had little to teach China and that there could never be enough people. “We are not afraid of a population of 800 million or one billion,” Mao said in 1958, during the Great Leap Forward, which led straight to the famine of 1959–1961. “…When all the people are college educated, they will naturally practice birth control.”

Such remarks came at a time of persecution of hundreds of thousands of intellectuals, including scientists.6 It became plain that to disagree with the line of the moment was to court arrest, internal exile, torture, and death. Eventually, in 1964, when the population was already almost 700 million, Mao looked again at the statistics and admitted, “This is serious.” The Party secretary—of the party that had persecuted Ma—at the Ma Yinchu Lower Middle School told Shapiro, “If Mao hadn’t suppressed Ma, we wouldn’t be having such problems with family planning.” A further irony, according to Shapiro, is that Ma believed the Communist Party was China’s best hope, and he sought to use his courage and scholarly rigor in its service. Mao and the Party chose instead to persecute him. This loyalty to that Party, and for so long, remains, for me at least, one of China’s most distressing and mysterious tendencies.

A second example, in which Shapiro describes how “the belief in the triumphal human domination of nature… mirrored the totalitarian impulse in the human political world,” is the persecution of Huang Wanli, China’s greatest hydro-engineer. According to legend, China’s prehistoric rulers, by dredging and constructing dikes, redirected rivers and controlled floods. Tourists today are escorted to vast ancient irrigation projects. Mao was especially interested in controlling the Yellow River, which runs 5,500 kilometers from the Tibetan plateau to the sea, accumulating so much silt along the way (hence its name) that for much of its course the river flows high above the plain, in some places by more than twenty-five feet. The river often spilled over its dikes, which were then built higher and higher; when they burst, the floods were worse than ever. The debate among those who wished to control this mighty stream, the world’s third-longest, was whether to build one enormous dam or smaller ones along its tributaries. In the early Fifties, Soviet advisers, relying on Moscow’s reputation in China as “elder brother” and on their experience in massive hydroelectric projects in Siberia, recommended a huge dam, to be known as the Sanmenxia. The problem of silt, which would have jammed the generators, was to be solved by draining it off through sluices. Work began in 1957. By 1960 the dam had risen to 340 meters and the sluice gates had been cemented shut, perhaps to increase the dam’s Mao-pleasing grandeur. It was finished in 1962 and, even after the sluice gates were eventually reopened, has caused nothing but trouble.

Huang Wanli, born in 1911, and educated at Cornell, Iowa, and Illinois, had worked on the Norris Dam with the Tennessee Valley Authority. A professor at Qinghua, China’s MIT, he surveyed 3,000 kilometers of Chinese rivers on foot, gaining close experience of the relationship between dams, sediment, and flow. Worried about the design of the Sanmenxia project, Huang noted that seeking to contain sediment with one vast dam was a dangerous attempt to “fiddle around with nature.” In the fateful year 1957 he criticized the design of the Sanmenxia dam at a meeting of more than seventy experts who urged him to yield to Soviet advice.7 Huang banged on the table as he insisted on his position. He soon outlined his scientific views in a short story about a road with a faulty foundation, in which he criticized toadies “who mouthed socialist pieties….”

Science and literature were two of the most sensitive subjects in Mao’s China, and by June 8 the People’s Daily carried a headline with Mao’s fatal question “What is this?” next to an article by Huang praising Ma Yinchu and noting that “leaders controlled the contraceptive supply, whereas those who really understood the issue [of population] were powerless.” Huang now came under attack for having challenged Mao. He was accused of favoring foreign countries, sabotaging the relationship between the Party and the masses, advocating bourgeois democracy, and condemning China’s population policy.

Huang was sent to a reservoir construction site to do hard labor, where a message was eventually passed to him from Mao asking him to recant. Huang replied that “this stifling of views…was China’s real problem.” In 1966 Huang, now under house arrest, was attacked by Red Guards and his children were forced to denounce him. Assigned to labor at Sanmenxia in 1973, he continued his research on the control of silt. Still out of favor after Mao’s death in 1976 and urged by Party officials to make a face-saving recantation, Huang said, “The earth will always circle the sun, not the other way around. This will not change because of anything you have to say.” Though eventually pardoned, he was still labeled as someone who had caused internal contradictions among the people. Now almost ninety, Huang told Shapiro he had no regrets: “The others had no backbone…. It was clear…in 1964, two years after the dam was completed…. In fact, Mao was the greatest criminal in history….”

As for the dam itself, as increasingly huge adjustments had to be made, including moving the generators to other sites, Mao is said to have remarked to Zhou Enlai, “If nothing works, then just blow up the dam.” Shapiro describes other disastrous water control projects in the Maoist years, including the 554 dams that collapsed in 1973. Hundreds of thousands of people were forced to move as a result of such projects, and many other experts were purged for contesting them. As Shapiro writes, “Huang and Ma together captured the Chinese historical imagination through their steadfast integrity. They have become twin symbols of the costs of repression of intellectual freedom.”

Another egomaniacal Maoist catastrophe occurred in 1955. Shapiro recounts how Mao decreed that all educated youth should go “down to the countryside and up to the mountains.” Twenty million urban young people did so, laboring in deserts, jungles, and mountain valleys to reclaim arable land. Armies of young people suffered and often died in a failed cause. Ma Bo’s novel Blood Red Sunset is set in Inner Mongolia, where regiments of young people destroyed wetlands and deforested hillsides, water tables fell, and animal husbandry declined.8 The narrator cries out in his disillusion:

Forgive us our ignorance, our fanaticism, and our cruelty. There’s consolation in the knowledge that we too suffered and that we made horrible sacrifices, even the ultimate sacrifice for some. Tens of thousands of lovely flowers bloomed and died here, silent and unnoticed.

A common destination for tourists nowadays is the Xishuangbanna Autonomous Region, in southwest China’s Yunnan province, just over the border from Laos and Burma. Although the region occupies only a tiny proportion of the country’s territory, it contains the densest habitat of plants and animals in China as well as being home to twelve ethnic minorities. In this once-idyllic place, Shapiro writes, urban young people beginning in the late 1960s were ordered to clear a primeval forest containing trees found only there to make way for rubber plantations. Forest cover was reduced from almost 70 percent in 1941 to 26 percent in 1981. But Yunnan province is on the wrong latitude for rubber, which grows more successfully in Southeast Asia and is cheaper to import. Economically, the project was a disaster, costing more in state funds than could ever be regained from the paltry rubber crops. Ignored were the traditional agricultural practices of the local people. Among the urban young people clearing the jungles, rates of suicide and depression were high.

In 1985 Ma Jian, a Beijing writer and photographer, saw the tombs of fourteen educated youths killed in a fire in Xishuangbanna where they were burning down the jungle to make way for rubber trees. Years later, Ma observed, the slopes remained arid and bare. On two of the tombs was written “Posthumously awarded membership of the Communist Party.”9 The campaign of educated youth remains virtually unmentionable in China, so great was the humiliation and defeat. A Chinese told Shapiro: “Twenty million youths were treated as playthings. Even now, they say our spirit of self-sacrifice is worth imitating. If they publicly negated the movement, it would be a great validation and consolation for us.”

Ms. Shapiro is cautiously optimistic. She points to the considerable investment Beijing has made in remedying pollution, creating new nature reserves, enacting and enforcing forestry laws, and establishing environmental science in school curriculums. But she presents such overpoweringly dark pictures of China’s environmental disaster that even her super-cautious optimism is difficult to share. In the post-Mao period, Shapiro concludes, China’s environmental difficulties have increased severely. Whatever countermeasures have been taken—this is also Vaclav Smil’s view—have been inadequate in the face of rapidly rising population and the expectations of consumers who have been imbued with the slogan of the Dengist reforms, To Get Rich Is Glorious. Under a government that has no coherent goals of its own apart from clinging to power and smashing any resistance which can be condemned as “split-tist” or destabilizing, what chance do China’s brave environmentalists have?

According to an investigation by the Canadian organization Probe International, Beijing’s claims that the Three Gorges Dam will protect the environment, generate electricity, and control floods are unsupported or false. The investigation is based on internal documents written by leading Chinese experts. One of them replies to a colleague worried about flooding: “We can sort this problem out by lowering the flood control to 135 meters, even though this would affect shipping on the river. But keep in mind, never, never let the public know this.” The same expert noted that the electricity generated by the dam, which receives large subsidies from the World Bank, is so expensive that customers will not be able to afford it. He estimated that so little money has been appropriated for environmental protection that it would now require $37 billion. In the meantime, he said, the situation is getting worse.10

We now read in the Chinese press of a plan that would have made the pharaohs quail: to transfer water from the Yangtze River hundreds of miles to the North China plain, where decades of prodigal waste have lowered the water table beyond the reach of all but the most powerful pumps. It should now be clear that the water dilemma is an excellent example of the costs of China’s economic development. Smil, in Feeding the World, provides extensive documentation on water shortages resulting from ever-higher agricultural, urban, and industrial demand, environmental pollution arising from industrial and urban expansion, and the consequent “degradation of ecosystems.” About 40 percent of the mainland’s rivers and lakes are polluted, with the water in at least 10 percent of them no longer potable, according to Qu Geping, chairman of the National People’s Congress Environmental and Resources Protection Committee. “Water shortages and pollution would be the biggest problems hampering development during the mainland’s tenth Five-year plan, 2001–05,” Qu said in March. Smil states that much of the water pollution comes from “hundreds of thousands of new village and township enterprises that have been absorbing rural surplus labor.” Nonetheless, in a description that might draw approval from President Bush, Shapiro says that “much of Chinese society and leadership is convinced that it is now China’s turn to enjoy all the benefits of development and that pollution remediation measures and cleanup are luxuries that the country cannot yet afford.”

In China the leadership can argue this point with some justification. By 1985, within five years of the start of the Dengist reforms ending collectivization, the food available in China rose to 2,700 calories per capita per day, only slightly behind Japan, and the food supply has, according to Smil, remained at that level ever since. The quality of food has also increased, with tripled intakes of oils, poultry, eggs, and fish. But Smil observes that while the Chinese diet has improved in coastal provinces and urban areas, “average diets are still barely adequate in inland provinces,” and 50 million Chinese have less than adequate supplies of food available to them.

No one questions that China’s economy has shown consistent overall growth; but the question of the quality of that growth is bedeviled by contradictions. Nicholas R. Lardy, a leading expert on China’s economy at the Brookings Institution, has illustrated the problem with a telling example of how a large proportion of goods are neither bought nor used but are held as “inventory” because they are seen as inferior. He writes:

The official data overstate the pace of economic expansion and the gains in real economic welfare that the economy generates, if for no other reason that over the past decade there has been an extraordinary buildup of unsold and unsaleable inventories. While these inventories are counted as part of output and thus contribute to the growth of China’s gross domestic product, they are not utilized for either consumption or fixed investment. The real resources that have gone into the production of these goods has been largely wasted….

On average in 1990–98 annual additions to inventories in China absorbed 42 percent of incremental output. While some increase in inventories is needed to support higher levels of output, the disproportionately large inventory buildup in China reflects the continued production of low-quality goods for which there is little or no demand. Chinese society would have been much better off if the goods had never been produced at all.11

Jun Jing, professor of anthropology at City College in New York, has provided a rare look at rural protests against pollution which “reflect the growing public awareness of a deepening environmental crisis which is in effect the other side of the coin of China’s vaunted rapid development in the post-Mao era.”12 One of China’s most enterprising journals, Southern Weekend, published in Guangzhou under the control of the local Party, recently described how overgrazing and excessively intensive farming have caused dust storms and other problems in Inner Mongolia. It is a sign of the sensitivity of this subject, and others that the paper has covered, such as AIDS, rural unrest, and Internet crackdowns, that its two top editors were removed in June. Judith Shapiro sees a hope in the efforts of environmentally conscious young Chinese who, in articles, Internet postings, and private meetings, challenge the widespread indifference to anything but individual gain. But her devastating, meticulously documented book still makes one despair for the future of China’s environment.

  1. "Swimming," Mao Zedong, 1956, in The Writings of Mao Zedong, edited by John K. Leung and Michael Y.M. Kau (M.E. Sharpe, 1986) Vol. 2, pp. 83–84.
  2. Knopf, 1983.
  3. For a vigorous discussion of this project see Dai Qing, The River Dragon Has Come! The Three Gorges Dam and the Fate of China's Yangtze River and Its People (M.E. Sharpe, 1998).
  4. "China: Imminent Trial of Three Gorges Dam Protestors," Human Rights Watch, April 20, 2001.
  5. Smil makes the further point that official sources "substantially underestimate" China's arable land and that with proper policies yields, which are not substantial by world standards, could be increased.
  6. For an account of the Great Leap and ensuing famine, in which upward of 30 million people died, see Roderick MacFarquhar, The Origins of the Cultural Revolution, Volume 3: The Coming of the Cataclysm, 1961–1966 (Columbia University Press, 1997); for a comprehensive description of the famine, see Jasper Becker, Hungry Ghosts: China's Secret Famine (London: John Murray, 1996).
  7. The Soviet Union's assault on its own environment is vividly described by Murray Feshbach and Alfred Friendly Jr. in Ecocide in the USSR: Health and Nature Under Siege (Basic Books, 1992). In 1990, crowds in Red Square, weary of the government's boasts that their country would overtake American living standards, carried cynical signs proclaiming "Let Us Catch Up With and Surpass Africa"( p. 267).
  8. Ma Bo, Blood Red Sunset: A Memoir of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, translated by Howard Goldblatt (Viking, 1995).
  9. Ma Jian, Red Dust: A Path Through China, translated by Flora Drew (Pantheon, November 2001), p. 265.
  10. Jasper Becker in the South China Morning Post, Hong Kong, February 17, 2001.
  11. See Lardy's statement to the US Senate Finance Committee, April 6, 2000.
  12. Jun Jing, "Environmental Protests in Rural China," in Chinese Society: Change, Conflict and Resistance, edited by Elizabeth J. Perry and Mark Selden (Routledge, 2000), p. 143.