Saturday, February 10, 2007

Collapse: China, Lurching Giant

I've just re-read Collapse's chapter on China. There are only 20 pages there, but it is a torrent of bad news. Diamond does manage to finish on a hopeful note, and I don't doubt his sincerity, but there was no sign of that optimism in the preceding 19 pages.

When it comes to environmental problems, you name it, China has it in spades. Air and water pollution, soil erosion and salinization, 20% of it's native species endangered, habitat destruction due to a number of factors, and on top of all this, what Diamond calls megaprojects (Three Gorges Dam, South-to-North Water Diversion Project). Complete the picture, if you will, with an image of the most populous nation on Earth moving towards First World living standards, growing its economy at 10% pa, but achieving all this through desperately inefficient use of its resources.

I wonder how much of this we'll actually witness first hand while there. Will the air be so bad in Beijing that we'll be learning the Mandarin for face mask? Will we experience one of the infamous duststorms that plague the capital from the soil-eroded plains to the North? As we approach Xi'an on the train from Beijing, will we see the lunar landscape of the Loess Plateau, which is 70% eroded? We certainly hope to set eyes on theThree Gorges Dam which is due to be complete in 2008/9. And what about the water shortages - I doubt we'll see any halts in the flow of the Yellow River, seeing as we'll be there in Winter.

There was a very interesting Will Hutton article in the Guardian a few weeks back that described the tension that exists between the huge growth in the economy, and the fact (at least according to Hutton) that the Chinese market was still very much managed, and very much in the hands of the Chinese government - in other words the Communist Party. His thesis is that due to the enormous problem of corruption within that party - thanks to the lack of the western structures and freedoms whereby the government might itself be governed - the Chinese rush to riches will end up in either civil strife, or industrial collapse.

There are echoes of Collapse in that article too, but Diamond overall sees the unique control that the Chinese government still holds as being a cause for optimism (a style that he refers to somewhat euphemistically as Top-Down). Only in China could the population growth be reduced to 1.3% (the One-Child policy). Only the public ownership of all land could allow the easy establishment of 1757 natural reserves (13% of China's area), an outright ban on logging, enormous reforestation and reclaiming of desert.

The metaphor that Diamond finishes the chapter with, is one that he uses throughout the book: a race. There is a race between the destructive and remedial powers of humankind and our ingenuity. China itself is lurching between these positive and negative tendancies, but doing so with a momentum that makes it unique amonst nations. A momentum that makes it uniquely responsible.


Jamie Parks said...

Thanks for the post - I'll check the Collapse book out. I'm just begining my studies of China.

Brendan Lawlor said...

The book is excellent in its own right and covers a great many civilizations both past and present. There are just 20 pages on China however, so there may be better places to begin.

I like the look of your blog. I'm going to take some time to go through it this weekend.

>>john m said...

I was in Lhasa in 1987 and just before the first Lhasa uprising again, I was back there in 1988 and left just before the second Lhasa uprising. The PLA had got their act together before the second uprising and supressed it with great violence. I was also in Kashgar in 87 when there was talk of a Uyger uprising. Closed towns (Hotan, Yengihissar), PSB everywhere. Point is, I was sure back then that the country would have fallen apart back then - definitely after 1989 But it didn't.

Brendan Lawlor said...

I look forward to seeing for myself, or getting some kind of a feel for, the political mood on the ground, as well as the truth about the environment. I don't know if that is going to be very easy, given my very limited mandarin, and touristy destinations.