Rural Pollution: China’s Bad Earth

At The Wall Street Journal, Josh Chin and Brian Spegele explore the environmental deterioration of China’s countryside, which threatens to undermine both the security of the country’s food supply and the legitimacy of its government.

“Nothing comes from these plants,” says the farmer, pointing past the irrigation pond to a handful of stunted rice shoots. She grows the rice, which can’t be sold because of its low quality, only in order to qualify for payments made by the factory owners to compensate for polluting the area. But the amount is only a fraction of what she used to earn when the land was healthy, she says. The plants look alive, “but they’re actually dead inside.”

The experiences of these farmers in Dapu, in central China’s Hunan province, highlight an emerging and critical front in China’s intensifying battle with pollution. For years, public attention has focused on the choking air and contaminated water that plague China’s ever-expanding cities. But a series of recent cases have highlighted the spread of pollution outside of urban areas, now encompassing vast swaths of countryside, including the agricultural heartland.

Estimates from state-affiliated researchers say that anywhere between 8% and 20% of China’s arable land, some 25 to 60 million acres, may now be contaminated with heavy metals. A loss of even 5% could be disastrous, taking China below the “red line” of 296 million acres of arable land that are currently needed, according to the government, to feed the country’s 1.35 billion people. [Source]

The perceived importance of the agricultural red line is demonstrated by hugely controversial grave demolition programs in Henan, where the government of Zhoukou prefecture trampled taboos and enraged locals in order to reclaim farmland from burial grounds.

Chin and Spegele cite two main causes of rural pollution: booming and inefficient use of chemical fertilizer to feed China’s growing population and the effective outsourcing of pollution to the countryside. Tsinghua professor Li Dun described this process to Caixin (via CDT) last year:

The environmental issues facing rural China differ from those facing developed countries and other developing nations. It is an environmental and ecological deterioration that has occurred in the wake of the collapse of the state monopoly of grain and the people’s commune system which left in place the hukou system and its legacy of official separation between rural and urban areas.

From this system sprung an unspoken yet not entirely unconscious arrangement: The countryside was where you could sweep under the rug all of the waste and heavy polluters from the shiny prosperous new cities. [Source]

A string of lionized and predominantly urban environmental protests has only fueled this trend. As Danwei’s Jeremy Goldkorn bluntly put it in a recent Sinica podcast: “Everybody’s all ‘ah, democracy! The people are standing up!’ … and then the protest is over and they move the plant 10 kilometers away and poison a bunch of peasants who don’t have Weibo.” With authorities’ focus on “maintaining stability” and urbanites’ greater ability to gather visibly and capture the fickle spotlight of netizen and media attention, rural residents are at a severe disadvantage. chinadialogue’s Tang Hao (via CDT) recently summed up the problem:

With an imbalance of power and decision makers consciously or otherwise shirking their duties, the nimby problem may be insoluble. There’s plenty of polluting public infrastructure that can’t simply be cancelled – incinerators, sewage treatment plants, power stations must be built in someone’s backyard. If there is no effective system for balancing interests and forming consensus, problems will just be shuffled around, and China will have neither social harmony nor scientific development. [Source]


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