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China's Growing Pains On Assignment

China's Growing Pains On Assignment

China's Growing Pains
Step into the world of writers and photographers as they tell you about the best, worst, and quirkiest places and adventures they encountered in the field.

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Tainted Spaces

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By Jasper BeckerPhotographs by Bob Sacha

Wrenching environmental problems are plaguing the world's newest industrial powerhouse. Can China clean up its act?

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

As a foreign journalist working in China for more than a decade, I've been impressed by its material gains—and shocked by the associated environmental ills, which can be seen or smelled or tasted everywhere you go. You can read no end of reports and statistics about the problems, but experiencing their effects is quite different. A World Bank report spelling out that China has some of the worst soil erosion in the world takes on a whole new meaning when you're sitting at your desk—as I was in Beijing one recent spring day—and you glance out the window to see a vast and choking cloud of yellow dust rolling down the Avenue of Eternal Peace like a banshee let loose from the Mongolian steppes.
The erosion crisis, traceable back five decades to the agricultural policies of Chairman Mao Zedong, has been exacerbated by years of drought, turning the steppes and plateaus of northwestern China into a dust bowl. The dust storms that blow up each spring can sweep east across the Korean peninsula and Japan, eventually reaching across North America.
China may be getting richer as it turns into the workshop of the world, but as Beijingers rich and poor admit, what good is money if you can't breathe the air? If the economy keeps roaring along, within three decades China could overtake the U.S. as the world's largest source of greenhouse gases, associated with global warming. China continues to rely on coal for 75 percent of its energy, spewing out some 19 million tons (17 million metric tons) of sulfur dioxide a year (the U.S. produces 11 million tons [10 million metric tons] a year) and contributing mightily to acid rain. People in barely a third of 340 monitored Chinese cities breathe air that meets national air-quality levels, which are below World Health Organization (WHO) norms. Indoor air pollution from coal burning takes more than 700,000 lives a year, and respiratory diseases cause nearly a quarter of all deaths in the countryside.
Bad as the air can be, lack of clean fresh water presents an even graver threat. Two-thirds of major cities are now seriously short of it, and as many as 700 million people drink water contaminated with human and animal waste at levels that don't come close to the government's minimum standards (also below those of WHO). Most of the 20 billion tons (18 billion metric tons) of raw sewage produced in the cities each year—only 10 percent of which is treated—is dumped straight into rivers and lakes. Peasants who formerly used only human waste (night soil) on their fields now also apply nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers, with the result that nutrient-laden runoff brews thick algae in rivers, lakes, and canals. Chinese scientists find a link between water pollution and the country's high rates of liver, stomach, and esophageal cancers.
All this made me wonder whether the Chinese have not so much been creating an economic superpower as committing ecological suicide. China's leaders may be wondering the same thing. "Never has the Chinese government put the environment issue in such an
important position," declared Xie Zhenhua, director of the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA), in a 2002 press report. "It is vital to the stability and the prosperity of our country and people."
Certainly, if you look below the surface, you will find signs that a new consciousness is beginning to seep like rainwater through the layers of Chinese society. Not only are people coming to accept that the country's prosperity is bound up with caring for the environment, but they're now also aware that efforts at environmental protection are in turn bound up with improving systems of law and government. Good laws mean nothing when, as is often still the case, leaders don't have the will or means to enforce them, so some Chinese—those desperate enough—are testing the limits of political constraints through acts of civil disobedience. Others, meanwhile, are looking to the outside world for expertise and money to help with conservation projects. And still others are pioneering new ways of thinking about how to live more harmoniously with nature. But promising as all this is, it still seems that every environmentally friendly measure is offset by a greater number of abuses. China's shift away from old habits and attitudes has only just begun.

Get the whole story in the pages of National Geographic magazine.

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How would the Chinese cope if the average family in China had two cars, and, like Americans, the average person ate 269 pounds (122 kg) of meat a year?

More to Explore

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
How do Chinese who care about their health, their children's future well-being, and the rich resources of their nation constructively express their concerns to their leaders and help work toward solutions? By getting involved with environmental ("green") nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), which emerged in China during the 1990s.
Today there may be up to a hundred citizen-organized green NGOs working to educate the public and to partner with international like-minded groups in their work to slow down the loss of quality of life in China's natural world. Chinese NGOs differ from their counterparts elsewhere—they must have a state or Communist Party sponsor involved in their development and registration, as well as an annual operations review. Often formed around a single charismatic individual, these groups, known as social organizations in China, are learning to function effectively, following a model seen in the United States three decades ago. "Citizen-organized NGOs [in China] are in their first generation of growth and hopefully in the future they can develop the management skills needed to continue their work," observes Jiang Ru, a Stanford University doctoral candidate studying the groups.

Further, the Chinese groups are able to take advantage of the Internet to spread their message. Internet environmental activism is at work in China, according to sociologist Guobin Yang, who has observed a proliferation of websites established by both individuals and groups in China. Yang sees the role of these sites as moving "between the virtual and the real world to deal with environmental problems by undertaking community-based projects." Yang's analysis of this movement, based on recent field research, can be read at

The following are a small sampling of citizen-organized NGOs with websites containing some English language content:

Friends of Nature established a decade ago, was the vision of historian Liang Congjie. Children are the special focus of FON's efforts." 2001.
Global Village Beijing was the brainchild of TV and radio personality Sheri Liao. Her media campaigns promoting environmental awareness were recognized in 2000, when she was awarded the Sophie Prize, known as the Nobel Prize for the environment. 
The Center for Legal Assistance to Pollution Victims has operated for over five years, advising and educating citizens about environmental laws. 
Green River highlights public awareness about the health of the headwaters of the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers in Sichuan Province.
Snowland Great Rivers Environmental Protection Association has mobilized citizens of Qinghai Province in projects involving biodiversity preservation on the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau.
—Nancie Majkowski
Did You Know?

Related Links
Asian Development Bank (ADB)
Obtain details of dozens of energy, agriculture, and natural resource, water, and transportation projects financed by the ADB, which China joined in 1986.
China Environment Forum at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
The China Environment Forum creates programming and publications encouraging dialogue among U.S. and Chinese scholars, policymakers, and NGOs on environmental and energy challenges in China.
The American Embassy in China
This United States Embassy site offers reports and links on all aspects of China's social, economic, and political scene.
World Resources Institute (WRI)
This U.S.-based nonprofit has worked with the Chinese government to evaluate the relationship between environment and health in China.
The World Bank Group
Read the World Bank's country assistance strategy for China, supporting its two historic transitions: from a rural, agricultural to an urban, industrial society, and from a centrally planned to a more globally integrated market-based economy.


Baldinger, Pamela, and Jennifer L. Turner. Crouching Suspicions, Hidden Potential. Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, 2002.
Becker, Jasper. "The Ruined Land: China's Water Crisis." Asia Times Online.
Available online at
Jaffe, D., and others.  "The April 2001 Asian Dust Events: Transport and Substantial Impact on Surface Particulate Matter Concentrations Across the United States." EOS Transactions  (May 2003). Available online at
Kahn, Joseph. "Foul Water & Air Part of Cost of the Boom in China's Exports." New York Times (November 4, 2003).
Murray, Geoffrey, and Ian G. Cook. Green China: Seeking Ecological Alternatives.  Routledge Curzon, 2002.
Roberts, Dexter. "The Greening of China." Business Week (October 27, 2003).
Available online at
Shapiro, Judith. Mao's War Against Nature. Cambridge University Press, 2001.
Turner, Jennifer L., and Timothy Hildebrandt. "Harnessing the Waters: Nature Conquest in China's Past and Present." Summary of China Environment Forum event, June 27, 2003. Available online at
Ward's Motor Vehicle Facts & Figures 2003.
World Bank. China: Air, Land, and Water. International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, 2001.
Zhang, Peichang, and others. "China's Forest Policy for the 21st Century." Science (June 23, 2000), 2135-36.
Zhi, Su, and others. "Occupational Health Hazards Facing China's Workers and Possible Remedies." World Bank Transition Newsletter (July-September 2002).
Available online at


NGS Resources
Stone, George W. "Along the Silk Road." National Geographic Traveler (May/June 2003), 118.
Hessler, Peter. "Chasing the Wall." National Geographic (January 2003), 2-33.
Supples, Kevin. China. National Geographic Books, 2002.
Rock, Joseph F. "Exploring China and Beyond." National Geographic (February 1998), 22.
Kohl, Larry. "Above China." National Geographic (March 1989), 278-311.
Terrill, Ross. "Sichuan: Where China Changes Course." National Geographic (September 1985), 280-317.
Goodnow, Frank Johnson. "The Geography of China: The Influence of Physical Environment on the History and Character of the Chinese People." National Geographic (June 1927), 650-64.


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