The Environment and China’s Future

The Environment and China’s Future

  1. N. Anderson

Dept. of Anthropology

University of California, Riverside



ROUGH DRAFT; comments and corrections urgently desired!


This paper is a very modest effort at bringing together quotes and facts from leading scientists on the environmental problems of modern China.  Interpretation and commentary is kept to a minimum, mostly obvious conclusions based narrowly on the facts presented.  I am hoping that some readers will be able to use the information here to help in reaching more significant conclusions.


Portions of this paper were given as presentations at the California Sociological Association annual meetings, 2012 and 2014, Riverside, CA



After 5000 years of trying to live in some degree of “harmony” (he or heping) with the environment, China under Mao turned toward “struggling against nature” (in Mao Zedong’s phrase).  The result of this conflict is, inevitably, that both people and nature lose.  China now suffers massive deforestation, pollution, soil erosion, desertification, urban sprawl onto prime farmland, and building of huge uneconomic projects that destroy the environment (statistics supplied in this paper).  This in turn has led to ill health among the citizenry.  Now, China has turned to other countries, as it seeks resources to make up for those it has lost.


“When you’re thirsty it’s too late to dig a well.”

Chinese proverb



Many commentators have seen China’s economic rise as a promise of triumph, with China perhaps being the world leader or “hegemonic power” of the 21st century.  This, however, is impossible, unless China greatly changes its environmental policies.  Failing that, shortages of food, water, breathable air, and sheer space for construction, among other things, will limit China’s ability to dominate the world, economically or politically.

Communist China’s economic success is due to a number of things.  Some of these are commendable, at least in general principles if not always in detail.  China now has mass education, scientific research, generally available health care, a vastly improved infrastructure, and law and order.

However, some other features of China’s economy have caught the eyes of foreign observers.  Many American observers ascribe China’s success to four things.  First is keeping wages low and preventing workers from grassroots organizing.  Second is massive government support for primary production.  Third is an autocratic government that suppresses dissent and free speech.  Fourth is the concern of the present paper:  the relative lack of meaningful environmental regulations or protection.  China has decided that environmental protection is in conflict with economic growth.

In this, Communist China has reversed China’s 5000-year history of trying to live and work with the environment.  Imperial China often failed in the execution, but at least had a reasonably consistent belief that a well-managed environment is necessary to the survival of agriculture and civilization.  The Chinese Communist under Mao Zedong reversed this policy, and adopted the Marxist-Leninist idea of “struggle against nature”—a favorite phrase of Mao’s.  Marx shared the 19th-century European belief in progress through destroying nature and substituting an industrial landscape.  Marx himself was quite moderate about this, and had some sense of a need for environmental management (Foster 2000), but Lenin and Stalin opted for heavy industrialization at all costs.

In China, after 1948, things went well for about ten years.  It did not bring in extreme collectivization measures until 1958.  Instead, it began ambitious and stunningly successful measures of flood control, erosion prevention, reforestation, and public relief.  Capital was freed by expropriating landlords.  Workers were more efficiently mobilized.  Cooperatives, successful locally even before communism, spread and flourished.  Food production soared.

Most successful of all in saving the environment has been the policies on birth.  A two-child policy changed to one child only for most Han Chinese; minorities and some rural populations get better dispensations.  China still has 22% of the world’s population on only 7% of the land.

However, Communist China has been harsher on the environment than was dynastic China (on dynastic management, see Anderson 2014; Elvin 2004, but Elvin considerably too harsh on the traditional system; Marks 1998, 2009, 2012; Menzies 1994).  The Communists substituted a mentality of “struggling against nature” for the older tradition of going with nature.  This increased production in the short run, but major policy errors—the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, “taking grain as the key link,” and others—led to massive famines.

The Great Leap Forward in 1958-1961 caused what was almost certainly the greatest famine in all Chinese history.  A history of this event has finally come forth:  Mao’s Great Famine by Frank Dikötter  (2010; see also Smil 2004; Dikötter’s work has been criticized, largely for maintaining it was deliberate genocide; it was more a matter of mistaken policy; see Eberlein 2012.  However, the death toll is what matters here).  Further famines during the Great Cultural Revolution (due more to the confusion of that time) continued to erode Communist successes.

Li (2007:359) cites an estimate of 23 million dead in the 1958-61 famine, but her figures for the areas she knows are relatively higher, and so are mine (very incomplete but revealing) from interviews with refugees in Hong Kong.  I would estimate at least twice her figure, and many other estimates are higher (Dikötter 2010).  After long and detailed review of the evidence, Li breaks her usual objective stance to say that “the Mao famine…stands alone…an ‘error’ of an individual human being.  Some Qing emperors were exemplary leaders,…others were lacking in ability….  But none could be said to have actually caused a famine to occur….  The spirit of the country was high…. The government was fully functional….  For the Mao famine, there is no record, no acknowledgment, no acceptance of …responsibility” (Li 2007:364).  The Qing officials did their best and made reports on any failures.  Not only Mao, but even the post-Mao governments of China, have never done that.  Secrecy was and is maintained.  The story remains untold, the dead not only unacknowledged in public but uncounted.

In retrospect, we can see Mao’s policies as, in some ways, typical of the world of the 1950s.  It was a unique period, characterized everywhere by a rush to privilege the artificial over the natural.  This was the age when processed food was better than unprocessed, bottle feeding better than breastfeeding, episiotomies and anaesthetics and Caesarian sections better than natural childbirth, leafblowers better than lighter and faster brooms, and any and all “labor-saving” devices better than the old ways even when the latter actually involved less effort and expense.  Research on biocontrol would have saved the world from pesticides.  Often, as in China, the results were irreversible.  As Rachel Carson predicted in Silent Spring (1962), pesticides have exterminated the biocontrol agents—the birds, bugs and bacteria that used to control pests.  In China, active and deliberate extermination of small birds, believed to eat grain (wrongly in all cases except for one or two species), was added to that mix.  Bees are so completely exterminated that apple and pear farmers are pollinating flowers by hand (Goulson 2012).

Policy was substantially changed after Mao Zedong’s passing, leading to several environmental reforms, and to dramatic production increases.  These, however, came at increasing environmental cost.  Massive pollution by extreme overuse of fertilizers and insecticides (up to 10 times the recommended rates) has accompanied massive loss of farmland to urbanization, erosion, desertification, and pollution.

The result of China’s policies has been deforestation, desertification, pollution, and waste of resources.  Many books document this (Abe and Nickum 2009; Day 2005; Economy 2005; He 1991; Marks 2012; Shapiro 2001; Smil 1984, 2004; Tilt 2009; Watts 2010; for thorough and general recent reviews of environmental-economic prospects for China, see Song and Woo 2008).  Richard Smith has recently written on why “China’s environmental crisis is so horrific, so much worse than “normal” capitalism most everywhere else, and why the government is incapable of suppressing pollution even from its own industries” (Smith 2015:1).  And this in spite of Smith’s acceptance of China’s economic growth figures, which, as will appear below, are far from realistic.

Even more serious for the future is the fact that much of the damage is essentially irreversible.  Lester Brown (1995), Richard Edmonds (1998), Robert Marks (2012), Vaclav Smil (1984, 2004), and Judith Shapiro (2001) have been particularly sharp and insightful recorders.  Smil (2004) criticizes Brown’s negativity, but can only agree with the facts.  Smil differs from Brown only in the projections.  Brown adopts a worst-case scenario in which China keeps going downhill.  Smil, on the basis of hindsight, sees much more hope.  Indeed, after the massive floods in 1998 (see below), China’s leadership recognized that something had to be done.  Thus, not only Smil, but other observers of the Chinese environmental scene (Day 2005; Economy 2005), saw considerable hope for the future, as of the early 2000’s.  A major report on the environment by the World Bank (2007) noted in enormous detail the horrific levels of air and water pollution.  They estimated that damage to human health and lifespan and to structures and crops by air pollution cost the country 6.5% of GDP, while water pollution caused damage to human health that cost 1.9%, with crop damage and other damage on top of that.  They also noted that many major changes for the better had occurred; China was using energy resources more efficiently, cleaning the air, supplying better water.  Since then, however, the situation has widely deteriorated.



Unfortunately, since these books appeared, the rate of urbanization and ruin of farmland and the levels of pollution have increased, and the government seems to have backed away from its sensible policies (cf. Hyde and Xu 2009), though reforestation continues and is notably successful in some places.  My observations and my students’ make it clear that Smil is too optimistic.  Brown was closer to the truth.  Things are not going well.

Yonglong Lu et al. have summarized the problems in a recent article in Science Advances (2015).  They find that more and more intensive food production, to improve the quality of food for China’s increasing population, is on a collision course with environmental survival (let alone sustainability).  Area of lakes seriously eutrophied by fertilizer has gone from 135 sq km in 1967 to 8700 in 2007 and still more now.  Nitrogen in the air (and precipitating from it) has almost tripled since 1980.  Air pollution of all sorts is reducing crop yields.  Use of pesticides is twice the world average.  More than 40% of China’s land is affected by erosion (which has been going on for millennia, but much more rapidly since 1958).  They make the obvious broad and general recommendations, but offer no help with the specific measures needed in order to make the government enact them.  So far, it has made hopeful but inadequate moves in that direction.

China’s usable farmland is down to 120 million ha, an enormous decline from the peak in the 1960s.  China had 7% of the world’s arable land; this would drop it to 5-6%.  The country lost more than 15% of its agricultural land from 1957 to 1990 (Smil 2004:124)—probably quite a lot more—and it has lost at least as much since.  Reported losses from 1997 to 2008 were 12.31 million hectares (Moyo 2012), and the truth is certainly higher.  As recently as the early 1990s, China had 140-145 million ha or more (Smil 2004:128), and that was after enormous prior declines; the greatest extent of China’s agriculture came in the 1960s, when over 160 million ha may have been cultivated.  (“May have been” because China’s official figures in earlier decades were often too low [see Smil 2004:125-127], and satellite imagery, now used to correct them, was not adequately available in the 1960s.)  Taking 160 million ha as base, and using a figure from 2007 of 122 million ha now (Shi 2010:4), we have around a 25% decline.  The steady loss of farmland and of local rights is working increasing hardship on the poor and middle class (Fenby 2014; Zhao 2013).

The decline is currently at 860,000 ha a year from urbanization alone (Larson 2013b), not counting the even greater amount of land lost to erosion.  Seto et al (2012) point out that China may triple or quadruple its urbanized land area by 2030, from about 80,525 square km in 2000 to perhaps 300,000 in 2030.  This would require spending $100 billion a year simply to keep up with infrastructure.  At this rate, China’s last farm will disappear around 2200.  (At least this is better than California; before the housing crash of 2008, California was urbanizing at a rate that would have eliminated its last farm around 2050.)  Meanwhile, global warming is seriously impacting crops; rice pollen dies when the temperature passes 37 degrees C, which is now happening in southern China (Larson 2013b).

Agricultural policies are devastating.  China’s farmers are not making money; rural incomes are stagnating, and more and more people are moving to the city (Johnson 2014 gives a recent update).  Rents are high, profits low, and government still constrains and controls what can be produced.  Grain is particularly unprofitable.  Banks are understandably less than willing to advance capital for farming.  Recent attempts to free up farmers’ land use decisions have so far had little effect, but may improve the situation (Johnson 2014).

Three leading Chinese academics have recently published in Nature, the world’s leading scientific journal, a scathing indictment of urbanization policy.  One can do no better than quote the highlights of their article:  “In the past decade, the urban built-up land area in China has grown by 78.5%….  About half of urban growth has been at the expense of arable land, raising concerns about food security.  To curb the loss of agricultural land, the central government has introduced strict regulations….  These policies have had…adverse consequences.  In a desperate search for non-agricultural land to develop, cities have reclaimed wetlands and lakes and converted pristine mountains.  At the same time, developed land is not being used efficiently—attention quickly shifts ot the next development project….  Illegal discharge of industrial waste-water, which contains heavy metals and other pollutants, around cities is blamed by some for more than 400 ‘cancer villages,’ in which cancer diagnoses and deaths are sometimes 20-30 times higher than the national average….” (Bai et al. 2014:158-159; on cancer villages see Smith 2015).  The authors note that Wuhan has lost 70% of its lake area.  They also deal in detail with the problems of rural-urban migrants, forced urbanization, and policy already inadequate  and made more so by corruption.  They outline a number of remedies, some being tried, some visionary; the process of urbanization could be controlled (though not reversed), but it would take a political reversal that seems most unlikely at this time.

A measure of China’s land use planning, and of its method of executing those plans, is provided by the summary expulsion of less affluent people from their land to make way for development that profits local businesspeople and government officials (the latter often through corruption; Bai et al. 2014).  This is often a measure of desperation; local governments are overextended and poorly funded, and must do this if they are to meet operating costs, according to Jonathan Fenby (2014:65-66).  Another reason for driving people off the land is the dream of “large-scale, modernized farming” (Bai et al. 2014:158)—in other words, the industrial farming that is proving disastrous worldwide; as in its drive to provide private cars, China is copying western foolishness instead of building on its own sound experience.  Summary expulsion from land and houses, without appropriate compensation, has affected an estimated 43% of villages and cities.  Gangs of thugs are sent to beat residents who object.  A revealing case involved a gang of seven attacked the home of Shen Jianzhang in a small village; unfortunately for them, he was a gongfu master, and he and his son quickly reduced the seven to a crumpled mass on the floor.  The result, though, was that he had to flee the town and his son was jailed (Hannon 2012).  His wife had videoed the episode, however, and the video has now been seen all over China, inspiring some concerted action.

Poor economic and ecological conditions in the rural areas are driving people, especially men, to work in the cities—often illegally in terms of China’s strict controls on residence (Bai et al. 2014 give a good up-to-date account of the magnitude of the problem).  A result is that 58 million children were effectively fatherless in 2010, and 40 million women and 47 million aging parents were also deserted.  This exodus has also led to poorer land care; some land has gone out of cultivation, while composting is reduced and overuse of chemicals increases (Yang 2013).

Brown pointed out that China’s aggressive campaign to modernize transportation is sacrificing vast areas of farmland to roads, parking lots, airports, and the like.  I found his claims and figures hard to believe until I visited China in 1999; in a short visit, I personally observed tens of thousands of acres of prime rice land being converted to these uses.  The situation has gotten much worse since.  On the other hand, transportation has moved rapidly toward fast rail, subway, good buses, and other more environmentally friendly means.  Yet the drive to increase the number of cars is continuing.  Farmland paved over for cars is out of production for a very long time.

The remainder is acidifying, and the more heavily fertilized parts are degrading seriously because of this (Guo et al. 2010).  The BBC News website (in a posting on 23 April 2007) related that China’s farmland is so seriously polluted that more than 10% is out of production or nearly so.  Pollution took out of production some 307,000 ha of arable land in the first 10 months of 2006 alone.  A Chinese governmental estimate, from 2013, says that some 3.3 million hectares (8 million acres) of farmland are too polluted to use (Atkin 2013).  The Chinese government wants to keep at least 120 million hectares in farmland; it has 135 million as of 2013, but only 120 million are usable, because of desertification and erosion as well as pollution.  (For the record, China had 80 million under cultivation in 1600 [Parker 2013:619]).

More recent figures indicate that, as of early 2014, “6.1% of China’s soil was polluted, including 19.4% of farmlnd, 10.0% of forest land, 10.4% of grassland, and 11.4% of unused land” (Chen et al. 2014)  82% of these lands contaned heavy metals and other non-organic, long-lasting toxics.  “China consumes nearly one-third of the world’s fertiloizer, and the pesticide usage per unit area is 2.5 times the world average” (Chen et al. 2014).  Meanwhile, over 5000 urban brownfields are adding to the problem (Yang et al. 2014).

However, it was excessive fertilizing, polluted water, heavy metals, and solid wastes that did most of the damage to China’s farmland acreage.  Heavy metals are especially bad, since they persist essentially forever; they caused losses of $2.6 billion in 2006.  China’s government now admits, on the basis of surveys between 2005 and 2009, that 16.1% of China’s soil, including 19.4% of China’s arable land is contaminated, largely with heavy metals including the deadly lead and cadmium (BBC News 2014b).  Hunan has had particular problems with this, due to illegal releases from a lead smelter, and there have been deaths (Liu 2014).  But even ordinary nitrogen, which has increased from 9 teragrams overall to 56 from 1910 to 2010, is getting out of hand and creating huge problems of eutrophication and environmental pollution (Cui et al. 2013).  “Approximately 8.3% of the country’s…arable land…is contaminated buy unbridled mining, trash dumping, and long-term use of pesticides” (Liu et al. 2013).  By 2014, the percentage of farmland seriously contaminated was up to 20%, and 40% of farmland was degraded by pollution, erosion, and desertification (Smith 2015:16).



2015  China’s Water Problems.  Nottingham University, China Policy Institute, Policy Paper Series, issue 6.  7 pp.


China has faced local droughts and floods throughout history, and was a leader in irrigated agriculture from early imperial times.  The Communist government since 1949 has made enormous strides in making water available, in developing irrigation and hydropower, and in regulating and rationalizing water use.  However, today, China faces a full-scale water crisis, excellently surveyed in a major report by Debra Tan and associates (2015), who examine policy choices ahead. The history of water in China has also been told by David Pietz in The Yellow River (2015).

China has only 6% of the world’s fresh water (Pietz 2015:10), for 7% of the world’s area and 20% of the world’s population.  Agriculture uses 65% of water in China, as opposed to 59% worldwide (and 80% in comparably water-short California).

Most of China is exceedingly dry.  This makes vast areas of Xinjiang and Tibet uninhabitable, but of more immediate concern is the rapid depletion of water in 34% of China’s cropland (Tan et al. 2015:16).  As elsewhere, agriculture offers the highest potential for saving, but China’s world of small to tiny farms makes saving difficult.  Water transfers from the wet southeast to the north are ongoing, but will soon reach a limit.

The energy/power tradeoff is serious.  Desalinating seawater requires enormous power inputs, recycling and reclamation only somewhat less.  The more water is conserved, the more energy is used (Tan et al. 2015:30-32; their report explores this contradiction).  Obviously, efficiency is needed, but can go only so far.  Meanwhile, coal and fracking for gas and oil continue to be live options. Shale-gas extraction by fracking is now contaminating more of the groundwater.  Wind, solar, and even hydroelectric power are better for water resources than fossil fuels when both water use and pollution are taken into account (Tan et al. 50-51).  Coal remains basic, but mining and processing it consumes much water, and burning it causes much pollution (Tan et al.2015).  It cannot be China’s long-range future.  Some alternatives, such as biofuel, use even more water.  China must convert toward wind and solar, and is slowly doing so.  China is now the world’s largest maker of solar panels (though this industry too pollutes the water; Smith 2015).

Science magazine reports: “Fully 90% of China’s shallow groundwater is polluted…and an alarming 37% is so foul that it cannot be treated for use as drinking water….  The toll is significant:  Every year, an estimated 190 million Chinese fall ill and 60,000 die because of water pollution.  According to the World Bank, such illnesses cost the government $23 billion a year, or 1% of China’s gross domestic product” (Qiu 2011b; see also Smith 2015; Tan 2015).  Some 60% of groundwater is severely polluted; surface waters are comparably problematic, but can be renewed naturally, whereas groundwater pollution is impossible to remove and will remain for centuries or millennia (Smith 2015:15).

Ma Jun, a Chinese water expert, says that “the 300-odd rivers that drain the North China Plain ‘are open sewers if they are not completely dry’” (cited Smith 2015:14).

Polluted groundwater used to irrigate crops is causing the crops to become toxic.  Some “36% of rice grown in Hunan province…was found to have cadmium levels above those specified by China’s food standards regulation” (Yang et al. 2013); Hunan is one of the rice bowls of China, and cadmium causes horrible pathologies.  Food contamination, from polluted water or deliberate adulteration, is now rampant (Smith 2015 provides summaries).

The Yellow River no longer reaches the sea (Moyo 2012:41; Smith 2015), and tens of millions of people along its former lower course suffer desperate shortages of water.  The Yangtze is also drying slowly in its lower course, and is so compromised that its signature animal, the white-flag dolphin, has become extinct (Smith 2015).  The Yangtze sturgeon is down to perhaps 100 as of 2014, and they are not reproducing (BBC News 2014a).  This should have more symbolic significance than it seems to have.  The sturgeon was traditionally believed—by many, at least—to be a dragon rather than a fish, or at least a fish-dragon, and the barbels around its mouth may be the original for the tendrils around the dragon’s mouth in Chinese artistic representations.  The other inspiration for the dragon, the Yangtze alligator, is also on the verge of disappearing in the wild.  So China’s signature animal, in the form of the two real animals that inspired it, may be gone soon—a terrible symbol of China’s suicidal environmental mismanagement.

China’s lowland lakes, such as the famous Dongting and Poyang Lakes, are rapidly filling up with sediment, and their water is too polluted to be usable.  Attempts to clean up groundwater are more notable for the pollution they document than for their success (Qiu 2011b).  Science further reports:  “Two-thirds of China’s 669 cities have water shortages, more than 49% of its rivers are severely polluted, 80% of its lakes suffer from eutrophication, and about 300 million rural residents lack access to safe drinking water….”; waste and outdated technology increase water use while conferring no benefits.  “More than 46,000 of the 87,000 dams and reservoirs built since the 1950s have surpassed their life spans, or will within 10 years”; they are silting up or wearing out.  “Many water projects…were rushed without following the national law of environmental impact assessments and have caused enormous environmental and socioeconomic impacts” (Liu and Yang 2012).

Even the projects that did pass environmental review are turning out to have costs higher than their benefits.  Jiao Li (2013) reports that the Chinese are finally waking up to the problem, recognizing groundwater contamination.  Factories in Weifang and elsewhere had been discharging pollutant wastes into groundwater.

Zhiwei Wang, of Tonji University in Shanghai, writes in Science:  “In 2011, China generated 65.21 billion tons of wastewater”; this may reach 784 billion tons by 2015.  China has ambitious plans to increase treatment, now rudimentary in rural areas and far from perfect in cities.  Amazing progress has been made since 1949, but keeping up with economic growth is difficult.  Goals will be hard to meet (Wang 2012).

Jonathan Fenby reports further tragedies:  “A 2012 report by the Land Ministry found that of 4,929 goundwater monitoring sites across the country, 41 per cent had extremely poor water quality…. The resulting annual human toll is put at 60,000 premature deaths” (Fenby 2014:87).  And this is the official figure.  The truth is almost surely worse.

A Science headline summarizes another problem:  “China’s Lakes of Pig Manure Spawn Antibiotic Resistance” (Larson 2015).  Half the antibiotics in China go into pigs, to make them grow faster, and the antibiotics get into the water.  At least one antibiotic producer has been caught dumping excess production into water, also.  Raw sewage, untreated, is standardly released into China’s lakes and rivers, and bacteria are being selected for antibiotic resistance accordingly.

A vast project to transfer water from the wet south to the dry north has come on stream (literally), but many cities are not buying into it; the water is, of course, extremely polluted, it costs an appreciable amount, and cities would have to change their systems.  Thus they continue to overpump groundwater (Chen 2015).

Excellent plans for improving water quality are coming out of China, e.g. Tao Tao and Kunliun Xin’s sustainable plan (Tao and Xin 2014), but these plans are more significant for the disasters they reveal than for the proposals they advance, because under the current political regime there is no chance of the plans being implemented.  Tao and Xin report that “nearly half of 634 Chinese rivers, lakes and reservoirs tested in 2011 failed to meet drinking standards,” already rather minimal.  The cities consumed 44 billion tonnes of water that year.  Their plan involves treating water, but also continuing to advocate that households boil water for human consumption (Tao and Xin 2014:5328).

In water as in other things, China has gone for short-term benefits that occasion later but far greater costs.  The huge water transfer plan to provision Beijing with water by bringing it from the south has been criticized on that basis.  Critics point out that hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced to make room for the canals and pipelines, but Beijing’s water problem is still not solved, partly because no one is addressing the demand problem—there is little interest in efficiency of use, and very little interest (understandably) in raising the low price of water (Agence France-Presse and Stephen Chen 2014).  Britt Crowe-Miller, water expert at Portland State University, comments that dealing with supply alone is inadequate, and that “China’s current development model is very short-sighted” (ibid.).  Water is now being put ahead of energy by China’s planners (Tan et al. 2015), since the crisis is more critical and immediate.

The costs of environmental ruin are now beginning to come out.  China thus displays an acute form of a worldwide problem:  the benefits of environmental wreckage have largely been reaped, and often squandered, by the super-rich, while the costs are now coming due, and will be paid by the entire human race—especially the poor.

Not quite in China, but showing problems China is beginning to feel, is the sinking of the Mekong River delta in Vietnam (Schmidt 2015).  This, the world’s third largest delta (55,000 square km), is rapidly sinking because of groundwater withdrawal for aquaculture.  Water is pumped from the ground for shrimp and fish, then drained out through the river channels.  The delta, averaging 2 m above sea level, could sink a meter by 2050.  Meanwhile, world sea levels are rising.  Nothing seems to be done about this, and the cost of fixing it (e.g. poldering) would be enormous.  China is already facing sinking land in the north, and will no doubt soon face sinking deltas.


Dams present another concern.  As Brian Tilt (2012, 2014) points out, dams generate many benefits.  They produce a great deal of power that would otherwise be generated by coal; regulate flooding; and regularize supply of irrigation water.  They also help interior transportation—easily navigable reservoirs cover what once were rapids.  Whether they are cost-effective in the long term is the real issue.

However, they come with costs.  Dai Qing (1998), Deirdre Chetham (2002), Richard Stone (2010), Peter Gleick (2012), and others have documented the disasters caused by big dams, which, in China as elsewhere, are often planned with inadequate attention to cost/benefit ratios.  Landslides, siltation, damage to downstream fisheries, loss of villages to rising waters, and many other problems have occurred.  Protesters have been ruthlessly suppressed, though dam-protest movements are building in spite of this (Forney 2005).  Coggins (2003) has recorded the problems and trials of conservation in one mountain village.  Ideally, dams provide power, thus preventing the use of coal, and store water.  In fact, worldwide, poorly planned dams always have poor cost/benefit ratios and rarely pay for themselves (William Partridge, pers. comm.; Scudder 2005).

Meanwhile, China has refused to enter into international agreements on water and river management, partly because they are upstream of several countries and want the full benefits of that position (Gleick 2012).  Being downstream in China itself is bad enough; being downstream from China is looking disastrous.  China is, for instance, aiding with dams on the lower Mekong, which threaten to wipe out that river’s ecology and devastate Cambodia’s agriculture.  Similar plans for the Irrawaddy, Salween, and Bhramaputra are frightening Burma and India. China is also funding big and ecologically irresponsible dams in Africa and elsewhere (Gleick 2012).

China’s big dams are largely for hydropower.  Even here, however, it appears that poor planning has limited the value of development.  David Stanway, reporting for Reuters (Stanway 2015), finds that “dozens” of dams on the Dadu River of Sichuan were built without planning for coordinating and transmitting power.  Overall, China has the potential to produce 2.2 trillion KwH of hydroelectricity, but produces only one trillion that actually reaches consumers.  Leakage, poor grid coordination, waste of water due to lack of grid capacity, and other problems lead to wastage greater than the combined total electric power use of Germany and France (Stanway 2015).  China promises to address the overall issue, but doing so will require massive development of the national grid (Smith 2015).

Other considerations, including the rights and livelihoods of the less affluent, receive little attention in planning dams.  Brutal political repression faces those who protest.  Huge dams, climaxing in the Three Gorges Dam (Dai 1997; Yan and Potter 2009), have led to massive displacement of people, ruin of downstream fisheries and other water benefits, and geological instability—yet siltation is filling these dams much faster than expected, and they will be useless in a few decades.  On recent visits to China I have seen up to half the reservoirs in some areas ruined by silt infill.  The rapid siltation, in turn, is the result of deforestation and poor farming practices, both of which are the results of specific Communist policies that reversed previous good care.

The Three Gorges Dam was so obviously a disaster for the Yangtze River’s endemic fish that a reserve was declared upstream, a 500-km stretch of river (350 km on the Yangtze, the rest on main tributaries).  However, as is typical of Communist conservation, this was deceptive.  The reserve lasted only as long as it took the engineers to plan and commence new dams.  It is now giving way to more and more high dams.  These will turn the Yangtze and its main tributaries to slack water—until the dams silt up.

Meanwhile, pollution, low and unreliable water levels, and loss of valuable fisheries are the lot of the Yangtze downstream from Three Gorges (Fenby 2014: 87; Qiu 2012).  In 2011 “China’s cabinet, the State Council, admitted that the dam is plagued by pollution, silt accumulation and ecologtical deterioration nearby, and has affected irrigation, water supply and shipping in downstream regions” (Nature 487:144, news item “Three Gorges Dam Reaches Full Power”).  Cultural damage is occurring in Tibet, where whole communities are displaced.  More dangerous still is the potential for devastating the economies of downriver countries, particularly the Mekong-dependent nations of Laos and Cambodia, as well as southern Vietnam.

China’s obsession with huge, uneconomical or hard-to-sustain dams (Schmitt and Tilt 2012; Tilt 2014) is an extreme form of a world pathology (Scudder 2005; see Quarternary International, vol. 304, passim, 2013, for many articles on China’s water management).  China now has or is planning over 25,000 big dams, more than the rest of the world now has; even North America, dam-crazed for decades and now forced to take out many old ones, has only 8,000 (Tilt 2012, 2014).  Moreover, the damage is of a really tragic nature—ruining the poor, destroying prime farmland, exterminating countless species, displacing whole indigenous groups—while the benefits are banal: more power and more irrigation control—invariably benefiting rich businessmen more than the poor majority.

Even more irrational than megadam projects are the artificial ornamental and recreational lakes now appearing everywhere in China.  They are being created even in the deserts of Ningxia and the drought-afflicted basins of Shaanxi (Liu and He 2012).  They get their water from the major rivers, including the Yellow River, whose flow is now so reduced that it does not even come close to reaching the sea.  Local governments, unaccountable to the people in general but under constant pressure to deliver quick economic benefits, seem largely responsible.  The increasing irrationality of maximizing short-term benefits at the expense of medium-term and long-term ones increases apace.

A final threat is a plan for a seawall all along the coast.  This would probably do little in the long run to deal with sea level rises or storms, but would destroy or devastate coastal wetlands, which are critically important for all the east Siberian shorebirds and many other bird species, some acutely endangered (such as the Spoon-billed Sandpiper).  The plans are proceeding with little attention to ecology or enviornmental concerns (Ma et al. 2014).

Water could be most easily saved by giving up irrigation in areas better used for pasture, such as Inner Mongolia, and in urban drylands such as around Beijing, where groundwater is depleting fast.  Inner Mongolia loses much of its water in the form of agricultural products sent to the rest of China (see also Dalin et al. 2015).

China’s centralized, authoritarian leadership could quickly implement reforms.  Excellent proposals to conserve water, reduce pollution, and control water use have been made.  There are, however, major structural barriers, especially the rush for production at all costs, and the entrenched and often corrupt bureaucracy (Anderson 2014; Smith 2015).  China’s imports of beef, soybeans, and similar products from other countries increase its water use by 30%–the costs of that water being borne by the exporters (Dalin et al. 2015).


China’s most recent fad in earth moving is flattening mountains to create more level land for urbanization.  Of course, one cannot level a high rocky mountain; the ones leveled appear to be largely the steep loess hills of interior north China (see Li et al. 2014).  But leveling they are, and Peiyue Li and coauthors—professors of environmental science in China—warn: “Until we know more about the consequences, we urge governments to seek scientific advice and prceed with caution” (Li et al. 2014:31).

The Three Gorges Dam produced a 500-mile-long reservoir into which garbage and sewage are pouring from surrounding cities; the reservoir is not only filling in rapidly, but it is filling in with toxic or dangerous substances (see e.g. Smith 2015:15).

Dams, water abuse, and other environmental problems have led people to attempt to flee the land to better land or to the city.  This was met with state violence:  “… in the 1970s and 1980s, several thousands of the Miao [minority] moved spontaneously from northeast Yunnan and northwest Guizhou, and reclaimed wasteland and took up farming in the mountainous areas of Anning City near Kunming….  In response, their newly-built houses were burned down and they were sent by force back to their original villages….” (Cang 2009:80-81).

But then, the state, realizing the need, completely reversed itself and began a policy of forced migration that took millions of people from their homes and scattered them far away (Cang 2009 and other chapters in Abe and Nickum 2009).  Often, these were minority-group people, and they were settled among Han.  Anyone aware of China’s recent policies, which have not infrequently been virulently anti-minority, will suspect that the plan was to destroy these minority groups’ cultures and political bases rather than to help them economically.  China’s minority policies have differed considerably from place to place; the much-publicized situation in Tibet and Xinjiang is rather balanced by the more benign policies in Guangxi, Yunnan, Sichuan and elsewhere (see e.g. Harrell 2001; Harrell ed., 1995, 2001).  Still, China is, at best, committed to acculturating its minorities to Han culture.  At worst, it simply displaces or represses minorities to make way for Han Chinese.

Development projects are now firmly entrenched at the provincial level, requiring centralized government to fix—but the centralization is a problem also.  At present, provincial and local officials are in various forms of collaboration with developers, using construction and mass transit as plums and moneymakers.  Overuse of power in all these projects leads to constant power failures, and use of yet more coal, though solar is building fast (Dylan Kirk, personal communication, email of Sept. 29, 2013).  An extremely thorough and detailed assessment of China’s megaprojects and construction booms is provided by Richard Smith (2015).

Local authorities are short of cash—and want more for themselves—with results that can be hard on farmland and environment:  “local authorities are short of cash to meet spoending obligations; to fill the gap, they requisition farm land, classify it for development and sell it to developers” (Fenby 2014:57).  This is one of the major reasons that China’s agricultural land is shrinking fast.

China’s air pollution, the worst in the world, is causing enormous damage to crops and forests not only in China itself but in Korea, Japan, Russia, and elsewhere.  The World Health Organization estimates that some 700,000 people die from air pollution every year.  The World Bank estimated that in 2009 China lost $100 billion from ill health (Pierson 2013).  The truth may be worse; the Harvard School of Public Health estimates that 83 million Chinese will die of lung problems in the next 25 years (from 2008; “Chinese Lung Disease ‘To Kill 83m’”; BBC News Online, Oct. 4, 2008; Fagin 2008; see also Smith 2015:8).  Worse estimates are reported by Fenby:   “outdoor air pollution is estimated to contributre to 1.2 million premature deaths a year…. Cigarette smoking…kills 2,000 people a day”; diesel trucks and coal plants add to the mix (Fenby 2014:86).  An eight-year-old girl recently contracted lung cancer—the youngest in China’s history to do so—due to air pollution (Kessler 2014).

Air pollution, including massive amounts of pesticides and polycyclic hydrocarbons, may be responsible for some of the very high level of birth defects, including spina bifida, in China.  Christina Larson (2013a) reports that there are 140 babies with neural tube defects for every 10,000 births in Shanxi, as opposed to 7.5 in the United States.  Several studies have shown correlations of birth defects and high pollution levels. On the other hand, as Clayton Dube of the UCLA Political Science faculty points out (posting to Chinapol listserve, Jan. 7, 2015), neural tube defects are typically due to folic acid deficiency in the early months of pregnancy, so one can suspect that the high defect rates are due to poor nutrition and to smoking (which interferes with folic acid metabolism) and other such problems.

India has recently learned that air pollution is reducing grain production by up to 50% locally and by substantial amounts nationally (Ghorayshi 2014).  Black carbon (soot) and ozone are the principal causes.  China is much more polluted than India, and the diminution of grain yield can only be imagined.

Cigarette smoking is the government’s fault, to a significant extent, because the Chinese government owns the tobacco company (the blessings of Communism) and thus has done everything possible to promote smoking, including circulating dishonest claims about the health effects of smoking and deliberately suppressing the truth on the matter.

Current estimates indicate that over 300,000,000 people are sick from air pollution.  This is more than the entire population of the United States.  Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, “an incurable respiratory disorder that can cause severe breathing difficulties,” is now extremely common, affecting “roughly 8% [of] people who are 40 or older”; it is caused by smoking and air pollution (Hughes 2012:818).  One recalls that the Chinese government owns tobacco companies and sells cigarettes, and thus has a vested interest in maximizing smoking.  Women rarely smoke but most men do, and the women are affected by secondhand smoke.

In 2014, one village finally won a legal victory: a toxic waste disposal firm was forced to pay some compensation to some 400 villagers for drenching their environment in toxic fumes.  It was too late for many who had died of cancer.  This is one of approximately 245 admitted “cancer villages,” in which toxic wastes and pollutants have caused skyrocketing rates of cancer.  As noted above, outside estimates run over 400 cancer villages.  Their existence was admitted only in 2013 (Phillips 2014).  Manufacturing, including textiles (Smith 2015:5-6), produces ever more substances of ever more dangerous nature, and these are very often simply dumped into water and air.

At the end of 2012 and beginning of 2013, cold stagnant air led to the buildup of pollution over China.  Some 33 cities recorded hazardous readings, with Beijing’s air being extremely hazardous for days.  Enormous and unprecedented health costs were registered (Pierson 2013).  Dai Qing noted that this was “dangerous” for civil unrest as well as for health; people might protest environmental damage more than other ills.  The pollution followed years of replacing air quality experts with bureaucrats unwilling to criticize government in the relevant bureaus.  On the other hand, 75 cities were reporting pollution levels, and the trend is toward better reporting and publicity (Demick 2013).  The initial pollutants are bad enough, but in the air they may chemically change, creating new and different dangers; such secondary aerosols are common in Chinese haze (Huang et al. 2014).

Life expectancy in China is 75 years (as of 2012; Google; the US is 79, India 66).  But in North China, is 5.5 years less (and in Beijing perhaps 16 years less) than in the south, because of Mao’s policy to have coal-fired boilers heating interiors everywhere.  He denied this to the south.  The 500 million north Chinese lost, collectively, 2.5 billion years (Chen et al. 2013).  This study showed that particulate pollution from coal is much more dangerous than was thought previously.  One wonders at the damage to other life-forms.  Many, probably most, animals are more susceptible to air pollution than humans are.  On the other hand, much or most of the pollution was indoors.

Even more frightening is the permanent brain damage caused by pollution.  Hundreds of millions of people are now affected by heavy metals, plastic-making chemicals, and air pollutants that are known to damage the brains of growing embryos and children.  This is giving China a legacy that will last; some of the pollutants actually affect not only the children, but even their future children.

As of 2006, about 36% of anthropogenic sulfur dioxide, 27% of nitrogen oxides, 22% of carbon monoxide, and 17% of black carbon in China’s air pollution was the result of production for export.  The United States, as China’s major buyer, was responsible for 21% of China’s air pollution (across categories: 21% of each category above).  Much of this blew right across the Pacific, contributing, for example, 12-24% of the sulfur dioxide pollution in the United States (Lin et al. 2014).  Proportions have not changed much since.  The United States thus pays some of the price for allowing firms to dodge environmental restrictions by exporting production to countries without rules.

Qiang Wang (2014), a Chinese expert on air quality, notes the seriousness of the situation, advocates a “total cap on emissions,” and quickly converting to nuclear and natural gas for power generation as bridges until solar and other really clean power can come on stream.  China is now by far the main injector of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and most of this comes from coal burning, with damage to health as a by-product.

Solid wastes, many of them toxic, are also increasing:  “China has surpassed the US to become the world’s largest trash producer, churning out more than 260 million tons a year” (Makinen 2012).  Where China will put all this is a real problem.  Richard Smith (2015) discusses at length the coming of the West’s throw-away economy to China,  Copying especially the United States—largely because American firms exported manufacturing to China and led the way—China has taken up the use-once-only mentality with a vengeance; this is a country that, within living memory (including mine), recycled and reused everything possible, even shredding and composting worn-out ropes and sandals.  Today, Richard Smith cynically summarizes the situation as “cooking the planet to produce junk no one needs” (Smith 2015:8).

Serious malnutrition has declined dramatically; it was, of course, rampant in pre-Communist China and again after 1958.  Stunting from malnutrition still affected 33.1% of Chinese in 1990, but was down to 9.9% by 2010.  However, “nearly 6.5 million children under age 5 in China are stunted” (Stone 2012).  Of course this is a very small percentage of Chinese children, but it is a lot of people.

Even government scientists admit serious problems.  In 2011 the minister for the environment, Zhou Shengxian, said that “the depletion, deterioration and exhaustion of resources and the deterioration of the environment have become serious bottlenecks constraining economic and social development” (Moyo 2012:27).  Xu Jun of the Ministry of Science and Technology says that China’s “ecological situation is terrible” (Qiu 2011a).  Bojie Fu, a Chinese scientist writing in Science (2008), admits:  “Over the past 20 years, the total cost from environmental pollution and ecological deterioration is estimated to have been 7 to 20% of the annual gross domestic product….”  This means that China’s vaunted 10% growth per year is indeed neutralized, as Brown feared.  Moreover, “40% of urban wastewater was discharged into neighborhood water bodies without treatment.  In 2007, water quality at half of the 197 monitored rivers of China was rated as heavily polluted…” as were 60% of lakes.  Air quality was equally bad, and “excess erosion from wind and water has deteriorated about 37.1% of China’s total land mass.”  Recall that this is the government’s official statistics; the truth is certainly worse, but we shall probably never know how much worse.

Charles Parton noted in an email on the Chinapol listserv, Dec. 12, 2014, that the Chinese news agency Caijing had reported that the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei area is down to 286 cubic metres of water per person, ¼ of the FAO figure for water shortage.  Some places go without water for months.  He also noted that he had asked three prominent economists, recently, about how they took account of environmental costs in their studies of China, and they said they had not considered the question.  I have had the same experience, with David Harvey among others.

China now has passed the United States to become the world’s largest producer of greenhouse gases, thus contributing mightily to global warming, which itself is drying up west China and producing more typhoons in the south.  Yet China not only refuses to do much (the vaunted “clean energy” China produces is actually a drop in their bucket; see Moyo 2012), but joins the United States in actively working against international agreements to curb greenhouse gas emissions.  China’s energy production and transmission is extremely inefficient (Smith 2015), and the Chinese government does not seriously address improving emissions to control global warming (see Song and Woo for reviews).  China is, however, moving rapidly into clean energy; it is by far the biggest producer of solar panels, and has moved into wind energy and other cleaner sources.  All these have their own problems, but they are certainly preferable to coal, the major current source of China’s energy.  China’s current problem in this area is a nice kind of problem: they have moved so fast into clean energy that they are suffering from overcapacity and overproduction (Nature, 4 Oct. 2012).  This may yet brighten China’s environmental record, in future.

China once had 14% of the world’s grassland, but half of that is now lost to farming and mining and 90% of the rest is severely degraded by overuse and erosion (Qiu 2011a).  Inner Mongolia suffered dreadfully, as Mongol land-sparing patterns of herding were replaced by environmentally disastrous farming and overgrazing (Sneath 1998, on Russia vs. Mongolia; Normile 2007 and Williams 1996a, 1996b, 2000 on China’s ruin of Inner Mongolia).  Superb management by traditional methods was replaced by complete disaster, leading to massive desertification and economic ruin (Abe and Nickum 2009; Williams 1996a, 1996b, 2000, 2002).  Desertification there is being dealt with in some areas by mass poisoning of rodents and other small animals, a measure so ecologically insane that it is certain to backfire (Hao Xin 2008).

This was not the only area where plowing fragile desert grasslands led to total desertification.

China enters the 21st century almost completely deforested, with rather little reforestation.  Reforestation began in the 1950s, but has had a very up-and-down career—mostly down.  Extreme programs of grain-growing and timber-cutting in the 1960s and 1970s led to massive deforestation.  Meanwhile, planted trees died of neglect.

However, as of the early 21st century, the most intensively managed and long-reforested parts of China actually have appreciable tree cover—at least in the south, where forests flourish much more than in the north.  The areas north of Hong Kong, which I could see from my research areas in the 1960s and 1970s, were utterly barren as of 1966.  They were showing a faint green haze of pathetically spindly saplings by 1975.  They are now well forested with pines, except where housing has replaced all natural cover.  Some other areas of the south have done well too (personal observation, eked out by careful study of satellite photographs).  Unfortunately, in the north, the deep interior, and many other areas, reforestation has not done well.  However, there is still hope; the Great Wall, which when I saw it in 1978 was surrounded by a moonscape, is now surrounded by a healthy woodland, and it has been interesting to follow the progress of this growth through photographs and satellite imagery.

China has some 62 million ha of forest, about 4% of the world’s forests—by some measure the most forested area of any country in the world (Peng et all. 2014; I do not believe the last claim—Russia and Brazil must be well ahead).  Almost all this forest is seriously degraded.  Devastating policies of deforestation caused massive erosion and land ruin in much of China from 1958 to 1980.  “Before 1980, China long promoted a grain-focused agricultural policy called ‘taking grain as the key link,’ which produced large areas of deforestation in the name of opening up uncultivated ‘wasteland.’  For example…felling all trees was executed in Nujiang Prefecture, which destroyed a lot of forest reserves and finally led to…disastrous mud-rock flows….”  (Cang 2009:81).  Forests have collapsed, and China’s search for wood has devastated southeast Asia.

Deforestation increased dramatically in the 20th century, especially after 1950, and reforestation campaigns in the 1950s and 1960s failed, for various reasons.  So have many since (Marks 2012), though many have worked well (personal observation).   Incalculable damage has been done, though forests are left and reforestation is better now (see Richardson 1990 for more on forests).  One result has been massive soil erosion, filling reservoirs and swamping fields with mud.  In 1998, disastrous floods swept central and south China, and the Chinese government finally put an end to forest clearing, whether for logging or agriculture.  This has not proved totally enforceable, but has stopped the worst of deforestation.

In this and many other ways, China has made great strides in environmental management, as acknowledged by e.g. Vaclav Smil, who did the best job of documenting China’s environmental destruction in the 1980s (Smil 1984).  Smil has applauded the partial turnaround (Smil 2000, 2004).  Plant conservation has recently been improved (Huang et al. 2002; my personal observation, especially in 1999, confirms this), but may now be going downhill again.  Observation on the ground in 2013 in Guangdong showed a healthy regrowth of trees and forest wherever people allowed it, but a rampant spread of urbanization that destroyed forests and farms alike.  Satellite photographs confirm both impressions on a large scale.  Forces of conservation and destruction are both actively at work; conservation in China has a long and complex history which needs unpacking.

Mara Hvistendahl (2012) reports that China has now turned many forests over to local communities or individuals, in a belated, rather desperate attempt to counteract the disadvantages of Communism—summed up by one villager as “What was everyone’s was really no one’s” (Hvistendahl 2012:27).  Unfortunately, the problems of private ownership immediately surfaced.  These are the same problems that smallholder forest owners face in the United States, such as incentives to deforest rapidly for ready cash, to replace mixed forest with commercial monocrop, to sell out to predatory big interests because of high offers or because of threats and bullying.  Both public and private forests have suffered from the worst curse of forestry worldwide: the temptation to replace mixed, sustainably-harvested stands with quick-growing commercial monocrops such as pine, eucalyptus, and rubber (Hvistendahl 2012, and my own observations).

Other privatization schemes have suffered similarly.  Yunnan’s forests, virgin till recently because carefully protected by local people, have given way to monocrop rubber plantations (Qiu 2009; Yin 2001, 2009; Ziegler et al. 2009).  This was first pushed by the government; the government is now trying to slow the pace, but the local people have been converted, and continue to replace forest with rubber (Ayoe Wang, 2008 and personal communication of ongoing research; see also Abe and Nickum 2009), to the detriment of wildlife, water supply, biodiversity, tourism, and sustainability.  Thus, China’s claims of enormous reforestation, for example, are disingenuous; most of the “reforestation” consists of rubber and eucalyptus plantations and other environmentally devastating commercial planting, rather than actual regrowth or replacement of real working forests that could supply timber, forest products, or environmental services (Xu 2011; Xu is a leading forester in China, so this can hardly be dismissed as outsider grousing).

China once had 10% of the world’s wetlands, but China’s wetlands are now also degraded and mostly now gone.  China has also lost 73% of its mangroves and 80% of its coral reefs as of 2011 (Qiu 2011a).

Biodiversity has been devastated by overhunting, overfishing, medicine collecting, and, above all, habitat destruction (see e.g. Harris 2008; Marks 2012).  Overfishing and pollution have decimated or completely eliminated most wild fish resources.  The zone of death in the seas is spreading rapidly from the China coasts throughout the west Pacific region (see e.g. Fabinyi 2012; Fabinyi et al. 2012).  Overfishing for the Chinese and Japanese market is simply wiping out the oceans.  Even sea cucumbers, one of the least vulnerable of marine organisms, are now disappearing fast (Schenkman 2011).  Sea cucumbers are being wiped out even in Canadian and Alaskan waters, to feed the Chinese demand.

China’s wonderful heritage of rare and unique crop varieties is severely threatened.  One story from my own research is sufficient.  Hong Kong used to produce salt-tolerant rice that was extremely flavorful.  But it did not yield high quantities, and Hong Kong urbanized, so the rice—and other salt-tolerant rices—are gone, to the permanent and serious loss of the world in this age of rising sea levels and salination of cropland.

One of the stranger threats to biodiversity was the anti-pest campaign under Mao Zedong in the middle 1950s.  This led to some elimination of rats and flies—probably not effective—but it led to mass extermination of small birds, held to be “sparrows” and to eat vast quantities of grain.  In 1958, the Chinese press reported that 1,650,000,000 sparrows were killed (Taylor 2005:117, citing the Chinese Medical Journal).  The grain consumption by these birds is inconsequential, but their insect consumption is phenomenal.  The result of this campaign was massive outbreaks of insect pests.  The campaign was halted, but China’s small bird populations were permanently decimated.  Between this campaign and habitat destruction, as well as hunting for food by desperate people, China’s bird life is almost nonexistent today except in remote reserves.

Wildlife conservation is increasingly troubled by poaching, inadequacy of reserves, inadequate enforcement of laws in reserves, excessive tourist development in some of them, and other typical problems of crowded lands with shaky governmental legitimacy (Harris 2008).

China has 2538 nature reserves covering 15% of the country, as of 2011, but this extremely impressive total is less than it appears; many are “paper parks,” there on paper to impress outsiders, but unenforced and unenforceable locally.  Most of these reserves are in fact subject to extraction, and many are suffering from unregulated mass tourism.  As many as ten million tourists a year now visit Lijiang, and other sites have comparable masses (Huang 2012).  The government often cannot resist the Yosemite Valley model of putting a flashy, revenue-generating tourist center on fragile habitat that was supposed to be protected.  China now has 400 endangered species, and many more species have probably gone extinct without anyone noting it (Marks 2012).

At the same time, pests from around the world are swarming to take advantage of monocrop cultivation and of destruction of natural predators.  Familiar plagues such as the whitefly Bemisia tabaci (a notorious vector of plant diseases) and the pine bark beetle have reached China and are causing devastation there (Qiu 2013a).  Once, China’s healthy ecosystem could absorb such creatures, with hosts of birds and other insectivores destroying them.  No longer.

Moreover, China is exporting its mismanagement.   Rabinowitz (1998) documents the virtually complete extermination of wildlife in Laos by hunting for the Chinese market (I have personally observed the striking emptiness of Laotian forests).  Most of them go for medicine; Chinese folk medicine uses almost everything.  Food, however, is also an end product of overhunting.  Smil (2004) points out the devastation of wildlife, noting that a huge percentage of China’s animals are endangered, yet are still sold in restaurants—26% of animals sold in restaurants are from endangered species (Smil 2004:108).  Ten tons of snake meat are sold daily in Shenzhen, a thousand tons annually in Shanghai (Smil 2004:109).  Edible birds’ nests, once sustainably harvested, are now disappearing as fast as thieves and overharvesters can take them (Kong et al. 1990).  In the “bad” old days, China tried and Laos succeeded in sustainable management of animals, using religious taboos and conscious government and local policies.  All this “feudal superstition” was abolished by the Communists in both countries, leading to unqualified onslaught (in spite of some recent, and mostly toothless, laws).

Meanwhile, China is buying or leasing land throughout the tropics, and appropriating the product.  Africa is a major target; Africa’s starving millions now have to compete with relatively well-to-do Chinese for the products of African agriculture (see e.g. Moyo 2012).  In Australia, eucalypts have been replaced by wheat for China, which has led to massive salinization and loss of millions of acres of land (personal research and observation, southwest Australia; simply looking at the area on Google’s satellite photographs is revealing).

Brazil’s rainforest and cerrado forest are the latest casualties; they are being destroyed to produce soybeans and other foods for the Chinese market.  Legal protection for these forests was greatly relaxed in 2012 under Chinese pressure. China is already buying enough food to impact world markets.  Lester Brown (1995) was right: China was destroying its agricultural potential and would soon be forced to raid the rest of the world for imports.  This has now begun to have the effect of raising world food prices, as Brown feared it would.  Even the United States is facing squeeze on agriculture, and consequent high prices, because of direct and indirect effects of the China market.

This is not a problem confined to food.  China’s deforestation is giving it an appetite for trees and other imports that destroy forests, grasslands, and fisheries worldwide (Aldhous 2005; Beech 2005; Lu and Diamond 2005, 2008; Moyo 2012; Smith 2015).  China is now the world’s biggest importer of forest products, and has bought massively from other countries; one result has been increases in unsustainable logging in most of southeast Asia and in some other tropical areas (Smith 2015:4).  Elephant and rhinoceros poaching in Africa, sea cucumber overharvests in Maine, and illegal rosewood extraction in Madagascar all occur for the Chinese market (not entirely within China; the ethnic Chinese market in southeast Asia is large).

Meanwhile, China is increasingly stressing its neighbors by taking water from cross-border rivers.  Kazakhstan is particularly endangered, since essentially all the water in the eastern part of the country flows out of China.  China is taking much of this and refuses even to discuss fair deals; its position is that it has the right to the water and need not consider Kazakhstan (Stone 2012).  This could lead to catastrophic agricultural failure and the near-drying of Lake Balkhash.  Kazakhstan has reason to worry, since in USSR days water diversion almost completely dried up the Aral Sea, leading to an environmental catastrophe; Kazakhstan has been desperately trying, with fair success, to restore its part of the Aral, but Uzbekistan—which controls most of it—remains intransigent (see Anderson 2010 for this and much other relevant data).

China became a modest exporter of oil by 1993, but is now a major importer, in spite of considerable reserves and production of its own, and it is moving toward fracking in the homeland (Smith 2015:4).  It also imports iron ore and many other commodities.

China is consuming more animal protein, and using many of the imported soybeans to feed the animals (Du Bois et al 2008).  Meat consumption soared from 8 million tons in 1978 to 71 million in 2012 (Larson 2013b).  Smil (2004), and all other recent observers, are struck by the rapid increase in obesity, diabetes, atherosclerosis, and other food-related health problems in China. China will have to limit its consumption of red meat, fats and oils, and sugars—either voluntarily or through morbidity and death.  The picture is not pretty.  At least the Communist leadership does not have “face” invested in this, as they do in their suicidal big-dam and automobile-development projects (on which see Smith 2015, in extenso).  One can be cautiously optimistic about the chances for limiting “junk food” consumption.

Still, the new China is too successful at providing bulk calories, too unsuccessful at providing vitamins and minerals.  One-fourth of Chinese are obese (BBC News, July 8, 2008), and the proportion is rapidly rising.  This is due to more bulk calories and less exercise, but I suspect a further factor, one that certainly operates in the west:  unsatisfied hunger due to insufficient nutrients.  “Man does not live by bread alone,” and sugar, oil and white flour do not satisfy, even in excessive amounts.  Not surprisingly, rates of diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease are rising rapidly.  Diabetes, often blamed on sugar, is actually exacerbated more by polished rice than by sucrose; polished rice eaters have up to 25% higher risk than eaters of more varied foods of lower glycemic index.  Again, an unbalanced diet short of vitamins and minerals is also a factor.  Eating more meat, fat, and sugar, and less vegetables, bean curd, and unprocessed grain, has led to the rise in rates of obesity and diabetes.  Longevity has increased with modern medicine, but heart attacks are commoner than simple life extension can explain.

Moreover, the Chinese government has turned away from its spectacular early successes in medical care, which more than doubled life expectancy from the 1940s to the 1980s.  Health spending as a part of total government spending declined “from 28% to 14% between 1981 and 1993, allocation to the rural ‘cooperative medical-insurance system’ decreased from 20% to 2%,” while rampant corruption and price-gouging have denied care to the poor (Dong, Hoven and Rosenfeld 2005:573-574).  Public health care is declining seriously in rural areas (Arif Dirlik, talk of May 26, 2005, UCR), threatening the future.  Given the epidemics of SARS and AIDS as well as the drastic decline in healthy eating, China is in trouble.  Problems for the future include not only obesity and diabetes (Normile 2010), but specific deficiencies, such as anemia (chronic in China for millennia) and folic acid deficiency (an emergent danger with the decline in eating vegetables and whole grains).  Folic acid deficiency is probably the major cause of birth defects round the world, and is probably increasing in China.  (The double “probably” reflects the dismal state of knowledge of this insidious problem.)

Through the 1970s, all Chinese had free health care.  By 2000, only 15% of the population had medical insurance, and the rest had to pay full cost; “the World Health Organization ranked China 144th out of 191 national health care systems” (Hvistendahl 2013c).

Since then, things have turned around.  Life expectancy continues to increase (so far), and Chinese now live almost as long as Westerners.  In Taiwan, and parts of south China, they live as long as do the inhabitants of well-off European nations.  Food and medical care continue to be reasonably adequate, and the scale of differences from two generations ago are almost unparalleled in world history.  China plans to triple its medical spending.  Better hospitals are being built.  Mental health care is improving after earlier neglect.  But the rapid growth of heart and circulatory diseases, and other consequences of modernization and accompanying changes, has caught the system in a serious squeeze (Hvistendahl 2013b).

Far more dangerous is China’s extremely shaky control over epidemics.  The SARS outbreak and subsequent flu epidemics were wake-up calls, heeded but not adequately heeded.  China faces a situation in which an extremely dense, homogeneous population is packed into increasingly close quarters, with pigs, ducks, chickens, and other disease-vectoring animals numbering in the hundreds of millions very close to major cities.  The corruption and poor supervision endemic China’s bureaucracy have proved hard to fight in making China more ready for epidemics.  If the future involves economic and social decline, or more health damage from pollution, the chances of major epidemics will greatly increase.

Life satisfaction in China has been stagnant for decades, in spite of the huge (alleged) increases in economic well-being (Easterlin et al. 2013).  This stagnation tracks social, economic, and medical insecurity, declining real standards of living, and paper growth that is more growth in pollution than in welfare.  The stagnation or even reduction in living standards of the hundreds of millions of poor, in particular, leads to widespread unsatisfaction.

China’s economy is also shaky, in spite of growth, and Timothy Beardsley (2013) has contexted the environmental problem within a study of China’s troubled economic future.  However, the World Bank, in a report of 2015, provides a rosy picture of China’s economy and its future without mentioning the environment at all.  Its own dismal report of 2007 has been forgotten.

In short, through “modernization,” China has made great strides in food production.  However, this has often involved adopting poor ideas from the rest of the world, from excessive use of chemicals to feeding meat animals on grain that humans could eat.  Flooding, biodiversity loss, water shortages, and paving of cropland have yet to show their full effects; they will be more deadly in future (see also Marks 2012).  Unless something truly revolutionary is done, China will face in 20 years a food, pollution, and environment crisis unprecedented in the history of humanity.  This will have global effects (Brown 1995; Liu and Diamond 2005, 2008).



There are signs of improvement.  In 2014, China passed an environmental law, taking effect at the beginning of 2015.  It protects whistle-blowers, penalizes falsifying data, makes local governments more accountable, and tries to harmonize enterprise and economic growth with the environment.

More important still, in 2015 China announced details of plans to cut air pollution, especially greenhouse gas emissions.  They hope to cut these 15% by 2020 and as much as 60-65% by 2030 (BBC online, June 30, 2015,  These are incredibly ambitious goals, but could be achieved by massive shifts to renewable power sources.  China’s authoritarian government has the power to accomplish this, which may put it in a better position than many democracies.

However, Bo Zhang of China’s environmental agency and Cong Cao of Nottingham University note four problems with the 2014 law (Zhang and Cao 2015).  It can be “trumped” by other laws, for example those relating to forests and grasslands.  It is hampered by unclear and overlapping jurisdictions and enforcement agencies.  It “fails to acknowledge citizens’ basic right to an environment fit for life” (p. 434), unlike similar laws in most countries.  And it does not address adequately the conflicts of interest and problems with enforcement that bedevil China’s laws in general.  Similar problems could hamstring the 2015 policies.

In regard to farmland, Chinese scientists have made major strides in winning more grain from less land; at present, if all their findings were put in practice (sadly unlikely), China could feed itself again from its shrunken land base (Chen et al. 2014).  Best of all, as of September 2014, China has just set up markets for carbon release and otherwise gotten really serious about reducing its carbon footprint—currently by far the largest in the world (West 2014).  And Xinhua, the Chinese news agency, reports that the Ministry of Agriculture has set a limit of “1.56 billion mu (about 104 million ha) of arable land” to be saved as basic farmland, from 1.8 billion mu as agriculturally designated land.  Also, water efficiency and agricultural waste disposal are targeted for improvement (Xinhua, May 27,

At the same time, China is finally moving on the air pollution front.  “China has set up more than 130 local environmental courts; this summer, the Supreme Court estalished an Environmental and Resources Tribunal” and also recognized about 300 nongovernmental organizations that can sue polluters (Makinen 2014b:6).  Much more stringent regulation and enforcement is promised.  On the other hand, local developers are still hard to control; big state-owned and state-sponsored firms are still too big to have much to fear; and independent protest is still done at risk of life and freedom.

Air pollution could be substantially reduced by setting regional emissions targets, increasing transparency of monitoring and reporting, expanding carbon trading, and bringing minority and remote areas up to speed, among other things (Liu et al. 2015).  There is some serious effort in these directions, but far from enough.  The usual problems, especially corruption and local-level foot-dragging, have surfaced.  At least the direction is clear, and China’s top-down, autocratic governance could rapidly turn things aro0und if the government had the will.

Conservation, especially reforestation, is on the government’s program now, and awareness of the devastating effects of pollution is now quite high.  Forest product use is efficient, a really bright spot (Ajani 2011).  Reforestation of many lands ravaged in Mao’s day has led to cooling of the lands reforested, and since this is fast-growing forest it is blotting up greenhouse gases at a dramatic rate (Peng et al. 2014).  This is very, very good news for the planet.  Cutting of old-growth forests is generally prohibited, with fluctuating effectiveness, since 1998.  Steep slopes are returned to natural cover.  Forest management is encouraged, and households and villages that return land to forests are subsidized (Xu 2014), though information from friends with experience in relevant areas suggests that this program is often inadequate.

China has taken a strong lead in some aspects of clean energy, notably the mass production of solar panels, but also water, wind, and other sources (most recent update at this writing is Mathews and Tan 2014), and is using more and more of the solar panels originally designed mostly for export.  China even has a desalination plant powered by wind under contruction; world desalination costs are down to 1 cent per 5 gallons, and this should lower it further (Bird 2014).  China has in 2014-15 leveled off on coal-burning, and is trying to move away from the coal-intensive power generation that has made it the leading country in release of greenhouse gases.

The call for better environmental management now comes from Chinese at all levels, but very often from expatriate Chinese, since protest in China itself is suppressed; thus a particularly direct recent call for action comes from a Chinese scientist now working in Norway (Yang 2014).

Public transportation is another bright spot (Edwin Schmitt, pers. comm.)  In degraded grasslands, experiments with market-based but environmentally sensitive bottom-up planning led to great improvement and some grassland recovery (Kemp et al. 2013).  Tian Shi’s solid review of the problems and prospects of “sustainable ecological agriculture in China” (2010) begins with a long treatise on what that agriculture is, then moves into a consideration of China’s problems and prospects, including a case study of one fairly successful experiment.  Tian Shi is well aware of the Marxist ideology of refusing to acknowledge ecological problems (see esp. p. 95), but recognizes that there is some hope.

Individuals are doing great things, ranging from criticizing the current paradigms to doing direct hands-on work with local people.  A recent article (Zheng and Wang 2014) chronicles the lifetime of work by Shixiong Cao to help local people restore what they can of the damage done by megaprojects and other policy-driven destruction.  China has a relatively high number of self-sacrificing, responsible citizens, and they have their effect.

Methods of appeal matter too.  Bing Xue oif China’s Institute of Applied Ecology found that Chinese officials would not give high priority to far-future problems from global climate change, but that when he spoke of immediate problems with economic development, and the opportunities for economic growth in climate-change-related areas, they listened seriously.  They also were sensible to the immediate advantages of reducing pollution (Xue 2015).

A recent documentary, “Under the Dome,” made by Ms. Chai Jing, is 103 minutes long yet had almost 100 million viewings in its first few days.  It reportedly tells many of the stories above, and focuses espeically on PetroChina (I have not seen it).  It apparently has government approval, or at least acceptance, indicating that the problem is now recognized at high levels.  It attracted an enormous amount of attention in China, from public to highest levels, partly because of the intensely personal quality of the film (Yawei Liu, email posting to Chinapol listserv, March 1, 2015).

Unfortunately, they are subject to beatings, torture, jail, and “disappearance” if they cut too close to local party interests.  Repression of political dissent has now spread to repression of all grassroots civic organizations, even those advocating things like tolerance for HIV and Hepatitis B sufferers.  Not all civic organizations have been shut down, but rapid increase of arbitrary, unpredictable, and widely targeted arrests and closures have intimidated the social network, and made the country very much less free than it was even a year or two ago (Jacobs and Buckley 2015).

Moreover, faced with overwhelming popular challenge, polluters can simply move to “greener” pastures.  They have recently been moving to the savagely repressed province of Xinjiang, where local dissent is met with deadly force, and to Inner Mongolia (Miao et al. 2015).  They thus escape highly-placed, well-to-do opponents and find themselves in regions where jobs are sought at any cost and where protest is dangerous.

China has finally made some strides toward changing its policies, but progress is incremental and slow.  Minor improvements to China’s Environmental Protection Law were recommended by the National People’s Congress in 2011, adopted (watered down) in 2012, and rejected in 2013 (He et al. 2013).  A plan for lowering carbon release into the air, and saving energy, has been developed, and China is working seriously on this issue (Liu et al. 2013).  Meanwhile the Communist Party adopted genuinely radical (for them) new stance:  adding to their constitution the idea of “ecological civilization,” meaning a civilization based on “man-nature, production-consumption harmony” (He et al. 2013).  In early 2014, the government renewed their commitment to cleaning the air, dedicated resources to this, and took a no-nonsense fast-track position with allowable levels set (Qiu 2014b).

A group from the Chinese Academy of Science Research Center for Eco-Environmental Sciences recommended that the law reaffirm commitment to environmental protection, provide “a strong legal basis…for independent strategic environmental assessment and performance-based auditing,” improve law enforcement, and “shift from regulation to governance,” meaning that the government should work with NGO’s, local groups, local polities, and education and voluntary agreements (He et al. 2013).  These are all worthy goals, and the United States could well learn from this assessment, but the fact that an outside group needs to call for them speaks volumes about what the Communist Party is not considering.

Unfortunately, at current rates of change, China will collapse before much can be done.  Repairing ecological damage is a slow process.  Economic lock-ins and rampant corruption are holding back implementation of even the gradualist plans devised so far.

One major reason for China’s failure is the extremely rapid growth of income inequality.

As Yu Xie and Xiang Zhou report:  “By now, China’s income inequality not only surpasses that of the United States by a large margin but also ranks among the highest in the world, especially among countries with comparable or higher standards of living” (Xie and Zhou 2014:6928).  The Gini coefficient is above .5, versus .45 in the United States.  Much of this is due to regional and rural/urban differences.  The Gini coefficient in China bottomed out at less than .3 around 1980, but since then has been rising much more rapidly than that of the United States (where it is rising very fast).  China’s upward line crossed that of the US just after 2000, and continues to move upward.  This level of inequality means that rich people have more and more political power, especially in a society as corrupt as modern China’s.  Worldwide, those who benefit from pollution and environmental destruction get disproportionately rich by reaping the benefits of these practices while passing the costs on to the poor as “externalities” (Anderson 2010).  The more inequality and the greater the power of the rich, the more environmental damage occurs.

Another problem is China’s insane pursuit of a form of “modernization” that has long been recognized elsewhere as a hopeless failure: government-driven, top-down forcing of heavy industry and extractive enterprise at any cost.  The old-fashioned western idea that any and all destruction of nature is good has surfaced in China and refuses to go away.  Even traditional culture—including its love and sensitivity in regard to the environment—is condemned in the worst of all terms, i.e. that it is not modern.  A recent indicator is documented by Erik Mueggler (2014): the destruction of the beautiful, poetic, moving funeral laments of the Yi people (and, I can add, other groups too) because they are not “modern,” i.e. are not like the worst and most embarrassingly shallow of western culture—the definition of the “modern” in China for a century or more now.  These are marginally concerned with the environment, but interesting here more to show the mindset of today’s China.  It is a world in which the most insane and anti-human policies can and do sell, simply because they are what the worst of the west did a generation ago.  (I can match this story with plenty of my own; I am not overstating or exaggerating.)

Another problem is that the Communist government has increasingly repressed its non-Han inhabitants.  For example, the Tibetans, who conserved animal life because of their Buddhist faith, have lost control of their land, which has been settled by vast numbers of Han Chinese who have hunted the animals into extinction (Buckley 2014).  There are the problems with Mongolian grasslands noted above.  Similar stories come from all parts of China that have local minority groups (including Han groups that are not officially “minorities” but are local identifiable groups under cultural attack).

Indigenous peoples are usually good managers.  Indeed, some are model resource managers—among the best in the world at sustainable landscape use.  Invaders and new settlers are not usually so aware of the land.  They usually do not know enough to manage it so well. But instead of learning from traditional people, China’s government has chosen to repress them savagely.  The dominant Han Chinese have considered the minorities to be trapped in “backward,”  “superstitious,” “feudal” or even “slave society” stages of cultural evolution—Marxism used to justify racism.  Thus, for example, Edwin Schmitt  documents in detail the way “scientific” agriculture was forced on the swidden-cultivating Ersu people of Sichuan, with resulting destruction of both environment and culture (Schmitt 2014).  The “scientific” agriculture was standard Chinese industrial agriculture; actual application of science would have preserved the swiddening and prevented industrial agriculture from spreading in the Ersu’s fragile mountain environment.  The minorities are supposed to acculturate to Han norms in the name of “progress.”   Blanket condemnation of their behavior as “backward” is particularly troubling.  Imperial Chinese attitudes seem to have been better, or at least no worse.

Since these are small, weak groups subjected to often intense discrimination, they are in a very weak position in regard to protecting their resources.  Typically, a frontier mentality (the sort described in the western United States as “rape, ruin and run”) has developed.  In many areas this has greatly improved, as the frontier fills up, but the improvement is too late to save the resources.  (This is based on my own wide observation and on the work of many students, but the latter are largely Chinese and would be endangered by being named here.)

All this has caused a problem for modern environmental researchers trying to understand traditional China.  They often back-project the disastrous mismanagement of the 20th century on earlier periods.  This is inaccurate and misleading.

Meanwhile, Tibet suffered as Chinese hunters exterminated wildlife long protected by Buddhism.  (Tibetans have now reportedly taken, locally, to poaching as well.)  Tibet’s fragile environment is under attack by uncontrolled mining (Buckley 2014; Qiu 2014a), roadbuilding, shooting, pollution, mining, and overgrazing.  Many Tibetans and Mongols have charged that Han Chinese are stripping resources not only to get the wealth but also to oppress the indigenous people.  China boasts of heavy investment in Tibet, but Tibetan refugees maintain that this investment goes to Han individuals.  The Han Chinese deny this.  Proof, however, emerges from the systematic destruction of the Tibetan way of life (Buckley 2014) and the relentless campaigns against the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan refugee community, and Tibetan Buddhism.   But the disasters are real, and they match Communist China’s deliberate destruction of its own cultural traditions (Leys 1985) all too closely.  Unlike the Great Cultural Revolution, which soon ended, the repression of Tibetan and Uighur culture is ongoing.

An example in microcosm is the fate of the reindeer-herding Evenki, a Tungus people of far northeast China (Wang et al. 2015).  They are a tiny group—only abouyt 100 still herd—but environmental mismanagement, including privatization of herds and deforestation of the region, is driving them to abandon their lifestyle, an ecologically very successful one.  With the loss of such sustainable and efficient practices, China moves farther and farther toward self-destruction.

An emerging pattern, especially in Xinjiang, is uncomfortably close to the familiar pattern of settler/invader cultures such as the Europeans in the Western Hemisphere:  Take local land and resources; provoke the local people to resist; then use their resistance as an excuse to massacre them.

The question of how China treats its minorities is a somewhat vexed one.  There are many charges on all sides.  Certainly China’s current stated policies are highly fair and civil.  Behavior on the ground does not always match ideals.  Nor are stated policies necessarily the real policies.

China’s current leadership is beginning to play a deadly game—one that is played to the hilt in other countries, including the United States:  retaining power by whipping up hatred of minorities and “enemies.”  The Uighurs and Tibetans have been the minority victims, the Japanese the primary foreign nation targeted.  On recent visits to China, I have detected an ugly racism that was hard to find before.  The Chinese have always had a lively sense of their own qualities, and have been prone to make less than tactful remarks about other cultures, but that is quite different from “The (fill in the blank) are bad people; they are terrorists, they are evil, they have nothing to offer.”  If China’s leadership succeeds in demonizing whole groups this way, they will have a legacy that will not soon end and that will threaten the nation as nothing else can do—not even ecocide.


In short, after early success, and in spite of many hopeful developments today, China’s environmental practices have gone downhill, though with many hopeful reversals.  Old China had a goal of getting maximum benefit through minimal cost, usually by striving for harmony with environmental forces.  The Communists introduced the Marxian idea of “struggle against nature” (see Shapiro 2001).  “Nature,” in this thoroughly western and Marxist sense, was quite a new concept to China—and, for that matter, “struggle” in the Marxist sense was also a rather new concept.  Mao said that “if people living in nature want to be free, they will have to use natural sciences to understand nature, to overcome nature and to change nature” and “to struggle against the heavens is endless joy; to struggle against the earth is endless joy; to struggle against people is endless joy” (Tilt 2009:136).  Even by western standards this is rather strong stuff, and to Chinese raised on Daoism, Confucianism, and solid rural experience in working with nature, it was appalling.

In what must be the most stunning non sequitur in history, the Communist apologist Jiang Zemin commented—as summarized by Lillian Li—“that China had the task of feeding 22 percent of the world’s population on only 7 percent of its arable land; therefore, political dissent and democratization had to take second place” (Li 2007:5; on this sort of political Newspeak in general, see Leys 1985; Smil 2004:144-145).  Of course, the experience of the rest of the world is that democracy and freedom translate into better management and more productivity in agriculture.  There is, in fact, an almost perfect correlation.  China has indeed greatly opened its political and economic system over the last few decades in order to keep producing food, but it has not opened enough to prevent loss of farming capacity.  China must depend increasingly on imports.

Another Orwellian claim is that China will become “first rich, then clean,” as the Chinese government mistakenly believed the west had done.  However, the non-Communist west was never even remotely close to being as polluted and eroded as China is today.  The west never had the population density or the technology until long after conservation was a major political force.  Environmentalism arose in the west before 1900, and was already stunningly successful, especially in forest and wildlife protection, under Theodore Roosevelt and his European equivalents.  The Germans, for instance, were already model forest managers in the 1880s.  At that time, and indeed until the 1920s, the United States was a poor and overwhelmingly rural country.  Pollution control began as early, and climaxed with the many laws of the early 1970s.  Only in Communist East Europe was there ever anything like China’s current devastation without an opposite reaction from political conservation.

In any case, “first rich, then green” does not work.  Even if the government could reverse its policies of 70 years, those 83 million people would not be brought back to life, nor would the farmland ruined by urbanization and heavy metal pollution be restored.  Moreover, China has developed an extreme case of “lock-in.”  It is trapped in a dirty economy that is now beyond major change unless there are enormous governmental changes at all levels—changes that are impossible so long as the government is in the hands of the notoriously corrupt Communist Party.  Even if national policy were to shift, local corruption would make major change impossible.  My students have documented the ways that local officials persist in devastating policies even after the national government has suffered a genuine change of heart and of laws (see also Tilt 2009).

More serious is the fact that China will never be rich if it does not become clean soon.  China’s vaunted economic growth rate is actually half or less what is claimed (Smil 2004; Tilt 2009), because the official figures do not take into account the costs of the pollution and erosion.  The World Bank has said that environmental pollution costs China 9% of its GDP (Fenby 2014:21).  The official figures are inflated by an uncertain amount too, so the actual growth rate is in fact close to zero.  This is not even to mention the point that the world does not have enough resources to allow China to consume at current western levels.

It is highly relevant to observe that China’s human rights record is also notorious.  Correlation of human rights abuse and environmental mismanagement is typical, not only in China but worldwide.

China represses those who protest environmental mismangement; this was reported in regard to the floods in Beijing in 2012 (Yahoo! News Online, July 24), but Edwin Schmitt, who was there at the time, says there was no repression and the 77 dead were all acknowledged (Schmitt, pers. comm., in writing, email of Sept. 21, 2012).  Political protest is often fatal in China.  Nature reports “Green protests on the rise in China” (Gilbert 2012), but they appear to have little chance of making a difference.  Meanwhile, China has recently imprisoned and tortured activists (including the artist Ai Weiwei) for protesting shoddy school construction that led to hundreds of child deaths in earthquakes.  Wu Lihong, who has spent years exposing polluters who are destroying Lake Tai, has been jailed, hounded, threatened, subjected to character assassination, and harassed (Jacobs 2014), although he is protecting an increasingly polluted lake that supplies millions of people with drinking water.  The firms violate the pollution laws because even if they are caught and charged, the fines and other costs are less than the benefits they get from externalizing their pollution problems—a story very familiar in the United States, of course.  Protesters have often been executed, their bodies then parted out like used cars—China harvests the organs of its executed “criminals” (BBC News Online, Aug. 16, 2013: “China Announces End Date for Taking Prisoners’ Organs”—note that an end date is announced but no end to the practice has actually occurred so far; Geng and Burkitt 2014 update this with news of yet another announcement of the projected end…).  A government that stifles criticism and “shoots the messenger” in cases of such flagrant abuse clearly has problems.

The government has not always been able to crush or coopt protest.  Usually, however, the government can prevail, stifling dissent or answering it with purely cosmetic changes (see e.g. Dirlik and Prazniak 2012; Economy 2005; Fenby 2014; Watts 2010).  The Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989 still casts a shadow over Chinese science and environmental politics, leading people to stay silent or leave the country (Hvistendahl 2014b).  On the other hand, popular and scientific opinion killed a major section of the huge and environmentally dreadful South to North Water Transfer project (Mufson 2010).  Popular protest, led by a few environmental activists at serious risk of their lives, is slowly forcing the government to wake up; it is a bottom-up movement, with the government driven to act only when pressure is great.  Carbon limits are being set and the worst cities are now the subjects of serious plans (Qiu 2013b).

A new and even more stringent crackdown in 2014 has occurred. As the Los Angeles Times reports:  “Journalists are banned from writing ‘critical reports’ without approval from their employers the State Administration of Press, Piublication, Radio, Film and Televsion warned…. Censors lay a heavy hand on China’s media, and state-run outlets serve as a channel for party propaganda” (Makinen 2014a).  Interviews are strictly controlled.  This means not only that protest is suppressed, but that vitally facts about environmental problems will not be reported.  The government, even if it wanted to act, will not have the information.

Crackdowns on social media, education, politics in Hong Kong, and all other openings quickly followed.  (See Chang Ping 2014 on education and “brainwashing”—the Chinese original of this English term is a bit less forceful than the English).  In a particularly revealing episode, China expressed major anxieties about students studying in America being exposed to the U.S. Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and other democratic documents and historical narratives (Los Angeles Times, Aug. 31, A2, and much internet coverage).  This would seem a true measure of desperation.  The Chinese Communist hierarchy is clearly terrified of losing control.  An excellent, in-depth article by Jeff Goodell in Rolling Stone (2014) quoted a high official on what would happen if anyone organized a mass protest over environmental issues:  “’You don’t even want to think about it,’ [he] answers, fear flashing in his eyes” (Goodell 2014).

A study in 2014, using real and planted emails, found that China’s censors are fairly tolerant of individual complaints and rants, but crack down absolutely and condignly on anything remotely related to public protest.  They immediately purge from the Internet and local networks any reference to public protests in the past, let alone anything that could be construed as organizing them now (Hvistendahl 2014a; King et al. 2014). Censorship is uneven—much of it is local, not coordinated well with national norms—but this particular tendency is China-wide.

China is riding a tiger.  The more it needs to change, the more the old men who rule it fear that change, since changes are more and more threatening to their power.  They thus crack down more and more condignly on dissent or innovation.  This is rather reminiscent of the Qianlong Emperor’s similar behavior in the last decades of his rule, but the situation is far more extreme today than in his 18th-century time.  As Jonathan Fenby says, “China finds itself at a watershed in which it needs to change but knows that change will face it with the biggest test since Deng Xiaoping…” (Fenby 2014:122-123).  Or perhaps since the fall of the Qing Dynasty.



China is beginning to face the consequences of its folly, but its government has locked in much of the pollution by heavy subsidizing of power plants and polluting industries, as well as by pro-car policies.  (Though, recall, public fast transit is also being furthered.)  Above all, a combination of corruption and extreme repression of public opinion has rendered the polluting interests not only above the law but above all criticism.  The usual dynamic has appeared:  an industry heavily subsidized becomes wealthy and politically connected, and thus is too powerful to be controlled effectively.  Pollution is far worse than the government’s statistics admit (Abe and Nickum 2010; Cyranoski 2007).

Subsidies include the release of China’s firms—especially the state firms that still dominate the economy—from having to pay the costs of production.  In a free market, ideally, the cotss of production—including pollution, waste, loss of farmland, and loss of ecosystem services—would be paid by the producers.  This may or may not be true, but we will never know; capitalist societies always involve governments that subsidize giant firms and protect them from lawsuits and other restraints on externalizing (Anderson 2010).  The farther a society gets from a free market, other things being equal, the more the government protects firms from such costs by “externalizing” them—passing them on to the public.  Marx and Engels saw this problem clearly, and tried to escape it by envisioning comprehensive planning (see e.g. Engels’ Anti-Duhring, 1966, one of the last works written by the founding fathers and thus particularly revealing on such matters).  In practice, the Marxian drive for production at all costs led to externalizing costs far beyond anything permitted in democratic countries.

In the last analysis, Communism is a philosophy of production. Its goal was always to maximize production of useful goods, as readers of Marx and Engels know.  It is not set up to moderate production to maintain ecosystem goods.

It is also a totalitarian and absolutist philosophy, with no place for upward feedback.  The Chinese Communist system remains a top-down one, autocratic and savagely repressive of criticism.  The resulting political sclerosis has been well documented by Jonathanb Fenby (2014), among others.  Change is difficult.  Even if the leaders want it, they have to overcome the vast inertia of the local bosses, middle managers, and bureaucrats. Unlike leaders in democracies, they cannot use support from ordinary people.

One sad result of all this has been the creation of socialist people.  Westerners sometimes say that Communism “fails” because it does not create selfless people.  The fact is that it never tried, at least in the USSR and China.  In those countries, Communism took the form of classic tyranny, which, as the ancient Greeks (e.g. Plato and Aristotle) pointed out, makes people passive, deceitful, and weak, rather than cooperative and enterprising.  Particularly dramatic has been the rise of reluctance to help in accidents, reportedly because of fear of getting into trouble with the police.  Bystanders in a position to help, sometimes even when asked, have let children die and allowed old, handicapped people suffer (Demick 2011).  Another indicator of the effect of totalitarianism on morality and rule of law is provided by the state banks’ support of counterfeiters (Associated Press 2015)—the masses of businesses that produce cheap imitations of Gucci, Vuitton, Tiffany and other name brands and sell them as the real thing.  These firms are probably mostly in China, and certainly do their banking there.  The banks have stonewalled all attempts to get information about the counterfeiters or to freeze their funds or accounts; in fact, the banks have protested that any such attempts (which are perfectly normal under international law and have been for decades) are themselves wrong, immoral, disrespectful, and anti-China.  With this solidarity among state institutions in protecting flagrant lawbreaking, there is little hope for enforcement of more arcane and controversial matters like environmental protection.

The government sometimes blames Chinese traditions, but of course Chinese traditions advised helping all, in no uncertain terms:  “between the four seas all are siblings,” and much more.  There were reports of callousness in traditional times also, but always in the same circumstances:  tyranny and corrupt police.  Except in such situations, I saw only the opposite—extremely helpful, prosocial behavior—in my many years in Chinese communities.  But when my wife and I have been in police-ridden communities (including mainland China itself) we have sometimes seen the passive avoidance of help.  Perhaps Demick and others are exaggerating the situation, but they are clearly not inventing it.  Opening China post-Mao has slowly and steadily changed this for the better, and it is impossible to break the Chinese spirit in any case—but there seems to have been a genuine change here, however much Demick’s case may be exaggerated.

My assessment is that China has done more damage to its environment in the last 60 years than in the entire 3500-year history of Imperial China.  I cannot prove this from figures.  However, certainly the damage before 1900 was substantial, but I do know that since 1966 when I first saw Hong Kong, and even since 1978 when I traveled throughout China, the country’s environment and health have declined at a dizzying pace.

Considerable pressure for change and improvement has built up in recent years (Smil 2004; Tilt 2009).  The horrific floods of 1998 forced the Communist leadership to recognize that deforestation was having devastating consequences on downstream areas.  The Olympic Games of 2008 led to some significant cleanup of the Beijing area, which showed in turn how much improvement could be done for relatively little money.  Water shortages are forcing major reforms of water management in north China.  Recent forest policies are far from new or adequate, but they are not bad and may be improving.  An important review by Julia Strauss (2009) offers hope, but only if China does a number of things, notably streamlining policy and involving local people in all ways at all levels.  These seem, at this writing, unlikely.

More hopeful, however, are the rapidly increasing protests against environmental ruin (Wang et al. 2012).  The public is seriously fed up, and the government is having more and more trouble balancing their tendency to crack down on dissent with the need to appear at least somewhat aware of the problem and also to appear somewhat less draconian.  International investors as well as the public have to be considered.

Also hopeful is a government plan to move toward a national circular economy—one in which material and energy flows are made as efficient as possible, with maximal recycling, minimal waste, and maximal sustainability using renewable materials (Geng et al. 2013).  It remains to be seen whether this policy will be implemented, but it represents a stunning turnaround in rhetoric, and may well transform practice.  One can only hope so.

Finally, this comes within a much broader phenomenon: the number of well-educated middle class people in China is rapidly increasing.  Such people always bring pressure for forward and progressive change.  It may be that they will yet force the issue, and make China’s dinosauric Communist Party wake up.

Thus, some observers have been led to hopeful assessments of the future (e.g. Hyde and Xu 2009).  Unfortunately, these assessments are based on acceptance of official statistics known to be massaged or fabricated outright to fit national goals, and on policy statements that are not necessarily taken seriously at the local level.  Studies by local scholars show a very different reality indeed (Abe and Nickum 2009; also Ayoe (Jianhua) Wang 2013; Yu Huang, Bryan Tilt, Stevan Harrell, and others, personal communication about ongoing research). The Chinese say “numbers make leaders and leaders make numbers” (Liu and Yang 2009): fabricating statistics gets one promoted, and then one fabricates more (see e.g. Hvistendahl 2013b).

Tilt (2009), among others, thinks that China’s totalitarian government could as easily impose conservation as it imposed devastation.  This is, unfortunately, quite wrong (Ayoe Wang, pers. comm.; and see e.g. Fenby 2014, Marks 2012, Watts 2010, and the entire history of the Soviet Union, East Europe, and Cuba).  To begin with, there is the matter of changes that are difficult to reverse.

Most obviously, it takes 50 years to regrow a tree cut in 10 seconds, perhaps a thousand years to restore soil eroded in one storm, and thousands of years for urbanized land to become arable again.  Extinct species will never come back.  Surviving ones may be so depleted, and their habitat so altered, that they can never even begin to recover their original populations.  This is true of fish like the yellow croaker, as well as essentially all wild land animals in China.  And policies once set are very hard to reverse overnight, even for a totalitarian state.  The “lock-in” is a well-recognized economic phenomenon.

But, also, people have now irrevocably lost the old ideology of working (however imperfectly) with nature, and are slow to change from the newly-learned but now thoroughly-learned ethic of resource drawdown.

The old ritual links to the land are long broken.  Mao’s devastating campaign against popular religion eliminated the fengshui groves and other land-sparing religious and magical institutions.  It also eliminated the ritual and religious instantiations of community that held people together and made them responsible (see e.g. David Johnson, 2009, a stunning picture of lost folk plays in interior China; for the general case, Leys 1985).

In a particularly bitter irony, China’s new premier Xi Jinping has now called, in a rather pathetic plea, for a revival of traditional religions to fill China’s moral void (Kim and Blanchard 2013).  Belatedly, the Communist rulers realize that over 60 years of repression, involving millions of murders in which repression of religion and traditional philosophy were part of the justification, was a mistake, costing Chinese society very dearly indeed (Kim and Blanchard detail the continuing repression).

Some of the problems are systemic.  Anne Stevenson-Yang, an expert on Chinese politics and economics, has summarized one such:  “This is a system that excels at organizing around campaigns:  building the Grand Canal, completing the Long March, overtaking the West at steel production.  If something can be accomplished via vertical integration of people and capital, it shall be done.  If something requires lateral coordination and feedback and adjustment, this is not your system” (from a posting to Chinapol listserve, July 4, 2015, quoted by her kind permission via email of July 4).  The traditional Chinese agricultural system, especially the wet-rice irrigated form, survived by lateral integration.  That kept it in ecological balance.  Abandoning this for top-down control has, fortunately, not been total, but it has been serious enough to break down ecological controls.

Minorities suffered in particular, from Mongolia in the north (see Williams references below) to Xishuangbanna in the far south (Wang 2008, 2013).  Communists systematically destroyed these practices, seeing them as backward, superstitious, wasteful, and otherwise bad.  The reality, on the ground, was a combination of extreme and vicious racism and short-sighted attention to immediate profit at the expense of the future and of sustainability (Wang 2013 documents this at exhaustive length for Yunnan; there are comparable if sometimes less sophisticated studies for almost all minority areas).

Violently anti-environmental and anti-environmentalist rhetoric, harking back to the early Communist period, is still highly visible; Robert Marks quotes some of it (2012:325).  It is cited to government officials, but may be idiosyncratic rather than policy.  Ironically, it sounds very much like the right-wing anti-environmentalism of the Koch brothers and their ilk in the United States.  There actually seems to be some copying of specific slurs.  Also, China’s government is now so honeycombed with corruption that enforcing any regulations that run counter to local economic interests is difficult.  Local authorities are in league with and dependent on developers, and any American knows what that means.  A Chinese observer, Xiaolu Wang, puts it:  “Income inequality…is likely to be even greater [than reported] because unreported income (including illegal income) is huge, and is concentrated to a small proportion of high-income earners….  Rent-seeking behavior and corruption in the public sector are increasing; there is evidence of unjustified distribution of returns from land, natural resources and financial resources” (X. Wang 2008:167).

Possibly even more threatening are rapidly tightening restrictions on research that could throw light on China’s environmental management and mismanagement (Hvistendahl 2013a).  Outsiders are not allowed to map or photograph in much of China, and China is trying to get satellite photographs to be shot at low resolution; this is claimed as necessary to protect security of military sites and the like, but it is enforced in oil drilling areas and other environmentally—but not militarily—sensitive sites.  Thus, one can assume that there is an agenda of hiding environmental damage.  Foreigners taking photographs—even without having been warned, or ever notified of new rules—have been fined; Chinese have been jailed and tortured.

It should be emphasized that China is a Communist country, not a capitalist one, in spite of claims in the media.  The government plans, manages, and controls the economy and the labor force (Fenby 2014; Moyo 2012).  Market reforms have opened much of the economy, but these reforms, and their effects, are still under the control of the government.  It should be remembered that Communism does not necessarily mean total direct control of every economic enterprise by government; it means planning by government such that the economy is subservient to government policy.  (On Chinese government, some particularly thoughtful and interesting studies by Andrew Kipnis are particularly good at problematizing simple narratives of “Communism,” “capitalism,” and state power; Kipnis 1997, 2007, 2008.)

The worst problem for such a regime is that, with government and production equated or at least totally interlocked, criticizing pollution is criticizing the government, which, in China, means it is criticizing the Communist Party.  Individual protests are tolerated to some extent, but any mass protest is inevitably seen as treason.  The protestors are not just complaining about smoke; they have launched an attack on the State.  They are treated accordingly.

China has become something of a fantasyland for westerners, who either demonize it or praise it on the basis of very poor information (Palmer 2015).  The reality is neither demonic nor wonderful: it is the reality of a huge, autocratic government trying to develop and modernize a huge, complex country.  Corruption and lock-in of mistakes are inevitable under the circumstances.  The question is whether those will bring the whole system down.

This reminds us of the theoretical point that simple greed is not necessarily exclusive.  Lots of people can succeed.  Political power, however, is exclusive.  You have it or you don’t.  And any challenge to it is seen as a fight to the death by those who have it, to the extent that they have total command.  A city councilman may lose a seat and not complain; a governor will scheme and play games; a dictator will kill any number of people, by any terrifying means possible, to prevent even a small challenge.  (It should be noted that the United States, with its tiny handful of extremely powerful oil, coal, chemical, and defense firms, is very close to China now.  It is no longer a free-market, competitive system; it is essentially a socialist one.)

China now has one of the most unequal income patterns in the world, rivaling the United States—with the difference that China’s largest category is the poor, not the middle class (on this and other aspects of Chinese governance see Dirlik and Prazniak 2012; Dirlik is coming out with further overviews).  Distributional equality is not helped by the current pattern of local governments using eminent domain to force farmers to give up their lands (with purely nominal compensation), which the local governments then sell for hundreds or thousands of dollars an acre to urban developers.  The officials pocket the money (Orlik 2013).

The result of this—and perhaps the most critically important observation one can make—is that China now has the worst of Communism: commandism, top-down planning, fabrication of statistics, and the like, and also savage repression of dissent and independent thought.  It also has the worst of capitalism:  obsession with short-term profit by the powerful at the expense of everyone else.  The best of Communism—overall planning for the long term and roughly equal access to key resources—has been abandoned.  The best of capitalism—relative freedom of speech and action, resulting in real enterprise and improvement of production—has never been permitted.

One effect of this is an extreme form of the well-known problem with big government in general, and government subsidies in particular: they lock in inefficiency and waste, by making it profitable to pass on costs of production to the public, and by making it difficult and expensive to change and innovate.  Also, as noted, such centralized planning guarantees cooked figures and invented statistics (as Chinese dynastic planners already knew thousands of years ago!).  Also, Communism teaches that industry, short-term economic gains, and “development” of resources should always take precedence, and privileging of short-term gains over long-term considerations is locked into the Chinese system.  As the Chinese environmental scientists Tian Shi reports:  “abandoning or even compromising growth for the sake of environmental protection or resource conservation is regarded as a heretical concept.

Even when environmental problems are acknowledged, the Chinese government generally denies the reality of the limits to growth.  This perspective is based on the Marxist axiom that the problems of mankind have their origin in the structure of social relationships, especially those surrounding the means of production; nature presents no obstacles that cannot be overcome by the appropriate social arrangements and the wonders of scientific-technological productivity” (Shi 2010; see also p. 62).  All environmentalists who have tried to deal with western Marxists know too much about this, and many of China’s communists are more extreme than most western devotees.

Centralized economies have always been successful at resource drawdown, but conservation and sustainable development is generally best organized at the grassroots level, as conservationists have learned through thousands of cases worldwide.  Grassroots citizen action has, in fact, been the only real force motivating change for the better in China (Economy 2005; Tilt 2009).

Things could be worse.  Nature reserves (around 1800 now), reforestation, water management, conversion away from coal, and other hopeful programs are growing and improving apace.  Unfortunately, these continue to be outbalanced by rapid degradation.  China’s vaunted economic growth appears to be a myth.  The real costs of environmental decline are already serious.  They will increase exponentially in the near future, threatening or dooming China’s chances of being a world economic leader.



Jared Diamond’s famous book Collapse (2005) found several societies that collapsed from wrecking their local ecosystems, or ignoring ecological changes that threatened them.  The most interesting point about the book, to me, is that Diamond found so few cases.

Why aren’t there more?  Humans tend to be careless and take little thought of the future when planning for the environment (Anderson 2010).  So there should be more collapse stories, and Diamond was evidently rather surprised to find there were very few—all highly local and either on islands or in special zones that were ecologically island-like such as Mesa Verde.

From my research, I believe that the reason is that the beginnings of an ecological crisis cause so much political chaos, so rapidly, that there is no time for a genuine Malthusian crisis to occur.  As Malthusian pressures build, people become so desperate to preserve their own lives, and the lives of their immediate families or friends or clients, that they work against the wider system and against all sacrifice for the future.  If one is confident that one is going to be ruined in the short term, the long term is no longer meaningful.  In fact, even the slightest downturn is apt to bring rapid political dissention and conflict, as we are seeing in the United States today.  Worse downturns bring worse troubles, as Europe saw in the Great Depression.  (The United States was spared the worst of that depression, but still had its tensions.)  Then the social system melts down even before the ecological system fails.  The resulting economic and demographic decline takes the pressure off resources.  Thus, when China’s ecological disasters catch up with the economy, we can confidently expect political trouble and a regression toward a Hobbesian social world.

In fact, it is quite possible that China’s environmental crisis will combine with a political crisis in about 15-20 years.  China is almost three generations away from the revolution of 1948-1950 that put the Communist Party in power.  Three or four generations are critical in Ibn Khaldun’s quite successfully predictive theory of the evolution of a polity (Ibn Khaldun 1958; cf. Anderson and Chase-Dunn 2005).  Ibn Khaldun observed that, for a generation, a new government is held together by bonds of loyalty, mutual support, and sharing the loot.  They had to stand together to win the country, and this carried them through while the conqueror generation was in charge.  The second generation relaxes the military discipline and ideological solidarity of the winners, but achieves wealth, power and glory, more or less through momentum.  The third and fourth decline into luxury, corruption, and a general attitude of every-man-for-himself or every-group-for-itself.  Power blocs can grow over the years until they challenge the center.  It may be assumed that there are always people wanting to take power.  If the government is strong, the challengers cannot prevail.  As the Ibn Khaldun cycle works its way along, certain blocs of people can accumulate more and more power, while the government weakens.  This leads to collapse.

In a situation where many people become selfish while others fall back on loyalty to a group, the groups in question tend to become fanatical and violent.  They thus often win, since a highly motivated group can easily conquer a vast number of disunited individuals, one at a time.  However, this rarely happened in China’s long history; what usually happened was that either the leading general or some similar powerful individual simply took over the country in a coup, or else a semiperipheral marcher state invaded and took over.

The cycle takes about a hundred years, in Ibn Khaldun’s theory, and by and large in Chinese history, though cross-cultural statistics show it typically taking about 75 in many other areas (including the United States:  Independence to Civil War to Depression to current economic woes).  My own study of Chinese crises show that they did occur at roughly 75-year intervals since the unification of China in 221 BCE.  However, the range was great.  It ran from a mere 14 years (the dismally short reign of China’s very first dynasty) to 228 (the amazingly long run of peace in the later Ming Dynasty [1368-1644], from Yongle’s bloody coup in 1402 to the beginning of the violent end in 1630).  So the figure is hardly predictive.  However, there is every reason to believe that China’s next crisis will indeed come around 2025.

At this point the future becomes unclear.  China resolved many crises by a sort of coup by the government against itself:  a more or less legitimate but undesignated or displaced member of the imperial family seizing full power, eliminating rivals, and reinventing the government.  At other times, an army general would stage a coup, usually with bloody but limited fighting.  Total collapse occurred only when the government was completely nonfunctional due to selfish behavior by all parties.  The major collapses involved long periods of dynastic weakness, during which it the government lost legitimacy in the eyes of the people—“lost the mandate of Heaven,” as the Chinese put it.  This led to the rise of competing groups: bandits,” local armies, and “barbarians.”  These got into fiercer and fiercer spirals of violence, often creating local kingdoms or warlord fiefs, until some one powerful armed group rolled up the whole of China.  This happened most recently at the fall of Qing in 1911; China was not again united till the Communist victory under Mao Zedong in 1948-1950.

China’s many dynasties all fit the Ibn Khaldun model, but with one major difference:  Almost all of them lasted about 300 years—three or four Khaldun cycles.  This was, however, not as far from Ibn Khaldun’s theory as it looks.  Every one of them had crises at roughly 75-year intervals, sometimes involving actual overthrow of the dynasty by a coup and its recovery in a countercoup.  (This happened twice in the Han Dynasty.  China was ruled, historically, by eight major dynasties.  Of these, three involved conquest by semiperipheral marcher states, two of which were non-Chinese; four involved takeover by leading generals serving the previous regimes; and one was an actual popular revolution.  The Communist revolution marked the second takeover in China’s history by a popular movement. There were, in addition, several dynasties that conquered large parts of China but not the whole; five involved conquest of north China by non-Chinese semiperipheral marcher states, or perhaps in one case a truly peripheral state.  It may be worth noting that two major dynasties, Sui and Tang, had founders who were allegedly part “barbarian,” having Xiongnu, Xianbei or Turkic ancestry.  But they were culturally Han Chinese themselves.)

China’s current government is rapidly losing legitimacy through rampant corruption and brutal repression.  The environment is a major part of the action, since mass protests over displacement of millions by big-dam projects, groundwater pollution, and so on are building, and since soil erosion, deforestation, and pollution are wrecking the livelihoods of literally hundreds of millions of rural residents.  Meanwhile, political crises are surfacing, due to more ordinary competition for power.  Also, the rest of the world is going through a long, unstable, economically parlous period, that will probably not end before some currently wealthy countries are leveled down.  The United States in particular seems poised to collapse, with fascist dictatorship a possible outcome.  This would have repercussions that would be serious for China, as for everyone else worldwide.

By 2025—75 years from the triumph of the Revolution—China will be in a parlous situation.

Major environmental and consequent economic crises at this point in an Ibn Khaldun cycle will weaken or bring down the government.  China’s history suggests that anything could happen, from an internal coup to a complete meltdown into total chaos and violence.

We may get a bit farther in predicting which.  On the one hand, China’s history suggests that the first 75-year crisis in a regime is usually handled well; the regime reforms or revitalizes, and carries on.  (This occurred in Han, Tang, Sung, Ming, Qing, and several minor dynasties, but not in Qin, Sui or Yuan among the majors.)  This suggests that the present governmental system, with its gray apparatchik leaders, might collapse, but the Communist Party or the Red Army would produce dynamic leadership to replace them.

On the other hand, historical China never had anything like the present resource crisis, except at the fall of the Qing Dynasty when population had overshot food production and the food supply base was threatened by erosion, floods, and droughts.  Moreover, the current Chinese ideology is communist, as opposed to the traditional eclectic mix of various philosophies.

Communism under Mao, as under Stalin, often behaved like an extreme religion, comparable to extremist Islam and right-wing Christianity.  After Mao, China’s government greatly relaxed its hold, but under Xi Jinping the noose has tightened again, to almost Maoist levels.  The Internet is censored.  Political bloggers, from important to barely visible, have been ruthlessly suppressed (Grigg 2015).  The government promptly propped up the stock market after a run in June 2015, eliominating the possibility that anything resembling a free market would exist to teach investors about risk and actual costs.  The government is rapidly reasserting control of the economy via reinvigorated state enterprises.

Given current environmental conditions, all this essentially guarantees government failure.  China has shot all the messengers, from market forces to civilian watchdogs, who could tell the government about environmental crises or urge action on ones already known.  China has meanwhile invested heavily in urban construction, transportation infrastructure, manufacturing, fossil fuel extraction, and other environmentally devastating but currently profitable channels.  The government has maximal incentive to do more damage, and no democratic mechanisms for allowing advocacy of alternative futures.

In this case, it is possible that China will suffer one of its periodic collapses into violence and chaos, such as occurred at the end of each of the great dynasties.  On the other hand, it is also possible that present hopeful trends continue.  The government is in facft aware of the environmental problems, and imminent crisis might shock the leadership into taking charge, forcing temporary austerity on the people, and working to clean up the environment.  China might still save itself at the last moment.

Doing so will require a well-known set of conditions (Anderson 2010).  First, serious cost-benefit accounting will be necessary; the real costs of dams, air pollution, loss of farmland, and the like must be factored into budgets rather than being concealed and passed on to the poor.  Second, a system of accountability and recourse must be established; officials and local firms must be held accountable for damages, and ordinary people must have the right to protest (peacefully) and to sue in court.  Third, corruption must be fought.  This does not mean simply making pious statements about amoral officials; it means that powerful firms and local interests must be absolutely prevented from using covert means or unequal power to get their way.  (This is not always called “corruption”; in the United States, giant firms can legally do essentially anything they want to get their way politically, including the use of measures that are considered “corruption” in virtually every other nation, China included.  Conversely, the trivial “corruption” involved in inviting a cadre to a feast in exchange for getting some ordinary government service would not make much difference.)

Fourth, however, there is a serious need to end, totally and completely, Mao’s “struggle against nature.”  There is a need to return to the long-standing Chinese tradition of working in some degree or type of harmony and balance (heping) with the environment.  The idea that people had to live in the world and deal with its realities, and thus had to conserve things like forests, soil, and water, was basic to Daoism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Legalism, and indeed all the traditional Chinese ways of thought.  It has been abandoned in favor of a thoroughly western concept that has proved disastrous in the west.  China’s ideology, and above all its education system, needs to abandon the equation of “modernization” with destroying nature.  Wholesale mindless imitation of the worst of the west (from “struggling against nature” to fast junk foods) is very far from the Marxian goals that China once had, and even farther from Chinese tradition.  It is also far from the current thinking in the west itself.  A major reform of the educational system would be a focal place to start.

In the near and middle term, the world is not likely to recover from its present economic doldrums.  China is not the only country dealing with environmental crises.  Also, many countries are dealing with hard times by cutting expenses and programs—in other words, by decimating consumption and spending, not a very good way to grow the economy.  All this suggests that China will have a very hard landing indeed, and will, at best, not be a great economic driver of the future world economy.

The world needs to learn from China’s investments in education, science, technology, and infrastructure.  China has made incredible strides in health, food production, and industrialization.  At first, in the 1950s and 1960s, China made enormous gains in dealing with water pollution.  These should all inspire world efforts.  The world should, however, not follow China over the cliff into autocratic government, repression of the public, and environmental ruin.



Will China collapse?  Not just yet.  Xi Jinping has launched a terrific crackdown.  Dissent and difference of opinion are savagely cut down.  On the other hand, Xi is no fool, and has made some fairly major steps to slow down environmental ruin.

This may, however, simply make things worse.  Environmental decline continues.  Repressing dissent means less chance to deal with problems.  Whistleblowers and bearers of bad news are in special trouble, which does not bode well for dealing with crises before they get out of hand.  Xi’s anti-corruption campaign is allegedly targeting his political rivals rather than corrupt officials in general.  This is a rumor, but a believable one, since that is the pattern of anti-corruption campaigns in most authoritarian states, including China in the past.

Collapse, however, will probably not come on Xi’s watch. He is too ruthless and wily.  Also, environmental decline is not yet to the point at which mass deaths can be expected.

Once Xi is gone, however, the situation will deteriorate.  Leaving aside possible succession conflicts, many events will be outside China’s control.  Global warming, continued shrinking of the land base, and continued pollution will squeeze China in a vice.  China’s desperate attempts to insure food by buying up land abroad, and by getting agreements and sweet deals with exporters in other countries, will increasingly fail.  Other countries in question are reaching their own limits.  Brazil, for instance, has skyrocketed its exports to China by turning its formerly vast forests into cropland.  This will end very soon, since Brazil is not only running out of forests (its last tree will fall in a very few decades) but is also facing a Malthusian squeeze as its population, mostly poor and frequently desperate for food, soars.  Australia’s farmland has been declining due to factors including salt buildup and global warming with consequent drought.  African countries that have contracted with China for land for farming are facing very rapidly increasing populations.  Most other supplier countries have similar problems.

When collapse comes, it will probably take the form of increasing repression, leading eventually to the country snapping as that repression comes into more and more conflict with increasing misery.  In previous centuries, this situation always led to one conclusion: massive civil breakdown.  Anarchic violence, banditry, and warlordism quickly reduced the population to sustainable levels.  There was plenty of direct killing, but the real problems were starvation and disease, following from social breakdown.  Major failures of life support systems force people to take the law into their own hands, and when that happens, fear and hate take over.  Irrational killing and system-smashing occurs.

This may be part of a worldwide collapse.  The United States is currently drifting into fascism.  A Republican win of all three branches of government in 2016 is quite likely, following which a fascist dictatorship and resulting war and genocide would be possible, based on my studies of the rise of fascism in many countries (I will present these elsewhere!).  This would lead to economic collapse of the United States, and that collapse would probably bring down China as well, along with much of the world economy.

The current world situation is not even remotely close to being sustainable.  When the crunch comes, the results will certainly involve mass violence and social breakdown.  China, the country currently most rapidly destroying its life support system, will be among the first to go.




Thanks to Alex Alvarez and Christopher Chase-Dunn for help and encouragement, and thanks in particular to Rob Efird and Edwin Schmitt for very careful readings and analysis that led me to modify many statements.





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