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The countryside is being forgotten

The animals are dying, the soil is contaminated and so is the water. Economic growth has meant great improvements in living standards for Chinese country dwellers, but rural development has had a heavy ecological cost, writes Jiang Gaoming.

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The standard of living for China’s rural residents is clearly higher than it once was. The steamed buns we could not afford as children are now on every breakfast table. Many homes have electric fans, telephones, colour TVs, washing machines and even air-conditioning. Thatched roofs have been replaced with tiles. But the environmental price we have paid for these welcome changes is huge. The clean air and water that used to be the pride of the locals are now history. Rapid economic development has been achieved through the sacrifice of natural resources and the environment. Over the last three decades, China’s rural areas have seen the following environmental changes:

First, the countryside has been affected by pollution from fertiliser and agricultural chemicals and the emergence of plastic pollution (See “A sea of plastic”). Modern agriculture is over-reliant on the products of fossil fuels: fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides and plastic agricultural membrane. As a result, pollution has risen in tandem with harvests. China uses 434.3 kilograms of fertiliser per hectare of arable land on average, almost twice the safe limit. And only 40% of that is used effectively. Thirteen-and-a-half kilograms of herbicides and pesticides are used per hectare, 70% is highly toxic; 60% to 70% of this remains in the soil. Farms today are virtual killing fields, with orchards, vegetable gardens, farms the scene of “chemical warfare”. This misuse is worsened by efforts to grow out-of-season crops. Besides traditional crops like corn and wheat, farmers are planting peanuts, cotton, garlic, watermelons, tomatoes, cucumbers, tobacco and celery – all under plastic membrane. The agricultural sector needs 500,000 tonnes of membrane annually, 40% of which is abandoned. This becomes the plastic pollution that blights China’s countryside. Dung from livestock is a major cause of pollution; China produces twice as much livestock excrement as solid industrial waste; in some provinces four times as much.

Second, rural areas have seen the loss of wild animals and decreasing biodiversity.The use of large quantities of agricultural chemicals has not eliminated pests and weeds, but it has killed off large numbers of wild animals, especially predators that are needed to kill pests, and caused a severe drop in biodiversity. In the countryside in northern China you no longer see migrating geese in autumn or clouds of dragonflies in summer. There are fewer swallows due to a loss of nesting places. Varied forests have become poplar plantations. The disappearance of wetlands means frogs and other amphibians have lost their homes; river pollution has killed off fish and shrimp populations. Even snakes, which can end up on restaurant tables, are dying off after eating rats that have been killed by rat poison.

We haven’t just lost the dragonflies, cicadas, geese, swallows, magpies, titmice, frogs, snakes and hares; we have lost our natural environment. We once lived in a child’s natural paradise, full of animals and plants. But that is now just a memory. Will our children even know what dragonflies or cicadas are?

Third, the countryside has been blighted with homogenous tree planting and the removal of trees to the city (See “Trees are not enough”). For the sake of quick profits, rural residents are selling off their trees and planting quick-growing commercial replacements. In northern China, the traditional elm, pagoda tree, locust tree, ash, catalpa, paulownia, parasol tree, maple, willow, cypress and pine have all been replaced with poplars (See “China’s green deserts”). In the south, firs and masson pines are traditionally planted, but they are steadily being forced out by the eucalyptus, an Australian import. Tall old trees are sold to traders who resell them in large cities. Tree-lined avenues come at an environmental cost to rural areas. Entire villages now lack a single old tree, with new ones regularly cut down and sold, as if China were in a permanent state of growth.

Fourth, the Chinese countryside is losing its wetlands and its water.In the past, every child from a village could swim, but this is no longer the case. One agricultural university with a student body of 30,000 recently started a swimming club and found that only 30 people would sign up. The majority of students simply could not swim. A major cause is that ponds have been turned into dry land. With lakes, rivers and wetlands disappearing there is no water left in which to play. If there is any water in the rivers, it is polluted by factories upstream and nobody wants to get anywhere near it. The loss of wetlands has caused a fall in precipitation; many think this may be the cause of rainfall falling below historical averages by as much as 50%. This is particularly true in the arid north.

Fifth, straw burning is choking the countryside with fields of smoke (See “Waiting for the smoke to clear”). As no use has been found for straw, farmers simply burn it off after the harvests to save the trouble of proper disposal, causing major pollution problems, road closures and even forcing airports to close. Smoke exacerbated a light mist in Jinan on September 26, 2007, affecting 30 flights and forcing a flight carrying a Russian politician to make an emergency landing (damaging China’s national image in the process). Burning straw on neighbouring farmland also affects the cities, causing an increase in particulate matter. Ensuring blue skies in Beijing, for instance, is hampered by straw burning in the surrounding provinces.

Sixth, the countryside is losing its sand, soil and stone.Rapid urban and industrial development requires large quantities of building materials from rural areas. Sand is dredged and rivers have lost their capacity to absorb the impacts of flooding. Large areas of hillsides have been blasted for quarrying, the stone turned into building materials or “art” for sale in cities or overseas. This was once limited to a few unknown hills and mountains, but now even Mount Tai is at risk. Some believe that stone from the Taoist sacred site can guard against evil spirits and there is a brisk trade in ornamental rocks from the mountain. The bricks used in buildings are made from clay found in rural areas. Brick kilns are common in country villages. More worryingly, factories and urban buildings are not long-lasting and are often knocked down and rebuilt. The sand contained in the concrete is lost forever, sourcing new building materials causes yet more damage to rural environments.

Today, rural residents are better off than they once were, but the quality of their environment has declined. And with this has come an increase in illness. Is an increase in the standard of living worth the price of pollution and related health problems? Moreover, the rich rarely worry about the environment. Faced with this grim reality and an apathetic public, all we can do is cry for someone to save our environment. 

Jiang Gaoming is a professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Botany. He is also vice secretary-general of the UNESCO China-MAB (Man and the Biosphere) Committee and a member of the UNESCO MAB Urban Group.

Homepage photo by rycordell

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评论通过管理员审核后翻译成中文或英文。 最大字符 1200。

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Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



The rich benefit, the poor suffer

My hometown has the same situation. When I was young, things were different. In days gone by, there was abundant water in ponds dotted with beautiful lotus flowers. Fish, shrimp and frogs lived wild and free. Now the ponds are filled with earth. Moreover, the river outside our village runs dry where water always used to rush through it in the past.

(This comment was translated by Stacy Xu.)

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


最可恨和可怕的事情莫过于麻木不仁. 有时尽一点绵薄之力,也许会使全局改观. 我们应该从麻木中觉醒,一同来改变.

该评论由Stacy Xu翻译.


The most hateful and fearful thing is numbness. Do something tiny, maybe the end will be changed. Awaken the consciousness and do the change together.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous




I have found the same problem in my hometown. There used to be various kinds of beautiful trees. Now it seems that only poplars are being grown. It is so boring.

(comment translated by Zhou Chen)

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

再对蒋高明先生文章的几点看法 (第一部分)


Several more points about Mr Gaoming's articles (part 1)

Recently, I have just read the column articles written by Mr. Gaoming Jiang for chinadialogue.net and Financial Times, which focus on countryside ecological issues.

I have posted some comments to criticize Mr Jiang’s unfounded or far-fetched viewpoints in his articles. I also think it is inappropriate for him as a botanist to offer such articles for foreign media, because his pieces will mislead foreign readers. As such, I found it is necessary to point out these misleading information in his articles.

Please read the following comments.

Comment translated by Meiyou Ye

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

再对蒋高明先生文章的几点看法 (第二部分)


More comments on Mr. Jiang's article (part 2)

I have several comments on different parts of this article.

First, the cause of the destruction of eco environment in the countryside? I think this article is biased on this point, the cause shouldn't be attributed to rural life or production, but industrialization and urbanization. The harm of fertilizers, pesticides and agricultural membranes is actually caused by the fact that our industry cannot catch up with agricultural needs. Why we use so much and pollute so much? It's because industry doesn't provide a solution for economy. Everyone knows green pesticides are good, but it's Mr. Industry who on one hand suggested green pesticides as a solution, and on the other hand allowed the utilization of the materials with high toxicity and high residues!
It's right to attribute others to urbanization. The ultimate cause is that the strong depredation and expansion of urbanization lead to discordance between regions, cities and rural areas. The emergence of various ecological degradations is the best talking example.
Comment translated by Michelle Deeter

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

再对蒋高明先生文章的几点看法 (第三部分)


Several points about Mr Gaoming's articles (part 2)

Secondly, some judgemental sentences are not well thought out. Several tens of thousands of university students and when only 30 register at a swimming club, its leads him to determine that most people are non swimmers. I don’t know where he gets this kind of logic from. Students don’t register probably because that club's conditions lack enough to attract people and students' interest is not there. There is no accurate analysis leading to erroneous conclusions.

Translated by Mike Thomson

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

再对蒋高明先生文章的几点看法 (第四部分)


Several more points about Mr Gaoming's articles (part 4)

Thirdly, this article also takes away responsibility from Beijing for its ability to improve the quality of the air and environment. Mr Jiang in his last article and in this article has a distinguishing feature in that he clearly amplifies the effect surrounding areas have on Beijing’s environment. He only considers external factors and not internal ones. For example, to improve Beijing’s air quality you first need to rely on the efforts of Beijing and all the districts that fall under its jurisdiction and not abdicate responsibility by complaining about surrounding provinces. Though Beijing has adopted very big initiatives by moving a large number of polluting enterprises however Beijing’s non-point source pollution and vehicle pollution administration has not improved in any substantial way. Let’s speak about a real source like those complicated construction projects inside Beijing. Are they all meeting high environmental and pollution control standards? Are they all ISO14001 certificated construction enterprises? They have a great impact on Beijing’s air quality and nobody has researched to reveal sufficient evidence. Beijing is probably the city in China with the highest vehicle density. Even if every vehicle met Euro 4 emission standards they would still make a very large contribution to Beijing’s air pollution. Moreover, Beijing’s planning is not that good: everywhere there are traffic jams and the impact of slow moving vehicles cannot be underestimated. Somebody should investigate Beijing’s vehicle population and the relationship between air pollution and the number of vehicles on the road and actually work out what air pollution these vehicles cause before deciding what Beijing should do and not go by what a botanist says, taking several days air quality inspection, and concluding that surrounding provinces are burning straw.

This comment was translated by Mike Thomson

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

再对蒋高明先生文章的几点看法 (第五部分)


About Mr Gaoming's articles (part 5)

Fourthly, Mr. Jiang has argued that rural ecosystem must be saved. This is a good argument, yet it dropped out the critical subject: by whom? Generally speaking, it should be the rich regions of China, namely the cities, to assume this responsibility. As for Beijing, it is not justified to blame other cities until Beijing has solved its own problems. In order to improve the air quality in Beijing, the number of automobiles should be under tight control. Public transport system should be promoted through the combination of economic incentives as well as government policies. Civil servants and other residents in Beijing should be encouraged to take public transportation. Only by combining all of these measures can air quality be effectively improved. Besides, the municipal government of Beijing should use its fiscal revenue derived from high growth of GDP to help neighboring cities and provinces, as they have a great impact upon Beijing's environment. Only doing so is the beginning of real actions to save the rural ecosystem.

(Comment translated by Zhou Chen)

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Criticism and Advice is Welcome

This user: I benefited from respectfully reading your several points of contention. Because there are too many issues, I can't debate them with you on an item-by-item basis, although I am sure there is a lot we want to say to each other. I hope you prepare your views and put them out in an inquiring, constructive tone and not in an attacking, vituperative manner. If there is something that I seriously need to make clear, I will collect some specialized evidence, write an article, and then debate with you again. In fact, what I pointed out is an objective phenomenon, and the deep layer of reasoning behind it can definitely not be made clear in one or two articles. I hope that through a combined effort to improve our living conditions, and not by shutting me up, can China's environment get better. I work with ecology, and botany was my major in university. Whether I am qualified to speak on the environment is not up to me; everyone can make their own statements. I hope this is my reply to your 5 comments. I wish you well. Jiang Gaoming

The comment was translated by Anton Lee

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Use your right to speak carefully

Yeah…, oppose the point of view not the person. I agree with wxaixai’s opinion. Professor Jiang of course has a right to speak but as a scientist he ought to use his right to speak prudently. You work in ecology, wxaixai is in micro technology and I work with plants. From a professional training point of view we all have equal right to speak. When on Chinadialogue which is not as strict as a scientific publication but compared to science publications can have a larger ability to influence. Then anyone, especially a scientist whose words are more likely to be trusted by people, should pay careful attention to what they say and should not use the identity of a scientist to make similar kind of mistakes to "every mu producing 50,000 kg of rice". When doing popular science you should only popularise the results of scientific research and not take debatable items and place them in front of non-experts. I agree with wxaixai’s attitude: state the facts clearly; talk reason; have debate and only then can you have progress. -Aturen

Translated by Mike Thomson