Choking on Growth? – Another Side of Stories

The New York Times ran a series of articles “Choking on Growth,” citing many severe environmental damages that accompanied China’s unparalleled growth.

One of the more startling problems is a shortage of water in northern China. Almost five-sixths of the wetlands in the North China Plain have dried up, and the area, where more than 200 million people reside, may be drained within 30 years.

The issues discussed in the article are true, but the tone is arrogant. Usually, there is another side of stories that is not told:

Five thousand years ago, one of the first emperors, Yu, fought to control the flood from Yellow River in the North China Plain. “????” (Honorable Yu Overhauls Water) is a story that can be cited by every child in China. Thousands of years later, Chinese are still fighting the same problem.

In 2002, China started a gigantic project called “????” (South-to-North Water Transfer Project). Chinese compare this project to the Hoover Dam in the United States, but on a much bigger scale. It’s a network of canals that brings water from flood zone of southern China to the North.

Another proposed solution is rapid urbanization, which is already under way. As radical as it may sound, scientists say “converting farmland into urban area would save enough water” because “wide spreading farming still uses more water than urban areas.”

As the article also points out, “Britain, the United States and Japan polluted their way to prosperity and worried about environmental damage only after their economies matured and their urban middle classes demanded blue skies and safe drinking waters.”

Indeed, Chinese look at Americans as their role models. They want to own homes, drive SUVs, and travel around the world. “Typically, industrial countries deal with green problems when they are rich,” said Ren Yong, a climate expert in Beijing. “We have to deal with them while we are still poor. There is no model for us to follow.” – With this attitude, there is hope for resolution.

Beijing Snapshots

Beijing is notorious for its severe air pollution. This photo was taken in August from my hotel at the Second Ring and Jianguomen Ave. Unfortunately, it looks like this every day!

Beijing has over 3 million cars. Among them, more than 2 million are privately-owned passenger cars. Divided by household number (based on hukou), it means every household in Beijing has a car. In preparing for the 2008 Olympics, Beijing exercised an “only-half-of-cars-running” policy as an experiment. From Aug. 17th to 20th, only odd- or even-numbered cars, based on license plate number, can drive on streets. That means the traffic was reduced by at least one million cars during those four days. But I didn’t see much improvement in the air quality.

There is a “hidden paradise” in the outskirts of Beijing called “The Orchard,” located just outside of the Fifth Ring near Airport Road.

Essentially, it’s a restaurant in the midst of an orchard farm, offering the best Italian food you can ever find. Its Chinese-meets-Tuscany styled interior gives a sense of exoticness. Although far away from the city, the water in the pond still looks pretty mucky. This secret garden is developed by a couple (the wife is an American). In addition to the restaurant, the couple makes furniture and clothes. The taxi driver told me they are making hundreds of millions every year!