" Multiply this story by half a billion and you will begin to understand why the biggest migration in the history of the planet is underway in China."
──Reader's Digest, March, 2007
By Bill Mckibben
On the flight from Newark to Beijing, I read the following interesting report in the China Daily: "According to media reports, several air conditioner installers have fallen to their deaths in Beijing. As the sweltering summer heat sweeps the country, sales of air conditioning units are booming...The spurt in installation service demand has left many firms understaffed, so some are temporarily recruiting untrained installers to cash in...[some] even refuse to provide safety belts to save cost.
The article- evoking as it did an urban sky filled with plummeting air-conditioner installers- coincided perfectly with my mental image of China, so I tore it out and filed it. I'd done the same thing before, creating for myself a China full of smog-blackened cities, factories paying slave wages, a rapidly expanding consumer class hell-bent on buying cars with no regard for the environmental costs. I wanted to see it for myself, to gaze at the sheer spectacle of it all, and then come home with cautionary tales about what heedless growth meant for the future.
Once I 'd been to Yiwu, sights I'd seen earlier made more sense. Chunming, for instance, was a tiny rural town in the hills of Sichuan. Most of the men worked at a makeshift coalmine, trying to avoid the cave-ins and explosions responsible for many of China's miner deaths each year. The place was pretty bleak.
我曾經去過Yiwu, 這些之前所見的景像現在變得更有體悟。例如 Chunming（四川山邊的一個小城），大部份的男人在一個臨時權宜設立的礦坑工作，以免礦坑倒塌或爆炸，這類事件每年奪走6000個礦工生命，這地方實在很悽涼。
With my translator, I wandered up to a series of crumbling courtyards shared by seven or eight families. A few pigs slept in the room next to the kitchen. Here, we met Zhao Lintao, 12, who proudly spoke the English she'd learned in the village school. When we asked her about her life, though, she was soon in tear: her mother had gone to the city to work in a factory, abandoning her and her sister to her father, who beat them. The government was taking care of her school fees until ninth grade, but after that there would be no more money.
Multiply this story by half a billion and you will begin to understand why the biggest migration in the history of the planet is underway in China. Tens of millions of people leave desperately poor farms every year to work at the factories that feed Yiwu.
About 800 million people, roughly 60 per cent of China's population, are crowded onto those tiny farms. And on average they are earning one-third the incom of city dwellers. It is easy to see why the United Nations predicts tha by 2030, 60 per cent of Chinese will live in the cities.
The explanation for this surge has to do with those farmers streaming into the city: Yang says the best guess is that more than 20 million people come to the cities every year. They make enough money to get small refrigerators or even air conditioners. They get jobs making shower curtains and suitcases, which also take energy. And building even simple concrete huts for them requires resources- five per cent of China's fuel may go to producing cement alone.
Yun Jianli, a retired civil servant from Hubei provinces, showed photos of her brigade of activists walking more than 200 kilometres along the Han River- which was gruesomely polluted by effluvia flowing from small factories- and of campaigners waving a huge green flag with "Save Our Mother River" written in Chinese. She had pictures of herself at huge meetings and a riverside village of 3000 people, 110 of whom she said had cancer. After the villagers complained, she said, provincial officials provided money to drill a new well that would provide clean drinking water.
By some accounts, there may be 70,000 protests a year in China, many of them over particular factories spewing out toxins.
Without roots to hold the soil, much of the countryside has simply turned to sand. Deserts expanded by hundreds of kilometers annually, and the dust storms of April and May are now a recognised Beijing season, just like spring and autumn.
As the flow of the Chao and other rivers has been siphoned off by the cities growing alongside them, Beijing has been drawing more and more of its own water from an underground aquifier- as a result the water table has been sinking by meters in recent years of drought. " Some northern cities will simply be out of water in eight or ten years,"
It's not as if the Chinese haven't noticed that big problems come with this kind of growth. Pan Yue, the country's deputy environmentminister, told Der Spiegel that the country's economic miracle " will end soon because the environment can no longer keep pace. Five of ten most polluted cities worldwide are in China; acid rain is falling on one third of our territory; half of the water in China's seven largest rivers is completely useless." But without that level of growth, there'd be no way to absorb the endless influx from the countryside. How are you to keep people down on their 670 square metres once they've heard that city dwellers eat meat?
And so the country is trying to muddle through. On the one hand, it must keep growing fast enough to absorb all that restless labour. And on the other hand, it must keep resources and energy use enough in check that China doesn't simply crash and burn.
On my last night in Shanghai, I ended up strolling the Bund, the strip of old European banking houses that face the Huangpu River. On the other bank, in the Pudong District that China has made its great urban showpiece, huge towers rose in neon splendor- the Jin Mao Tower, with the highest hotel on earth taking up its top 34 floors; the Oriental Pearl TV tower, its great kitschy globes glowing pink against the sky; the Aurora building, with its vast outdoor TV screen showing ad after ad. Tens of thousands of spectators were content just to stand there in the dark and look. Many were new arrivals from the countryside, in shabbier clothes and with ruddier faces than the city folk.
I'm not sure China can escape the horrible enviromental contradictions of its own growth(the soil is subsiding even in Pudong as Shanghai overpumps groundwater). But that vista across the Huangpu River is filled with a kind of hope for the people who nightly drink it in.
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