Saturday, February 26, 2011

Chinese history you need to know...

Right now. I am finishing Mao's Great Famine by Frank Dikotter. It is an appalling account of the social and economic consequences on the insane "Great Leap Forward" in the late 1950's and early 1960's. It is not an easy read as the author painstaking documents absolutely horrendous accounts of starvation, stupidity, corruption, death on an imaginable scale, etc.  [I believe I have also recommended a much earlier book about that same event: Alive in a Bitter Sea.]

But this week's market action and these remarks by Kevin Van Trump prompted me to add to my speculation about China, food and the immediate future.
MUST READ...China's Years Of Pollution Could Actually Cost Them A Huge Portion Of Their Crop
China's poor farming practices and years of polluting their land may have finally caught up with them.  The news is just starting to surface, but from what I was told last night millions of acres of Chinese farmland could actually be polluted with heavy metals.  The Chinese government may have actually know of the problem since 2007, but have been able to keep a tight lid on things until now.  Sources claim that 12 million tons of grain may actually need to be destroyed or may have already been destroyed in the past few months.  The story circulating is that China had been pressed to build massive irrigations systems several years back to eliminate ongoing drought issues.  The land and water sources where the water was pulled from was later found to be highly polluted with heavy metals and other toxic substance.  The authorities, at all levels, have tried to hide the problem even though cases of pollution and pollution-related diseases, above all in children, have been breaking out like wildfire.  There have been documents uncovered that former Land Minister Sun Wensheng warned the government in 2007 that at least 10% of China's 295 million acres of farmland were actually contaminated by heavy metals, toxic pollutants, and cancer-causing cadmium.  Prime Minister Wen Jiabao and Environment Minister Zhou Shengxian were put on the spot and have promised to start some type of clean-up campaigns after admitting that metal poisoning had become much worse than they had ever anticipated.  Supposedly the Environment Ministry, yesterday announced on its website a plan to tackle pollution in 14 heavily affected provinces.  However, in typical Chinese political fashion it refused to provide any details about how much damage and how extensive the problem has become.  The plan and details of the problem are still being considered a national secret.  If this is true it could certainly be the "smoking gun" that China has been trying to cover up, and could ultimately let the cat out of the bag.  If it hasn't happened yet, I can almost guarantee you China's poor environmental practices will ultimately catch up with them.  
(Kevin doesn't offer any links to this, but I've e-mailed him for any source he can share.)

Anyway, match that up with these passages from MGF:
Mao's Great Famine (Frank Dikötter)
- Highlight Loc. 998-1005 | Added on Sunday, February 06, 2011, 10:27 PM

But most of the time buildings made of mud and straw were torn down to provide nutrients for the soil. Walls of buildings where animals had lived and especially where they had urinated, such as stables, could provide useful fertiliser. At first old walls and abandoned huts were destroyed, but as the campaign gained momentum entire rows of houses were systematically razed to the ground, the mud bricks shattered and strewn across the fields. In Macheng, nestled against the south of the Dabie mountain range in Hubei, thousands of houses were demolished to collect fertiliser. In January 1958 the model county was exalted by Wang Renzhong, party secretary of the province, for reaching a rice yield of six tonnes per hectare: ‘Let Us Learn from Macheng!’ the People’s Daily declared rapturously. Once it had been praised by Mao for its experimental plots, Macheng became a shrine.
Mao's Great Famine (Frank Dikötter)
- Highlight Loc. 1005-14 | Added on Sunday, February 06, 2011, 10:28 PM

In the following months it attracted half a million cadres, including Zhou Enlai, foreign minister Chen Yi and Li Xiannian. By August a new record was achieved with a yield of 277 tonnes of rice per hectare: ‘The Era of Miracles!’ the propaganda machine proclaimed.18 On the ground the pressure was unremitting, wild boasts and false figures vying for attention. In one Macheng commune the head of the Women’s Federation took the lead by moving out of her house and allowing it to be turned into fertiliser: within two days 300 houses, fifty cattle pens and hundreds of chicken coops had been pulled down. By the end of the year some 50,000 buildings had been destroyed.19 Trying to outdo one another, other communes throughout the country followed suit. In Dashi, Guangdong, a commune that also attracted nationwide attention with its ‘Twenty-five-Tonne Grain University’ and ‘Five-Thousand-Kilo Field’, local cadres pulverised half of all houses in Xi’er.20 Other organic matter found its way into the fields: in parts of Jiangsu province, the land was covered in white sugar.
Mao's Great Famine (Frank Dikötter)
- Highlight Loc. 3494-3506 | Added on Monday, February 21, 2011, 01:38 PM

Throughout the country the irrigation projects, built by hundreds of millions of farmers at great human and economic cost, were for the main part useless or downright dangerous. Many violated the laws of nature, resulting in soil erosion, landslides and river siltation. We saw how in Hunan, a province blessed with fertile soil, river valleys and terraced fields, lush mountains covered with primeval forest were defaced by local communes during the steel drive. The denuded mountains were washed bare by torrents, since there was no longer a canopy to intercept rainwater. As the capacity of forests to retain water was degraded, natural hazards were amplified into disasters. Large irrigation projects that had disrupted the natural flow of water with stopbanks, culverts, reservoirs and irrigation channels only aggravated matters. Accumulated deposits heightened the bed of local rivers in Hunan by up to 80 centimetres, so that water threatened to spill over and flood the neighbouring villages.39 Local reclamation projects made things worse. Launched by the state and local communes in response to food shortages, they showed little sense of stewardship of nature. In Hunan over 100,000 hectares were opened up, much of it on steep mountain slopes. The rain then flushed the soil and took it to the newly built reservoirs, choking them with sediment. One team in Longhui reclaimed ten hectares on a gradient against the mountain: the runoff from torrential rain in May 1962 took enough soil to silt up thirty dams and five roads.40
[BTW, these are what clippings look like when uploaded from a Kindle. The numbers are footnote numbers that lose formatting.]

For some reason I am fascinated by this period as it was a time when I was just beginning to be exposed to world events via The Weekly Reader. I remember reading about the GLF at the time, so I assume the Chinese did a masterful job of telling about the scope of their incredible and stupefyingly illogical programs.

Please also listen to my commentary on USFR this next week as I add in Hu's own biography (he's an engineer, for one thing) to my earlier remarks to guess what might be going through his mind right now. Also keep in mind he can remember the horror of the GLF firsthand.

No comments: