The Greening of China?

About this Episode

Guests
David Pietz, Betsy Brunner, and Ruth Mostern

As the world considers how to respond to climate change, China has emerged as the great paradox. With its fast-growing economy, China has become the leading producer of CO2 (though not on a per-capita basis). Simultaneously, it has become the world's leading producer of green and renewable energy. In this episode of History Talk, hosts Jessica Blissit and Brenna Miller talk to three experts—David Pietz, Betsy Brunner, and Ruth Mostern—about the problems facing China today, the short and long-term history of China’s relationship to the environment, and what global role China might play in the coming years in confronting climate change.

(Image Source)

Cite this Site

Jessica Viñas-Nelson, Brenna Miller , "The Greening of China?" , Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective
January, 2017
https://origins.osu.edu/historytalk/greening-china?language_content_entity=en.
January, 2017

Transcript

Brenna Miller 

Welcome to History Talk, the podcast that brings together a panel of experts to discuss current events in historical perspective. I'm your host, Brenna Miller.

 

Jessica Blissit 

And I'm your other host, Jessica Blissit. According to the World Health Organization, one million people died from dirty air last year in China, making it the deadliest country for outdoor air pollution. It's the world's largest coal consumer and the largest carbon dioxide emitter. Emissions from coal-powered industries and cars generate dense smog that has led Beijing to recently issue a pollution "red alert" that closed schools and factories, and forced half of the private cars off the road in 23 cities. For a nation reliant on industrial production, however, this is not a permanent solution, or even one making a sufficient dent in the clouds of smog choking Beijing and many other major cities, 16 of which top the World Health Organization's list of top 20 most polluted cities.

 

Brenna Miller 

At the same time, China leads the world in investment in renewable energy and is poised to become a leading exporter of mass-produced solar panels and windmills. So how do we reconcile these two divergent stories about China's environmental situation? What's the history of China's relationship with the environment? And what does its future hold? We're here with three historians to make sense of this seeming contradiction of a major carbon emitter and the world's leader in making and using green energy. From the University of Arizona, we have Dr. David A. Pietz, a professor of modern Chinese history, UNESCO chair in environmental history in the Department of East Asian Studies, and director of the Global Studies program.

 

Dr. David Pietz 

Hello.

 

Jessica Blissit 

From Idaho State University, an assistant professor in the Department of Communication, Media, and Persuasion, specializing in visual rhetoric and Chinese environmental activism, we have Betsy Brunner.

 

Betsy Brunner 

Thank you.

 

Brenna Miller 

With us, we have Ruth Mostern, an associate professor in the School of Social Sciences, Humanities, and Arts at the University of California Merced and soon to be an associate professor of world history at the University of Pittsburgh. She's a specialist in spatial and environmental history focusing on Imperial China and the world.

 

Ruth Mostern 

Hi, thank you so much for having me today.

 

Brenna Miller 

It's our pleasure. So, David, we hear a lot of news out of China about the environment, what are some of the key environmental issues facing the country today?

 

Dr. David Pietz 

Well, I think there are three major environmental challenges. The first has to do with air quality. The second has to do really with water quantity and quality. And I think perhaps the third major environmental issue has to do with land, and particularly desertification of land in China's Northwest region and North Central region. Each and every one of them really have economic consequences, they have health consequences. And they also have consequences really for social stability, just looking at perhaps the air quality issue to begin with. And certainly the city of Beijing has, I think, probably garnered the most attention for its air quality issues. But nonetheless, air quality issues really pervade China's large urban areas, and I think even, it's fair to say, even beyond those large urban areas, but there have been a variety of media reports about really the unsafe quality of its air, I mean, even so unsafe that it is really considered to be dangerous. The principal source of China's air quality problems really have to do with coal, particularly coal-burning, electrical plants. China burns something like half of the world's coal consumption. Added to that is the issue of automotive use in the past ten years or so, the number of China's automobiles is something like quintupled. And then affecting both urban and rural areas is the issue of water depletion and water pollution or degradation. So it's estimated like 70% of China's surface water is seriously degraded and even groundwater supplies, something like over half or 60% of groundwater supplies under the major cities were considered to be bad to very bad. So there is a real critical problem with a question of allocation between rural and urban constituencies. And of course, compounding that problem is our questions of water quality as well.

 

Brenna Miller 

So we often think of these kinds of changes as being a result of industrialization. Is this primarily an issue about China's industrialization since the Communist Revolution? Or does it have a longer history as you see it?

 

Dr. David Pietz 

Yeah, well, I think it's both. I think that the very acute problems that we've witnessed, and I guess I'm particularly referring to water issues here at the moment, the very acute problems that we've seen with quantity and quality certainly have been egregiously aggravated, particularly during the reform period, beginning from 1978. So the quickened pace of industrial development, urbanization, and agricultural intensification during the reform period really were layered on top of long-run, historical water management challenges that certainly predate the reform period, going back to 1949, when China's water resources were aggressively developed, but even well before that, particularly in North China, where supply has always been a critical issue as well as the control of water. And so I think it's fair to say again that the pace of degradation, if you will, and acute water usage in the past 30 or 40 years was layered on top of those traditional concerns. So it really is a long-term issue, that is to say water allocation or effective water allocation, water control, that was very much a major concern of the imperial governments and then, of course, governments in the twentieth century, both in terms of supplying adequate and reliable water supplies to the agricultural, the rural sector in North China, and maintaining that kind of ecological equilibrium in North China was deemed for centuries to be very critically important to the social and political order in the rural areas, which ultimately had a great deal of input to the social and political well-being of the state in China.

 

Brenna Miller 

Can you describe in a little bit more detail exactly what the relationship between the environment and political stability, and especially the Yellow River, your area of focus was kind of in the pre-communist period, I mean, how exactly did these interactions operate?

 

Dr. David Pietz 

Sure, well, as I think I've mentioned, the state, throughout the imperial period in Chinese history, had an acute awareness and really an overriding concern to maintain ecological equilibrium on the North China Plain. Have to remember that the North China Plain, for a very long time, has really been a critically important agricultural region for the state. And so the state, in turn, paid a great deal of attention on the hydraulic stability of the Yellow River. As I'm sure you know, the Yellow River represented a potential threat to social and economic well-being of the North China Plain region, because of its propensity, due to its high silt content, its propensity to raise its bed and to overflow its bank, which generated large scale flooding, which had quite destabilizing effects on local society. And so the state, really from a very early period, committed itself to maintaining the hydraulic stability of the Yellow River system, which, in practical terms, meant paying a great deal of attention to defense systems, to levies, to, in some cases, reservoirs. And it was a commitment that the state necessarily had to maintain, because any lack of attention or any shortfall in investment would directly threaten the capacity of those defense systems to maintain the well-being of the Yellow River hydraulic system. And so the state very much felt its responsibility in terms of investment and providing sort of a moral framework for local elites and local officials in the North China Plain area, to make sure that those defensive structures were well-maintained in order to prevent flooding and ultimately a hydraulic catastrophe. The point being here, again, the kind of social and political chaos that ecological instability on the North China Plain could engender represented very much a threat to the political order of Imperial China.

 

Brenna Miller 

It strikes us that today, China is going in these two directions simultaneously. On the one hand, on its way to being the world's largest producer of greenhouse gases, but at the same time, one of the largest producers of green power. So is this a paradox or a conundrum? I mean, how do we make sense of this seeming contradiction?

 

Dr. David Pietz 

Well, it's a great question. And I think there are perhaps a number of elements. I think one of the fundamental challenges that the state has faced over the past couple of decades is coming to some sort of semblance of being able to manage, at the local level, industries that largely have avoided effective regulation from the center. So for example, during the 1990s, the grand bargain that the Deng Xiaoping government lead in China was a devolution of economic decision-making power that enabled local governments to really take a greater responsibility and role in economic decision-making and investment decisions. And that resulted in an absolute proliferation of local industries. There were the creation of what were called township and village enterprises beginning in the 1990s. And by about 2000-2005 or so, these small, locally controlled enterprises contributed something like up to 70% of China's GDP. But it was virtually impossible for the state to try and regulate these industries in a variety of sectors, but certainly environmental as well. By and large, those local economic institutions had other priorities beyond environmental regulation. And so I think the state, up to this point, and party are very, very much aware of environmental issues. They would like to respond, I think, to a growing set of concerns, both from rural and urban constituencies about quality-of-life issues, but it has continued to struggle to be able to implement an environmental regulatory scheme throughout China. But at the same time, China has certainly recognized, or investors in China have recognized, that globally, there is an opportunity here to invest in green technologies. Certainly, many of those have an international market. And so from an economic point of view, there is this trend over the past 20 years to see this as a lucrative investment opportunity.

 

Brenna Miller 

So it seems like there's a variety of pressures, both internal, external, economic.

 

Dr. David Pietz 

Absolutely, and I mean, I think our tendency as observers from beyond is to think that there's a high degree of recalcitrance by the state and government to address Chinese environmental issues. It's certainly a complicated regulatory environment. But at the same time, there is a keen recognition, I think, by political elites in China that something has to be done. And there certainly have been administrative efforts to try and impose a more effective regulatory environment in China. And I think part of the increasing pace towards this movement has certainly been advanced by the slowing of China's economy during the past couple of years. There's a great deal of sensitivity about, again to political and social stability in China...certainly pollution has provided a source of comment and criticism from, again, both rural and urban constituencies in China.

 

Brenna Miller 

So looking forward, can and is China willing to curb its economic growth for health and environmental concerns? And what, in your estimation, are the realistic possibilities for international cooperation on climate change issues in the future?

 

Dr. David Pietz 

Yeah, gosh, I think we'll see, I guess, maybe is the short answer. But the question about the state and party being willing to sacrifice a certain rate of economic growth, I think is a very tricky one, understandably, for them. Certainly, economic growth has really provided the foundation for the social compact, I think, in China over the past 20 years. And so I think, understandably, given that, the state is very keen about maintaining healthy economic growth. But of course, that has to be balanced with its concerns about political and social stability, as it is, as those forces are shaped by the environment. So I think looking forward, you really have pointed to a very delicate balance that the state has to negotiate. I think, oftentimes, the tendency, not just in China but in a lot of contexts around the world, is to think of those as being mutually exclusive. And I think there's a greater tendency within China to think more inclusively about economic growth not necessarily being in opposition to environmental protection. China has indicated a real sense of willingness to participate in international accord. Perhaps the most recent example of that is its agreement to abide by the Paris Climate Accords, as has the United States. But again, perhaps similar to the United States, we'll see what the future holds in terms of both a consistent hewing to those agreements, and also practical measures taking within the domestic polity to, in fact, abide by those accords. From 30,000 feet up, I think, the prospects for greater environmental protection and mediation efforts in China, it is, I think, very much a kind of a good news/bad news kind of thing. It is that problems continue. But that there have been indications of a greater willingness by the state and party to address these problems, but they're just very, very difficult issues to try and negotiate, these sort of paths between economic growth and environmental protection, that there are very strong interest in both of them. And really, the challenge is to try and integrate those into a coherent set of policies that ultimately, from the individual point of view, can mitigate these environmental issues that are very much one component of the reality of living in China these days, particularly in urban areas.

 

Jessica Blissit 

Betsy, what are the main environmental issues in China today? And how transparent are environmental issues in China? Do people know a lot about environmental dangers?

 

Betsy Brunner 

I think that the biggest environmental issues that they're facing today are air pollution, water pollution, and soil pollution. And these are translating into severe health problems, including all different kinds of throat, stomach cancers, water scarcity, food safety issues, and so forth. For example, according to one report, up to 40% of China's rivers were seriously polluted and 20% were so polluted, you weren't even allowed to come into contact with them. In another study, there were 5000 soil samples taken and roughly a quarter of them turned out to be polluted. And so these issues are becoming very apparent and transparent, because people are feeling the effects. I have a friend that, in his 20s, had to have surgery because he had throat cancer. And this is something that affected half of his family because of water pollution. So the issues are definitely air, soil, and water pollution. But the transparency is somewhat inconsistent and complicated. So if you take air pollution, for example, that's something that we're familiar with in the U.S., because we see tons of international coverage every time Beijing has a horrible "airpocalypse." We see pictures and we hear about it on the news. So air pollution is something that people actually can see. It can't be disguised. It's not just at a location where a river is, it receives lots of attention. We see posts on social media about it from people in China, from visitors to China. And it's gotten so bad that it's drawn protests in places like Chengdu in 2016. We see people being aware of it. We also saw the documentary that Chai Jing made called, Under the Dome, that, within 24 hours, had 14 million views on Youku and 35 million additional views on social media.

 

Jessica Blissit 

Wow.

 

Betsy Brunner 

But then it was censored. So we see it, but then we also see the government trying to control the reaction to it, so that it doesn't turn into massive social unrest, because that's something that they fear a great deal and don't want to occur. But then also in terms of...even though the issue of air pollution does receive a lot of coverage and people are very aware of it, I still, when I'm in cities, I'll see people wearing masks and every year there's more people wearing them. But there's also always more people not wearing them than wearing them. In that way, it seems very complicated. They seem to know about the environmental dangers, but the precautionary actions sometimes are inconsistent or not as great as they should be considering the dangers that they're facing.

 

Jessica Blissit 

And I assume the government isn't promoting the use of masks or anything like that.

 

Betsy Brunner 

Kind of complicated. So in places like Chengdu, during the recent protests, and in other places, where they've been suspicious of or concerned about social unrest, if someone buys air masks in bulk quantities, then they tag that person, right. That person is put under watch. But then we do also see people directing traffic, those people have masks and are wearing them. And I'm not sure if the government gave them that mask or not. But you do see officials actually wearing masks.

 

Jessica Blissit 

So where's the pressure primarily coming from for Chinese leaders to address these environmental issues? Is it really internal or external?

 

Betsy Brunner 

I think that they feel both of them and that they work in tandem. So external pressures function on a larger scale, and they help get laws created and get them on the books. China wants to be a responsible...moving from developing to developed country. And so we see them, from actually the end of Mao's regime onward, becoming increasingly more involved in international organizations that help with the environment. So and then today, we see them participating in the Paris Climate Agreement, for example, committing to decrease their coal consumption and carbon emissions. So this leads to them putting laws that cap factory emissions, they really see themselves as potential leaders in green energy. They actually use way more solar than the United States, as they're second in the world for solar usage. And they produce a lot of solar as well. They also have really great rules about if the air quality in a city like Beijing is high, is in the red, very unhealthy levels, then what's supposed to happen is that cop cars get pulled off the road, factories get shut down, and so forth. Now, these aren't always enacted, they were most recently when it exceeded 1000, which is over double the end of the scale, it only goes up to 500. So we see them put all these great laws on the books. And that, I think, is largely due to these external pressures. But then the internal pressures are really what help drive leaders on a local level to enforce them. So China's huge. One of the biggest problems it faces is that it's a big country, and it has over three times as many people in the United States, roughly the same amount of land. So it's hard to oversee all those people in all those different areas. So when people at the local level, and in particular city, protests, that puts pressure on local officials to actually enforce the laws on the books. So when people get sick, when family members are dying of cancer, they start petitions, they start protests. If your life is at risk, or if a family member's life is at risk, then going to jail for protest doesn't seem like such a bad option if you think that the protest is going to help. And in a lot of cases, protesters have been successful in shutting down the building of wastewater pipelines or garbage incinerators or Paraxylene factories. So on the local level, the people that are upset because they're sick, their family members are sick, that helps draw attention to the fact that the laws aren't being enforced. And the locals kind of call out their local officials and almost tattle on them to Beijing, because if Beijing finds out, then the local leaders get in trouble.

 

Jessica Blissit 

So then, is it primarily popular protest small scale? Or is it more organizational activism?

 

Betsy Brunner 

Protests in China are necessarily decentralized. No single person or organization can ever lead a protest because they would be jailed, or the organization would be shut down immediately. So ENGOs can't lead a protest, they can't organize a protest, otherwise they wouldn't exist. The protests, in large part, occur over various different social media channels. And people are incredibly smart and creative about getting people together and conversing and communicating over multiple different platforms and using code words to get around censorship. If words that are being censored, they use pictures. If words and pictures are being censored, then they use the walkie talkie function. And things spread really quickly, really far. And many of the protests that have occurred have been over 10,000 people uniting in the street, or standing on the front lawn of an administrative or government building in town and then marching through the streets. And that gains more followers and more supporters as well. So the protests...there's, on average, between 250 and 500 protests per day in China, many of them are in Wuhan. And these protests really do have an impact on calling their local leaders to task and then also drawing attention from national and international bodies to say this is what's happening here, and then pressuring them to stop it.

 

Jessica Blissit 

Wow, how do they sustain momentum?

 

Betsy Brunner 

Protests in China work remarkably different than protests in the United States, partially because even though they are protected under the constitution in China, just like the U.S., we have to get permits to protest. So in China, they have to get permits to protest as well, but they're very rarely approved. So when people protest, it's almost always illegal. And they show up in these mass numbers. And they actually, in some cases, in less than 24 hours, officials are acquiescing to their demands. So if you look at the Keystone XL pipeline protests, those went on for years and years and years, right? And then just recently, finally came to a close with Obama. But in China, a lot of times, they'll be just five to ten hours in, or seven days in, and that's a long protest before the government leaders say, "Okay, we'll hold a press conference. Let's figure out what we need to do about this, so that we can disperse this unrest." A lot of times there's violence, people are hurt, they're sent to jail, there's pictures of bloodied faces and bloody bodies that fly around on social media as a result, which again, just draws more attention. So protest is very different in that it tends to be more effective almost, in many ways, and big bursts rather than prolonged protest for years.

 

Jessica Blissit 

So these ENGOs, these environmental non-government organizations, if it's decentralized, what kind of power do they have? And how many are we talking about?

 

Betsy Brunner 

There are numerous different kinds of ENGOs, and there's thousands of them. The ENGOs can't participate in the actual protest, and they often have to distance themselves from it. They can provide information, but they can't encourage people to attend any kind of protest, they actively actually probably have to discourage it, because ENGOs in China have to have a government sponsor and be registered with the government. So there's those, these official ENGOs, and then there's also a lot of unofficial ENGOs, that still are doing the same kind of work, but have chosen not to register with the government for a variety of reasons.

 

Jessica Blissit 

So what role do foreign relations play in environmental activism in China? Given skepticism about foreign intervention, what might we think is the potential for regional and international cooperation on environmental issues in China?

 

Betsy Brunner 

I think foreign relations and environmental pacts and agreements between the U.S. and China are incredibly important, because we're the two largest carbon emitters in the world, though the U.S. wins per capita. And the fact that we're such large carbon emitters really makes it crucial that we cooperate to reduce dependencies on coal, and then carbon emissions. Another thing that I think really might help with these collaborative efforts is an acknowledgement that learning about environmental issues is not a one-way street. It's not all about the U.S. teaching China, or the U.S. putting pressure on China, but the U.S. can also learn from China, whether it be from its mistakes or successes. So we don't hear this much in the U.S., but there are all kinds of small policies in place in China that help reduce resource and energy consumption. So for example, all the government buildings in China have a temperature at certain temperature that they can't exceed when they're using air conditioning or heating. At every home I've ever stayed in, in China, they have individual water heaters that you only turn on five minutes before you're ready to take a shower and that saves energy. And then there's also laws in place where if you use over a certain amount of energy, then your energy costs increase. So these small things that China does, I think that the U.S. could possibly also learn from and if we made it a more equal partnership and relationship, I think that that might help encourage further cooperation.

 

Jessica Blissit 

Well, speaking of what we can learn from China, in the U.S., despite near universal scientific consensus, there are still climate deniers who dispute the causes and reality of climate change. Is there such a debate in China? And what form does resistance to improving the environment in China take?

 

Betsy Brunner 

In China, in general, there are not a lot of climate deniers. And part of this has to do with the fact that government officials acknowledge, universally, climate change.

 

Jessica Blissit 

Big difference from the U.S.

 

Betsy Brunner 

Yeah, different from the U.S. So for example, the Chinese Vice Foreign Minister, Liu Zhenmin, said that he hoped, when he heard that Donald Trump said that the Chinese had created this hoax of climate change for their own benefit and to hurt the U.S., he said that I do hope that the Trump administration will work with China on curbing carbon emissions, and that the Chinese are really committed to fighting climate change no matter what the circumstances were. So when you have your leaders saying things like that, then it makes skepticism less likely. That being said, I have met a few people that are climate skeptics, so to speak, but they are few. And some of it, unfortunately, comes from the fact that people in China sometimes look to U.S. media, because they see it as more objective, it's not government-controlled, so they'll read it. And when they read it, they see that there's climate skepticism in U.S. media outlets. And because they have credibility, that idea then carries some credibility with it. But I would say in general, that it's very small in China, that the government leaders really help. Their acknowledgement of the existence of climate change and their commitment to publicly doing something to combat it is huge in decreasing the number of climate skeptics.

 

Jessica Blissit 

There are essentially no real climate deniers there. But there is still a great many who have tremendous stakes in high energy use for economic growth. Can and is China willing to curb its economic growth for health and environmental concerns?

 

Betsy Brunner 

I think that there's cause for despair and hope here. Yes, pollution is a huge problem in China, like factories. Growth, economic growth, is predicated on producing and consumption. But for me, if I don't also see hope, then there's no reason to fight. And there's clearly many people in China that see hope, because there are so many ENGOs, because there are so many people fighting. And so I see hope in the protests, when repeatedly, in cities across China, one of the signs that you see all the time in protests is, "Say No to GDP, Save Our Home," in whatever city that it might be. But constantly people are recognizing that in order to have a clean environment, they have to say no to GDP. I do think that the growing awareness about increasing GDP being bad for the environment is making its way to the people and that it's also making its way to the governments, who have the government-making statements like, "We will strategically control our GDP in order to make it more green." I do see hope. And I hope that other people do as well, so that they can continue to fight for better environmental policies and enforcement of them.

 

Brenna Miller 

Ruth, can you give us an idea of the overall environmental landscape of China? What are the most important climate, hydrological, and landscape characteristics of the country? And then, along with that, what are some of the key environmental issues facing China today?

 

Ruth Mostern 

So the most significant feature of China is that everything flows from west to east. All of the river systems flow off the Tibetan Plateau and toward the east from there. The other significant overall feature is that it is dominated by the Asian monsoon system. That means that the precipitation predominantly falls in the summer. The other thing that's significant about that is that China is on a gradient from a subtropical climate in the south, very wet climate, very predictable monsoon impact, to a semi-arid, indeed, very arid climate in the north, which is at the edge of the monsoon. And so this means both that the climate is arid and also that it is very unpredictable, because of the strength of the monsoon from year to year has a significant impact on whether it's possible to farm crops and so on. So thinking about China today, water has always and continues to be a very, very significant issue, the unpredictability of water, the likelihood of both floods and droughts. And now with the size of China's population, the impact of water pollution, and the need for water for industrial purposes, as well as agriculture, also very big challenges about the scarcity of water. Climate change, of course, is a huge issue in China as it is everywhere in the world. Unpredictable effects with warming are especially significant because of glacial melt on the Tibetan Plateau, which has such an impact on China's water universe. The other issue that's very, very significant in China that I think many of your listeners will be familiar with, because it's been in the news so much of the last few years, is the challenge of pollution in China, and that has several facets. Many of your listeners will have seen the pictures of Beijing, shrouded in coal smoke. A lot of residential heating and industrial activity in China, even today, is still dominated by coal burning, and by particularly dirty kinds of coal burning, and now also exacerbated by the growing use of cars in the country. The other issue that makes pollution such a challenge is that civil society and the rule of law is not extremely well developed. And so locally polluting activities don't really have much of a counterbalance from the local population. It's hard for the government even to understand what's happening locally, because there is not a clear voice from local residents and the local government up to the capital. And it's hard to have any sort of legal infrastructure that helps to mitigate the worst of those problems.

 

Brenna Miller 

So what kinds of technological and industrial changes have taken place since the Communist Revolution and what impacts have these had on the environment?

 

Ruth Mostern 

In terms of environmental change since the revolution in 1949, there's really a pretty sharp break between the Maoist period and the post-Maoist period. During the Maoist period, that has been covered in a very excellent book called, Mao's War against Nature, and the title kind of says it all. The Maoist era was a time of ideologically focused and unchecked rapid development, which led to deforestation, erosion, other kinds of very serious environmental effects, as well as rising industrial output and agricultural output. Since the late 1970s/1980, the story of the environment in China is really more or less the same as it is in any of the industrial and rapidly industrializing countries anywhere else in the world, which is rapid and rampant development, valorization of rapid economic growth, and rapid industrialization, also a rising environmental consciousness, both in the government and among the population.

 

Brenna Miller 

So is China's current environmental crisis then a result of this last post-revolutionary period of development? Or does it have an even bigger history? And what might we be able to learn about environmental issues by taking a longer-term view?

 

Ruth Mostern 

It's a long, long, long history, as it is, I think, everywhere. I mean, I'm a long-term historian, so I guess I always, at the global scale or when thinking about China, think about the very long term. In China, going back even to the Warring States period, the pre-industrial times, the Iron Age. There's always been a strong emphasis on the capacity and the benefit of the state and the people making massive environmental changes. And China, from the Iron Age onward, has been characterized by some of the most massive of environmental change of any civilization on the planet. So I always like to point to the story of Yu the Great, the legendary first emperor of China, who supposedly ruled about 2000 B.C. Totally fictional person, but a very, very significant culture hero in China. And what allowed him to create China's legendary first empire was his ability to drain wetlands, build levees, build dams, then channel China's water courses into stable riverbeds. That then allowed him to collect taxes and tribute and create a state. So the fact that that is the point of origin of China as a concept, I think gives you a really significant idea about the deep-rooted, ideological basis for significant environmental change in China.

 

Brenna Miller 

So how have anthropogenic transformations of the landscape and waterscapes of China changed over the last, say, 1000 to 200 years or broader?

 

Ruth Mostern 

So it's very interesting to evoke all of these different timeframes. Because of course, things look different depending on whether you set a 1000-year time frame, a 200 year time frame, a 3000 year time frame. So for instance, earlier in the conversation, I mentioned that one of the most significant facts of ecological geography is the fact that all the rivers flow from west to east. However, the economic geography and the demographic geography of China is that the south is much more fertile than the north. And so beginning as early as the sixth or seventh century, there was a canal system that was intended to bring rice from the south to the cities and farms and military frontier of the north. And that canal, the Grand Canal, operated more or less continuously from the Sui dynasty, the seventh century, until the end of the Imperial era, pretty much went defunct, with the last major Imperial era flood of the Yellow River in 1855. So that's a long and old story of significant human transformation of the environment and exploitation of the existing climate and environment for various purposes. Now, there's a new south to north water diversion project that is of monumental scale, one of the largest scaled water engineering projects that has ever been completed on the planet, which is intended to draw water out of the reservoir behind the Three Gorges Dam and transport it to the Yellow River. And it's really interesting to think of that as being an example of the continuities in Chinese environmental history over the very long term, but then also something new. What can you do in the age of big concrete and big industry?

 

Brenna Miller 

So what has been the role of rivers in Chinese history, and are there specific instances in which drought and flood defined this history in the past?

 

Ruth Mostern 

So the Yellow River, which is what my current research focuses on, has had approximately 30 major course changes and 1500 floods documented in the historical record over the 2500 years or so of pre-imperial and imperial history. And by the eighteenth century, the cost of managing the embankments and reservoirs and sluice gates and other systems that had been put in place was occupying as much of China's annual budget as the entire GNP of France at the same time, around the time of the French Revolution. That whole engineered water system just did more or less, not only to prevent flooding, but to keep the Grand Canal open, that is the ability to bring rice from the southern part of the country to the capital. So the misery that it caused for the farmers alongside the river was not really consequential to the state. And so the result was salinification of the land, swampiness, always a high level of precariousness and risk of flooding, and, ironically, less access to irrigation, because all of the whole tributary and wetland system around the lower course of the Yellow River was gradually cut off. I think the big point I want to make here is that in doing Chinese long-term water history, one quickly gets back to the work of Karl Wittfogel, mid-twentieth century, and his theory of the hydraulic civilization. And that theory essentially goes that the Chinese Imperial state, because water management was so important, that became the basis for state power and what he, in the mid-twentieth century, termed oriental despotism. That term is obviously long gone. It's wrong, because it's pejorative. And it's also wrong, because it assumes that state power was more centralized than it actually was. It assumes that there was not any kind of bottom-up pushback and that there was not sort of horizontal factionalism among officials from different localities, so Wittfogel didn't get right the idea that there was a despotic state. On the other hand, he absolutely got right that, especially in North China, dealing with the Yellow River had a significant impact on the organization of state power and the relationship between the state and the society. So political power in China and rivers have always been very, very closely linked in Chinese history and I think continue to be today.

 

Brenna Miller 

Your research looks at the full length of the Yellow River. So I'm curious to know, why do you take the Yellow River at its complete length? And what does that help us to understand about China's environmental problems?

 

Ruth Mostern 

There's been a tremendous amount of writing about the Yellow River. However, that research has almost exclusively focused on the floodplain and the propensity of the Yellow River to experience floods and droughts. However, the same water flows from the Tibetan Plateau to the ocean. It's one river. And yet, in terms of the contemporary historiography, and absolutely in terms of the imperial political approach to the river, it's always been treated as two completely distinct rivers. And the reason for that is that even though it's one watershed, it passes through two regions that are very different from each other politically. So the lower course of the river, the floodplain, passes through really the old political core of China, China's demographic core until early modern times, ethnically Han Chinese, a densely populated region of the country with big cities and villages and farmers. The upper course is on the plateau, the Tibetan Plateau. It's sparsely populated, it's at the edge of the Chinese world. The middle course passes through a region called the Loess Plateau. And this is a region of very, very fine, powdery soil, the Loess soil is excellent for agriculture, and when it's covered with grasslands and trees, is not at all prone to erosion. It's at the border land between a region of agriculture and a region of nomadic pastoralism. So that means that it has also been the military frontier between China and China's pastoralist neighbors, the Mongols, the Tanguts, the Uyghurs, the Great Wall passes through the middle of the Loess Plateau, for instance. And so in any time, historically, that there has been conflict between the Chinese Empire and its pastoralist neighbors, the Loess Plateau is exactly the place where fortifications are built up and troops are stationed. And when that happens, the ground cover is disturbed on the Loess Plateau. And the result at that point is very serious erosion. Well, where does the erosion go into the Yellow River? Down to the lower course of the river, to the floodplain. And the thing that previous scholarship has really not engaged with is where it is that all those floods come from. And the answer is that it was not prone to flooding and time immemorial. It only entered a regime of frequent flooding about 1000 years ago, around the time that the massive fortification of military buildup occurred on the Loess Plateau.

 

Brenna Miller 

One of the recurring themes in our conversation has been the relationship between political power and climate change and management. So looking forward, does it seem possible to you that China will be willing to curb its growth for health and environmental concerns? And could they possibly be in trouble if they can't find a solution?

 

Ruth Mostern 

That's not clear. And again, I think that's not clear in China. And it's not clear anywhere in the world, because all of the existing regimes that have been around for a few decades or more are ones that have staked themselves on economic growth and they've staked themselves on a notion of economic growth and on conditions for economic growth that coexist with a fossil fuel economy. Thinking specifically about China, this is a regime that does not have a tradition of mass political participation, civil society, constitutional rule of law, and so on. And I think the conventional wisdom is that the implicit bargain between the government and the population has been, "Give up a dream of political participation in return for political stability and rapid growth." And that has worked very well, since the post-1989, I mean, the post-Tiananmen uprising moment. The question that watchers of contemporary China, I think, are really wondering about is what the future is of that regime if rapid economic growth diminishes. It may be something we will all see in the coming years and decades.

 

Brenna Miller 

Climate change is an international phenomenon. And so I'm curious to know, what are some of the international factors that may affect China's relationship to the environment and also the realistic possibilities for international cooperation on climate change in the future?

 

Ruth Mostern 

Personally, I'm a pessimist about the future of international cooperation. And frankly, I'm a pessimist about the future climatic and political stability of the planet. I worry a lot about what the future holds, not just for China, but for all of us. And even something like the Paris Accord, which was signed to great fanfare a couple of years ago, is too little too late. And even so is not really being enforced. What I hope for is local and community resilience in the face of environmental catastrophe. And I think that's something we've seen in Chinese history, that even when there are monumental floods, lengthy droughts, significant mortality, the civilization as a whole has survived, local communities and extended families have supported each other in their survival. And I also stake my optimism on the idea that during a time of rapid and unsettling and unpredictable change, we will get also art, new forms of culture, and new ways that people are articulating their position in the world. For instance, I was just looking at the work of Chinese photographer Yao Lu, who makes these huge, hyper-real photographs that are intended to look like Song Dynasty landscape paintings, but they're made actually out of giant piles of trash and detritus. And its a way of taking the aesthetic continuity in China, and using that as a way to comment and reflect on living in a world of industrial pollution. For me, as a historian of the long term and the long-term relationship between the biophysical world and the cultural world, I bring all of that to my sensibility for thinking about the present, that is the knowledge that humans have brought about significant environmental transformations for thousands of years, in a way commensurate with whatever kind of technology we have access to at that time. And also that we have been resilient, that we have forms of state power and forms of organization and creativity that really transcend and respond to the kinds of changes that we make. And that's something that's hard to see looking at only shorter term and smaller scale history. So I hope that that's something that everyone, policymakers, scientists, the general public, as well as historians, can bring to their thinking about Chinese and world history.

 

Jessica Blissit 

We will wrap it up on that note. Thank you so much to our three panelists.

 

Brenna Miller 

From the University of Arizona, we have Dr. David Pietz, a professor of modern Chinese history, UNESCO chair in environmental history in the department of East Asian Studies, and director of the Global Studies program.

 

Jessica Blissit 

From Idaho State University, an assistant professor in the Department of Communication, Media, and Persuasion, specializing in visual rhetoric and Chinese environmental activism, we have Betsy Brunner.

 

Brenna Miller 

With us, we have Ruth Mostern, an associate professor in the School of Social Sciences, Humanities, and Arts at the University of California Merced and soon to be an associate professor of world history at the University of Pittsburgh. She's a specialist in spatial and environmental history, focusing on Imperial China and the world.

 

Brenna Miller 

Thanks, everyone. This episode of History Talk podcast was brought to you by Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective, an online publication of the Public History Initiative of the Goldberg Center and the history department at The Ohio State University in Columbus, and Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Our main editors are Steve Conn and Nicholas Breyfogle. Our executive producer is David Staley. Our audio and technical advisor is Paul Kotheimer. Our audio producers and hosts are Brenna Miller and Jessica Blissit. Song and band information can be found on our website. You can find our podcast and more on our website at origins.osu.edu, on iTunes, and on Soundcloud, and as always, you can find us on Twitter and Facebook. Thanks for listening.

YouTube Video