By Judith Shapiro.

On a recent visit to Changsha, where I lived for three years as one of the first Americans to teach in China after diplomatic relations were normalized in 1979, I went in search of my old apartment block at the Hunan Teachers’ University. Unable to recognize the densely rebuilt campus, aside from the old sports field, I climbed the Yuelu mountains above the university in search of a respite from the crowds, construction noise, and intense air pollution. I soon encountered an old, pajama-clad professor carrying two large plastic bottles of water. He confirmed that I could follow the ridge to the temple complex and Lovely Evening Pavilion. I soon began to see more and more people carrying water along the dirt paths, some of them pushing bicycles laden with bottles. Eventually I came to a mountain spring, where a dense crowd milled, waiting to draw water.

So profoundly do the people of Changsha mistrust their water supply that many now drive to the mountains every few days.  They are terrified of getting cancer from water contaminated by heavy metals that they are unable to taste or smell.  Moreover, they suspect that their vegetables are tainted with pesticides and chemical fertilizers, so wherever there is a small plot of land or balcony, city dwellers have begun growing their own food. A sort of guerrilla agriculture movement has begun to take root in the last few years, dodging the land-use authorities. Ironically, even as rural China urbanizes and peasants are relocated into unfamiliar high rises, urban China has rediscovered farming.

Milk is also seen as unsafe due to the melamine adulteration and chemical residue scandals of recent years. Mainland Chinese demand for imported milk powder and infant formula overwhelmed Hong Kong’s supply, and the government there has placed limits of two cans to leave the territory per person, causing high tensions along the border.

In recent weeks, thousands of dead pigs have fished from the river that supplies Shanghai with drinking water. There have been major spills of cadmium and other toxic materials. Air pollution in Beijing, which citizens had been led to expect would be largely resolved with the “blue skies” 2008 Olympic games, was so “crazy bad” that it defied measurement. Even top leaders have described themselves as “depressed” by the air pollution.

Although I have visited China regularly over the past thirty five years, never before had I observed so acutely the profound anger at the pollution, and perhaps because I visited a place I knew well and had once found to be beautiful, never before had I felt so sad at the Chinese despoliation of their landscape.

Judith Shapiro is the author of China’s Environmental Challenges (Polity) and Mao’s War against Nature (Cambridge).  She directs the Natural Resources and Sustainable Development program at American University’s School of International Service in Washington, DC.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *