June 2011

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We’re going to put China Beat on hiatus from now until early July so I can get settled in Shanghai (where I’ll be based for the next couple of months) and all of our consulting editors and contributors can enjoy some summer vacation.

If you’re looking for something to read while we’re on break, check out Danwei, which has recently relaunched with a new format; it’s now “A web magazine about China,” with the first issue featuring an in-depth look at Chinese musical instruments.

For readers trying to find a good China-focused summer book, allow me to recommend Alan Paul’s Big in China: My Unlikely Adventures Raising a Family, Playing the Blues, and Becoming a Star in Beijing, released in March by Harper Collins. I devoured this very funny, very touching book last week in a couple of marathon Starbucks visits while I fought jet lag, then ventured over to M on the Bund yesterday afternoon to hear Paul talk about his music (as head of the Beijing blues band Woodie Alan) and writing. But, as LeVar Burton used to say on Reading Rainbow, you don’t have to take my word for it—I was led to add Big in China to my Kindle by Jeremiah Jenne’s great review over at Jottings from the Granite Studio.

We’ll be back in a few weeks; until then, you can always follow our occasional Twitter updates and links to suggested readings at @chinabeat.

By Nick Holdstock

Nick Holdstock, who readers might remember from a piece on the 2009 riots in Xinjiang he posted here last month, has a new book coming out later this week from Luath Press. In The Tree That Bleeds: A Uighur Town on the Edge, Holdstock recounts the story of his year teaching English in Yining, a border town that in 1997 saw an outbreak of violence, and his efforts to discover the truth about what happened there. Here, in two excerpts from the book’s introduction, Holdstock explains what brought him to Yining and describes his journey to and first encounters with the city.

I was looking at the dome of a mosque when I heard the soldiers. The bark of their shouts, the stamp of their feet. I turned and saw rifles, black body armour, a line of blank faces. We were on Erdaoqiao, a busy shopping street in Urumqi, where a moment before the main concerns had been the prices of trousers and shirts. But the crowd did not scatter in fear at the sight of these armed men. They parted in a calm, unhurried manner, as if this were a routine sight, almost beneath notice. For a moment the street was quiet but for the soldiers’ marching chant. As soon as they passed, the salesmen lifted their cries; haggling resumed. But there were more soldiers on the other side of the street, another black crocodile marching through. Policemen stood in twos and threes every hundred metres, outside a bank, a kebab stall, in front of the pedestrian subway. A riot van drove up and stopped at the intersection.

Although this display of force was disconcerting, it wasn’t a surprise: nine months before, on 5 July 2009, this street had seen some of the worst violence in China since the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. Urumqi is the capital of Xinjiang, China’s largest province. There has been a long history of unrest in the region, between Uighurs (Turkic‐speaking Muslims who account for about half the region’s 23 million people) and Han Chinese (the ethnic majority in China). The events of July 2009 marked an escalation in the conflict. During the afternoon of 5 July, around 300 Uighur students gathered in the centre of Urumqi. By late afternoon, the crowd had swelled to several thousand; by evening they had become violent. Official figures put the number of dead at 200, with hundreds more injured. News reports on state television showed footage of protesters beating and kicking people on the ground. Video shot by officials at the hospital the previous night showed patients with blood streaming down their heads. Two lay on the fruit barrow that friends had used to transport them. A four‐year‐old boy lay on a trolley, dazed by his head injury and his pregnant mother’s disappearance. He was clinging to her hand when a bullet hit her.

By the following morning the streets were under the tight control of thousands of riot officers and paramilitary police, who patrolled the main bazaar armed with batons, bamboo poles and slingshots. Burnt cars and shops still smouldered. The streets were marked with blood and broken glass and the occasional odd shoe. Mobile phone services were said to be blocked and internet connections cut.

There were two main explanations for what had caused these riots. On the one hand, a government statement described the protests as ‘a pre‐empted, organized violent crime’ that had been ‘instigated and directed from abroad, and carried out by outlaws in the country’. Xinhua, the Chinese state news agency, reported that the unrest ‘was masterminded by the World Uighur Congress’ led by Rebiya Kadeer, a Uighur businesswoman jailed in China before being released into exile in the US. Wang Lequan, then leader of the Xinjiang Communist Party, said that the incident revealed ‘the violent and terrorist nature of the separatist World Uighur Congress’. He said it had been ‘a profound lesson in blood’.

He went on to claim that the aim of the protests had been to cause as much destruction and chaos as possible. Although he mentioned a recent protest in the distant southern province of Guangdong, he dismissed this as a potential cause.

But according to the WUC, this incident was the real cause of the protest. They claimed that the clash in Guangdong province was sparked by a man who posted a message on a website claiming six Uighur boys had ‘raped two innocent girls’. This false claim was said to have incited a crowd to murder several Uighur migrant workers at a factory in the area. Rebiya Kadeer claimed that the ‘authorities’ failure to take any meaningful action to punish the [Han] Chinese mob for the brutal murder of Uighurs’ was the real cause of the protest.

The WUC’s version of the events of 5 July was that several thousand Uighur youths, mostly university students, had peacefully gathered to express their unhappiness with the authorities’ handling of the killings in Guangdong. They claimed that the police had responded with tear gas, automatic rifles and armoured vehicles. They alleged that during the crackdown some were shot or beaten to death by Chinese police or even crushed by armoured vehicles.

The WUC also reported widespread violence in the wake of the protests. Their website claimed that Chinese civilians, using clubs, bars, knives and machetes, were killing Uighurs throughout the province: ‘they are storming the university dormitories, Uighur residential homes, workplaces and organizations, and massacring children, women and elderly’. They published a list of atrocities – ‘a Uighur woman who was carrying a baby in her arms was mutilated along with her infant baby… over one thousand ethnic Han Chinese armed with knives and machetes marched into Xinjiang Medical University and engaged in a mass killing of the Uighurs… two Uighur female students were beheaded; their heads were placed on a stake on the middle of the street’ – none of which could be confirmed. This post was later removed.

There is still much that is unclear about what actually happened during that violent week in July 2009. But however terrible its cost – whether it was a massacre of peaceful protestors, an orchestrated episode of violence, or something in between – it was not without precedent. In Xinjiang, there have been many protests which were either ‘riots’ or ‘massacres’, depending on who you believe. The largest of these took place on 5 February 1997, in the border town of Yining. This too was perhaps a protest, possibly a riot, maybe even a massacre. There were certainly shootings, injuries, and deaths.

As for what happened, and why, it was hard to say. At the time there was an immediate storm of conflicting accounts, of accusation and counter‐claim. The only chance of learning what had happened was to actually go there. And so in 2001, I did. I got a job teaching English. I stayed for a year. I uncovered a story that is still happening now.

But all of this must wait a moment. First, you must arrive.

The Journey

Your train waits in Beijing West one thick September night. The air crowds close around, pressing on your head and chest, desperate to transfer a fraction of its heat.

It will be a long journey. Thankfully you’ll be travelling in relative luxury: a padded compartment known as a ‘soft sleeper’. You slide open its door and find the other three berths already occupied. You heave in your suitcases. You climb into bed. Beijing lapses into haze and you are far from here.

In the morning you wake to yellow valleys honeycombed with caves. Crops crowd the plateaus, anxious not to waste the space. It’s a rehearsal for the desert and it is Shanxi. Or Shaanxi. But certainly not here.

You prowl the train in search of food. The restaurant car is full of people eating fatty meat. You find a seat opposite a middle‐aged Han couple. The man is wearing a dark blue suit; the woman’s pink sweater is embroidered with flowers in silver thread.

They ask where you’re from and going. When you say ‘England,’ they smile. They frown when you say, ‘Yining.’

‘That is not a good place,’ he says. ‘It has a lot of trouble,’ she adds.

‘What kind of trouble?’

He shakes his head, mutters, looks out the window. Then your food arrives. You eat a plate of oily pork. You go back to bed.

When you wake the plain is a vast grey sheet stretched taut between the mountains. It is such a vacant space that every detail seems important: a man walking on his own, without a house or car in sight; ruined buildings; jutting graves; men in lumpen uniforms who salute the train.

Grey slowly shifts to black; sand firms into rock. Then, in place of monochrome, the space is bright with colour. Purple, yellow, red, and orange, mixed like melted ice cream.

Moving on and further westwards. The sun refuses shadow. You pull into the oasis of Turpan, a green island in a wilderness, its shores lapped by grit. You buy a bunch of grapes from a Uighur woman wearing a pink headscarf. They are almost too sweet.

Hours pass, you slip through mountains, speed through a tunnel of rock. You emerge onto to a plain of blades, white and turning, harvesting wind, chopping it into power.

Now, after 2,192km, you are getting close: this is Urumqi, the provincial capital of Xinjiang. From here it is only another 500km. But this is the end of the train.

During the trip your luggage must have bred with the other bags for now there are more than you can carry. It takes two trips to get your bags from the train, and after this, as you stand on the platform, you wonder what you are doing. Why have you come so far, on your own? What if something happens?

But there is no time for worry. You must move your bags. You grunt and heave, to no avail. They are just too heavy. Then you see a man in faded blue jacket and trousers, a flat cap perched on his head. He catches your eye and comes over. He says he will help.

Staggering through the streets, every building that you pass is either half-built or half‐collapsed. Dirt is the principal colour. There is a street where the shops only sell engine parts and the pavement is stained with oil. The shops are cubes that flicker, fade as men spark engine hearts.

You stop to rest. The sky is grey. Two boys approach with a bucket. In it, a kitten is curled.

‘How much will you give me?’ says one.

‘I don’t want it,’ you say.

‘You can’t have it,’ says the other, who swings the bucket and laughs.

Two more streets and you reach your hotel. The stone floor of the lobby is wet, as is the stairs, the corridors, where men wander in vests.

In your room the man names a price 10 times too high. After you threaten to call the room attendant, he settles for five times too much.

The room has two beds. The other bed is occupied by an old Japanese man. He sits in bed reading a book of Go problems, smoking cheap cigarettes. His underpants hang on a line at head height. At night the breath whistles out of his mouth like the wind through a crack in a door.

Next morning you go to the bus station. They refuse to sell you a ticket because you don’t have a work permit.

‘We can’t give you a ticket without it,’ says a woman in a baggy black uniform.

‘But I can’t get the permit until I go there.’

‘Not my problem.’

‘How I am supposed to get there?’

‘Don’t know.’

‘I’ll report you.’

She shrugs. ‘Go ahead.’

You raise your voice. You plead. You do not get a ticket.

After an hour of angry wandering you find a car willing to take you. You haggle, fix a price, then wait for two hours while the driver tries to find other passengers.

It is midday when you leave. For the first few hours the road is smooth motorway and all but deserted. Exhaustion segues to sleep; potholes bring you back. Straw‐coloured hills rise on both sides, at first distant, then slowly converging, until they funnel the road. You wind between them, seeing only their slopes; then abruptly there is a vista. You are on the edge of a lake so blue and vast you cannot see its far shore. The road follows its edge, till mountains loom, and you begin a hairpin descent. The last of the light straggles into the valley below, lingering in jars of honey on shelves by the side of the road.

You assume the crash position as the car hurtles toward lorries. All you get are panic flashes of the countryside: cotton fields, sheep‐speckled hills, tough-looking men on horses. It is three days since you left Beijing. You have the feeling that you are on the frontier of another land, that you have come to the end of China.

It is dark when you reach the teachers’ college. A small woman you at first mistake for a child lets you into your flat. The strip light shows worn linoleum, concrete floors, a kitchen with a sink on bricks, no pots or any stove. There are no curtains. The toilet is a hole in the floor.

‘What do you think?’ she squeaks.

You look around, consider your verdict.

‘Very nice,’ you say.

Now, at last, you have arrived. Welcome to Yining.

* * *

For all its remoteness, Yining is a place that people have heard of. It has been in the Lonely Planet guide since the first edition.

In Yining you won’t know whether to laugh or cry. Nothing seems to work and half the population seems permanently drunk.

The guide had mellowed slightly by its fifth edition.

Yining is a grubby place with a few remnants of fading Russian architecture.

Despite these ringing endorsements, there were already 10 other foreigners in Yining when I arrived. Eleanor was the first I met. She was tall, friendly and from Derbyshire, and had already been teaching in the college for two years. She introduced me to some people.


The bus crawled down Liberation Road, stopping, starting, presenting tableaux: nicotine‐coloured apartments; muffled road sweepers waking dust; a donkey pulling a cart of red apples; a crowd gathered round an argument, one man pointing at a crushed bicycle, another leaning against a taxi, slowly shaking his head.

We veered right at a roundabout topped by a stone eagle. A soldier stood outside a concrete gate, a rifle by his side. More turns later we arrived at the town square, which was paved in pink and white tiles.

Two Uighur men were waiting for us, one very tall, one short, both with thin moustaches. The smaller smiled, and said in English, ‘Welcome to Ghulja. I’m Murat.’

‘Does he mean Yining?’ I whispered to Eleanor, but Murat nonetheless heard. He snorted. ‘That’s what the Chinese call it. We say “Ghulja”. It means a wild male sheep.’

Ismail was the taller of the two. He and Murat ran an English course in a local school. We had lunch in a restaurant called King of Kebabs. A fat man sat outside threading lumps of meat onto skewers. A cauldron of rice and carrots steamed next to him. When he saw us he stood and boomed a greeting. He shook hands with Murat, Ismail and me, nodded to Eleanor.

Inside was dim and noisy with the sounds of eating. Ismail gestured for us to sit then said, ‘This is a good place, very clean. You know, Uighur people are Muslims. We shouldn’t smoke or drink. What would you like to eat? Have you had polo? It is traditional Uighur food.’

Polo turned out to be the rice and carrot dish I’d seen steaming outside. In addition, there were soft chunks of mutton and a tomato and onion salad dressed in dark vinegar.

‘Is it good?’


Ismail grinned and said, ‘You must stay for a long time!’ After that we ate in silence until Murat said, ‘Many Han people make a noise when they eat.’

Ismail chimed in, ‘That’s just them speaking!’

I kept eating, quietly, a little shocked by the vehemence of their dislike. It also surprised me that they were saying such things to someone they had only just met.

After lunch we strolled through the square. Huge propaganda posters towered overhead. A composite photo loomed above, showing three generations of Chinese leaders: Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin (the then‐current leader). Next to it was a 20‐foot poster showing all 57 ethnic groups in China. They were smiling and wearing brightly coloured costumes. They seemed about to launch into song.

There was a sense of transition on crossing the square. The bright cubes of the Han shops, their handbags, shoes and machine parts, quickly faded into market stalls – to scarves, carpets, glassware, packs of henna, crystal sugar, dried grapes, black tea and other products more reminiscent of a Central Asian bazaar. Bare heads were replaced by a hundred hats, by homburgs, trilbies, flat caps, pork pies, baseball caps and most of all, a boxy, stiffened skullcap called a doppa.

Murat turned and whispered, ‘Don’t tell anyone, but I MUST go to the toilet.’

‘OK. Isn’t that one, over there?’

‘Yes, but I must go home.’

As we watched him scamper off, Ismail cleared his throat.

‘It takes him a long time. He has this problem. With his…’

He didn’t know the word. Eventually we settled on ‘kidney’. Eleanor chose this moment to mention that she thought our phones were bugged. She said that sometimes she heard noises from the other end, and that there had been some dubious coincidences, like going to make a complaint about something and finding that the person in question had already taken steps to nullify her criticisms. At the time I thought she was being paranoid. After a few weeks in Yining, I was not so sure.

When Murat returned he looked pleased with himself, as if he had performed some difficult task well. He suggested looking round the market. As we drew near the entrance – a large faux‐Islamic gate – three men selling pictures of Mecca started shouting at us.

‘What are they saying?’

Murat laughed. ‘They are saying ‘Hello Russians!’

There has been a long history of Russian involvement in Yining: Russia occupied the valley from 1871–81; after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, the Soviets were granted special trading rights in the area and had a consulate in the town. Following the Sino‐Soviet pact of 1924, Russian involvement in the province increased to the point where 80% of the region’s trade was with Russia. Sheng Shicai – the warlord ruler of the province from 1934–44 – relied heavily on Soviet military aid. Russia was forced to withdraw from the province in 1943, after Sheng Shicai shifted his allegiance to the Nationalists. Following their withdrawal, inflation rose and trade virtually stopped. But they were soon presented with an opportunity to reestablish their influence when a revolt broke out among the Kazakhs, who had been especially dependent on trade with Russia. Direct Soviet military aid on the side of the rebels led to the capture of Yining in 1944, and the founding of the East Turkestan Republic (ETR). The Russian presence in Yining remained strong until the Communists took power in 1949. Relations between Russia and China worsened throughout the 1950s, culminating in the Sino‐Soviet rift of 1960 and the eradication of Soviet influence from the region.

Today there are few traces of the city’s Russian past. Apart from the Russian consulate, which is now a restaurant, there are only a few scattered buildings, some within the teachers’ college. Only a handful of Russians still live in the city, running a bakery that makes perfect cakes.

So given that most foreigners in Yining had previously been Russian, it was logical that Eleanor and I should be Russian too. I didn’t mind; it made a change from everyone thinking I was American.

The market was dim and busy, full of rows of traders selling leather jackets, wraps and hats, doppas, stiff suits, thick jumpers, sensible shoes, armoured trench coats, various fur things. The traders whistled at me, trying to get my attention. Ismail and Murat shook hands with many of them. I asked how they knew them.

‘Ismail and I used to do business. We used to sell leather.’

‘Why did you stop?’

‘Things are difficult now. Business is bad.’

Ismail sighed. ‘Many people don’t have jobs. Especially Uighur people. Maybe 80% are unemployed now.’

‘Why’s that?’

Ismail looked at the floor while Murat said, ‘In this city, there are some problems. Maybe you don’t know. It is difficult.’ He coughed then said, ‘Please excuse us. We must go and pray.’

It was their third prayer of the day. Eleanor and I drifted round the back streets while they went to the mosque. A group of kids took time from booting a ball around to giggle at us; the braver ones ventured a hello. Two men sat playing chess, their stillness broken by sudden aggression as one slammed a bishop down. Peace returned, and then was broken. The sky showed no sign of being bored with blue.

From The Tree That Bleeds: A Uighur Town on the Edge, © 2011 by Luath Press. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

Back in 2009, as the Chinese Communist Party geared up to mark one major official anniversary (the 60th birthday of the founding of the PRC), China Beat was fortunate enough to be able to run a lively piece of reportage by the versatile writer Lijia Zhang on an unusual museum devoted to a single revolutionary song. Now, as the CCP prepares for another anniversary (the 90th birthday of the organization itself), headlines about the “Red Song” wave (a fad that has been most closely associated with Chongqing but has also been making its mark on other parts of the country) give that old piece a new kind of significance.

With this in mind, and with Lijia’s permission, we thought it would be good not only to remind readers of that earlier essay of hers, but also add in some new material: photos she took during her visit to the surreal and unusual museum dedicated to a single anthem. These have not appeared here before, but are offered up to give a visual feel for the things she described back in 2009:

Museum photo taken by the author


Photo taken by author

Photo taken by Lijia Zhang

By Jon Wiener*

At the world’s biggest art event this summer, the Venice Biennale, the world’s most famous imprisoned artist, Ai Weiwei, was not exactly neglected—but his case received virtually no official acknowledgment.

Every two years the Italians invite dozens of nations to exhibit their leading artists, and this year the Biennale had 88 official “participating countries,” plus an additional 37 “collateral events.” And then there was an unofficial contribution, “Bye Bye Ai Weiwei,” written in six-foot tall white neon letters along the Giudecca canal, visible to all the passing vapporetti (water buses).

Photo taken by the author

But what did it mean? “This looks insulting,” the Guardian reviewer wrote, “like telling the artist to fuck off.” To some it seemed like bidding him farewell, accepting his imprisonment. Others thought “bye bye” was a mistranslation of “ciao,” which in this context should have been rendered as “Hello Ai Weiwei.” Still others thought it would have been better to say “Remember Ai Weiwei”—or simply “Free Ai Weiwei!”

But the artist, Giuseppe Tampone , insisted that “Bye Bye” was not mistranslation, that he had been misunderstood. At the website www.byebyeaiweiwei.com, his explanation was presented in hard-to-understand English: “Bye Bye Ai Weiwei for all those that will not shout by any means ‘I don’t accept the bye bye.’”

The rest of his statement needs translation into comprehensible English: Stampione argued that “Hello Ai WeiWei” was “too easy,” because it seemed to offer hope, while hope in his view implied a passive stance. What was required, he argued, was “to realize the terrible situation in which Ai WeiWei is living today,” and then to take action to free him—political action, pressuring government leaders to take a stand and make demands of the Chinese authorities.

One more meaning he said he wanted to convey: “Bye Bye Ai Weiwei for all those who think that it could never happen to them.” Fair enough. Nevertheless, “Bye Bye Ai Weiwei” must be judged a failure.

A second Ai Weiwei protest was organized for the official Biennale preview—the elite event for press and VIPs—by the Kunsthaus Bregenz in Austria, which enlisted students to hand out 5,000 red tote bags inscribed “Free Ai Weiwei.” The bags included a call to sign a petition on the Kunsthaus website, initiated by the Guggenheim. The bag distribution had been planned for all three days of the preview, but all 5,000 bags had been taken by the second day.

Photo from Artworks.com

The People’s Republic of China does have an official exhibition at the Biennale, on the grounds of the Arsenale, the medieval Venetian shipyards, the site of a dozen other official exhibits. You might think the appropriate place to protest the imprisonment of Ai Weiwei would be the official PRC exhibit, but apparently the only protest there came at the opening, when people held up the “Free Ai Weiwei” tote bags. (For a report on Chinese art at the Biennale, see the Red Box Review.)

Perhaps the most striking thing about all this is the absence of any recognition of Ai Weiwei’s imprisonment on the part of the officials of the Biennale, especially curator Brice Curiger. Ai Weiwei was mentioned only once at an official event: at the first day opening of the preview, Paolo Baratta, president of the Biennale, told reporters, “We are great friends with the Chinese.” Then came a pause that implied “but,” followed by “I have written a letter to the ambassador of China in Italy saying how wonderful it would be if we could have happy news about Ai Weiwei.” And that was it for Ai WeiWei at the 2011 Venice Biennale.

* Jon Wiener is a longtime friend of but first time contributor to China Beat. He is a Professor of History at UC Irvine, the author of several books (including Gimme Some Truth: The John Lennon FBI Files), a contributing editor to the Nation, and the host of a KPFK radio show whose past guests have included Peter Hessler and several other writers who focus on China.

Ken Pomeranz, Kate Merkel-Hess and I had various reasons for launching this blog at the start of 2008. One thing that led us to start the venture, at a time when Kate was the only one of us with any blogging experience, was simply a sense that some of the things that we were saying to one another over lunch and in the hallways at UC Irvine might be of interest to people in other places who were working on, living in, or just curious about China. As much as the venture has developed since then (adding new contributors continually, undergoing a change of editors, as Kate, who started out in that role, went from being a UCI doctoral student to beginning a career as an Assistant Professor at Penn State, and Maura Cunningham took over from her, etc.), some posts still have their roots in local conversations. This is definitely the case with this one. Over the years, Ken and I have talked a lot about China’s “water woes” (to invoke the title of one of his earlier posts), and I also had the good fortune to be able to hear him give an excellent illustrated presentation on hydraulic concerns (well, he made some comments about dry land, too) when he accepted our campus’ top research award a while back. It seemed only natural, with water issues grabbing headlines yet again, to find a way to make his insights onto the topic more widely available. So I put some questions to Ken (who incidentally is one of two candidates up for the presidency of the American Historical Association) that I thought would be of interest to anyone who has read his previous writings on water, for venues such as The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus, New Left Review, the Huffington Post, and, of course, China Beat.

JW: Water is figuring centrally right now in a lot of reporting on China. Do you see this as due to a change in the situation or just increased awareness of the kinds of dilemmas and issues you flagged more than two years ago in the “China’s Water Woes” post you did for this blog?

KP: Most of this story has been out there in bits and pieces for a while, and people could see most of the long-term trends. North China water usage has been at unsustainable levels since at least the early 60s, when deep wells with electric or gas-powered pumps really took off; the problems with climate change and glaciers have been visible for a while, though we keep learning more about them; and the risks of the South-North water diversion project are not a surprise, either – though, of course, the thing about risks is that we don’t know which ones will or won’t come to pass. (Will much of the water arrive in North China too polluted to be useful? Will they be taking more water out of the Yangzi Valley than it can afford to give? How vulnerable is the western leg – which they haven’t started yet – to seismic disaster?) And most of the reasons why the government wants to build a lot more hydrodams have long been pretty obvious. They need lots of energy; increasing fossil fuel consumption is terrible for the climate, for air quality, and for the frighteningly large number of coal miners it kills every year; nuclear carries big risks (as Fukushima reminded us) as well as high costs; and solar, wind, etc., alternatives are not yet available on a sufficient scale or at the right price. (There are also some less obvious reasons, tied to the financial interests of well-connected people, but the Chinese government would probably be pushing hydro pretty hard even without those elements.)

But all that said, nobody could have predicted for certain the precise set of issues we’ve seen this spring and summer. Yes, drought risk is increasing, but we didn’t know we’d have a very bad drought in the North this year, and (until a couple of weeks ago) a really unusual drought in the Yangzi Valley, too. Nor did anyone know for sure that this would coincide with a continuing spike in global food prices (though there, too, unfavorable basic trends have been visible for a while). Perhaps the most surprising element has been the increased openness of discussion in China about problems with both big dams (notably Three Gorges) and the water diversion project, in a period that has not generally been a good one for increased openness. We know there’s often a lot of debate going on about some of these projects, but we don’t get to overhear much of it; right now, we’re hearing more than usual.

JW: You’ve been interviewed a lot lately by journalists. Do you feel you get asked the right kinds of questions about the water situation? Or, to put it another way, is there a question you wish you’d be asked–or asked more often?

KP: I think journalists have generally asked me the right questions, but of course they almost never have space to print the whole interview (if “print” is even the right verb these days), and I’m sometimes surprised by which parts of it they think are most worth using. If it were up to me, I think I’d focus more on the link between water problems and rural/urban issues, the connections between water shortages and poor enforcement of environmental regulations, and the ways that both of these are related to tensions between different levels of government. Probably most of the water savings that you could achieve without greatly reducing economic output are in agriculture, where a lot of irrigation is very inefficient (and not just in China); in fact, I think there’s a good case to be made that if you put anything like the cost of the South-North water diversion project into fixing a million leaky faucets, lining a million unlined irrigation ditches, enforcing existing wastewater treatment standards (allowing more water to be re-used), etc., etc., you could do more to alleviate the problem (and more safely) than the diversion project will do. But for Beijing there are at least two problems with that.

First, a huge construction project like the diversion is something they can oversee directly; making sure a million pipes get fixed and rules get enforced requires a lot more reliance on local government, and they can’t necessarily count on that. You really see that with the wastewater treatment issue – on paper, China has pretty good water treatment standards, but their equivalent of the EPA has a miniscule number of inspectors: something like 300. So they depend on local officials to handle the enforcement, and they often have no interest in doing so: the polluting industry may be government-owned or otherwise vital to their budget; their careers depend much more on hitting growth targets than environmental ones; the people most affected may be downstream and outside their jurisdiction, and so on. Second, one way to strongly encourage local compliance in saving water is to make water more expensive – but this would hit farmers hardest, and the government is genuinely concerned about how far farmers’ incomes lag behind most other people’s already. Do you really want to increase that gap further? Accelerate the already very rapid movement of people to the cities? How high could water prices go without people abandoning certain crops, like winter wheat in Hebei, altogether? There are some pretty tough choices to be made there, though I’d argue that the benefits of reducing water demand are big enough to outweigh those costs (which could be offset by boosting farmers’ incomes in some other way).

Good journalists certainly know that China’s central government is much more limited than most Westerners realize, but I think they don’t emphasize that often enough – it’s a hard idea for people to shake, so maybe you have to push the point even harder than a particular individual story really requires. But if the cumulative effect of emphasizing that again and again were to break more people of the idea that Beijing is an all-powerful juggernaut, this would be of tremendous benefit to public understanding of China. Focusing on the mega-projects themselves, on the other hand, tends to reinforce the idea of an enormous concentration of power at the center. Just the size of the proposal – the biggest construction project in history, which would divert, even at the low end estimate, considerably more water each year than there is in the annual flow of the Colorado River – makes you think that whoever is even thinking about such a project must be awfully powerful. And in some sense, they clearly are – Beijing can do a lot, and is free of certain kinds of checks that other governments face. And I certainly don’t mean to say that the mega-projects aren’t a vital story, well worth covering. On the contrary – it would be wildly irresponsible not to cover them. But as somebody who is more in the business of educating people about big structures and long-term processes than about “news” per se, I guess it’s natural that I wish the big picture and the long run got a little more attention, and one not very dramatic but extremely significant part of the big picture are all the ways in which people at lower levels pursue their own agendas and quietly limit Beijing’s power, day after day. For the same reason, it would be nice to see more written in the press about another long-range, big picture aspect of the story: namely, the western leg of the diversion project. Nothing dramatic is happening on that project yet – there is no construction activity or local protest, at least as far as we know – but if it goes forward, it will have by far the biggest costs, risks, and potential benefits. And, also in the “big picture” category, I’d love to see more written about slowly unfolding stories like the retreat of glaciers, what’s happening to the permafrost layer on the Tibetan plateau (a major disaster if it melts, which people some think might be beginning), and so on. But I understand that it’s hard to do a news story about stuff that changes so little from day to day. I guess that’s why we have newspapers, magazines, and scholarly journals (electronic or otherwise) – and why we need people to try to synthesize material across those different outlets.

JW: I like your allusion to the “Rube Goldberg Machine” aspect of the water transfer scheme, which was mentioned in a recent AP report. Can you elaborate just a bit more on what you had in mind?

KP: The “Rube Goldberg” allusion isn’t meant to be very deep. All it really means is that the diversion has a huge number of moving parts, both literally and figuratively, which makes predicting its success or failure really hard. Let’s leave the engineering aside for a moment, and start with just the socio-economic stuff. We know that water usage is still rising, in both the south and the North (though they’ve made some real progress in curbing it – definitely doing much better on this front than, say, India), but how fast it keeps rising will depend on all sorts or imponderables: how quickly will new, more water-efficient technologies be adopted, in both agriculture and industry? How much will Chinese demand for meat (which requires a lot of water to produce) increase, and how much of that are they willing to import? What will happen with the geography of various kinds of economic production?

Rice, for instance is a very thirsty crop, but China’s rice production has been moving steadily North for many years for a number of reasons: expensive land in the South being taken out of agriculture, pollution, climate change (rice needs warm days, but also benefits from cool evenings), new varieties that are a bit less thirsty, etc. How much more of that will happen? Where are the limits? What are the prospects for a real breakthrough with drought-resistant GMOs? Or an environmental disaster with them? To what extent will very water-intensive industries, such as chemicals, relocate in response to actual or feared water shortages? What about the effects of electrical blackouts (partly due to low water levels in dams’ reservoirs) on industrial location decisions?

Then add politics – how much discontent over higher water prices is the government willing to risk? How much will there be? What about protests over relocations of people for this and other projects? Is there any realistic prospect of better enforcement of waste treatment standards?

And then you get to the physical moving parts – both the ones being moved by nature and the ones being moved by people. (Not that those are completely distinct, especially these days.) Global warming is accelerating glacial melting in Tibet, though people disagree about how fast – that melting should produce an interlude of heavy river flow, and then a frightening reduction. But nobody knows the scale and timetable for either. Similarly, we know climate change will shift the geographic distribution of rainfall, but nobody knows exactly how – if the south has less water, then the diversion project may be a big mistake. One thing we are pretty certain of is that it will increase the variability of rainfall, both over the course of the year and between wet and dry years. In some sense, that’s an argument for human-made infrastructure that can even these variations out by moving water around, but extreme events also create risks for that infrastructure – and could lead to an increased number of years in which the Yangzi Valley has no surplus water to give. Short of an absolute shortage of water, there are questions of water quality. The plan for the middle leg of the diversion – the one now being built – would reduce the flow of the Han River below the Danjiangkou reservoir (In Hubei, a bit before it joins the Yangzi) by a bit over ¼: and with its flow reduced that much, the river may not be able to flush its pollutants very effectively. (Meanwhile, Shaanxi is planning another diversion of Han River water further upstream – yet another moving part.) The Han is an important river in its own right, and one of the Yangzi’s biggest tributaries, so anything affecting its water quality has huge implications.

And then you get to the design of the project itself – it’s just a staggering number of pumps, filters, gates, you name it: they all have to work right, and, as we’ve seen, there’s a lot that’s not known about the flow rates, silt and pollution burdens, and so on that they will be dealing with even in a “typical year.” Add unusual events – floods, earthquakes, whatever—and the number of variables is immense.

Lastly, remember that many of these variable are inter-dependent: the location of industries, water demand and pollution discharges will respond to prices, climate trends and glacial melting, political protests, etc; political protests will depend in part on pollution levels and water scarcity, but also on changes in the court system, center-local relations, the “space” allowed (or not) to NGOs, and so on. The results of any project thus become way too complicated to model or anticipate – which makes it all pretty scary, but also makes it a really fascinating set of processes to follow as they unfold.

JW: Any suggestions on the best websites to go to or books or articles to read, if someone wants to keep up with or learn more about the drought, the disappearing glaciers, or Chinese water issues in general?

KP: For websites, China Dialogue is excellent on Chinese environmental issues. International Rivers is very good on water specifically, and does a lot on China. The Asia Society has some very good stuff on glacial melting in the Himalayas on their website, under the title “On thinner Ice” and a useful general report on Asian water security that’s online as a PDF. For climate and water on a global level, the Pacific Institute is good, but there are lots of others, too.

Books tend to lag behind a bit on issues like this, but for Chinese environmental issues generally Jonathan Watts’ recent book, When a Billion Chinese Jump is an excellent introduction. He writes for the Guardian, and is always worth reading. Ma Jun’s China’s Water Crisis is now a bit dated, but still well worth reading. Andrew Mertha, a political scientist, has a book called China’s Water Warriors which uses three case studies to look into when water-related protests can and can’t be effective: it’s quite good for fleshing out the point I made quickly above about how fragmented political authority can be in China, and what that means for these issues.

For somebody who was looking for a long-term historical perspective, I would recommend Mark Elvin’s “Water in China’s Past and Present: Cooperation and Competition,” Nouveaux Mondes 12 (2003) or, immodestly, my own “The Transformation of China’s Environment, 1500-2000,” in Edmund Burke III and Kenneth Pomeranz, eds. The Environment and World History 1500-2000, a book published in 2009 by the University of California Press.

I could go on and on, but this should be enough for anyone who wants to get started – after a while, of course, one source leads to another.

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