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Reading China’s Environmental Crisis – “Mao’s War against Nature” Continues

China’s environment deterioration pairs its economic success. Is there a solution to the problem?

There is no question that China is facing an environmental crisis, a crisis so serious that observers dub China "an environmental time bomb.[1]" Even the Chinese government media, ever so evasive in reporting anything negative about China, cannot neglect entirely the expanding deserts, polluted cities, and dying bodies of water.

How deeply entrenched is China’s environmental crisis? What are the fundamental reasons for the crisis? Answering these questions requires "deep reading," to use a phrase from the anthropologist Clifford Geertz—reading below the surface to decipher the fundamental dynamics and root causes.

The Chinese characters wei ji for the English word "crisis" connote two concepts: danger and opportunity. Where is China’s environmental crisis heading? While some optimistic observers and China scholars believe that economic development will eventually lead to environmental conservation and that the Chinese government is showing more concern for the environment than during the reign of Mao Zedong, my exercise in "deep reading" rejects this rosy picture and, instead, draws close connections between the current environmental crisis and the war-like opposition against nature begun during the Mao era.


If we borrow the Buddhist understanding of the cosmos as being composed of the elements of earth, water, fire and wind, China’s "four elements" are disintegrating. Let’s consider just a few examples.


One-third of China’s land area has been degraded. Of China’s grasslands (which occupy 41 percent of China’s land area), 90 percent has been degraded and reduced to sand, and exposed soil has been a source of dust for sandstorms that seriously afflict eastern Asia, including China’s capital city of Beijing.[2] Ten percent of China’s farmland has been contaminated with heavy pollutants, making 12 million tons of grain risky for human consumption.[3]


The withdraw rate of China’s rivers has reached as high as 95 percent, far exceeding the international standard of 40 percent for the maintenance of rivers’ ecological functions.

Seventy percent of lakes and rivers are too polluted for human use, and pollution worsens as 45 billion tons of industrial waste and untreated sewage are dumped annually into rivers and lakes. The groundwater in ninety percent of Chinese cities is contaminated. Close to two hundred million Chinese are drinking unsafe water.[4] {mospagebreak}

China’s weakened ecosystems are suffering severely in the face of global environmental change. In southwest China’s Chongqing area, last year’s drought and heat, the most severe in 100 years, is being followed by this year’s 115-year record storms and flooding; environmentalists believe that the Three Gorges Dam and human ecological destruction have exacerbated the destructive effects of climate change.[5] In the meantime, China has just topped the United States as the largest emitter of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide.


Sixteen of the world’s 20 most polluted cities are found in China, as China’s growing economy continues to be fueled by coal, which provides 70 percent of the country’s energy. Every year, air pollution is responsible for respiratory diseases in 20 million Chinese (an OECD estimate) and contributes to about 750,000 deaths.[6]


What has led to such a severe deterioration of China’s environment? Environmental scholars, including Joshua Muldavin and Elizabeth Economy, point to economic development policies.

"Development is the first urgent task," said Qin Dahe, former Director of the China Meteorological Administration, in arguing for China’s refusal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. "It’s a firm principle and, moreover, we need good and fast development. Only then will we be able to step by step solve the problem" of climate change.[7]

As the world becomes more impressed with China’s economic power at the heels of a recent estimate that China surpasses the United Staes in driving global economic growth,[8] it is even more imperative that the world is aware of the tremendous costs that have come with China’s double-digit growth rate, environmental degradation being paramount. According to estimates, the cost of pollution is at least eight percent of China’s gross product (GDP).[9]

Why development? While the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has tried to convince the Chinese people and the world that it operates in the best interests of the Chinese nation, the CCP "has pursued a single-minded strategy that relies on rapid economic growth to maintain its legitimacy and power," according to Minxin Pei, director of the China Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Since the Cultural Revolution, the CCP has not managed to extricate itself out of a crisis of legitimacy, according to Roderick MacFarquhar of Harvard University.
Who will benefit from this development? The top beneficiaries so far have been the Party elites, not the majority of the Chinese people. The gap between the rich and the poor has continued to widen. Millions of farmers have lost land to development, and both rural people and the urban poor are increasingly disenfranchised as China continues to develop. Of late, tens of thousands of protests have sprung up annually in China, testifying that development has gone awry. Nature is another loser in this scenario.

In his book Development as Freedom, Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen argues that a basic constituent of development is freedom to participate in the processes and access to opportunities; development is not simply an economic question as economic deprivation has resulted from political deprivation. This broad view of development considers the basic welfare of the public. China’s deliberate narrowing of the concept of development, equating it to economic growth, only benefits the Party elites, not the public or the environment.


It is too simplistic to state, however, that the Chinese government has not paid any attention to the environment. In fact, if the CCP’s environmental attitude is judged by environmental laws, regulations, and programs, one would come to conclude that the Chinese government is among the most stringent in dealing with environmental problems.

At the core of the problem is the Party’s unwillingness to enforce environmental policies when such enforcement jeopardizes economic interests. The Party’s control over the state’s regulatory institutions renders environmental laws and regulations mere paper documents.

The Louder the Program Is Praised, the More the Problems

In my own research, informants described the government’s ecological policies this way: "The thunder is loud but the raindrops are small. Those who can read behind the government program reports can tell: The more aggressive the government programs are, the more problems they bespeak."

In 2002 the Chinese government pledged to reduce the emissions of sulfur dioxide, a contributor to acid rain and urban pollution, by 10 percent in three years. In reality sulfur dioxide emissions increased by 27 percent in the same time period.[10] This story is typical, and it reminds me of examples I encountered in my own research.

During the Great Leap Forward (1958-1961), Inner Mongolia started a campaign to turn the Mu-Us Sandy Land green. The local government laid out specific goals—including planting shrubs to convert most sandy lands in five years. The same goal of sandy land improvement has been announced repeatedly. Today, after five decades of repeated goal setting, sand still covers about half of the Mu-Us Sandy Land, similar to the coverage five decades ago.
Past failures often belie strong-sounding environmental programs, and there is no reason to expect those failures won’t be repeated. The reason being, these programs are often the results of particular environmental failures and/or political pressures, and, as such, they often disregard ecological limits.

The CCP continues its superb tactic of grand planning. Early in 2006, the government published a national "Environmental Plan" that calls for the cleaning up of heavily polluted regions and the reversal of water, air, and land degradation by 2010.[11] China just put 30 companies on its blacklist of pollution violators, etc., etc. One can only wish they would do more than sound good.

Questionable Commitment

A 2005 article in Economist, "Green Guise," has an apt subtitle: "China protects its trees, devours others." Alarmed by devastating floods of the Yangtze in 1998, China issued orders to protect forests, but its favorable timber import policy has encouraged a flurry of illegal timber trading from southeast Asia that destroy their forests.

A further question emerges: Is China serious in protesting its own trees and preserving its own environment? "Alas, the answer is ‘No’"—to quote from the Economist article. On paper, perhaps, but not in real actions.

The CCP regime’s environmental directives are often triggered by crises, such as the recent pollution of Lake Taihu, the third largest freshwater lake in China, by blue-green algae that make the water undrinkable. The water supply to the near city of Wuxi had to be cut off. To reduce the algae, the government conducted emergency measures such as seeding rain clouds and bringing water from the Yangtze River. Ironically, just prior to the pollution crisis, a local environmental activist, Wu Lihong, who for years had called for a stop to the pollution of Taihu Lake, was arrested on charge of extortion against polluting companies and is allegedly being tortured.[12]

To be sure, polluting factories are constantly being closed; a recent campaign is closing polluting factories along the Yangtze. But they are often reopened after the fuss is over, or simply moved elsewhere. The heavily polluting low-tech township-operated factories in the 1980s are only replaced by state-run or foreign-invested companies that are spewing even more pollutants into China’s waters and air. Polluting factories are like mushrooms that are flourishing on the favorable soil of regulatory failure.

The state "Environmental Plan" issued in 2006 calls for environmental protection to be included in assessing the performance of local officials.[13] This idea has been incorporated in the Inner Mongolia government since the late 1990s. This all sounds good.
But this has turned into a numbers’ game, exacerbating ecological neglect. Local leaders are rewarded for the number of trees planted and size of areas seeded. Under the North China reforestation program that started in 1987 and the "Western Regional Development" program since 2000, the Ordos Plateau of western Inner Mongolia has seen many trees planted and many moving sand dunes seeded. But these efforts have met with miserable failure due to their lack of suitability in the desert environment.

In Uxin Ju Township at the center of the Mu-Us Sandy Land, the total area that has been planted or seeded has, since the 1980s, more than doubled the township’s total size, but vegetation cover has remained about 50 percent. One can only imagine the tremendous waste of human effort and resources in this failed endeavor. The government blames the local people for not taking care of planted trees, or nature for the drought, instead of its own erroneous policies.

The reforestation program in North China did achieve limited success, which has been plentifully highlighted in the Party’s propaganda. But success is only found in limited areas, while overall desertification continues unabated and sandstorms in Beijing are becoming even more serious. That is the true "big picture."


China observers and scholars have often stated, or at least hoped, that the post-Mao Chinese state would show more respect for the environment. Has the Chinese government stopped its war-like assault on nature that Shapiro described in her book Mao’s War against Nature? While the Chinese people are not forced to fill lakes to make croplands or to cut down forests to fuel backyard furnaces, the Party’s fundamental oppositional attitude toward nature remains unchanged, and the post-Mao Chinese Communist government has followed carefully in its predecessor’s footsteps in the destruction of nature.

Continuing Degradation

Environmental degradation continues during the post-Mao era, sometimes at accelerating rates. In the upper reaches of the Yangtze, for example, forest cover dropped from 30-40 percent in the 1950s to 10 percent in 1998, while in Sichuan Province, forest cover plumbed from 28 percent in the 1970s to 8 percent in the 1990s.[14] Deforestation further reduced the flood regulating capacity of the Yangtze, with record flooding in 1998 and this year bearing witness.

Of the famed Xilingol grasslands in Inner Mongolia, 64 percent has been degraded, and the rate of sandification has only increased. During the 1950s and 1960s, sandy areas expanded by 1,560 square kilometers per year; it increased to 2,100 square kilometers per year during the 1970s-1980s and 2,460 square kilometers in the 1990s. Sandstorms also increased to 23 incidents during the 1990s from five during the 1950s.[15] {mospagebreak}
During the Cultural Revolution, the Inner Mongolia grasslands were seriously assaulted as the Mongols, along with their leader, Ulanhu, were persecuted. Large areas of grassland were opened up for farming—a typical pattern of exploitative land use that leads to serious degradation. Since the 1980s, even though the official rhetoric has paid great lip service to protecting the Mongolian grasslands, grassland conversion has totaled one million ha, matching the area opened during the Cultural Revolution.[16] While the previous conversion destroyed the soil, the newly converted one million ha, much of it irrigated, significantly lowered the groundwater table and damaged the grassland ecosystem.

Pollution continues to batter China’s lakes that were reduced by Mao era’s efforts to fill them in to make fields for crops. In recent years, Lake Taihu and Lake Chao, China’s third and fifth largest freshwater lakes, have been so darkened and fouled by algae, thanks to industrial discharge, untreated wastewater, and farm chemicals, that they have become unsuitable for drinking or recreation.[17]

While Mao’s regime launched a war against nature unprecedented in Chinese history, the post-Mao government has been intent, even if unwittingly, on finishing it off.

Weapons of Natural Destruction: From Politics to Development

Politics was used overtly during the Mao-era to launch an environmental offense. During the Cultural Revolution, for example, with the fall of Inner Mongolia leader Ulanhu, all those who followed his policy of animal husbandry were persecuted—and this included planted grass. In 1967, patches of planted fodder in the Ordos were removed as a way to "uproot" Ulanhu’s influence; the fields were given over to crops that the Party advocated.

In the post-Mao era, the efficacy of politics as an overt weapon has been discredited, and "scientific principles" have been ostensibly promoted in resource management. But, in reality, it is economic development that is dictating management strategies. A softer weapon, but a weapon nonetheless.

Destruction of the environment "post-Mao" in the foregoing examples has been driven by the government’s single-minded pursuit of economic development.

Development is upping the ante in the "war against nature." Woulong Lake, the largest lake and wetland in northeast China’s Liaoning Province, was almost totally destroyed by a great drive to develop the lake area into a tourist site since 1998. Unprecedented dam and road building and fishpond and paddy expansion so damaged the lake that within just five years—by 2003—the amount of water in the lake was reduced from 82 million square meters to a mere 0.2 million. Wetland around the lake was sharply reduced and sandy land expanded in its place.[18] Compared to politics, development as a weapon is sometimes even more effective and expeditious in destroying the environment.
Nature Planned

One has to give the post-Mao Chinese regime credit for putting ecological concerns on the government agenda—at least on paper. In 1999, China launched a Western Region Development program in order to develop the vast western inlands that had been lagging behind the eastern seaboard. Other than investment policies and infrastructure buildup, the program also involved ecological improvement, such as "grain for green (turning farmland to forest)" and a logging ban.

As part of this program, the Inner Mongolia government started to make official "ecological plans." A plan originated in 2000 in Uxin Banner located on the Mu-Us Sandy Land projected that by 2005, 2015, and 2050, tree cover would increase from the then-current 19 percent to 27.13, 43.47, and 49.85 percent, and vegetation cover from 55 percent to 59.92, 79.23, and 89.03 percent. (Decimal points are retained to show the seeming accuracy of such ecological planning.) [19]

The goals projected on linear-growth resemble those of China’s five-year economic plans that started in 1953. If the economic plans have been unrealistic, these ecological plans are even more so because tree/vegetation growth has to rely on nature’s constraints—dry, sandy soil with annual precipitation of only 330-360 mm. Water constraints have kept the vegetation cover to a constant percentage, regardless of past efforts to plant and seed.

Of course there is one scenario that would make this ecological plan work: Heaven must bow its head and bestow more water on this piece of land or perform other, similar miracles. How different is this attitude toward nature than the Mao-era slogan exhorting people to "battle with heaven and fight with earth?" The ecological plan will, like Mao-era’s economic plan, lead to human and environmental suffering.

A Crisis of Environmental Consciousness

Since the late 1990s, a catchall notion for rural ecological endeavors is "ecological construction (shengtai jianshe)," another expression with Chinese (read "socialist") characteristics. A biology professor from the University of Wisconsin once told me, "I thought the expression [ecological construction] was an incorrect translation, so I changed ‘construction’ into ‘restoration’ throughout a paper written by a Chinese student."

There exists a stark contrast between ecological construction, an aggressive effort to rebuild the environment, and ecological restoration, an environmental movement in the US that adopts non-aggressive methods to restore natural ecosystems. The word "construction" comes from the "socialist construction" movement of the early 1950s. Its goal was the transformation of the Chinese people into new beings of socialist ideology. The notion of human reformation and domination has now been carried over into "ecological construction" projects, fostering aggressive attitudes toward nature. The essential meaning, connectivity, and limits of ecology have been totally cast away.
The concept of "ecological construction" has been used by the Party to frame ecological consciousness in the minds of the Chinese people. The Party has, fitting for its nature, blamed the local people for environmental problems, citing the "population of being poorly educated" or "backward consciousness." Even some Chinese scholars are following this logic to "blame the victims." In reality, the socialist project has been, from the start, a project to reform people’s consciousness. During the Mao era, the Party instilled political ideology in the minds of the Chinese people by force, destroying traditional cultural values. In the reform era, while political ideology education has failed miserably (such as Jiang Zemin’s "three represents" and Hu Jintao’s "maintaining advancement"), other education efforts, such as in market consciousness and ecological consciousness, continue to twist the Chinese minds.

Lack of freedom in the media ensures that alternative notions of ecology do not have space to grow.

On the dry lands of Inner Mongolia, for example, people have equated ecology with "planting trees and grass," after having been "educated" through the government "ecological construction" projects that have focused narrowly on planting and seeding, a focus that fits well with the Party’s economic standpoint and that boosts local leaders’ achievement scores. But what about the ecosystem itself? Scientists have pointed out that trees are not suitable for this arid land because they use up too much water and can make adjacent vegetation wither. Repeated failures in planting and seeding also testify that aggressive "improvement" does not work. While ecological projects can "construct" trees in limited locations, they have not stopped the continuation of wholesale degradation.[20]

At an international workshop on China’s environmental activism that I attended in 2004, some journalists proudly announced their environmental participation by "planting trees in Inner Mongolia’s desert areas." Hearing this, I had to marvel at the sheer effectiveness of the official ecological education. Yet, the very success of the Party’s education on the public’s environmental consciousness is a disaster for the environment itself.

To be sure, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) [21] on the environment are growing in China, especially in Beijing and southwest China. But these organizations have largely been confined to certain areas, such as urban energy saving and recycling, biodiversity conservation, and environmental education, and they have not been able to affect major policies.[22] These NGOs are having a growing influence on popular views about nature in urban settings, but in the vast countryside where the ecosystems are deteriorating, they are in no way providing a viable force to counter the influence of the Party’s propaganda.


It is widely acknowledged that environmental problems come not from a lack of understanding of environmental processes, but from a lack of political will and social commitment. China’s environmental crisis is a crisis of both politics and consciousness.
The CCP’s narrow and instrumental view of the environment has led to policies that rank the environment subordinate to development, and the environment is made to bleed. The CCP government has actively channeled public environmental consciousness toward aggressive attitudes and acts against nature. The post-Mao government has continued to write and enact policies that only further the damage to the environment begun in Mao’s time.

In her well-known book Mao’s War against Nature, Professor Judith Shapiro from American University argues that the Chinese regime’s oppression of the people and of the environment went hand in hand. And they still do today. When we read about China’s continuing abuse of human rights, its reinforcement of a "digital iron curtain" (the "golden shield" Internet policing system), its persecution of dissidents and Falun Gong practitioners, we can see the root cause of China’s environmental plight.

The ruthless policy of top-down political control offers no accountability to the people or the environment, and it can only lead to societal and environmental decay.

Is there a way out? Let me end this article with a statement from Tang Xiyang, a renowned Chinese intellectual and environmentalist, who, in response to the question of China’s biggest environmental problems, replied, "Democracy. If you don’t have democracy, you can’t have real environmental protection."[23]

 The Mu Us Sandy Land

The Ordos Plateau is a dry area located in western Inner Mongolia. The southern part is covered by the Mu Us Sandy Land, with its "hearth" located in Uxin banner. Given the name, the area is dry and sandy, with average annual rainfall of 300-350 mm.

Over the last six decades, under the control of the Chinese Communist Party, the Ordos Plateau has seen significant landscape changes. Notable are two campaigns to transform the sandy land.

One is a desert campaign that started in 1958 to make the sandy land green. At the start of the Great Leap Forward, to follow Mao’s call to build socialism "greater, faster, better, and more economically" (duo kuai hao sheng), Inner Mongolia, under pressure from the central government, launched the campaign in the socialist legacy of "altering the heaven and changing the earth (gaitian huandi). The campaign attempted to plant trees on the moving sand dunes and to turn desert into forests and oases.

Uxin Ju of Uxin banner was on the forefront of the desert campaign. People there removed a toxic grass from the grassland and planted trees on the sand dunes. While much of the effort went wasted facing the stubborn dune sand that insisted on moving, certain small-scale success was established, much like today’s tree planting effort in northern China, whereby small-scale success is mixed in large-scale degradation. Uxin Ju’s engagement earned it a model status in 1965, when, after the Shanxi model village of Dazhai, Uxin Ju was named a "pastoral Dazhai."

The legacy of that campaign was echoed in the entire Mao-era China: Human beings will conquer nature. The legacy continued in the second campaign, namely, tree planting campaign since the 1980s, prompted by the North China afforestation and "Western Regional Development" programs.

Instead of political motivations, the post-Mao tree planting campaign follows an economic logic of development under the decollectivized household responsibility system. The state control of land use remains gripping, as the government uses regulations, financial rewards or punishments, and ideological exhortations to encourage tree planting. For example, state-funded projects award money and other incentives to tree planting—especially planting over large continuous areas; regional government mandates that each laborer has to spend 20 days annually in tree planting, violators will be fined.

Failure in planting is reminiscent of the effort-wasting endeavors of the Mao-era campaign.

My analyses show that during the 1970s-1990s, while trees increased from 200-300 to over 2,500 per household on Uxin Ju’s originally treeless landscape, area of moving sand almost doubled and that of water body was halved. Landscape diversity was reduced, and regeneration capacity was compromised. Clearly, tree planting has not helped to deter the continuing degradation.

Noteworthy is, the Mu Us Sandy Land, while dry on surface, has fairly good supply of groundwater. In low-lying areas, groundwater table is shallow, thus allowing trees to grow. The problem is, trees and cropland irrigation have drawn down the groundwater table, exacerbating the degradation of the area’s best grassland on the lowland and worsening the water condition of the entire sandy land ecosystem.



[1] John Boudreau: Rising threat,, July 23, 2007.
[2]  State Environmental Protection Agency: Zhongguo shengtai baohu (Ecological Protection in China), June 5, 2006.
[3]  John Boudreau: Rising threat,, July 23, 2007.
[4]  John Boudreau: Rising threat,, July 23, 2007; Elizabeth Economy: The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenge to China’s Future. Cornell University Press, 2005. 
[6]  Qi Zhifeng: Zhongguo huanjing ehua de genyuan hezai (What is the root cause of China’s environmental deterioration)? Voice of America – Chinese, July 27, 2007. 
[7]  Elizabeth Economy: China vs. Earth. The Nation, May 7, 2007.
[8]  Patrice Hill: China powering world economy. Washington Times, July 26, 2007. 
[9]  Xinmin Pei: The high cost of prosperity. International Herald Tribune, March 6, 2007.
[10]  Economy: China vs. Earth.
[11]  The Associate Press: China offers environmental plan; focus is sustainable development. International Herald Tribune, February 15, 2006. 
[12]  Geoff Dyer: Activist held in China pollution battle, Financial Times, August 3, 2007.
[13]  The Associate Press: China offers environmental plan; focus is sustainable development. 
[14]  Economy: The River Runs Black.
[15]  Zhou Tong: Zhongguo shengtai ehua (China’s Ecological Deterioration),, June 22, 2004.
[16]  Hong Jiang: Grassland management and views of nature in China since 1949: Regional policies and local changes in Uxin Ju, Inner Mongolia. Geoforum 36 (5): 641-653, 2005.
[18]  Ding Dong: Wuolong hu kuai cheng sihu le (Wuolong Lake is about to Die). Keji Ribao (Science and Technology Daily), November 17, 2003. Since 2004 efforts have been made to revive Woulong Lake, but the ecosystem has not recovered.
[19]  Hong Jiang: Decentralization, ecological construction, and the environment in post-reform China: Case study from Uxin banner, Inner Mongolia. World Development 34 (11): 1907-1921, 2006.
[20]  Jiang: Decentralization, ecological construction, and the environment in post-reform China.
[21]  Instead of true NGOs, they are GONGOs, Government-Operated Non-Governmental Organizations, and are placed under government control.
[22]  Elizabeth Economy, 2003. China’s Environmental Challenge: Political, Social and Economic Implications. Testimony before the Congressional Executive Commission on China, January 27, 2003
[23]  Economy: The River Runs Black. p.141

Hong Jiang, Ph.D., is a faculty member in the geography department at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. She has done research on China’s human-environmental issues for over two decades, and her work has been published in journals and books.