Dust thrown in the eyes of the faithful

Mao's War Against Nature
February 8, 2002

Chairman Mao may be long gone but his legacy lingers. Not just in the minds of those queuing to glimpse his embalmed remains in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, but also in the dust storms that regularly invade Beijing - a legacy of soil erosion caused by his misbegotten agricultural revolutions; in the denuded treeless hillsides, still bare after he demanded their timber to fuel millions of "backyard" steel furnaces; and in the air of most Chinese cities, the most polluted in the world, which still suffer the stench from foully inefficient industrial plant built to meet his production targets. Environmental degradation is one of the most enduring legacies of Mao's 30 years' rule in China, as Judith Shapiro's remarkable study lays bare.

It is difficult to recall the romantic fervour with which some in the West greeted Mao's revolution in China. For the left, it seemed to offer a vibrant alternative to the ossified socialism of the Soviet system. And yet its assault on human rights and the environment was if anything even more severe than Stalin's. And Maoists have proved even more reluctant to acknowledge China's great famine of the late 1950s than Stalinists did their own famine of the 1930s. Mao's famine arose directly out of his crazed efforts to transform China into an advanced industrialised nation at breakneck speed. It left some 30 million to 50 million dead in what Shapiro calls, with little prospect of contradiction, "the greatest human-made famine in history".

In 1958, at the height of his "Great Leap Forward", Mao demanded massive increases in farm production using some highly dubious techniques. These techniques included elaborations of Soviet methods such as close planting and ultra-deep ploughing - with furrows dug by hand sometimes a ludicrous 3m deep - and some of Mao's own distinctive initiatives, such as shooting all the country's sparrows on the pretext that they ate too much grain. As one agriculture professor told Shapiro: "During the Leap, we were told to plough deeply, the deeper the better. In fact it wasn't necessary to plough deep, but we didn't dare to say or publish anything. And you could only report high (production) figures or you would be labelled as right-leaning."

To make matters worse, that summer Mao had within weeks moved on to the industrial phase of the Great Leap, decreeing that every village should have its own "backyard furnace". He wanted to double the country's steel production in a single year to more than 10 million tonnes a year, and to be producing as much as Britain within three years.

Ploughshares and all manner of iron farm implements were thrown into the pot to meet the steel-production targets. To fuel the furnaces, vast tracts of forest across the country were felled. "Many Chinese analysts believe at least 10 per cent of China's forests were cut down in a few short months during the Leap," Shapiro says. And to cap it all, the entire operation was decreed to take place in the midst of the autumn harvest. Much of that year's supposed bumper harvest rotted.

Thus the famine that gripped China from 1959 to 1961 had begun. Soon what remained of wildlife in the countryside - birds, rats, mice, anything - was hunted down for food. And the environmental fallout lives on today: in the bare hillsides that triggered a complete cessation of timber felling since 1998, and in Beijing's dust storms. Needless to say, most of the steel from the short-lived backyard furnaces programme proved useless.

Besides the Great Leap Forward, Shapiro looks at the environmental fallout from two other social revolutions undertaken by Mao. Before the Great Leap, in 1957, he launched the anti-rightist purges to root out intellectuals and scientists. Shapiro highlights the stories of two whose expertise flew in the face of Maoist dogma. There was Ma Yinchu, president of Beijing University, who opposed Mao's policy of unrestrained population growth. And hydro-engineer Huang Wanli, who opposed some of Mao's cruder hydrological projects, such as the Sanmenxia dam on the Yellow River, correctly predicting that it would swiftly fill with silt.

And Shapiro charts the cultural revolution of the 1960s, during which huge areas of ecologically productive wetlands were "reclaimed" at vast human and financial cost for worthless agricultural projects, and millions of people were shipped to frontier wastelands in an effort to colonise regions that Mao feared could be invaded by Russia.

Of course, Mao's attitude that "Man must conquer nature" and his blindness to the environmental consequences is hardly unique. China is not alone in having trashed its forests and turned its best soils to dust. Mao's attitude to nature in many ways mimicked that of the West, as well as the Chinese Confucian tradition of asserting control over nature. And whatever went wrong, the country is today still capable of feeding its 1.2 billion people. But Shapiro argues that it was the supremely coercive nature of Mao's tyranny, involving mass forced relocations of communities and the suppression of intellectual and political freedoms, that contributed directly to the extent of the destruction. "At numerous important junctures of Mao-era history, the connection between human suffering and the degradation of the natural world was very clear," she says.

Today, China's personal liberties are slowly being extended. Meanwhile, the country is planting forests rather than felling them, and its urban air is gradually being cleaned. But some of Mao's ideas linger, demonstrating the corrosive combination of environmental and human-rights abuses. On the Yangtze River, they are at work on the Three Gorges Dam - the world's largest hydroelectric dam. It requires the removal of upwards of 2 million people to make way for its reservoir, and threatens widespread environmental damage all the way to the river's mouth. Its long-delayed construction was one of Mao's most cherished projects. For good or ill, it too will be his legacy.

Fred Pearce is an environment writer and co-author of the AAAS Atlas of Population and Environment .

Mao's War Against Nature: Politics and Environment in Revolutionary China

Author - Judith Shapiro
ISBN - 0 521 78150 7 and 78680 0
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £35.00 and £12.95
Pages - 287

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