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The environmental disaster that has been unleashed by China’s industrialization over the last several decades has polluted not only its air and water, but also its soil. In fact, the soil has been degraded to such a degree that perhaps as much as 40% of China’s land is unusable for agriculture, as explained in the Guardian:

Scientists told the Guardian that this is likely to prove a bigger long-term problem than air and water pollution, with potentially dire consequences for food production and human health.

Zhou Jianmin, director of the China Soil Association, estimated that one-tenth of China’s farmland was affected. “The country, the government and the public should realise how serious the soil pollution is,” he said. “More areas are being affected, the degree of contamination is intensifying and the range of toxins is increasing.”

Other estimates of soil pollution range as high as 40%, but an official risk assessment is unlikely to be made public for several years….

China’s worst soil contamination is from arsenic, which is released during the mining of copper, gold and other minerals. Roughly 70% of the world’s arsenic is found in China – and it is increasingly coming to the surface with horrendous consequences.

“When pollution spills cause massive die-offs of fish, the media usually blames cadmium, but that’s wrong. Arsenic is responsible. This is the most dangerous chemical,” he said. The country’s 280,000 mines are most responsible, according to Chen.

But the land – and food chain – are also threatened by lead and heavy metals from factories and overuse of pesticides and fertilisers by farmers. The risks are only slowly becoming well known. The Economic Information Daily reported this week that pollution ruins almost 12bn kilograms of food production each year, causing economic losses of 20 billion yuan.

Chen estimated that “no more than 20% of China’s soil is seriously polluted”, but he warned that the problem was likely to grow because 80% of the pollutants in the air and water ended up in the earth….

“If we don’t improve the quality of farmland, but only depend on increasing investment and improving technology, then – regardless of whatever super rice, super wheat and other super quality crops we come up with – it will be difficult to guarantee the sustainable development of our nation’s agriculture.”

Isaac Asimov once said the following:

“Right now most of the world is living under appalling conditions. We can’t possibly improve the conditions of everyone. We can’t raise the entire world to the average standard of living in the United States because we don’t have the resources and the ability to distribute well enough for that. So right now as it is, we have condemned most of the world to a miserable, starvation level of existence. And it will just get worse as the population continues to go up… Democracy cannot survive overpopulation. Human dignity cannot survive it. Convenience and decency cannot survive it. As you put more and more people onto the world, the value of life not only declines, it disappears. It doesn’t matter if someone dies. The more people there are, the less one individual matters.”

If you take all of China’s environmental problems in total, you come to the conclusion that they are fouling their nest to such a degree that they can no longer support a large percentage of their population which is “still growing at an absolute rate of some 10 million additional inhabitants per year, despite its government’s efforts to stabilize it, through its one child per couple policy.” This simple fact would lead one to think that China’s one-child policy would be enforced even more harshly, especially in a cratering world economy. Yesterday I saw a gruesome news story on MSNBC which supports that assertion:

… She was blindfolded, thrown on a bed, and forced to sign a document that she couldn’t read with the blindfold still on her eyes. Then two shots were injected into her belly. Thirty hours later, on the morning June 4, she gave birth to a dead baby girl.

Feng is one of the many Chinese women who have been forced to have abortions under China’s strict one-child-only policy started in late 1970s to contain the country’s fast growing population, which has now topped 1.3 billion people….

The combination of enormous environmental degradation, the one-child policy, and rampant economic growth have all factored into forcing China to export its population to foreign lands, namely Africa, in order to deal with the crisis of environmental overshoot. The following article from the Asia Times is drawn from the report “300,000,000 Million Reasons: What China Really Wants In Africa” by Cedric Muhammad, CEO of Africa PreBrief.  

While a cottage industry of “China-in-Africa” experts has emerged over the past five years, on balance their explanations of why a magnetic like pull exists between the two continents is unsatisfactory. Certainly no one denies an array of state-to-state economic and geopolitical incentives recognized by both sides. After all, the simplified resources-for-infrastructure win-win is rather obvious.

Yet and still neither of those benefits – Africa’s gain of badly needed dams, roads, pipelines and bridges and China’s receipt of desperately needed oil and minerals – is as compelling as the widely rumored and highly plausible determination that China’s mainland can only sustain 700 million persons. Therefore at least 300 million to 500 million of its current 1.2 billion population must go elsewhere. The “elsewhere” is Africa if we are to believe French authors Serge Michel and Michel Beuret, who quote an anonymous Chinese scientist in their book China Safari.

I am among those who accept the only 700 million can stay/300 million must leave hypothesis, but I find the explanation for this sorely inadequate. The reason provided for the necessary exodus of 300 million out of China is environmental degradation and in particular water scarcity – so many rivers have been polluted in China that the resource no longer exists in ample supply to satisfy the needs of a desperate Chinese population.

While lack of water is certainly a major issue (see California; Syria-Turkey; and Darfur disputes for proof) the Earth is still a very large place. Why Africa would be the destination of choice for hundreds of millions of persons fleeing a country plagued by simultaneous drought and flood, is not answered by the environmental degradation theory.

As serious as China’s population pressures and environmental woes are, there must still be a more compelling internal and external force driving individuals out of China. There must exist an irresistible motivation shaped by circumstance that draws and drives an enormous mass of Chinese into Africa.

We believe that force can be found coming from an unsuspecting source – the Chinese “one-child” policy.

Though Mao Zedong did state that “revolution plus production can solve the problem of feeding the population” and thought that China’s large population was more asset than liability, that thinking was replaced by efforts at social engineering that the Chinese government now credits with preventing 400 million births, thus keeping the Chinese population from otherwise reaching a level of 1.7 million today.

But people don’t neatly fit into the cardinal or ordinal nature of numbers, nor does their dynamism accept the rigid confines of static public policy. There have been real and unpredictable consequences on the thinking of generations of Chinese families and children living under these regulations – consequences that are now spilling over into Africa.

The pattern of history shows that people vote with their feet as much as they do by ballot and there are many illustrative examples which shed light on the Chinese “one-child” experience. One of the best available is the analogy painted by McGill University professor and economist Reuven Brenner, who years ago likened the experience of Jews living in Europe with what Chinese endure today, writing in an article “China: A Neurotic Prosperity”:

“What can be the point of reference to predict consequences of China’s current childbearing pattern, adjusted over the last decades to one-kid or you’re-out-of-your-apartment policy? To make any reliable analyses, one needs at least two points, so as to draw a straight line as a first approximation.

Fortunately for observers, though unfortunately for those who had to adjust to such social engineering, there is not much new under the sun. There has been a government in the past who passed similar regulations. The year was 1726. The place, Austria.

The Viennese court, under anti-Semitic pressures, fearing a large increase in Jewish population – a fear that by itself suggests that the Jewish birth rate at the time was relatively high – introduced a regulation. Only the eldest son of a Jewish family could marry. The younger boys could not. This regulation introduced into the Austrian empire, including Bohemia, Moravia, parts of what became later Germany, and Alsace, led to the instant migration of young Jewish generation to Eastern Europe, to Poland, to Rumania. Whereas within the Austrian Empire the Jewish birth rates dropped, in Eastern Europe they did not.

How did Jewish parents, who stayed, adapt to the regulation? As one would expect: they had less children, invested more in their education and health, and probably spoiled them much more than would have been otherwise the case. One can speculate that this regulation was the origins of the myth of the neurotic Jewish mothers, and the by now tradition of driving Jewish kids to excellence – true, occasionally, to neurotic excellence.

Will Chinese mothers and kids react in a similar fashion? At least this point of reference suggests a positive answer. Thus one unintended consequence of the one-child regulation will be prosperity driven by kids who will grow up to be very ambitious entrepreneurs.”

There are two intriguing features in this portion of Brenner’s thesis that resonate with us. The first is a comparison of regulatory 18th-century Europe with family planning policies of 20th-century China. The second is the possibility that entrepreneurship may be a more pronounced tendency of children living under such policies.

The regulations on the Jewish birth rate are not a perfect analogy but useful to our understanding of the Chinese experience under “one-child” policy, because they illustrate an incentive for Chinese to migrate elsewhere in pursuit of a greater quality of life and in order to broaden their personal and professional network which has been confined – in a familial context.

Africa represents a land of opportunity for the Chinese migrant. And history shows it is often strong kinship-based ethnic groups whose economic opportunities are more limited at “home” who become the “stranger-traders” abroad, for better or worse. This has certainly happened in parts of Africa where the Chinese represent a valuable link to manufactured goods and novel services unavailable in agrarian and peasant-like societies in Africa.

It is a link that the Jewish community played not only when they migrated into Eastern Europe as Brenner describes but also by the thousands who migrated from Alsace into the American South servicing the Mississippi Delta plantation economy as dry goods peddlers.

Far more important than the quality of the state-to-state negotiation between China and African governments covered ad nauseum by the chattering class, is the on the ground navigation of a swarm of Chinese entrepreneurs – running away from an old reality as much as they are chasing a new one.