By Wan Lixin | 2013-1-29 | NEWSPAPER EDITION
ONE of my colleagues lives near Dianshanhu Lake in Suzhou, once known as China's Venice and one of the two earthly heavens in China (the other being Hangzhou) that bring to mind charming riverside villages, translucent streams, shade-mottled lanes, rice paddies, mulberry trees, gardens, and music.
These associations are long dated. A couple of weeks ago, when a large swath of middle and east China was enveloped in thick pall of smog, I was bewildered to find that the Dianshanhu Lake area had registered one of the high PM2.5 readings in the Shanghai area. "That's because when the wind blows west, it brings along the pollutants from Kunshan," my colleague explained.
Kunshan is a part of Suzhou adjacent to Shanghai, but it is known today as an established industrial park. Both Suzhou, Hangzhou and Shanghai lie in the ancient land of "fish and rice," or the land of plenty south of the Yangtze River.
A few years ago, one of my colleagues in his fifties, glancing at the high-rises from a window in our own high-rise office, observed ironically, "Just imagine, they have erected all this on some of the most fertile land in China. Do they intend to eat by harvesting these high-rises in the future?"
That's an apt metaphor, because so many ex-peasants, now known as migrants, are busy erecting high-rises across China, rather than growing crops, in a nation seized by the fever of breathless growth. Occasionally, there are voices of concern, mainly from academics.
The 2012 Annual Report on China's Urban-Rural Integration, recently released by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said: "As a great number of rural laborers are moving to cities and industrial sectors, an inadequate labor force is gradually becoming a key factor hindering the country's grain output." ("Grain supply tightens," January 16, Shanghai Daily).
It's a miracle that a nation of more than a billion people willingly became the world's factory, as if they didn't have to pay attention to questions like who will farm and grow grain.
Since the ambition of a young peasant today is to go to the city and stop being known as a peasant, many of them have embarked on a journey of no return.
In the calculation of some shrewd policy makers, turning this prime-aged labor force into consumers promises decades of glowing growth. In working out their glowing growth projections, some inconvenient facts have been edited out, for instance, the toxic wastes that are poisoning our air, water, and soil.
From a technical point of view, the pollution from the global factory is either airborne, discharged into rivers or seeps into soil.
While the pollution of the air and water can be more obvious, the poisoning of the soil is generally hidden from view. Through poisoning of our grain and plants, it can lead to disease and birth defects for generations.
In the January 21 issue of the Century magazine, the cover story focuses on the extent of heavy metal pollution of China's arable soil. "From time immemorial, China is wont to call the land 'Mother.' Now the Mother is seriously ill," the report opened by observing.
According to statistics in 2006 from the Ministry of Environmental Protection, China is among the countries whose soil is most seriously contaminated, with an estimated one tenth of its arable soil polluted.
In other words, one of the hallmarks of improved living standards is deterioration in air, water, and soil - unless you have evolved to a stage at which you can outsource your pollution to those wretched beings still enjoying clean air, water, and soil. But some of the most glaring examples of pollution's victims are also found in the underdeveloped areas.
In the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, pollution from a steel plant has made 4,000 hectares nonproductive or low-yielding. The contamination of ground water made several villages uninhabitable.