Is China really so bad?

The West should not always presume to know best about other countries, argues David Bellamy
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The Independent Online
Having visited China on a number of occasions, I have seen the problems its people face and the way they have, since the Cultural Revolution, tackled the problem of sustainability. So I know that the sad stories in the media this week, of children left to die in orphanages, are only a small part of the story.

During the late Sixties, China, which has some of the world's leading botanists and agronomists, came to the conclusion that although it could feed 1 billion people, it could not go on meeting the needs of an ever- increasing population. So it instituted the controversial policy of the one-child family. The world wagged fingers of scorn and warned that there would be problems. There were and, sadly, the policy did not work - for today many families are having two or even three children.

However, recent surveys of students show that the majority of young people agree that one child per couple is the only way ahead, and the vast majority want to delay marriage beyond the minimum legal age. If only China had gone down the road of population concern some 25 years earlier, it could have solved the problem in a more equitable way and those youngsters could now be planning for two offspring.

Malnutrition and rural poverty are symptoms of overpopulation. The Return to the Dying Rooms TV programme highlighted a related issue that stems from the culture of son preference and the inequality of the girl child. This culture is still rife in many countries which are storing up all sorts of problems for the future. It is already manifest in rural China where, in some areas, there are 28 single men (between the ages of 25 and 44) for every single woman. Little wonder that Blind Date-type programmes top the television charts.

Recently, an unlikely people - the Italians - emerged as a ground-breaking nation with the smallest family size, the 1.2-child family. Italy's population is now falling. The reason it was able to happen was at least in part because of a law on abortion that was passed in 1978, a law which was then looked upon as the most lenient in Europe. Four years later, legal abortion among women between the ages of 15 and 44 had risen to 19.7 per1,000. In the next 10 years it gradually decreased to 11 per 1,000, slightly lower than in Britain.

As we approach the millennium and the world's population explodes over the 6 billion mark at the rate of 2.9 extra people every second, the real problems facing us are the following. All the world's fish stocks are being exploited to the limit and 75 per cent of them are in decline. Since peaking in 1990, world production of grain - staple for the vast majority of the world's diets and for those of feedstock beef, hogs, poultry and farmed fish, and which drives the futures market - has fallen. Part of the reason is that crop varieties, new and old, are no longer responding to ever-rising levels of fertiliser application and the soil structure is collapsing, so much so that in September 1995 there were only a paltry 49 days' supply left in the granaries of the world.

That is dangerous living for governments that pride themselves on keeping food prices low, let alone the rising number of nations that survive on grain imports and handouts; and it has profoundly dangerous implications for the future of the world itself.

In China, the problem once again hit critical mass as the Yellow River, which is of crucial importance for irrigation and industrialisation, dried up 610km from the sea.

When it comes to sustainability, the West has much to learn from China for, from those willow-pattern landscapes which are not particularly well endowed with top-trade agricultural soils, it has contrived to feed its 1.2 billion people adequately; its chosen method is, of course, semi- organic agriculture.

Until recently, 14 of China's 15 largest cities had their own farm belts or xians which, though integrated, were kept separate from industrial and other areas. Kept fertile with treated farm and human waste, they supply most of the vegetables, grain, fruit and meat required by the cities' inhabitants, thus minimising the problems of transport, the use of non-renewables and sludge dumping.

Shanghai was not only the location for the Dying Rooms, it is also home to more than 14 million people. Situated at the mouth of the Chang Jiang River, soon to be tamed by the world's largest hydroelectricity scheme in the beautiful Three Gorges, in 1986 this great city was self- sufficient in vegetables and produced most of its grain, and a good part of its pork and poultry, within the xian administered by the city.

Shanghai needs a sludge incinerator, artificial fertiliser and the wrong type of industrial development - all on offer to China from the West - like the Chinese needed opium last time the Western world tried to take a hand in their development. Yet the single-issue vested interests of the past are there in their hordes, peddling a new opiate: sustainable development.

Sustainable development, the post-Rio battle cry, the vision of Gro Harlem Brundtland, was harpooned by the Norwegian fleets in order to get at the now protected stocks of minke whales, and is being hijacked as an excuse for getting fat-cat hands on the little that is left of the world's wild lands and the resources of sustainable ways of life.

If the Western way of life is to be the role model, why are our dole queues so long, why are the infrastructures of so many of our cities falling to pieces, why are there more black teenagers in American prisons than in American universities? And why are America's National Parks being opened up to logging, mining, cattle ranching and hotel chains? The answer is unsustainability: too many people demanding too much of the resources of one Earth.

With the Colorado River rarely making it to the Gulf of Mexico and the population of India set to catch up that of China, both in terms of numbers and in the imbalance of the male-female ratio, this is no time for complacency. Time has run out. The world must not condone infanticide, sexual discrimination of any sort, or the profligate use of non-renewable resources.

The writer is president of Population Concern.