Country Driving explores how China clears the land to build new factory towns like Lishui, giving depth and background to the protests over land rights that frequently pop up in global news articles. It also records the transformation of a distant suburb of Beijing from rural village to tourist destination — and the creation of a class of entrepreneurs building restaurants and guesthouses to take advantage of the change — all based on a newly constructed road that made the village accessible to China’s newly minted middle class for the first time.
Hessler’s 2001 book, River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze (HarperCollins), which chronicled his time as a Peace Corps teacher in central Sichuan province, has been a must-read for every initiate to Chinese culture. This latest work, by the writer who has been called “America’s keenest observer of the New China,” provides an up-to-date companion and an unparalleled curbside view of the vast economic upheavals that a decade of 10 percent growth has wrought.
Another probing examination of the impact of China’s spectacular economic growth has resulted in an entirely different type of analysis — an in-depth look at the depletion of China’s natural resources and skyrocketing rates of pollution. Elizabeth C. Economy’s The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenge to China’s Future was a pioneering work when it first appeared in 2004. There have been a number of attempts to examine China’s environment since. But Economy’s second edition, updated throughout, once again proves the book to be the most comprehensive, well-researched, and thoughtful analysis of China’s growing environmental crisis and its implications for the country’s future development. (Disclosure: Economy endorsed my book, The Asian Mystique.)
The new edition examines the policy transformations that have occurred in China over the past two or three years in areas such as clean energy, climate change, and investment in and development of natural resources abroad. It assesses the impact of several recent defining events on China’s environment and its environmental practices: the Beijing Olympics, the global financial crisis, and the Copenhagen climate change conference. It also traces the latest developments in the country’s environmental movement: the growing role of environmental NGOs as watchdogs of both local governments and multinationals, and the appearance of urban-based environmental unrest beginning in 2007.
Beijing is falling short in its ability to address the flooding, desertification, water scarcity, and fast-dwindling forest resources that threaten its future, Economy finds, and therefore it must increasingly rely on other actors, including the private sector, to manage these problems. Further, environmental degradation in China has contributed to significant public health problems, mass migration, and economic loss. “Ignored for decades, even centuries, China’s environmental problems now have the potential to bring the country to its knees economically,” the author writes. She notes that estimates of the cost of environmental damage now range from 8 to 12 percent of China’s US$4.9 trillion annual GDP (as of 2009).
The local impact of these problems is urgently felt. Desertification has already affected the lives and productivity of some 400 million people; in southwest China alone, almost 100 million will lose their land within 35 years if soil erosion continues at the current rate. According to the Chinese government, the total land area in 2007 affected by sandstorms that were caused by desertification equaled an area half again as big as Alaska. The magnitude of these problems could threaten the stability of the government. “The authority and legitimacy of the Communist Party depend on how well China’s leaders provide for the basic needs of their people and improve their standard of living,” Economy writes. “Fundamental to the state’s capacity to meet this challenge is the environment.... Thus, the environment will be the arena in which many of the crucial battles for China’s future will be waged.”