Wednesday, March 11, 2015

My Log 463 Mar 10 2015: Still an open question: Can China feed its billion people? What has happened to the water table? The same question imposed itself in 1978…

English: Roadside billboard of Deng Xiaoping i...
English: Roadside billboard of Deng Xiaoping in Dujiangyan (Sichuan) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: Soong Ching-ling, Rewi Alley(right, b...
Soong Ching-ling, (centre, front) and Rewi Alley(right, back row) photographed in Hong Kong in 1939 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The well respected journal The Guardian Weekly, of London, recently ran a story with a banner headline across its front page asking, Can China Feed its People?
This took me back to an occasion in 1978, when I was part of a National Film Board film crew assigned to make three films in China, to be reciprocated by a visit to Canada by a Chinese film crew.
I took advantage of this to put in a request that we might be given an opportunity to interview Rewi Alley, a man unknown to other members of the film crew, but a figure familiar to me since my boyhood in New Zealand. Alley was the son of a well-known New Zealand family --- his brother was an All Black, the representative New Zealand Rugby team, and later national founder of a travelling library to serve rural areas, a ground-breaking activity at that time, anywhere in the world.  But Rewi --- named after a famous Maori chieftain who never surrendered to the invading British colonists ---- was made of different stuff, and in 1929 he signed off as a crewmen on a ship visiting Shanghai, and began a lifetime of work on behalf of the impoverished, downtrodden Chinese people. By 1978 he was 80 and had worked with the Chinese  through all their modern vicissitudes; in the first years working with money contributed by supporters abroad, he founded and ran a number of schools for training rural leaders; he worked through the Japanese invasion which drove him to a remote area beyond the invaders’ reach; he worked as the Communists arrived in his remote area and he realized they were planning to do on a national scale what he was doing on a local level; he worked  as an important propagandist for the new government; and he worked, though with immense difficulties, through the Cultural Revolution, when he more or less had to do what he was told, just to survive.
His recent birthday had been celebrated at a banquet in his honour attended by the leaders of the nation, but of course by this time he had come under somewhat severe criticism by Western armchair critics.
Never mind all of that. To me he was still a hero, and one whose hand I longed to shake. The officials handling our film crew came up with the usual anodyne answers to our unexpected request. He was a busy man. He wasn’t always at home. He had been in poor health. He was never in Beijing, and they were sorry a meeting could not be arranged.
After a month or so we were taken inland to visit the extraordinary village of Dazhai, in Shansi province, which had been used by Mao as the model for agricultural work, and had become the focus of all sorts of ridiculous claims. Millions of people were taken to visit Dazhai, the claims of miraculous production figures were later exploded after the end of the Cultural Revolution and the death of Mao Tse-Tung. Be that as it may, we spent a day or two there, and one evening when we were dining in the capacious restaurant supplied so that the village could handle its multitudinous visitors, I spotted a group of elderly men eating at a table across the other side of the restaurant, and I felt almost certain one of them was Rewi Alley.
Taking the bull by the horns, as it were, I approached nervously, introduced myself as a fellow New Zealander in China with a Canadian film crew, and expressed the hope that, after all, we might get a chance to talk to him.  He demurred, said he was pressed for time, and put me off gently. I returned to our table, disappointed, but half an hour or so later I was surprised to find him approaching our table, where he sat down and talked to us for more than half an hour.
We had become accustomed to hearing of the new programme adopted by the Chinese government called the Four Modernizations. This had been a favourite project of the late great leader Zhou En-Lai, who first posited it in 1963 without success, but who, in his last major action before his death in 1975, had managed to get adopted by the National Peoples  Congress the modernization of agriculture, industry, science and technology, and the military – indeed, of the whole of Chinese society. Alley now told us he believed this modernization would apply mostly to industry, since, he said the Chinese, were a clever, resourceful people, who could build anything, “and they will do so on a world scale.”
He added: “What worries me is agriculture, the feeding of our more than a billion people.” The first problem was to get the land into shape to grow crops. They had done that, he said, but what more could they do?
“You have to remember that almost every year there is some immense natural disaster which  eats into our reserves, and sets back our progress. In 1976 one and a half million people were wiped out by earthquakes. In 1975 six million were made homeless by flooding, and they all needed to be fed and their land restored to production.
“The big problem is water,” he said. “I am very worried about the water table. So many deep wells have been sunk, down to 300 metres, and I have no idea of the effect these will have on the water table. There is underground water feeding down from the Yangtze basin, but no one knows how long it will take to replenish what is lost to irrigation. They have schemes to run the Yellow river down from the mountain tops, irrigating all the way.… what effect will that have?” he asked.

By the time we met Alley I had already been asking questions about the water table in the village commune where we were filming. It was a well-run, productive farm, which included six villages of about 15,000 people living and working on 3,000 acres of land. This amount of land was about four times the size of an average wheat-growing farm in Saskatchewan, that would support usually one family. But, as I wrote recently in a brief monograph on this experience, in Wushing (as the commune was called)  the farm had to support 3,200 households, all of whose members worked on the commune in a variety of occupations.
“Each family had a relatively new house, with a small backyard, in which they were able to raise a pig and poultry.  In those days labour and production on the commune were divided between three administrative levels, at the top the commune with its own enterprises run for the benefit of the whole place, then six production brigades, as the villages were called, each with its individual enterprises, and finally,  within the brigades and employed by them, a workforce divided into  59 production teams. That this system seemed to be operating at a fairly high level of efficiency was indicated not only by the extreme neatness of all the roads and villages, but by the fact that when we arrived in May most of the land was bearing a healthy-looking crop of wheat that had been planted in the previous winter.”
They were proud of their commune in Wushing, and not much wonder: it was all built on land that would be regarded as marginal in Canada. It did not look any different from villages surrounding it. Indeed, on the 280-kilometre journey by train south from Beijing, we had been impressed by what we saw of the North China plain:
“As far as the eye could see the countryside was planted out with a healthy crop of wheat. The land everywhere appeared to have been flattened, so that there were neighbouring fields of different levels, and trees had been planted all the way along the railway, along every road and path, and surrounding every village. The many villages were of adobe-type construction, the buildings mud-coloured, and between their walls ran paths of beaten mud. But it was along the main road south from Beijing that the spectacle was most extraordinary, for that road was crowded with vehicles of every conceivable type, most of them small rubber-wheeled carts loaded with materials, and pulled by donkeys, ponies, camels, and often by sweating men. An amazing work seemed to be underway, a picking up of earth, sand and rock from one place, and the putting it down on another. Somewhere, some presiding genius must know what was being built, but from the train our impression was that a work like the building of the pyramids was being undertaken with every available unit of muscle power mobilized for the job.”

When the time for harvest came in Wushing, every man, woman and child was mobilized to take part. The commune not only grew enough food to feed its people, but to meet a quota imposed on it by the central authorities to add to the national food store. Our inquiries proved to us that under their management system nothing was wasted: every inch of ground was used to grow some sort of food. The crops were inter-cropped, so that the shoots of a second crop planted between the rows of wheat were ready to grow rapidly from the moment they were exposed to the light. Thus two crops could be taken off land that normally would produce only one; and in addition we saw with our own eyes that fields that had been groaning with wheat when we arrived, were transformed into rice paddies before we left two months later. The spaces between rows of apple trees were planted with herbs for traditional Chinese medicines; the gleanings left over from the harvest and gathered by schoolchildren were used to make hats by a group of 20 working women; the prunings from the apple trees were used to fashion the baskets in which the apples were sent to market; all household waste was fed to the pig that every household had in the backyard; and the manure produced from these pig-pens was sold to the production brigades for use on the fields, a valuable addition to the family income. Perhaps the most striking ingenuity of everything we saw was in their production of all the bricks needed for the many houses they were building. All the earth and clay used came from their fields: the sandy surface soil being set aside, the low-lying clay removed and used by the brick works, and finally topsoil being re-established to allow the field to produce food at a level 12 feet below surrounding fields. Thus a brickworks that produced two and a half million bricks a year --- not, I hasten to add, of a quality that we could use in our construction, but good though for their needs---- used not more than an acre and a half of land at any one time.
It was true that the commune in its agricultural management was caught between two methods, the one --- of modern, power-using tractors and small machines, able to do the work more efficiently and quickly than mere humans --- vying for place with the traditional, natural methods favoured by the peasants. Although they did use some machinery, and fertilizer, the emphasis overall at that time was on natural, organic methods.
I found the commune management generous with their information, willing --- after some hesitation, through being unaccustomed to such questions from an outsider --- to answer all questions. But much of their transformation of the land depended on the 180 wells they had dug across their 3,000 acres of land. And a persistent question I asked was, “With tens of thousands of wells being dug across the North China plain, what is happening to the water table?”
To this I received only the non-committal answer, “That is a matter for the department concerned.” In other words, they didn’t know. Well, it seems, to judge by recent reports, this particular chicken is coming home to roost under the modernized, power-intensive agriculture, growing more food than ever before, sponsored by the Four Modernizations.
It was while we were in China that Deng Xiaoping, who had been out of power during the Cultural Revolution, finally came to full power in China, in the wake of the death of Zhou and Mao. They were talking about the Four Modernizations while we were there --- we left in the middle of the year --- but it was not until December of 1978 that Deng was able to impose modernization as official policy.
What has happened in China since has astonished the world, and transformed the global economy. I am as astonished as anyone, for having seen how well the commune system was working, I had left believing the peasants would never agree to change it.  In the event, they had no say in the matter: the change was imposed on them, and the immense migration from the land to the cities began. Since so many millions of Chinese have been lifted out of extreme poverty by this industrialization --- just as happened in our own Western industrial revolution --- who are we to criticize their methods?
And yet, evidently, as is the case everywhere, immense problems are still to be solved. Not the least of which is the continued availability of water, without which --- as even California is now discovering --- human life cannot survive.

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