China’s “Interesting Times”
Saudi Arabia is known for rolling dunes, endless desert and little rain. Northern China is known for verdant hills, green fields and, this time of year, heavy snow.
What disturbs the imagery is that there is less water available in northern China per head of population than in Saudi Arabia. With a fifth of the world’s population, China only has about 7% of the planet’s fresh water.
Focus on environmental resources
Even the quality of whatever water is available is poor. Tap water is undrinkable without being filtered heavily. Industrial waste and the flow of pesticides from fields contribute massively to pollution.
At least 10,000 petrochemical plants dot the banks of the Yangtze River. China has about 88,000 reservoirs, but at least 40% of them are in a poor condition.
Things are not much cleaner above ground. Massive strides have been taken too combat air pollution in northern China, but it is still a cause for concern.
The first two weeks of January have seen more polluted days, where levels of particulate matter 2.5 (often referred to as PM 2.5, because their diameter is 2.5 microns) exceed World Health Organization guidelines, than clear ones.
Enough of the science, you say? Just don’t forget that PM2.5 levels are a main topic of conversation in Beijing. It is not uncommon for conversations in shops or the train queues to mention PM2.5 levels.
For what this all really means, some context is in order. There are about 25,000 microns in an inch. In other words, the particles are very small. About several thousand of them could fit on this next full stop sign.
They embed themselves in lungs causing a range of lingering respiratory problems that can be fatal.
Air pollution in China claims more lives than smoking. Outdoor air pollution in China causes about 1.2 million premature deaths a year, almost double the 750,000 early deaths caused by smoking.
Up to a level of 200, the air quality index for China goes up in increments of 50 with 0-50 classified as excellent. I am writing this in Beijing with the index at 259, classified as heavily polluted.
To cope with this, China, the globe’s largest emitter, has installed more renewable energy capacity than any other country. However, it also opens a coal-fired power station every two weeks.
China is an ancient country getting older. The number of people over 60 is currently about 15% of the 1.3 billion population, or just around 200 million. This pool of people is expected to grow to nearly 500 million by mid-century.
The most important set of numbers you need to know in this context is what we call the 1:2:4 issue: Married workers often have to support one child, two parents and four grandparents.
This often means living with all of them in small flats. And even if the main breadwinner works far away from what the others call home, he or she has to provide.
About half of China’s elderly live alone or with grandchildren (as the kids’ parents have left to seek work). The Spring Festival in February, the largest movement of humans on the planet, will see many return home for their one visit a year.
Chinese authorities are so concerned about the plight of the elderly that a law was passed in 2013 demanding that children visit their parents and not neglect them.
Given that China is a country that prides itself on filial piety and yet has to pass such a law tells you a lot. It also indicates the seriousness the issue is treated with.
Divorce and care
The climbing divorce rate in China has an effect that is often overlooked by outsiders. It means more elderly people are not being cared for by their families.
The divorce rate has seen a marked increase over the last decade. It is driven largely by working women who feel empowered to start a new life. The government is trying to slow the trend, seeing it as a source of social instability.
Divorces in China rose rapidly from 1.8 per thousand persons in 2002 to 3.2 per thousand persons in 2017. And marriage rates have plunged. After peaking at 9.9 per thousand persons in 2013, the marriage rate in 2017 was only 7.7 per thousand persons.
“Have you divorced today?” has become a common joke between Chinese people. The issue is compounded by the fact that divorce in China condemns the elderly in-laws to an uncertain future.
Next: Year of the pig
Chinese New Year started on February 5. Ironically, this is the year of the pig. Pork is the most popular dish and the health of the pig stock is of national strategic significance. But swine fever has cast a shadow.
China has approximately 700 million pigs, but authorities have warned the country’s pork industry this month that covering up cases of African swine fever is a crime.
The animal husbandry and veterinary affairs bureau is stepping up investigations and increasing punishment concerning illegal activity in the pig industry, said a statement published on the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs website.
Deaths of pigs have to be reported and privately slaughtering and selling sick or dead pigs would be classified as a criminal offence, it said. Compensation of 1,200 yuan ($177) for each pig culled was sufficient incentive for farmers to report the disease, it added.
China is experiencing the worst outbreak of the disease ever. It has confirmed about 100 cases of swine fever across 23 provinces (out of 34 provincial level administrative units) since August last year.
The disease, for which there is no cure or vaccine, is deadly to pigs, although does not harm people.
China is a fascinating, incredible, colorful, safe and often frustrating country to live in. It has enjoyed turbo-charged growth not because it has cheated on trade deals or pulled the wool over the eyes of the unsuspecting West.
Its people work hard and are reaping the benefits of their labor. For many who travel home for the Spring Festival, it will be the only break from work they have, including weekends.
Its universities are breaking new ground, especially in science and technology. Its streets are safe to walk on. But it does have problems, including pollution, care for the elderly and food safety.
(Tom Clifford is an Irish journalist, currently based in Beijing.)