In the last few days, some good stuff to read about China has appeared in places you might not think to look. First, the Winter, 2008 Dissent has an excellent article by Thomas Pogge (pp. 66-75) called “Growth and Inequality: Understanding Recent Trends and Political Choices.” It’s an admirably clear overview of some of the vagaries of poverty statistics, differing ways of estimating inequality, and the relationship between growth and poverty reduction, tied to a very sensible argument about how somewhat slower growth could actually do much more to reduce poverty (and wreak less havoc on the environment) if it was accompanied by a decrease in inequality – or even a slowing of the increase. The scope of the article is global, but several of the key examples are Chinese. If you don’t usually think quantitatively, but you’re not a complete numero-phobe, this is a good place to get caught up on what the recent data do and don’t tell us about changes in the material conditions of the poor.
Second, Science News for January 19, 2008 (pp. 36-37) has a brief but thought-provoking piece on changes in the Chinese diet and their implications for the country’s ever-worsening water shortages. The main focus is on how rising meat consumption (driven by rising incomes) strains the water supply (raising a kilo of beef uses 10-15 times as much water as raising a kilo of grain); animal-related foods account for 16% of China’s diet, but use almost half the water used for food consumption. But in some ways the growth of fruit and vegetable production may be just as big a story. Consumption of fruits and vegetables is up over 300% since the 1960s, but production of these products is rising faster, as they have become export commodities: fruit production has more than quadrupled just since 1992. (China now grows more than 1/3 of the world’s apples, for instance.) Because fruit and vegetable production absorbs a lot more labor per acre than grain production, while also yielding higher incomes to producers, shifting to fruits and vegetables has been an important way for farmers to raise their incomes without abandoning the land: and China needs every such expedient its people can find, as income from grain-growing falls further and further behind other occupations, and the strains of very rapid urbanization intensify. Fruit tree planting has also been encouraged for environmental reasons, and a number of local governments subsidize farmers who want to switch from grain to fruits. But anything that increases the demand for water is a problem. Urban water shortages are getting worse and worse, and there is probably far less waste to cut there than in agriculture (as is true almost everywhere in the world). I have seen estimates that the economic benefits of water used in North China industry are anywhere from 20 to 60 times the benefits of that same amount of water being used in agriculture; even if these numbers are inflated, it’s not hard to see that the pressures for reducing agricultural water use will rise. (Prices for irrigation water have been rising for the last several years, thus far with limited effect.) But when more water-intensive kinds of farming are also among the best bets for keeping people in the countryside while raising their incomes – especially in the North, where fruit boom has been greatest and the water crisis most severe – the trade-offs are likely to become more and more difficult as both social and environmental pressures intensify.