China’s environmental concerns: a way to analyze and design wise action plans

Key words: farm land; environment; social sciences; technology assessment


China’s continued population growth, widening income gap between urban and rural people, increased farm-related violence, and wide-spread government corruption all are factors that contribute directly or indirectly to degradation of China’s lands and environment. Physical and biological factors that damage the land and environment are evident but the relationship to the factors above is less so. These social, economic, and political issues help complete the complex picture of links that contribute to environmental damage in China. The use of technology assessment (TA) methods to evaluate proposed plans to reverse China’s environmental damage would encourage the exchange of ideas among scientists and technologists, social scientists, decision makers and the public and help to assure that the plans lead to long-term success in repairing China’s environmental damage. Is China ready for an approach that involves the free and open exchange of information among these stakeholders? Perhaps that time is near.


The pervasive environmental problems now facing China clearly require thoughtful solutions. Science and technology solutions commonly are our first thought when we confront environmental problems. However, experience shows that narrowly designed technical approaches that leave out the contributions from the social sciences can lead to failure. The discussion below examines some prominent socio-economic issues in China that must be included in the design of wise environmental solutions. The interrelated assessment of these biological, physical, social, economic, and political issues is known as a technology assessment (TA). It is a process provides objective analysis of a problem and offers carefully analyzed options suitable for decision makers. The process requires openness and free exchange of information and ideas among the stakeholders of the environmental problem being addressed.

Population growth:

China’s population reached 1.3 billion in 2005 and the National Bureau of Statistics forecast that China’s population will grow by 60 million over the next five years (SCMP, 1/12/ 05). Along with this growth, the population will continue to shift from rural to urban areas. The Director of the International Institute for Urban Development predicted that China’s urban population will reach 900 million by 2020. The urban population in 2004 stood at 38 percent but is expected to reach 58 to 60 percent by 2020 (SCMP, 9/17/ 04). Population projections carried out by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in cooperation with the U.N. Development Programme forecast that 300 million rural people will move to urban areas between 2006 and 2026. They expect that 125 mainland cities will reach populations of one million by 2010 and that 50 of these cities each will have at least two million people. Such population concentrations will place increased stress on renewable and non-renewable resources of urban lands, the surrounding farm lands, and water resources (SCMP, 8/ 03/ 06). The extensive spread of concrete and buildings over what was farmland, for example, is expected to raise city temperatures as a result of the “heat island” effect (SCMP, 2/ 24/ 00).

The rural/urban income gap:

The growing urban/rural income gap plagues China’s leadership. The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in 2000 urged adoption of measures that would narrow China’s growing urban/rural income gap (SCMP, 3/ 06/ 00). China’s past Premier, Zhu Rongji, said in 2001 that the discrepancy between urban and rural income was at an alarming level and that it would be a government priority to close the gap (SCMP, 3/ 16/ 01).

The average annual income of Chinese peasants in 2000 was 2256 ¥ (US$282) whereas urban residents averaged 6280 ¥ (US$785), and the income increase for 2000 respectively was 2.1 percent and 6.4 percent (SCMP, 5/ 10/ 01). A 2003 study by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, and the National Bureau of Statistics found that in 2002 the average urban resident earned 3.11 times the income of the average rural resident (SCMP, 4/ 10/ 03). Urban residents’ incomes grew on average 9.3 percent in 2003 whereas farmers’ incomes increased only by 5 percent (SCMP, 2/ 09/ 04).

The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences study “Analysis and Forecast on China’s Social Development: 2006” reported that an income gap exists not only between urban and rural areas but also between rich coastal cities and poorer inland provinces (SCMP, 12/ 22 05). Urban incomes are growing nearly twice as fast as rural incomes in China but those of coastal cities are growing even faster than those cities in the rural interior (SCMP, 12/ 22/ 05).

The Director of the Centre for China Studies at Beijing’s Tsinghua University, said that urban and rural residents have been living under two different systems for decades in terms of taxation, education, public services, employment, and residency control (SCMP, 2/ 05/ 02). Unequal education and health-care services are two major causes behind social disparities, with urban residents being six times better off than rural residents (SCMP, 12/ 22/ 05). For example, China’s Vice-Health Minister reports that eighty percent of China’s health-care facilities are concentrated in urban areas and the remaining 20 percent do not have easy access to rural residents. Availability of low-cost medical insurance coverage is a wide-spread problem with 45 percent of urban residents and 79 percent of rural residents lacking any coverage (SCMP, 1/ 11/ 05).


China’s State Council expressed concern that the widening urban/rural income gap will contribute to mass discontent and to social unrest (SCMP, 2/ 09/ 04). The United Nation’s Development Programmes’s (UNDP) China Human Development Report of 2005, agreed that the growing income gap is a serious threat to social stability (SCMP, 12/ 17/ 05). China’s Ministry of Labor and Social Security stated that the problem is likely to trigger social instability after 2010 if it is not solved. Protests and riots already have become common among some of the frustrated Chinese because of social inequality, massive government corruption, and illegal land confiscation (SCMP, 12/ 22/ 05).

Land disputes and pollution are two major sources that lead to conflict. The number of protests arising from environmental issues grew 11.6 times over the past ten years, with an annual growth rate of 28.8 percent. The “income divide” fuels crime and a rapid rise in land disputes as well as clashes between the public and government officials over environmental issues (SCMP, 12/ 22/ 05). The Ministry of Public Security reported that 87,000 disturbances to public order and government business took place in 2005, an increase of 6.6 percent over the number in 2004. Mass incidents of disturbance included protests, riots, and mass petitioning (SCMP, 1/ 20/ 06). About 70 percent of suspects arrested for criminal offences in cities are migrant workers (SCMP, 12/ 22/ 05). At least one-hundred million Chinese peasants by 2001 had fled the farm to compete for city jobs (SCMP, 4/ 18/ 01).

Now, the central government openly states that it has concern for the Party’s ability to rule as a result of the growth in the numbers of riots and protests (SCMP, 12/ 9/ 06). China’s Vice-Minister of the Office of the Central Leading Group on Financial and Economic Affairs summarized the main causes of China’s rural unrest in 2006 as: (a) land seizures, 50 percent, (b) embezzlement of public funds, 30 percent, and (c) environmental pollution, 20 percent (SCMP, 1/ 31/ 07).


President Hu Jintao announced in July 2006 that he had great concern for the extensive graft and corruption that exists today in China’s Communist Party and that wide-spread corruption and graft was eroding the party’s authority. He emphasized that graft and corruption must be stamped out if the party is to survive (SCMP, 7/ 01/ 06). What are some of the issues that led up to the President’s statement?

In the mid-1990s, China closed many money-losing state enterprises. In order to provide replacement incomes for some of the laid-off workers, Communist Party cadre in some counties, townships and villages offered unemployed friends and relatives local government jobs (for a price). Such new “hires” provide most of their own funding through corrupt practices like illegally taxing the local farmers. As the number of government employees grew, additional illegal taxes and ad hoc fees were invented and added to the farmers’ required payments. The number of new government employees grew to at least four to five times the level of the 1980s (Fan, and Grossman, 2001). Farmers in many cases had to pay one-quarter to one-half of their monthly incomes to the local cadre (SCMP, 11/ 01/ 01; 1/ 26/ 02) and as a consequence, some farm children had to leave school, farmers and their families suffered from hunger, and some farmers even committed suicide because of their inability to pay (SCMP, 8/ 30/ 00; 8/ 30/ 01; 1/ 26/ 02; 1/ 26/ 02). Ultimately, riots between poor farmers and corrupt government official broke out (SCMP, 8/ 30/ 00).

This was not the only cause of riots. The illegal confiscation and sale of village farmland by Communist cadre is a common cause of violence. A demand exists for flat land near urban areas for building new industries, urban housing, and businesses. Much of this flat farmland belongs to farm collectives. Leasing the farmland for such purposes can be profitable and, the local government can arrange to obtain the land from village committees and, in turn, to lease it to developers. The problem is, however, that some corrupt local government officials keep most of the profit and give little to the farmers (SCMP, 2/ 23/ 06).

Further, corrupt local-cadre continue to seize farmland illegally and lease it to developers. Nevertheless, the government in Beijing announced a ban on news reports covering illegal seizures of farmland (SCMP, 10/ 07/ 03). It is not uncommon for the farmers to be given at most 30 percent of their share specified by China’s law (SCMP, 12/ 17/ 05). The Ministry of Land and Resources investigated 168,000 such cases in 2003, a figure twice as large as the number of cases in 2002 (SCMP, 11/ 27/ 03). The Supreme People’s Court and Supreme People’s Procuratorate reported that the number of official-corruption court cases basically remained at the same level through 2004, 2005, and 2006 (SCMP, 3/14/07). Just in 2006 alone, the Ministry of Land and Resources announced a 17.3 percent increase in illegal land confiscation amounting to 100,000 hectares (SCMP, 3/22/07).

Premier Wen Jiabao, recognizing that arable land decreased by two percent in 2003 alone, ordered additional crackdowns on top of those he instituted in 2002 to reduce illegal farmland seizures. Realizing the rapidly growing number of illegal farm-land seizures, his goal was to take actions necessary to assure protection of China’s arable farmland. The government stated that it intended to accelerate land-management reform (SCMP, 10/ 15/ 04). A few months later, the central government’s Ministry of Land and Resources issued a strongly worded warning outlining increased punishment for those caught in illegal farm-land deals. President Hu Jintao’s expressed concern for the extensive graft and corruption in the Communist Party (SCMP, 7/ 01/ 06) with illegal seizure of farmland being a major issue. The new Minister of Land and Resources warned that China must keep at least 120 million hectares of arable farmland to feed China’s people (SCMP, 7/13/07). He said the situation is grim regarding illegal conversion of farmland to commercial use, and his deputy chief inspector of land said that 80 percent of cases of converted or illegally occupied farmland had been approved by local officials.

Summary and conclusions:

China’s population in mid-year 2007 is 1.32 billion and will grow by about another 60 million by 2010. Inappropriate and over use of the land and its renewable resources is a common occurrence where large human populations reside. Providing land for urbanization, infrastructure, effective waste disposal, forests, and agriculture, for example, without causing serious conflicts or damage is no small problem. Increased population with the concurrent loss of arable land is a situation China’s leadership wants to avoid if the country’s long-term food needs are to be achieved.

The growing urban/rural income gap is causing a large migration of farmers to urban areas in a search of increased incomes thus leaving the elderly family members and children to maintain the farms. The Director of the Jiangsu Academy of Agricultural Sciences points out that the price of farm crops has been kept low whereas the price of pesticides and commercial fertilizers has increased (SCMP, 3/15/07). The slow growth of farm incomes and the increase in the price of farm chemicals inhibits farmers and their families from spending money on needed crop production and conservation practices to protect their soil and water resources. Those who migrate to the cities place additional pressure on the urban area’s renewable resources such as land and water. For example, land subsidence associated with over use of groundwater now affects 46 cities in 16 provinces (Jiang and Gao, 1/12/07). Urban sprawl associated with a growing urban population further eats away at surrounding farm land.

The impacts of corruption and farmland seizures have led in some cases to violence between farmers and the local government. In many instances farmers are driven off their land during such confrontations. For example, local government officials or their hired counterparts in one case deliberately tried to damage the farmland at one locality to get the farmers to abandon their farm fields by having 70 or 80 trucks dump rocks on the farmland in question (SCMP, 3/ 23/ 06). Clearly, China cannot afford deliberate damage to its remaining farmland.

Government corruption at all levels worsens the poor farmers’ economic well being still further but it seems most evident at the local level. Instead of being able to apply some of their earnings to conserve or improve their land, farmers may pay as much as 25 to 50 percent of their annual incomes to illegal taxes and ad hoc fees. Local governments have seized flat farmland illegally and leased it to developers for construction of factories and other uses that permanently destroy farmland productivity. Once their land is taken, farmers have few income opportunities. Further, illegal farm-land confiscation still is rampant.

China’s Premier Wen Jiabao announced in mid-2006 that from 2006 to 2010 major funding of about 260 billion yuan/year (US$32.5 billion/year) will be used to address the country’s widespread environmental problems. However, the director of the Environment and Resource Protection Committee of the National People’s Congress immediately thereafter expressed concern that there may be difficulty controlling pollution because China lacks a reliable management and supervision system (SCMP, 6/19/06). Eight months later, China’s State Environmental Protection Administration announced that China was not able to meet its conservation and pollution targets for 2006 because of the country’s continuing, rapid economic growth and its associated inefficient use of energy (SCMP, 2/13/ 07). China’s National Bureau of Statistics reported that for 2006, coal consumption increased 9.6 percent, crude oil 7.1 percent, and natural gas 19.9 percent (SCMP, 3/1/07). In addition, the Chinese Academy of Environmental Planning estimates that China’s investment in environmental protection is exaggerated by at least 50 percent. Because the environment is viewed as an important concern by China’s leaders, local officials have strong incentives to inflate figures on local environmental investment (SCMP, 2/16/ 07).

The strong emphasis on economic growth and “money making” that has existed in China in recent years has resulted in many of the country’s environmental problems. Whatever China’s leadership plans to do or not do to address the serious and widespread environmental problems, they need to assess at an early stage how their actions also might affect China’s social, economic, and political structure. These are the common kinds of core issues dealt with in an interdisciplinary, analytical technique called “technology assessment (TA)”.

TA is a decision-making tool that draws widely upon the knowledge base of science and technology as well as input from the assessment’s stakeholders and social scientists, to assist in the design of wise options. The TA process assesses data reliability and identifies knowledge gaps. It also provides useful synthesis that identifies the beneficial and adverse effects of proposed actions, as well as a variety of important issues and reasoned options for decision makers. The United States Congress for many years had its own Office of Technology Assessment to conduct such studies on many important, complex issues producing some one-hundred thousand pages of high-quality analysis ( Some European countries have adapted TA to fit their particular needs.

If China is in fact serious about stopping damage to the environment, it should strongly consider using technology assessment techniques to help design an effective plan of action. Sometimes when environmental corrective actions are implemented they produce unintended harmful effects on society and the environment. Such harmful effects may take years to become evident but once recognized, they may take even longer and a great deal of additional money to correct. Little evidence exists that a system’s approach to the links between China’s environmental, socio-economic, and political problems has been or is being taken today.

Pan Hue, deputy director of China’s State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) outlined the need for public participation in solving China’s environmental problems, a right he says is endowed by law. He encourages increased cooperation between the government and environmental NGOs, the democratization of decision making dealing with environmental issues, and the free access of the public to environmental information (Pan Hue, 2006). A TA approach parallels much of what Pan Hue’s suggests.

On May 1, 2008, the Chinese government announced its new Measures on Open Environmental Information (for Trial Implementation) which will allow for increased public participation in issues related to China’s environmental protection (Friends of the Earth, 2008; Ma Jun, 2008). These new government regulations could help set the stage to encourage broader public participation in the kinds of technology assessment issues described in this paper.

However, would China’s leadership be willing to undertake TAs of their environmental-repair plans under these new regulations designed for trial implementation? If so, it would require open, objective, systematic analyses of (a) the serious and extensive adverse effects of population pressures on the environment, (b) the growing urban/rural income gap, (c) the wide-spread corruption at all government levels, and (d) the violence occurring between farmers and the government officials. China’s May 1, 2008 new regulations above suggest that China’s leadership may in fact be ready to take such actions. Premier Wen Jiabao stated recently that democracy will emerge when a mature socialist system develops but that it will take a long time. Maybe the seriousness of the environmental/socio-economic problems facing China will require its leaders to draw upon the kind of open, objective analysis that the TA approach provides to address critical societal issues sooner rather than later.


SCMP, 2/24/00, “Hot times ahead as urban areas spread.”
SCMP, 3/06/00, “Regional gap ‘handicapping development’.”
SCMP, 8/30/00, “20,000 farmers riot over taxes.”
SCMP, 3/16/01, “Closing the income gap becomes a top priority.”
SCMP, 4/18/01, “China’s poverty time bomb.”
SCMP, 5/10/01, “Writings on the wall for rural China.”
SCMP, 8/30/01, “Fee plan to ease farmers’ burden.”
SCMP, 11/01/01, “Crushing’ tax burden on farmers.”
SCMP, 1/26/02, “Farmers commit suicide over tax.”
SCMP, 2/05/02, “Society ‘living in separate systems.”
SCMP, 4/10/03, “Farmers a poor second in wage stakes.”
SCMP, 8/07/03, “Farmers the only ones left to tax.”
SCMP, 10/07/03, “Reporting of farmland seizures outlawed.”
SCMP, 11/27/03, “1,000 villagers in clash with police.”
SCMP, 9/17/04, “Urban growth must be balanced, study warns.”
SCMP, 10/15,04, “Further crackdown on illegal farm grabs.”
SCMP, 1/11/05, “Only half of nation able to see doctors.”
SCMP, 12/17/05, “UN warns of risk from income gap.”
SCMP, 12/17/05, “Dongzhou woes simmered for a year before riot.”
SCMP, 1/20/06, “Incidents of social unrest hit 87,000.”
SCMP, 2/23/06, “Resolve land disputes: delegate.”
SCMP, 3/23/06, “Villagers injured in land clash.”
SCMP, 6/17/06, “Officials warned of illegal land deals.”
SCMP, 6/19/06, “Beijing’s cleanup bill to cost 1.6 pc of GDP – environment official.”
SCMP, 7/01/06, “Hu says rampant graft is eroding party authority.”
SCMP, 8/03/06, “300m expected to move to cities over next two decades.”
SCMP, 12/9/06, “Unrest is challenging rule, Xinhua says in rare appraisal.”
SCMP, 1/31/07, “Land-seizure rows the main cause of rural unrest in ’06.”
SCMP, 2/13/07, “Higher growth blamed for failure to meet pollution targets.”
SCMP, 2/16/07, “Pollution-reduction efforts inflated due to outdated rules, study says.”
SCMP, 3/01/07, “China fails to hit target on energy efficiency.”
SCMP, 3/14/07, “Corruption war has not improved justice system.”
SCMP, 3/15/07, “Needs of desperate farmers being ignored, says professor.”
SCMP, 3/19/07, “Finding a balance for left and right.”
SCMP, 3/22/07, “Number of illegal land grabs soars.”
SCMP, 7/13/07, “’Red line’ is drawn in fight for farmland.”

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*Footnote on SCMP Web Edition:

The South China Morning Post (SCMP), an English language, Hong Kong newspaper now about 100 years old, publishes a web edition at The SCMP has on-site reporters in the mainland, surveys a wide array of mainland and local Chinese newspapers, and provides English versions of some of the most important China issues on their web site. The web edition provides an excellent window on current happenings in China.

Walter Parham, Ph.D., July 008

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