A Student's Perspective: CIEE Beijing's Excursion to the Countryside: "Environment and Governance in Rural China"
Nat Henry is a junior from The Ohio State University triple majoring in Chinese, Geograpic Information Systems, and Geography. This fall he is a student in the CIEE Beijing Intensive Chinese Language program. Every semester, students have a choice to participate in different excursions around China focusing on a certain theme. See the blog of Nat's classmate Sean about the other optional trip to Dalian. Nat chose to participate on the excursion titled, "Environment and Rural Governance in China/中国的环境与农村管治". Students from the CIEE Beijing Advanced Chinese Studies program, and the CIEE Beijing Environmental, Cultural, and Economic Sustainability program also participated on this excursion. CIEE Beijing Center Director Dr. Patrick Lucas, whose research includes historical memory and narrative, and cultural survival and endangerment in China, designed and led this excursion that took students to rural Shanxi and Hebei provinces. Nat agreed to write a blog describing not only what fun activities they did as a group, but also what meaningful things he took away from the experience from spending nearly four days in the countryside.
It was the final day of our trip in rural Shanxi and Hebei provinces, and we were headed to an old mountaintop temple, but our van’s driver was more interested in discussing the black sludge covering the surrounding slopes. He filled us in on how the sludge came to be: according to him, several years ago, a corporation managed to pay off the right local officials and illegally moved into these mountains. It stripped the hills of their vegetation and some useful minerals, churned out an undetermined product for a while, and then quietly moved out when the operation was no longer profitable. All that it left behind were huge piles of pitch-black, toxic industrial byproduct. After every rainfall, the gunk washes into the local stream, feeds into a larger river, and from what he said, eventually ends up in Beijing.
I wanted to know exactly how many people are ingesting this poisonous waste, but right then we arrived at the base of the mountain, and it was time to climb. Our CIEE Center Director, Dr. Patrick Lucas, pointed to a pile of ceramic tiles next to the path and told us each to grab a few: by bringing them to the top, we’d be helping out the old man who was single-handedly rebuilding the temple. As I sweated up the steep dirt path and finally laid my tiles on the temple floor, my thoughts drifted between the sludge and that old man. There was a pretty obvious contrast between a guy who devotes the rest of his life to a place and us foreign students who were just passing through. During this excursion, aptly titled “Environment and Rural Governance in China”, we had been learning about the environment and rural governance for the past few days, but as travelers, what power did we really have to change the problems we were learning about? Were we really just glorified tourists who used education as a pretext to see the sights before leaving?
My impotence to solve rural problems was particularly apparent two days before, when we spent a day living and working in a village located on a mountainous divide between Shanxi and Hebei provinces.. I and two other CIEE students stayed in a loess-soil earth dwelling (窑洞) with a farmer named Mr. Wang and his wife, Ms. Gao. Since it was only the five of us, we got the chance to really talk – first while making lunch together, and then sharing one of the best meals I’ve ever had.
I figured out how useless we really were when we followed Mr. Wang and Ms. Gao out to the fields and tried to help them out with the potato harvest. After a lot of back-and-forth protesting, they demanded that we first go to the top of the hill to look at the scenery, and when we came back they would have some work for us. We came back once, then twice, and after an hour no work had materialized. I thought that they were just being polite at first, and then realized that we would only have slowed them down. When I went to help out an elderly couple harvest in another field, I was ridiculously outpaced by a grandmother in her late seventies. One lesson I took from the harvest was that I’m an awful potato farmer and, more generally, a fish out of water pretty much anywhere in rural China. If I couldn’t effectively work in the fields with Mr. Wang and Ms. Gao, then what purpose did I serve other than a temporary curiosity?
Mr. Wang and Ms. Gao were clearly happy together, and they were rightfully proud of their accomplishments, but their lives were by no means easy. Their toilet was a hole in the ground next to a goat pen, and their water had to be pumped in from another hillside. They both got up at 5 AM to start the day’s work and had no chance to rest until the sun had gone down. Additionally, their electricity was pretty tenuous: you could have the television on in their living room, or turn on the light, but generally not both at the same time.
It turns out that the electricity could have been a lot better – but once again, a combination of business and poor governance had made things a lot harder for the town. The mountains surrounding the village were covered with windmills, which seemed at first glance to be an idyllic and green way to generate power for the surrounding towns. As my professor later told us, they’re absolutely awful. They were built as a purely money-making operation and provide power for high-demand cities to the east. Their construction (and the construction of the roads and wiring needed to maintain them) destroyed the mountaintop’s fragile ecology, which will never be recovered. To seemingly add salt to the wound, the windmill deal occurred at the provincial level and completely cut local towns out of the deal. When I first asked Mr. Wang whether his town was powered by the windmills, I got a surprisingly curt “no.” In a more ideal arrangement, the villagers could have served as maintenance workers in exchange for minimal free power usage every month. Instead, they get nothing.
So who does this? Well oddly enough, I had met someone who could possibly fit the bill of a government official who could consummate such one-sided deals. We were in the provincial town of Tianzhen (天镇县), and I was out with a few other students looking for a post-dinner snack. We were clearly some of the first foreigners to visit the town, and as we made our way down a local block, local storeowners abandoned their registers to come out and look at us. All of a sudden, an unmarked black Nissan with darkened windows pulled up beside us, and two burly-looking men get out. As the student in the group with the best Chinese, I’m assigned to talk to them.
The man in the passenger seat was named whose surname was also Gao (no relation to my village host mother), and he confided in me with a wink that he’s a former military officer. All of his friends are higher-ups in Beijing now, he told me, but he decided to come out and work in the countryside. He repeated everything he said two or three times, perhaps because he thought that I couldn’t understand him, or because he had possibly been drinking heavily. While we talked, the driver of the car (who seemed to be intoxicated, too) was making his way around my group of friends and aggressively shaking our hands. After we repeatedly refused to go to the Great Wall with them, Mr. Gao gave me his phone number, promised to call me when he visits his military friends in Beijing, and drove off into the night.
The contrast between these men and the farmers in the village is stark. Mr. Gao and his pal were seemingly breaking the law in plain sight; Mr. Wang and his neighbors work for 16 hours a day, only to receive the short end of less than equitable deals made at higher levels of the government. Even writing this back in Beijing, the fact that Mr. Gao, the local government official, is getting rich on the backs of people like my host parents still bothers me.
Looking back, I think that one purpose of the trip was to make us care. While examining rural governance and its effects on the environment and the rural population, when I see two men using a rural city as their personal playground, the problem of corruption becomes patently obvious. When the farmer who kindly hosted my classmates and I is getting treated unfavorably through questionable government deals, it really hits home and illuminates the problem in a way that a textbook or newspaper article cannot. When I haul a few tiles up a mountain, just a few out of thousands needed for the temple, I become invested in that temple’s reconstruction. And when a mountain of sludge is filtering into a stream, traveling downriver, and possibly winding up in the up in the water I drink every day, it’s suddenly apparent how many people are affected by these problems.
As I discovered, I’m awful at harvesting potatoes. I can, however, write and speak Chinese. Before I leave Beijing before I hope to have the opportunity to engage in discussions with my peers, some of whom may eventually inherit China, about what I saw in the countryside. Having gotten a glimpse of how things are outside of Beijing and how they affect every day people, it was really powerful and something I will never forget. Hopefully, because of this, we can think of new ways to go about solving some of the issues I encountered.
Thus, perhaps it is appropriate for me to end this where I began. Back at the base of the mountain, I asked our driver why the locals hadn’t done something about the illegal factories, and he got even angrier. “We have no power here! Who are we supposed to turn to?” He looked up the hillside. “The best hope we have is for that temple to get rebuilt. If a lot of tourists visit, they will notice how badly things have gone wrong here, and maybe there will be a change.”