Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Jaeah Lee & James West - China's fracking boom // Cary Huang - Land grabs are main cause of mainland protests

"Let some get rich first, and others will follow" is the philosophy that has driven China's economic reforms since 1979. But the disparity between rich and poor has grown so much that, during a meeting of China's top political advisers earlier this year, one attendee opined that the quality of life for 90 percent of peasants was no better than it was 40 years ago, in part due to burdensome medical expenses and limited access to education. In April, researchers at the University of Michigan calculated that in 2010, China's Gini coefficient - a measure of income inequality - was 0.55, compared to 0.45 in the United States. The United Nations considers anything above 0.4 a threat to a country's stability.

THERE ARE TWO MAIN REASONS behind China's newfound zeal for gas. As Michael Liebreich, the founder of New Energy Finance, an energy market analytics firm now owned by Bloomberg LP, put it, "One is to feed the growth. There has to be energy and it has to be affordable in order to continue the growth machine. But the other one is that they've got to get off this coal."

Constituting a whopping 70 percent of China's energy supply, coal has allowed the country to become the world's second-largest economy in just a few decades. But burning coal has also caused irreparable damage to the environment and the health of China's citizens. City officials have been forced to shut down roads because drivers are blinded by soot and smog. China's Civil Aviation Administration ordered pilots to learn to land planes in low-visibility conditions to avoid flight delays and cancellations. 

Scientists wrote in the medical journal The Lancet that ambient particulate matter, generated mostly by cars and the country's 3,000 coal-fired power plantskilled 1.2 million Chinese people in 2010. In late 2013, an eight-year-old girl in Jiangsu Province was diagnosed with lung cancer; her doctor attributed it to air pollution. And earlier this year, scientists found that up to 24 percent of sulfate air pollutants—which contribute to smog and acid rain—in the western United States originated from Chinese factories manufacturing for export.

"The air quality in China has reached a kind of tipping point in the public consciousness," says Evan OsnosThe New Yorker's former China correspondent and author of Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China. "The entire Chinese political enterprise is founded on a bargain: We will make your lives better, if you'll allow us to stay in power." As more Chinese citizens demand clean air and water, China's leaders and foreign businessmen have taken drastic measures to get rid of pollution. Some local officials have tried to wash away soot by cloud seeding, a process in which chemicals are rocket-launched into clouds to make it rain. One company is developing a column of copper coils that will use electric charges to suck soot out of the air like a Hoover. 

Environmental officials in the northern city of Lanzhou attempted to level its surrounding mountains to let the wind blow the soot away—not to be confused with the city's actual plan to demolish 700 mountains in order to expand its footprint by roughly the area of Los Angeles.

But China's push to wean itself from coal has also triggered a rush to develop alternative power sources. The natural gas that lies deep within its shale formations is now a top contender. By current estimates from the US Energy Information Administration, China's shale gas resources are the largest in the world, 1.7 times those in the United States. So far, fewer than 200 wells have been drilled, but another 800 are expected by next year. By then, China aims to pump 230 billion cubic feet of natural gas annually from underground shale—enough to power every home in Chicago for two years. By 2020, the country expects to produce as much as 4.6 times that amount. It's moving at "Chinese speed," as one energy investment adviser put it—the United States took roughly twice as long to reach that volume.

Yet just as fracking technology has crossed over from the fields of Pennsylvania and Texas to the mountains of Sichuan, so have the questions about its risks and consequences. If fracking regulations in the United States are too weak, then in China the rules are practically nonexistent. Tian Qinghua, an environmental researcher at the Sichuan Academy of Environmental Sciences, fears that fracking operations in China will repeat a pattern he's seen before. "There's a phenomenon of 'pollute first, clean up later,'" he says. "History is repeating itself."

When my colleague James West and I traveled to China last September, it didn't take long to see the toll of the country's coal addiction: James had a burning cough by our second day. On a bullet train from Beijing to Xi'an (roughly the distance between San Francisco and Phoenix), we whizzed along at 150 miles per hour through some of China's most polluted pockets, including the northeastern city of Shijiazhuang, where the smog registers at emergency levels for a third of the year—twice as often as in Beijing. A thick miasma hung heavy, clinging so low to fields of corn that it was hard to see where the earth met the dark, gray sky. Every few minutes we passed another giant coal-fired power plant, its chimneys spewing a continual billow of thick, white smoke.

By the time of our trip, villagers living near fracking wells had already complained about the deafening noise of drilling machinery, the smell of gas fumes, and strange substances in their water. One night last April, in a small southwestern town called Jiaoshi, an explosion at a shale gas drilling rig rattled residents awake, triggering a huge fire and reportedly killing eight workers. In the wake of the accident, an official from the Ministry of Environmental Protection said, "The areas where shale gas is abundant in China are already ecologically fragile, crowded, and have sensitive groundwater. The impact cannot yet be estimated."... read more and see videos:

Cary Huang - Land grabs are main cause of mainland protests
In its 2013 Social Development Blue Book, released on Tuesday, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences said the mainland was experiencing frequent social conflict because "social contradictions were diverse and complex". It said there had been more than 100,000 "mass incidents" - the central government's term for large protests involving more than 100 people - every year in recent years.

Professor Chen Guangjing, editor of this year's book, said that disputes over land grabs accounted for about half of "mass incidents", while pollution and labour disputes were responsible for 30 per cent. Other kinds of disputes accounted for the remaining 20 per cent. "Of the tens of thousands of incidents of rural unrest that occur each year in China, the vast majority of them result from land confiscations and home demolitions for development," Chen told a news conference in Beijing yesterday.

Late last year, about 1,000 villagers from Wukan, Guangdong, rioted and overthrew corrupt local leaders who had profited from illegal sales of village land.Chen said environmental concerns were also becoming a main cause of social unrest, as evidenced by a series of grass-roots demonstrations over polluting projects. More than 20,000 people rallied in Xiamen, Fujian province, in June 2007 to protest against plans to build a chemical plant in the city. The project was subsequently relocated and the Xiamen backdown sparked similar protests in several mainland cities.

The major cause of labour disputes was salary arrears. There over 120 protests that involved more than 100 workers each in the first eight months of this year. Chen said courts and labour arbitration tribunals had dealt with 479,000 back-pay cases in the first nine months of this year. The book says 120 million mainlanders are living under the poverty line - with per capita annual disposable income of less than 2,300 yuan (HK$2,830). The government last year raised the poverty line from the previous level of 1,200 yuan, set in 2008. Professor Li Peilin, the blue book's editor-in-chief, said household income growth had lagged far behind gross domestic product growth over the past decade.