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China: Analysis From Washington -- Dust Bowls And Rice Bowls

Washington, 25 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- A prolonged drought in western China is converting much of that region into desert, a development some have likened to the Dust Bowl in the United States in the 1930s. This appears likely to threaten the economic and political future of that country.

Lester Brown, head of the U.S.-based environmental group World Watch Institute, said on 23 May the declining precipitation in the western portions of China could lead to a mass migration from that area to China's already crowded cities. And that in turn could threaten the ability of the regime to provide adequate drinking-water supplies for its still-burgeoning population.

The Chinese government has been outraged by some of Brown's earlier predictions -- including his 1994 report "Who Will Feed China?" which suggested that the country might soon be unable to feed itself. But now even Beijing says that the country must take immediate steps lest declining precipitation means that the demand for potable water will outstrip its supply by 2010.

An agricultural economist, Brown notes that in western China rivers and streams have dried up and dust storms have made living conditions there untenable. Some of these storms, he reports, have sent massive dust clouds across the Pacific and even presented a potential threat to aircraft over North America.

Brown focuses on the immediate challenges such lengthy drought conditions in a particular region pose to it and to the surrounding territories: the inability of people to find potable water, a decline in food production, and the inevitable flight of people from these regions to cities in search of water, food, and employment.

But the situation he describes in China today, like the Dust Bowl in the U.S. in the 1930s, seems certain to entail a number of far broader consequences for the regions most directly affected, the well-being and stability of the country as a whole, and even that nation's relationship with the rest of the world.

Since the communist takeover in 1949, Beijing has sought to consolidate its control over the predominantly Muslim, non-Han population of Xinkiang by sending ever more Han Chinese to settle there. The recent Chinese settlers are likely to be the first to leave, thus setting the stage for even more national assertiveness by the already restive Muslims living there.

The flow of numerous Han Chinese from the region in turn is likely to put additional pressure on the cities of China to provide the migrants with employment and housing, neither of which is abundant in many places. And the smaller number of non-Han migrants to predominantly Han cities will create ethnic problems in places which have not experienced such difficulties in the past.

Both the tensions this influx is likely to generate and the fears that a shortage of water and food may produce in the broader society almost certainly will force the Beijing authorities to take action lest these problems combine with the tensions of the ongoing transition toward capitalism to undermine further the authority of the Communist Party regime.

Moreover, these domestic problems could have international resonance. Not only are other countries likely to be concerned by any increase in the type of dust storms that have already affected them, but the Chinese authorities are almost certainly going to be forced to look abroad for additional sources of food and water. Some may look north to Siberia and the Russian Far East; others may seek accords with Southeast Asian countries.

In the 1930s, the climatic conditions known as the Dust Bowl affected only a relatively small part of the United States. But because the drought led to population shifts and new concerns about the country's responsibilities for those most affected, it had an impact on the United States far out of proportion to its size.

Indeed, many American historians have suggested that the Dust Bowl played a key role in President Franklin D. Roosevelt's decision to introduce the social security system that continues to define much of the social and political conditions in the United States.

Now, an emerging Dust Bowl in China appears likely to have an even greater impact on the rice bowl of the world's most populous state, even though, as was the case in the U.S., the amount of territory hit by the drought is only a small portion of the total area of the country.