New thinking on “new villages”

China must revive its countryside to save the environment, write Tang Aimin, Jiang Gaoming & Dou Guanyi. Green technologies can bring progress and sustainable development to the country’s rural areas.

The Euro-American model of progress looks ever weaker against the background of soaring food, oil and iron prices. The extreme weather over the Lunar New Year, which caused chaos in south China, highlighted the dangers of over-reliance on fossil fuels. Without essentials like food, water, air and power, “modernisation” turns into a nightmare. 

China has a population of 1.3 billion people, of which 70% live in rural areas. The country must therefore choose a green route to modernisation. The key to solve problems like inflation, unemployment, energy shortages and pollution is to develop ecological towns suited to the needs of China and a sustainable rural economy. Take energy as an example: straw has been traditionally used as fuel in rural China, but as living standards have increased, so has the use of fossil fuels. Domestic appliances, from colour TVs to air conditioners, are becoming ever more popular and create rising energy demand. By 2020, it is estimated that rural residents will consume the equivalent of 1.99 tonnes of standard coal every year; up from 0.62 tonnes and accounting for 60% of China’s predicted increase in energy consumption between 2005 and 2020. Our studies in villages in north China have found that traditional straw-burning stoves are being abandoned for their electric, gas or coal equivalents. The unused straw is burnt in the fields, causing serious air pollution. On September 26, 2007, a plane carrying a visiting Russian politician was prevented from landing at Ji’nan airport due to the smoke from straw-burning. This source of air pollution has become a serious concern for China’s government and its people. 

As large numbers of rural residents flock to urban areas, problems in the city are exacerbated and children and the elderly are left in the villages. The countryside’s vitality is being lost; surveys show people’s contentment falling. At the same time, over-population and rapid urbanisation is affecting social harmony and stability. Growth is restricted to the cities; the villages, which form the foundations of Chinese society, are ignored. The government issues a document every year stressing rural issues – agriculture, villages and farmers’ issues – yet the topics which get debated most at annual government meetings are always urban ones: city housing, schools and healthcare, secondary and tertiary industries and GDP growth. Investment is concentrated in the cities and industry; there is nowhere near enough spending on China’s New Villages”. 

The experience of developed countries shows us that urbanised growth at the cost of natural resources and the environment is not the best option. Global warming, desertification, biodiversity loss, energy, water and food shortages all make this clear. Developed countries account for only 15% of the world’s current population. If India and China – around 48% of the world’s population – follow the same route, we are heading for an ecological collapse. We should learn from developed countries and seek a mode of urbanisation that will meet China’s needs while following global trends in development. China’s “New Village Strategy” is an important part of this. We need to create villages with high-quality environments; environmentally friendly industries; and modern technology, transportation and communications. At the same time, the villages should not require residents to change their lifestyles; they should not require huge investment or effort to build. They should allow modern people to live in harmony with nature.  

New technology and green industries can increase agricultural profits in a sustainable fashion. If the rural population is settled, other problems will disappear. However, for this to happen, the central government must shift investment from cities to villages. Some agricultural industries are now located in the cities, but the work is done by farmers who are forced to relocate, putting pressure on the transport system. Strong financial support from central government could develop a new, environmentally friendly, diverse and competitive agricultural market. This will provide sustainable incomes; bring scattered hamlets together into new, modern communities with urban and rural areas; and create educated technical staff and business owners. Many would return to the villages, reducing the pressure on China’s cities.  

We have been carrying out trials of environmentally friendly agricultural technologies since 2005 in Linyi, Shandong province. For instance, waste straw can be processed into cattle fodder and used to raise cows, which could increase farmers’ income. The cattle dung can then be transformed into methane to provide energy and the by-products can be spread on the fields, reducing the use of chemical fertiliser by 50% and increasing grain output. We calculate that a company buying in fodder and straw will get a 37% return on investment. However, after investing in the necessary equipment, a company making use of these circular processes can achieve a 120% return. The performance of green companies can far outstrip that of traditional companies, without producing pollution or relying on fossil fuels and chemical fertilisers. These increased incomes will help revive the country’s villages.  

China’s economic development is forcing our cities and villages further apart, causing great social discontent. This is in part due to the primacy of industry over agriculture in China and a lack of clarity and effective measures in the New Village Strategy. If they want the strategy to succeed, central government should put in the same effort in on rural issues as they do on industry and create new villages that operate according to ecological principles.  


Aimin Tang is director of the China Scientific Development Research Center; Jiang Gaoming is Chief Researcher at the Chinese Academy of Science’s Botanical Institute; Guanyi Dou is Head of Publicity at the Nantong branch of the Jiusan Society.

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