Dry China

A severe drought in Guizhou Province is only one of the many kinds of severe weather aberrations that have been unsettling China of late. Chinese officials have responded with a wide array of engineering mega-projects and technological fixes, but science cannot solve problems that are not caused by China alone.

ANSHUN, GUIZHOU PROVINCE, CHINA -- The Huangguoshu Waterfall in China’s southwestern Guizhou Province is a magnificent sight, when there is water. The largest waterfall in Asia, it plunges over a sheer cliff more than 200 feet high in a thundering display of foam, mist, and rainbows.

Unfortunately, this wonder of nature has recently suffered an indignity. Each evening, it gets turned off as if it were a garden fountain. This part of China’s southwest, known for its abundant rainfall, mountains, underground rivers and caves, and tropical flora, has recently been gripped by a drought that many say is the worst since the Ming Dynasty.

So, after all the tourists that irrigate this poor region with precious income leave the viewing platforms below the falls, authorities close the sluice gates that dam the White Water River on the dangerously low upstream reservoir, and the falls cease. Then, each morning, before the tourists reappear, they unceremoniously open the gates again, so that the eerily silent falls suddenly revive in a simulacrum of normalcy.

The disturbance to so elemental a part of this region’s natural architecture is a measure of only one of the many kinds of severe weather aberrations – from floods and droughts to unseasonal blizzards and massive dust storms – that have been unsettling China of late. No one can say with any certainty what the causes are.

To try to compensate for these perturbed weather patterns, Chinese officialdom has launched an unprecedented array of costly projects. These include the titanic $55 billion South-North Water Transfer Project, a massive engineering effort to construct three canals to bring water from China’s normally wet south to its arid north; a widespread campaign to dig ever-deeper wells; a nationwide tree-planting campaign; and even an extensive effort at  “weather modification.”

According to Zheng Guoguang, the Director of the China Meteorological Administration, “Science and technology will answer the prayers of those living through the harshest drought in decades.” He says that two-thirds of China’s almost 3,000 counties have tried artificial methods to induce more rainfall, sometimes resulting in lawsuits over rights to mine passing clouds for water. Such efforts, Zheng reports, have involved some 6,533 cannons, 5,939 rocket launchers, and numerous aircraft in an attempt to seed clouds across one-third of China’s landmass with dry ice, ammonia, and silver iodide.

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But can science and technology really solve problems that are not caused by China alone? More and more scientists are beginning to suspect that global warming has caused the radically changed patterns of precipitation now seen across China. If true, China will never resolve droughts such as the current one in Guizhou by itself, regardless of how many large-scale engineering projects the government undertakes, or how well organized remedial efforts are. After all, global problems demand global solutions.

When Chairman Mao still reigned supreme, one of his most vaunted principles was zili gengsheng, or “self-reliance.” Since China had been bullied, invaded, semi-colonized, and even occupied during most of his formative years, he was deeply suspicious that any foreign country – even a “fraternal” Communist ally – could ever be relied upon to leave China alone, much less actually help it. As a result, the Party leadership became steeped in suspicion and distrust toward the outside world, especially toward the so-called “great powers.”

Even today, with Mao’s revolution long gone and globalization having knit a new fabric of inter-dependence around China, there remains, particularly among older leaders, a residual wariness about relying on collaboration with outsiders, especially when it comes to “core interests.”

But it is not just world markets that have enmeshed China in a new commons. Issues such as nuclear proliferation and the global environment – and especially climate change – have also snuck up on China’s leaders (and everyone else). Like it or not, leaders everywhere are now enfolded in an inescapable web.

So, despite China’s predilection for aloofness, cooperation is not merely an option, but a necessity. And that means that China also must reconsider its rigid notion of sovereignty. This is a difficult adjustment for any country to make, especially one like China, which has a history of imagining itself as being at the center of the world while also remaining an inviolable entity that can close its doors whenever it chooses to do so. That time is past.

China’s leaders have been committed to a process of “opening” for more than a generation. But they remain neuralgic about any hint of outside interference, including even the suggestion that their nation’s business might also be the business of other peoples, and vice versa. The drought in Guizhou, whatever its cause, is a reminder that the fate of China’s people has become inextricably linked to what happens elsewhere, and that no country can opt out or find unilateral solutions separate from the global commonweal any longer.