Volume 17 Number 6
1.2 Billion Relatives in China
01 December 2004

A friendly child gives Tom Duncan the courage to climb China’s contemporary Great Wall.

China has a contemporary Great Wall. It lies between the industrial mega-cities and the rural poor. It lies between families living in their communities, and the young people who must leave for limited jobs in factories far away. The living conditions in both parts of China can be overwhelming.

I came here last March, as one of nine ‘youth ambassadors’, funded by Australia’s Agency for International Development (AusAID) to promote cultural exchange and assist sustainable development projects. Each year 240 Australians aged between 20 and 30 make their way to countries in the Asia-Pacific region, sponsored by this programme. As you read this, in December, I am about to return home.

Like most other participants in the programme, I had not worked in the majority world before. I have been working in a $16-million five-year Water and Agriculture Management Project funded by AusAID in Hebei Province, on China’s north central plain.

We focus on helping farmers to assess their community’s natural resources for themselves and empower each other to manage their scare groundwater resources wisely. We assist in closing the information gap between technicians and farmers. We also offer training in how to manage water resources in an integrated and environmentally-sound way.

Whilst studying for my Masters in Environmental and Urban Planning, I’ve had time to reflect on the challenges facing this huge country, with its high population and scarcity of resources. New cities bloom like flowers, but require vast amounts of water and other resources to grow. This raises questions about the sustainability of China’s growth, and the environment in which future generations will live.

China’s massive labour pool makes it likely to remain the world’s great factory for years to come—with major social and environmental consequences. I am based in Shijiazhuang, Hebei Province, one of the most polluted cities in the world, alongside Mexico City, Bangkok and Calcutta. The lung cancer rate in China’s cities is seven times higher than the national average.

The environmental problems in the rural areas are equally devastating. The central government regularly sets annual growth targets of nine per cent GDP, but these do not take ecological factors into account.

Groundwater levels have plunged. Many marginal farmers have fallen into absolute poverty after their wells have dried up. The provinces of the far north and west have seen seasonal starvation. Massive erosion creates shifting sands that swallow up millions of acres of agriculture lands every year. Black storms turn day to night and kill people caught in the open.

All over China, the environment is reaching the limits of its carrying capacity— and as a result, the Chinese Government is committing more and more resources to ecological sustainability. For China to feed itself, agricultural land needs to become more productive, and our project goes some way towards demonstrating methods of achieving this for the dryland areas of the north central China plain. Recently China has embarked upon a policy of encouraging farmers to use organic methods to stabilize the environmental security of their lands.

Most of Hebei’s counties are designated as ‘poverty counties’. Their 60 million farmers each farm an average area of a fifth of a hectare (about the size of 10 tennis courts). Scratching out a living on this tiny bit of dry land is tough. Drought or ill-timed rain can ruin crops and destroy a farmer’s only source of income.

One of our programmes has been to train farming communities to do their own environmental monitoring, collecting data on the level of water in wells and on the moisture level in the soil after irrigation. This gives farmers a direct overview of their sustainability and also input into policymaking—something unheard of in the past.

Money—and equipment—can be misappropriated by bureaucrats who see dollars in aid projects and have no commitment to the poor. A lack of accountability and transparency encourages a closed-ranks approach to such practices. For instance, we bought 22 cars and a bus: but when I was conducting training in communities spread out over a distance of 900 km, I was told there was no car.

Time and again, as I have met poor farmers and people dwelling in rural and urban fringes, I’ve been struck by the spirit with which they pull together in the face of sometimes overwhelming odds and a distant authoritarian government. Their warmth and hospitality stop me in my tracks and make me reflect on my own life.

The health challenges I’ve faced while living and working with the rural poor are nothing to what they face day in day out, and I’ve had serious flus, food poisoning, raging fevers, vomiting, dysentery and at times mystery illnesses. Often I’m forced to live in hotels isolated from friends, colleagues and community, though my preference—which is not supported by my colleagues—is to live with locals. It seems sometimes that the older generation of aid workers feel that immersion in the local culture should not extend beyond eating the food and learning a few phrases.

Sometimes in China I can feel many sets of eyes curiously looking at me, some with innocence, some with warmth, some with distaste, some with amazement. When you are sick, and you feel many eyes on you, there is a tendency to shrink into oneself and block out the rest of the world. But I found that it was at just these times that local people reached out to me with warmth and care. I became to understand the idea of the ‘big family’ in China.

During a time of doubt, despair and sickness, a little girl with a performer’s smile skipped up to me exuberantly and shrilled, ‘Hello Uncle! How are you?’ It was like a thunderclap that cleared the skies. With those simple words, she lifted my spirits, and gave me a sense that I was not alone. ‘I’m better,’ I said.

After that, when people stared at me, I thought of her. I reflected on the deep curiosity about my ‘otherness’, but also the underlying connectedness that permeates Chinese culture. If the brave kids here can call me uncle, I might be brave or silly enough to consider that I might just be related to 1.2 billion Chinese.

I keep coming back to this when I feel challenged by living and working on both sides of China’s metaphorical great wall. If I’m someone’s uncle, well, maybe I’ve got brothers and sisters out there I didn’t even imagine. When curiosity flows my way, I try to look back with warmth and understanding, not fear. For many foreign people in China, fear leads to isolation and the longing to return home. This way of being works for me, so I thought I’d share it. China, with its huge size and challenges, needs many more uncles, aunties, brothers and sisters who care enough to give a helping hand, without judgement.