Tag Archives: China

Mapping China and India’s diasporas

The Economist maps the largest twenty countries of China and India’s diasporas.

More Chinese people live outside mainland China than French people live in France, with some to be found in almost every country. Some 22m ethnic Indians are scattered across every continent. Diasporas have been a part of the world for millennia. But today their size (if migrants were a nation, they would be the world’s fifth-largest) and the ease of staying in touch with those at home are making them matter much more.

briefly noted: disruptive technological change

1) The Atlantic on the Digital Underground of North Korea

2) New York Times Armies of Expensive Lawyers, Replaced by Cheaper Software about innovations in AI that allow textual analysis of large sets of documents. The article discusses two approaches it terms “linguistic” and “sociological.”:

The most basic linguistic approach uses specific search words to find and sort relevant documents. More advanced programs filter documents through a large web of word and phrase definitions. A user who types “dog” will also find documents that mention “man’s best friend” and even the notion of a “walk.”
The sociological approach adds an inferential layer of analysis, mimicking the deductive powers of a human Sherlock Holmes. Engineers and linguists at Cataphora, an information-sifting company based in Silicon Valley, have their software mine documents for the activities and interactions of people — who did what when, and who talks to whom. The software seeks to visualize chains of events. It identifies discussions that might have taken place across e-mail, instant messages and telephone calls.
Then the computer pounces, so to speak, capturing “digital anomalies” that white-collar criminals often create in trying to hide their activities.

3) An interactive example on game theoretic AI that plays rock paper scissors quite well.

4) New Yorker’s Letter from China interviews Rebecca MacKinnon on Internet in China – censorship, the state, the public, and corporations.

GMO crops and shifting agricultural food webs

A recent paper by Yanhui Lu and others in Science (DOI: 10.1126/science.1187881) shows how ecological impacts of Bt cotton at the landscape level have lead to a surge in pests. In northern China, the cotton crop is 95% Bt cotton.  The paper shows that Mirid bugs have increased both within cotton fields, but also in other crops grown in regions with large amounts of Bt cotton.

While the farmers who planted GMO cotton have benefited from it, the increase regional pest load has imposed a burden on other farmers who do not grow Bt cotton – a negative externality. This regional impact on other crops is shown in Figure 4 from their paper.

Association between mirid bug infestation levels in either cotton or key fruit crops, and Bt cotton planting proportion. The measure of mirid bug infestation was assigned a score ranging from 1 (no infestation) to 5 (extreme infestation).

While this is the first paper, which I’m aware of, to demonstrate such landscape level impacts of GMOs on insect pests, this type of consequence of Bt GMO crops has been predicted for a long time.  For example, ten years ago I argued in Conservation Ecology that risk assessment of GMO crops should include not only direct impacts, but indirect ecological impacts, as part of an adaptive risk assessment processes for GMO crops. Below is Figure 1 from that paper.

The direct and indirect effects of genetically modified crops interact with the scale at which they are grown to determine the difficulty of predicting, testing, and monitoring their potential impacts.

The Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog comments on the paper, and SciDev.net reports Bt cotton linked with surge in crop pest:

Their fifteen-year study surveyed a region of northern China where ten million small-scale farmers grow nearly three million hectares of Bt cotton, and 26 million hectares of other crops. It revealed widespread infestation with mirid bug (Heteroptera Miridae), which is destroying fruit, vegetable, cotton and cereal crops. And the rise of this pest correlated directly with Bt cotton planting.

Bt cotton is a genetically engineered strain, produced by the biotechnology company Monsanto. It makes its own insecticide which kills bollworm (Helicoverpa armigera), a common cotton pest that eats the crop’s product — the bolls. …

They watched the farms gradually become a source of mirid bug infestations, in parallel with the rise of Bt cotton. The bugs, initially regarded as occasional or minor pests, spread out to surrounding areas, “acquiring pest status” and infesting Chinese date, grape, apple peach and pear crops.

Before Bt cotton, the pesticides used to kill bollworm also controlled mirid bugs. Now, farmers are using more sprays to fight mirid bugs, said the scientists.

“Our work shows that a drop in insecticide use in Bt cotton fields leads to a reversal of the ecological role of cotton; from being a sink for mirid bugs in conventional systems to an actual source for these pests in Bt cotton growing systems,” …

Nature news reports:

The rise of mirids has driven Chinese farmers back to pesticides — they are currently using about two-thirds as much as they did before Bt cotton was introduced. As mirids develop resistance to the pesticides, Wu expects that farmers will soon spray as much as they ever did.

Two years ago, a study led by David Just, an economist at Cornell University at Ithaca, New York, concluded that the economic benefits of Bt cotton in China have eroded. The team attributed this to increased pesticide use to deal with secondary pests.

The conclusion was controversial, with critics of the study focusing on the relatively small sample size and use of economic modelling. Wu’s findings back up the earlier study, says David Andow, an entomologist at the University of Minnesota in St Paul.

“The finding reminds us yet again that genetic modified crops are not a magic bullet for pest control,” says Andow. “They have to be part of an integrated pest-management system to retain long-term benefits.”

Whenever a primary pest is targeted, other species are likely to rise in its place. For example, the boll weevil was once the main worldwide threat to cotton. As farmers sprayed pesticides against the weevils, bollworms developed resistance and rose to become the primary pest. Similarly, stink bugs have replaced bollworms as the primary pest in southeastern United States since Bt cotton was introduced.

Wu stresses, however, that pest control must keep sight of the whole ecosystem. “The impact of genetically modified crops must be assessed on the landscape level, taking into account the ecological input of different organisms,” he says. “This is the only way to ensure the sustainability of their application.”

Over fertilizing the world

Three faces of global over fertilization from agriculture in China and the USA, and its complex effects on food webs.

1) Chinese farmers are acidifying there soil by over applying fertilizer.  Acidic soils impede crop growth and amplify the leaching of toxins.  Since the early 1980s, pH has declined from 0.2 to 0.8 across China, mostly due to overuse of fertilizer.  This is shown in a new Science paper, Significant Acidification in Major Chinese Croplands (DOI: 10.1126/science.1182570) by JH Guo and others.

Topsoil pH changes from 154 paired data over 35 sites in seven Chinese provinces between the 1980s and the 2000s. The line and square within the box represent the median and mean values of all data; the bottom and top edges of the box represent 25 and 75 percentiles of all data, respectively; and the bottom and top bars represent 5 and 95 percentiles, respectively. (From Guo et al)

Reporting on the paper Mara Hvistendahl writes, “Beginning in the 1970s, Chinese farmers applied ever-increasing amounts of fertilizer with the hope that it would lead to bigger harvests. Instead of high yield, however, they got water and air pollution. Today, agricultural experts estimate that in many parts of China fertilizer use can be slashed by up to 60%.”  In another issue of Science she also reports on current Chinese efforts to reduce fertilizer use.  In the Wall Street Journal, Geeta Annad reports on overfertilization in India “Pritam Singh, who farms 30 acres in Punjab, says the more desperate farmers become, the more urea they use. Overuse is stunting yields.”

2) The Washington Post reports on how in the US large feed lots are causing water quality problems in Manure becomes pollutant as its volume grows unmanageable

Animal manure, a byproduct as old as agriculture, has become an unlikely modern pollution problem, scientists and environmentalists say. The country simply has more dung than it can handle: Crowded together at a new breed of megafarms, livestock produce three times as much waste as people, more than can be recycled as fertilizer for nearby fields.

… Despite its impact, manure has not been as strictly regulated as more familiar pollution problems, like human sewage, acid rain or industrial waste. The Obama administration has made moves to change that but already has found itself facing off with farm interests, entangled in the contentious politics of poop.

3) Fertilization of ecosystems can have complex ecological consequences. In a paper in PNAS, John Davis and others show that in a Long-term nutrient enrichment decouples predator and prey production DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0908497107.

Relationship between primary consumer and predator secondary production for the reference stream (gray circles), the treatment stream (black circles), and previously published data (open circles). The arrows represent the temporal trajectory of the treatment stream starting with the 2 years of pretreatment (P1 and P2) and ending with the fifth year of enrichment (E5). The data labels correspond to the sampling year for the reference and treatment streams. The previously published data include 5 years of production data from the reference stream (C53) and a similar Coweeta stream (C55) that had experimentally reduced terrestrial leaf inputs during 4 of those years (21). It also includes previously published data from an unmanipulated year that compared our current reference (C53) and treatment (C54) streams (22). AFDM is ash-free dry mass.

Their research showed that there were differences in how predators and prey responded to fertilization, but these only emerged over time.  Increases N and P entering a stream increased populations of both predators and prey, however later on prey populations continued to increase but predator populations declined,because fertilzation shifted the streams prey to larger, predator resistant species, which reduced the efficiency with which energy flowed through the food web.

Arctic Futures ReOrient

In Nature Reports Climate Change, Keith Kloor reviews Cleo Paskal‘s new book Global Warring: How Environmental, Economic, and Political Crises Will Redraw the World Map.  He writes:

Paskal convincingly argues that short-sighted domestic and foreign policies are already eroding “the West’s position in the global balance of power”. Exhibit A is the Arctic, where the US and EU are pushing for ‘global governance’ of the still-frozen Northwest Passage, a route expected to become a prized shipping channel to Asia and Europe with continued warming.
As melting Arctic sea ice opens a shipping channel through the Northwest Passage, China and Russia could forge economic ties to Canada and win major gains in trade.
Canada currently claims the Northwest Passage as part of its territorial waters, but this assertion is being contested by the US and European Union, which want it recognized as an international strait so that they can have unfettered access for their own commercial interests, such as oil and gas exploration. This standoff, Paskal suggests, could prod Canada to explore a strategic relationship with Russia, which has its own designs on the Arctic. Meanwhile, China is knocking at Canada’s door, eager to purchase a slice of the country’s abundant natural resources. In a ‘stateless’ Northwest Passage, Russia and China could end up being the big players, especially if they forge stronger economic ties to Canada. This potential development, Paskal argues, poses a long-term security risk to the EU and US.

To understand why the Northwest Passage looms large in global geopolitics, one need only look to China, which has built up a trading and shipping network through state-controlled companies that now manage such chokepoints as the Panama Canal. As Paskal explains, these chokepoints, where a wide flow of traffic is forced through a narrow alley, “are the sorts of things empires go to war over”. The Strait of Hormuz, which leads to the oil fields of the Persian Gulf, is a natural chokepoint. Others, such as the Panama Canal, are man-made. “The melting Arctic sea ice creates new chokepoints of global strategic importance,” asserts Paskal, cautioning those who minimize the Northwest Passage as a Canadian issue, “It is about as much of a Canadian issue as the Suez Canal is simply an Egyptian issue.”

Chinese chess

The melding of realpolitik and international relations with climate change is what makes Global Warring deserving of attention. Paskal spends much of the book walking the reader through the projected impacts of climate change — but in the context of countries manoeuvring for advantage in a world where imminent and drastic environmental change is taken for granted.

At the same time the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute reports that the prospect of a navigable Arctic has lead the Chinese government to fund more polar research.  The Financial Times writes in Exploring the openings created by Arctic melting.

“Because China’s economy is reliant on foreign trade, there are substantial commercial implications if shipping routes are shortened during the summer months each year,” the report said. It added that taking the northern route through an ice-free Arctic could shorten the trip from Shanghai to Hamburg by 6,400km compared with sailing through the Strait of Malacca and the Suez Canal. In addition, piracy-induced high insurance costs could be avoided.

China from the air and China from the ground

In Time magazine, China historian Jeffrey Wasserstrom discusses new writing about China in Big China Books: Enough of the Big Picture.  He praises Peter Hessler‘s new book Country Driving, as an example of grounded scholarly reporting.  Hessler’s previous book,  Oracle Bones, was one of my favourite books of the past few years, so I am looking forward to his new book.  Wasserstrom writes:

Big China Books vary greatly in quality, but even the best leave me cold due to their bird’s-eye view of the P.R.C. Adopting an Olympian perspective, their authors tend to use broad strokes to portray things that actually require a fine-grained touch. …

Fortunately, Big China Books are not the only option for general readers curious about the P.R.C., since many significant works that take a ground-level view of the country, rather than a bird’s-eye one, have also been appearing. I am thinking, for example, of Fast Boat to China (2007). This is a lively account of the human side of Shanghai-based outsourcing by Andrew Ross, who usefully dubs his study a foray into “scholarly reporting” — a term for books that, as he puts it, have “mined the overlap between ethnography and journalism.”

Noteworthy examples have appeared throughout the past decade, but the richest year for them was probably 2008. Two of the most illuminating works published then were Leslie T. Chang’s Factory Girls, which provided a moving account of migrant workers that was wonderfully sensitive to divides rooted in location, gender and generation, and Michael Meyer’s The Last Days of Old Beijing, which offered a poignant look at breakneck development. (See portraits of Chinese workers.)

… Will admirable works of scholarly reporting also keep coming out? I’m even more confident answering this question affirmatively. One such work, Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory, is being published in February, and it’s the best yet from Peter Hessler, whose two earlier books, River Town (2001) and Oracle Bones (2006), were exemplary forays into the genre. Country Driving begins with the author recounting his quixotic efforts to follow the Great Wall by car, depending on flawed maps that sometimes left large sections blank (for political reasons) and often seemed hopelessly out of date right after being issued (due to how fast new thoroughfares are being built). The next section describes Hessler’s experiences living in a north China village that is transformed by the construction of a new road that links it to Beijing. The book concludes with a look at the economic dynamics of “instant cities” that keep springing up along a highway south of the Yangtze River. (Read “China Takes on the World.”)I haven’t been to the places Hessler describes in Country Driving or met the people whose stories he tells with his characteristic blend of empathy, insight and self-deprecating humor. Yet I never doubt for a second that he’s writing about the richly hued and socially variegated country that I know, as opposed to one of the imaginary lands conjured up in Big China Books.

Country Driving won’t satisfy those who like answers to Big Questions that can fit on dust jackets. Still, it captures beautifully the rhythms of life in a nation that is being turned inside out so quickly that it is not just lone American writers, but also Chinese from varied walks of life, who often find themselves struggling to traverse uncharted territory, armed only with their wits and with maps that become obsolete as soon as they are printed.

Jeffrey Wasserstrom follows up his article on the China Beat blog.  There he follows up his Time article with Six takes on Martin Jacques, which points to 6 contrasting reviews of Martin Jacques’ When China Rules the World, a recent book that looks at global rise of China:

My goal in this spin-off to the Time piece is not to offer an expanded version of my own thoughts on [When China Rules the World by Martin Jacques], but rather to direct the attention of interested readers to six recent essays by other people that engaged with the thesis of When China Rules the World. Between them, this sextet of reviews and opinion pieces provides, I think, a good sense of both the range of positions staked out in the debate generated by 2009’s most talked about Big China Book, and a sense of some of the ways that writers, including Jacques himself, have taken to claiming that each new event can be used to either prove or undermine its claims. …

Lu Guang’s China

Chinese environmental photographer Lu Guang won the 2009 W. Eugene Smith grant in humanistic photography for his for his project, “Pollution in China.” (For more information and photos see NYTime’s Lens blog , and China Hush).

Tianjin Steel Plant, She County, Hebei Province, March 18, 2008

A family of five children who emigrated to Inner Mongolia from the nearby Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region to find work in the Heilonggui Industrial District, April 10, 2005. The oldest child is nine years old; the youngest is less than two. Photographs by Lu Guang

The W. Eugene Smith award recognizes photographers “who have demonstrated a deep commitment to documenting the human condition in the formidable tradition of compassionate dedication that W. Eugene Smith exhibited”

China scholar, Orville Schell describes Lu Guang’s photos in China’s Boom: The Dark Side in Photos

I have seen some woeful scenes of industrial apocalypse and pollution in my travels throughout China, but there are very few images that remain vividly in my mind. This is why the photographs of Lu Guang are so important. A fearless documentary photographer who lives in China’s southern province of Zhejiang and runs a photo studio and lab that funds his myriad trips around China, Lu photographs the dark consequences of China’s booming but environmentally destructive economic development in ways that stay with you. Evidently Chinese officials seem to agree, because they often try to censor his photography, forcing him to use an alias. …

Some of his arresting images show plumes of pitch black and garishly colored yellow and red smoke belching out of factory and power plant chimneys – almost all caused by the burning of soft coal. They are reminiscent of the eerie, unnatural images and colors that blink out of a television set when the tint controls are turned all the way to one side.

His pictures of open-pit coal mines that have been illegally gouged into the Mongolian steppe, and the attendant mountains of tailings that tower beside them, bespeak a landscape so despoiled that millions of years of restoration will not be enough to heal it.

Everything you see in Lu’s photographs—whether desolate mines, gritty plants spewing out toxic smoke, grimy miners, poisoned bodies of water or tundras of trash—grows out of China’s use of coal. In fact, 80 percent of China’s electricity comes from coal (in contrast to about 50 percent for the US). And electrical power has provided the Chinese economy with the energy it needs to maintain 10 percent growth rates for more than a decade.

In other words, coal has been China’s bounty and salvation, enabling tens of millions of people to rise up from grinding poverty, and allowing the government to build a whole new system of ports, highways, airports, railroads, bridges, buildings, and tunnels. It has also helped to create a prosperous middle class; and contributed to China’s emergence as a world power.

However, China’s reliance on coal has been polluting the country’s air and water, depleting its resource base and despoiling its landscape in ways that are difficult to imagine without actually visiting the Chinese countryside. Yet the photography of Lu Guang gives us a glimpse of this landscape, reminding us that these scenes of devastation are not isolated phenomena. They are ubiquitous. Above all, it also reminds us that there is a steep cost to such rapacious and high-speed development, something the Chinese government has started to understand and to try and remedy.


chinaphotoIn a New Yorker article – the promised landEvan Osnos about African merchants living in China. He also narrates an Audio Slide Show about the economic, social, and religious life of African migrants in Guangzhou.  On his blog he writes:

Prof. Adams Bodomo is a Ghanaian linguist at the University of Hong Kong and one of the first scholars to write in English about the African community in Hong Kong and Guangzhou.

… As Bodomo and other scholars see it, immigration, like other byproducts of prosperity, is an unfamiliar issue in China. For most of its history, China was so poor that hardly anyone but missionaries or marauders wanted to stay. China’s posture toward foreigners was erratic; it oscillated between the xenophobia that produced the Great Wall to the zealous overture of the Beijing Olympics. But China is still ambivalent about people settling down permanently, and Bodomo sees that as a the big question about whether these communities survive.

There is also a podcast interview with Osnos.

Illegal logging, black globalization, and undercover environmentalists

Black globalization is an evocative name for how multi-nationals and mafias can blur together by using violence and global trade to avoid regulation, certification, and quality control. In the New Yorker article The Stolen Forests Raffi Khatchadourian writes about the global trade in illegally logged timber, and how an environmental NGO, the environment investigation agency, collects data to document illegal logging and encourage law enforcement.

Chances are good that if an item sold in the United States was recently made in China using oak or ash, the wood was imported from Russia through Suifenhe. Because as much as half of the hardwood from Primorski Krai is harvested in violation of Russian law—either by large companies working with corrupt provincial officials or by gangs of men in remote villages—it is likely that any given piece of wood in the city has been logged illegally. This wide-scale theft empowers mafias, robs the Russian government of revenue, and assists in the destruction of one of the most precious ecosystems in the Northern Hemisphere. Lawmakers in the province have called for “emergency measures” to stem the flow of illegal wood, and Russia’s Minister of Natural Resources has said that in the region “there has emerged an entire criminal branch connected with the preparation, storage, transportation, and selling of stolen timber.”

A fifth of the world’s wood comes from countries that have serious problems enforcing their timber laws, and most of those countries are also experiencing the fastest rates of deforestation. Until a decade ago, many governments were reluctant to acknowledge illegal logging, largely because it was made possible by the corruption of their own officials. As early as the nineteeneighties, the Philippines had lost the vast majority of its primary forests and billions of dollars to illegal loggers. Papua New Guinea, during roughly the same period, experienced such catastrophic forest loss that it commissioned independent auditors to assess why it was happening; they determined that logging companies were “roaming the countryside with the self-assurance of robber barons; bribing politicians and leaders, creating social disharmony and ignoring laws in order to gain access to, rip out, and export the last remnants of the province’s valuable timber.” In 1998, the Brazilian government announced that most of the country’s logging operations were being conducted beyond the ambit of the law.

In 2001, experts with the United Nations in the Democratic Republic of Congo coined a phrase, “conflict timber,” to describe how logging had become interwoven with the fighting there. The term is apt for a number of other places. In Burma, stolen timber helps support the junta and the rebels. In Cambodia, it helped fund the Khmer Rouge, one of the most brutal rebel factions in history. Charles Taylor, the former President of Liberia, distributed logging concessions to warlords and a member of the Ukrainian mafia, and the Oriental Timber Company—known in Liberia as Only Taylor Chops—conducted arms deals on his behalf. The violence tied to Taylor’s logging operations reached unprecedented levels, and in 2003 the U.N. Security Council imposed sanctions on all Liberian timber. (China, the largest importer of Liberian timber, tried to block the sanctions.) Shortly afterward, Taylor’s regime collapsed. An American official told me that the U.S. intelligence community “absolutely put the fall of Taylor on the timber sanctions.”

Algal Bloom along the Coast of China

There has been a lot of news coverage of the large coastal algal bloom at China’s Olympic sailing site in Qingdao. The Chinese government claims the bloom is now under control.

NASA’s Earth Observatory has published some remote sensed images of the bloom from MODIS:
MODIS comparison of algal bloom

On June 28, 2008, the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Aqua satellite captured these images of Qingdao and the bay of Jiaozhou Wan. The top image is a natural-color image similar to what a digital camera would photograph. The bottom image is a false-color image made from a combination of light visible to human eyes and infrared light our eyes cannot see. In this image, vegetation appears vibrant green, including the strips of algae floating in the bay and in the nearby coastal waters.

These images show the bay at the beginning of a local cleanup effort. (Daily images of the area are available from the MODIS Rapid Response Team.)