National Geographic : 2008 May
distinct stages. Typically the earliest settlers included lawyers, along with traders and bank ers. A local newspaper often began printing while people still lived in tents. The first build ings were generally the courthouse and the church, and lending libraries appeared quickly. If it was a tough world, at least there was some early sense of community and law. In China, though, new cities are strictly busi ness: factories and construction supplies and cell phone shops. Local governments focus on profi teering, and the Communist Party has always dis couraged the kind of organizations that contribute in other societies. This is perhaps the nation's greatest human rights challenge. Westerners tend to focus on the dramatic-dissidents, censor ship-but it's the lack of institutions that actually hurts most Chinese. Workers are left to fend for themselves: no independent unions, no free press, few community groups. Through sheer willpower, many succeed, but the wasted potential is stagger ing. In the reform years China has unleashed its remarkable population; the next stage is to learn to respect this wealth. IN ZHEJIANG I DROVE through a half dozen new towns that were being constructed as part of the Tankeng Hydroelectric Dam. More than 50,000 people were being relocated, and the dam would provide electricity for the region's facto ries. Nowadays energy shortages have inspired a wave of dambuilding across China, where people are relocated into new communities that follow familiar construction stages: the build ing supplies for sale, the cell phone shops, the garbage-strewn streets. But there's always a police presence, because of the fear of unrest by people forced to leave their homes. And propaganda banners are everywhere. In Zhejiang it was hard not to become suspicious when the Communist Party's slogans suddenly praised long-term think ing: Offer the Tankeng Dam as a tribute today / benefit the generationsof tomorrow. Almost nothing about today's China inspires optimism about environmental issues. National characteristics are potentially disastrous: mas sive population, weak central government, 180 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC * MAY 2008 local authorities that need to raise funds through constant development. According to a World Bank report, China already has four of the ten cities with the most polluted air, and increasingly the nation's problems are the world's. China has become the leading emitter of sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide. And yet the auto boom has just begun; the nation is responsible for less than 10 percent of worldwide oil consumption. The fact that China and the world can no lon ger ignore each other may be the one source of optimism. If these problems are to be managed, collaboration will be crucial. And no one in the developed world should criticize China with out taking a hard look in the mirror. The na tion has risen by making products for overseas consumption, and there's nothing foreign about the materialistic dreams of average Chinese. An American criticizing China's environmental rec ord is like an addict blaming his dealer. In Shifan, one of the dam-relocation com munities, I joined a family for the first meal in their new apartment. The father was a moderately successful businessman, and he proudly showed me the finished home. It was full of fashionable possessions: a karaoke machine, a 45-inch tele vision, a bed that came with a telephone in the headboard. Most impressive was the lighting sys tem in the living room. A massive chandelier con tained nearly three dozen bulbs, and rows of blue lights had been inlaid along the ceiling to evoke the sky. Red bulbs were hidden in alcoves ("They give a warm feeling:' said the father). Everything could be flicked on and off by remote control. For lunch they invited relatives and friends, and throughout the meal everybody complained about the dam. Compensation for lost homes had been too low; promises hadn't been kept; cadres had embezzled. They worried that they wouldn't be able to do business in the new community. "These are very serious matters, and people are upset," the father said to me. All told there were 65 bulbs in that room, and every single one was turned on. D t Ready Cameras A gallery of readers' photographs of China is at ngm.com.