In China, Droughts Bring the Crazy

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By Jeremiah Jenne [see Update below]

BEIJING, China -- It didn't rain today. Now, usually that wouldn't be much of a lead, but here in North China this counts as news.  Since last September, we've had almost no precipitation other than a few days of snow last month, and that came courtesy of China's weather modification teams.

Other areas haven't even been that lucky. Winter wheat crops are failing throughout the region and farmers are now worried that if conditions don't improve soon, the drought will seriously jeopardize the all-important spring planting season.

There are serious environmental ramifications from the lack of water beyond farming. Beijing is one of the few major world cities not located on a significant river or body of water. It sits instead on a large brackish aquifer and relies on a series of man-made reservoirs and canals for its water supply. Despite the best efforts of China's engineers, Beijing's demand for water is rapidly depleting already limited supplies and the continuing drought only accelerates this dangerous trend.

There's also an important social dynamic. With world food prices at their highest level in almost three years, the possibility of a massive failure of the winter wheat crop has the government on alert. Earlier this week I wrote a post in which I downplayed the chances of a North African-style "Jasmine Revolution" breaking out in China, and I still doubt that messages posted on overseas websites will have the reach or the audience sufficient to spark mass demonstrations, but this continuing drought coupled with rising food prices presents a very real threat. 

On their best days, the Chinese state security apparatus is run by hopped-up officials whose baseline level of paranoia is enough to make Charlie Sheen seem like a Zen Master, but as I wrote on Monday, the government usually cares less about isolated "mass incidents" than they do about the possibility of different groups linking their grievances together.  Anonymous letters on overseas websites accessible only with an expensive VPN are not going to do that, but a drought is a different story, and a drought coupled with crop failures resulting in a spike in food prices means the hardship of farmers will start to be shared by those in the cities.

It's an old story. The Chinese archives are full of natural disasters. Some, like floods or typhoons came upon an area with sudden speed and power and then just as suddenly receded or moved away. In the records these are sometimes referred to as "dragons" - mobile, capricious, taking their fury from one place to another.

But the accounts of drought are different. They happened over time, and as the weeks turned to months and crops withered and died, desperate farmers waited for the emperor to make things right. Part of the gig of being an emperor meant looking toward heaven and asking the gods to please unbottle the skies.

It made for tense times, because in Chinese history, floods and earthquakes came and went...but it was droughts that really brought the crazy. 

My own research focuses on an anti-foreign (actually anti-French) riot in the city of Tianjin in 1870.  In the aftermath of the violence, local officials all started their reports to the throne with "We've been in a drought since summer, and it has upset the hearts and minds of the people..."  

Perhaps the most notorious example of drought and violence was the Boxer Uprising of 1900. Farmers and other, less savory members of society blamed the dry conditions on the presence of foreigners and foreign machines which, they felt, had upset the natural balance between Heaven and Earth. As the drought worsened, different groups began to take matters into their own hands, targeting foreign missionaries, churches, and those Chinese they felt had been 'tainted' by foreign ways.  The Boxers ransacked Beijing and Tianjin throughout the summer of that year in a paroxysm of rage that lasted until the foreign powers intervened militarily.

In earlier eras, food shortages sparked riots when residents of a particular area feared that dwindling stocks were the result of speculation or hoarding. 

Times are different now, and it is highly unlikely that even the worst drought will result in a Boxer-like cataclysm, but the Chinese government is well aware of the danger drought represents to overall social stability. They've already set aside the equivalent billions of RMB to help the hardest hit areas with aid and loans to farmers.

An anonymous letter can be blocked, but the government's ability to make it rain is limited and in the end they're going to need a little help from the heavens. Maybe that's why the emperors spent so much time watching the skies. 

UPDATE: 6:38 a.m. Beijing time -- Perhaps I should look into a new career as an Emperor. Wrote the post on drought last night only to wake up this morning and find a coating of snow covering our neighborhood. It appears that the weather modification boys were busy last night.  The problem of course is that it's going to take a lot more than a dusting and when you artificially make it snow/rain in one area, you generally do so at the expense of those "downstream" of the prevailing weather patterns. 


Jeremiah Jenne is a PhD candidate in Chinese history, living and working in Beijing. He is the author of the blog Jottings from the Granite Studio.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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