ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
All this week, NPR's Rob Gifford is taking us on a journey along China's Yellow River.
(Soundbite of chanting)
In China, it's said that a dipperful of water from the Yellow River is seven-tenths mud. The river picks up and carries more silt that any other river in the world. It gains its name from the yellow soil that bleeds in to the water as the river descends from the Tibetan Plateau. In recent years, the river has gained another more notorious claim to fame - as one of the most polluted rivers in the world.
NPR's Rob Gifford set out to investigate both aspects of the river. And today, we catch up with him in northwestern China, in the industrial city of Lanzhou.
ROB GIFFORD: There's no better way to get a feel for the Yellow River than by getting out onto it. And here, in Lanzhou, that's exactly what you can do, not on a boat, but on a traditional raft like this one laid on mainly for the tourists. It's a series of wooden flat strapped precariously on top of 12 inflated sheep hide. The smog here is horrendous you can taste the chemicals in the air. The river itself is rushing quite fast just inches below me now. And it now starts to live up to its name, yellowy brown sludge color laden with silt and industrial waste. Up to the clean, clear water of the river on the Tibetan Plateau, I cannot tell you how much I don't want to fall into the river here.
Let's get back to the bank. (Chinese spoken).
Unidentified Man: (Singing in foreign language)
The boatman's song says that the big ships get grounded on the Yellow River because of all the silt that flows along it. The only way to travel, says the song, is on a sheepskin raft like the one I've just been on. But it's the pollution, not the silt, that you really notice.
Here, in more concentrated form, is the problem, and the cost of 30 years of extraordinary economic growth. Two hours downstream from Lanzhou, in the blur of smelters and factories of the industrial city of Baiyin, a dark, fetid outflow that barely passes for water is draining from a factory into a stream. The stream flows into a small tributary, which then flows directly into the Yellow River.
Here, suspended in the filthy water amid the sounds and smells of the industrial revolution are some of the biggest questions facing modern China: Can it maintain double-digit economic growth without destroying the natural environment? And is the blowback from industrialization - the fall out that is now causing angry demonstrations and serious health problems around the country - starting to negate the very real economic progress? With the rise of the pollution, there's come the rise of a new kind of citizen - the environmental activist.
Mr. ZHAO ZHONG (Environmental activist): (Foreign language spoken)
Unidentified Group: (Foreign languages spoken)
GIFFORD: In a nearby rural school, 25-year-old Zhao Zhong is teaching a class of more than 50 fifth graders about the environment. Zhao wears small, wide-framed glasses and has a gentle manner that belies a steely commitment to environmental protection. He came to college in Lanzhou and became concerned about the levels of pollution there. So, he set up a non-governmental organization called Green Camel Bell to try to deal with some of the issues.
Unidentified Child #1: (Foreign language spoken)
Eager faces of the children shine out from the very basic conditions of the classroom. Zhao Zhong says they are the future and that it's his job to empower them, to make them feel they have a stake in a cleaner China. He says Green Camel Bell and other NGOs are filling the space left by the retreat of the Communist Party from people's everyday lives.
Mr. ZHONG: (Through translator) The government has given us space to work on this kind of project. It allows us to work on environmental issues at the community level. We can't do anything about policy. So we do what we can do working within this new space.
Unidentified Group: Goodbye.
GIFFORD: I leave the school heading north along the road that weaves beside the Yellow River as it weaves its own shallow silted polluted path north towards Mongolia. It passes through grimy industrial towns that few people in the West have ever heard of. Towns scoured by pollution for making products that should be said for people in the West to use.
In the smoggy city of Wuhai, a chance meeting with two students in a grocery store brings me to a small courtyard home in the shadow of the coal plant. Students introduced me to their friends who are cooking lunch.
It's like stumbling on to the set of a Chinese version of "Friends," six young people in their rented home chatting, laughing, texting on their cell phones and discussing everything under the blotted out Chinese sun.
It's extraordinary how similar Chinese young people have now become to their American counterpart.
20-year-old Zhang Xuemin, a college sophomore wearing a pink sweater and an earnest face, is head chef for the day. He says as he prepares the lunch, that they are all well aware of the contradictions of development.
Mr. ZHANG XUEMIN (Student): (Through translator) Of course, if you want more income, it's going to cost more damage to the environment. Look at all the paper factories around here. If they installed expensive cleaning equipment, it would greatly reduce their profit.
GIFFORD: All the students come from towns near the Yellow River and have traveled to Wuhai to attend college. Several of them have horror stories of river pollution near their home.
21-year-old Qi Boyuan comes from the downstream town of Dongsheng.
Mr. QI BOYUAN (Resident): (Through translator) I learned to swim in the Yellow River. Now, if I had children, I certainly would not let them swim in it. So the government officials are trying to change this. They no longer just say development first and manage the consequences later. Now, the policy is develop and manage at the same time. And they're trying to emphasize harmony.
GIFFORD: The word that Qi uses, (unintelligible), meaning harmony, is the concept that government uses in its propaganda for the balance it's trying to encourage between winners and losers of the economic boom, between the new industrialized cities and the still-backward countryside, and between economic development and environmental sustainability.
But I leave Wuhai heading North again along the river, wondering whether harmony really is possible. I'm worried that the weight of the contradictions, especially the environmental ones facing China, is becoming too great. But, yes, the market economy could well be the Communist Party's salvation. But it could also be its downfall - whether the forces that are strengthening China are the very same forces that are threatening China's future.
Rob Gifford, NPR News.
SIEGEL: Tomorrow, Rob heads to the countryside, where severe water shortages have farmers waiting for rain. And there is an audio slideshow of the sights and sounds of life along China's Yellow River at npr.org.
This is NPR, National Public Radio.
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