Building Steam With A Grain Of Salt (Overpopulation in China)

China is a large country. China spans different climate zones, different cultures, different religions and histories and different ideas of ownership and nationhood.

The plethora of experiences available is unending. The thought of travelling from my home in Foshan out to the disputed region of Tibet gives me the same kind of excited feeling with which I initially boarded my plane coming from Ireland and bound for the Middle Country.

In the geographical sense, China towers above my head like a frozen tidal wave, threatening to come crashing down upon my head at any moment. With due consideration to the very large land mass at stake here, it is, of course, natural that China lay claim to one of the largest populations in the world.

With that being said, it is difficult to imagine the reality of Chinese overpopulation without first hand experience. 1 billion is just a number, the same as 300 million and 7 billion. Once you are dealing in the confines of stratospheric figures, it becomes difficult to discern a difference.

One Billion Dots by Robert Barry

Show me a group of four apples and I can tell you in a split second that there are four apples. Show me a group of eleven apples and it gets a little more difficult. Show me one a half billion apples and I would only be able to stand and gawp.

We all know the societal, geographical and climate damage that over population can and has inflicted on the world. More interesting, and less obvious, are the real world, everyday effects that overpopulation can have.

I am standing on a busy Guangzhou metro train as I write this. It is 7 in the evening and I am joined by thousands making the mass exodus from Foshan to Guangzhou. Rush hour in China is a difficult situation made more difficult. On crowded station platforms, people vie fiercely to get to the front of the queue. If you are not used to, or just not willing to, push and shoulder yourself in front of masses of people then you are likely to be stood waiting for a long time. That is one thing you learn, that China, in the most everyday situations, brings your inner wolf to the surface.

gz during rush hour
Guangzhou in the grips of rush hour

The pace of life here can be seen in the way that people walk, or rather run, through a metro station. I often find myself doing awkward double takes when someone tries first to walk one route around me, but then figures that another route is faster. Constant alertness in such situations is advisable, for foreigners like me, especially as it seems that the locals are happy to play games on their phone while walking through a crowd of people.

As China’s cities grow together, so too does population. According to Xinhua news agency, out of the 1.4 billion people living in China, 700 million live in Urban areas.

Recently the Chinese government decided to rescind the one child policy, allowing prospective parents to give birth to two kids, tax free. What was already an over-crowded, heavily populated country shows no sign of slowing down. As the country grows more prosperous, and as the laws begin to loosen, and as further infrastructural projects reduce the distance between one megacity and the next, China’s problem with overpopulation and with urban sprawl may only grow worse.

In terms of China’s population and the repercussions on the global stage, there are two ways to look at the problem. For businesses the idea has always been that the bigger the market, the better the situation. If you have more potential customers, then you are by default a little bit richer. One the other side of the equation, more people means the need for more energy and more coal pulled out of the mines of Mongolia and Shaanxi, which means more air pollution. As the population rises, the need for more money rises, and so does the impetus on industry which has helped China rocket to the top of the world’s rich list.

shaanxi coalfield
A coalfield in Shaanxi

China is not the only country expanding, of course. The United Arab Emirates has seen a 100% rise in population over the past 100 years. The difference between the UAE and China is, however, that China is so much larger, and that China already had a population of 500 million by 1950.

The Chinese situation remains an indicator of what might become of India, or large swathes of Africa, in the future. Given China’s recent history with famine and disease and wars, and general impoverishment, it is always remarkable to stand back and admire the strides that this great country has made in the course of just a few decades.

Uyghur famine
Uyghur Villagers

Given the same, or even just a similar, situation in India, the world’s population may begin increasing at a much higher level than we once believed it would (proposed to be 9 billion by 2050.)

It is frightening. It is also phenomenal. It is the kind of industrial revolution that one reads about in a Dickensian novel, shown before our very eyes – in the streets, on the tv, in the newspaper. And while I find myself wanting to cower beneath the bedsheets and forget about the fetid air outside for just a little while, I am, at other times, tempted to celebrate this insane circus, just for the sheer audacity and for the sheer size of it.




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