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China's geography

 

China is part of continental Asia. Asia is the world’s largest continent, followed by Africa as the second largest continent. Asia is a continent of many differences: in its lands, its peoples, and its standards of living. Northern Asia is composed of old mountains, and ancient stable plateaus. The central part of the continent is dominated by the Himalayan mountains and the Plateau of Tibet which expands across the southwest of China. The Himalayas are a young mountain range and continue to be uplifted. They began to form when India collided with Asia creating a destructive plate boundary between the Indian Plate and the Eurasian Plate. Here, the coming together of tectonic plates causes the crust to crumple, forcing it up into high peaks like those of Mount Everest on the border between Nepal and Tibet, China. Many of the islands in the east and south of Asia are volcanically formed. Volcanoes and earthquakes are common.

 

Tropical rainforests cover much of the landscape across southeast Asia, especially in Burma, Thailand, and the islands of Borneo, Celebes, Java, and Sumatra. The Hainan Province in the south of China is home to the country’s only tropical rainforest. The Takla Makan is one of multiple deserts in central Asia. The Himalayas to the south of the desert prevent moist air (air containing water vapour) from reaching the region. Two air masses control climate

 

The deserts and high mountains of Asia are almost uninhabited due to the harsh conditions. Much of Russia, especially Siberia is sparsely populated. Here, the land is permanently frozen – this is known as permafrost. Singapore is one of the most densely populated places in the world. Japan and India also have very high population densities. Over 50% of the world’s population live in Asia. China has the largest population in the world, with about 1.4 billion people. India is not far behind with over 1.3 billion people.

 

Living standards differ greatly across Asia. Over half of the world’s oil and gas reserves are in Asia, most importantly around the Persian Gulf and in western Siberia. The discovery of oil in The Gulf has generated enormous wealth and produced rapid industrial and social change in oil controlling countries such as Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Kuwait. Coal in Siberia and China has provided power for steel industries. Metallic minerals are also abundant, for example tin in southeast Asia, and platinum and nickel in Siberia. Heavy industry dominates eastern China and Russia, but Japan is the most industrially productive country. Japan is a leading producer of high-tech electronic goods, including those relying on artificial intelligence. Elsewhere, in places such as Afghanistan and Nepal, many people still rely of agriculture as a source of wealth. Factors such as civil war, recurring droughts or flooding, natural disasters, and a scarcity of suitable agricultural land keep standards of living low in some places.

 

China is the fourth largest country in the world, after Russia, Canada, and the USA, but is the most populated country with about 1.4 billion people. Two thirds of China is mountainous land starting where the Plateau of Tibet rolls into China from the southwest. The region averages about 4,500m above sea level and is often referred to as ‘The Roof of the World’ as it accommodates many of the world’s highest summits including Mount Everest at 8,849m above sea level. The Tien Shan mountains in the northwest of China reach heights of 7,44m above sea level. They surround fields of permanent ice cover and striking glaciers. The high mountainous land blocks precipitation from the Indian Ocean reaching the north of China. The Takla Makan desert occupies western China while the Gobi Desert which straddles the border between Mongolia and China in the north, is composed of bare rock and shifting sand dunes. The Gobi is hot in the summer but differs from other deserts because it is cold in the winter. The great plains of eastern China were formed from soils deposited from rivers like the Yellow River over thousands of years. The Yellow River is China’s second longest river at 5,464km long and the world’s muddiest river, carrying hundreds of lorries worth of weathered and eroded sediment every minute from its source in the Plateau of Tibet in the west to the sea in the east – that is why it appears brown. It often floods in its lower course, where most of China’s population lives. For that reason, the Yellow River is nicknamed ‘China’s Sorrow’. The Yangtze River is China’s longest river and the third longest river in the world at 6,300km. It travels from its source in the Plateau of Tibet to its mouth at the East China Sea. The area between the Yangtze River and the Yellow River is known as the Central Plain, or the Heartland. Here, along the great plains of eastern China the land is so fertile that is allows for double cropping – two harvests in one season.

China's population

 

The west of China is very mountainous and dry. The highlands and plateaus in the west stop precipitation from the Indian Ocean passing over the north of China, resulting in deserts such as the Takla Makan desert and Gobi Desert. Consequently, 90% of China is unsuitable for agriculture, especially in the west and north of the country. Most farmers make their living by herding animals. Most of China’s 1.4 billion people live in the eastern part of the country, where the climate, landscape and soils are most favourable. Here, between the Yangtze River and Yellow River, the Heartland is so fertile that is allows for double cropping – two harvests in one season.

 

China, like North Korea has been governed by strict communist governments since the late 1940s. Communism is a social organisation where the government owns all property and controls the distribution of resources. Each person contributes and receives according to their ability and needs. The philosophy of the Communist Party of China in the early 1950s was that ‘a large population gives a strong nation’. After World War Two ended, the government encouraged families to have as many children as possible in the hope of bringing more money to the country, building a better and bigger army, and producing more food. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the Chinese population increased by about 2% every year.

 

In the late 1950s and the early 1960s, the Chinese government grew concerned over how quickly the population was expanding. In 1960, the GDP of China was $59.6 billion, and the country had a population of 667,070,000, of which only 16% lived in urban areas. The life expectancy was 43.7 years and the GNI per capita was around $70. In response, the government encouraged families to have fewer children and they did. The country’s population growth slowed down, but it did not stop.

 

The country was becoming overpopulated, this means that there were too many people and not enough resources. From 1950 through to 1970, children aged 10 or younger made up a larger percentage of China’s population than any other age group. To address the problem, China introduced a one-child policy in 1979 as part of the wider government ‘open and reform’ policy. This allowed families to have one child.

 

In 1981, China’s GDP was $195.8 billion. The life expectancy had increased to 67.2 years and the GNI per capita was $220 but 84% of the country’s population lived in poverty. About 20% of the population lived in urban areas by 1981, but this was soon to change. As part of China’s ‘open and reform’ policy in 1979, factories were built on the south-east coast of China and rural migrants started migrating there for the jobs. In 1990, companies from other countries (TNCs) started to open factories in China too, providing even more jobs. This rural to urban migration, along with natural increase is one of the causes of urbanisation in China.

 

Today, China has a population of about 1.4 billion people, with 61% living in urban areas. The country has the world’s second largest economy, with a GDP of $14.2 trillion in 2019. The percentage of people employed in agriculture has decreased from almost 60% in 1991 to about 25% in 2019. Almost 50% of the population work in the service employment sector. Life expectancy has increased to 76.9 years, GNI per capita is $10,390, and the percentage of people living in poverty is 0.6% (less than 1%). Living standards began to improve in 1979 when the one-child policy was introduced.

Population control in China

 

In the early 1950s, the Chinese government encouraged families to have as many children as possible with a view that a large population gives a strong nation. It was hoped that an increasing population would bring more money to the country, build a better and bigger army, and help to produce more food. However, by the late 1950s, the population growth started to outpace food supply leaving the country overpopulated. As a result, the government started to promote birth control and encourage families to have fewer children. Between 1958 and 1961, a terrible famine occurred which resulted in some 30 million people starving to death.

 

Although the population growth did slow down during the 1960s, it did not stop or slow down enough. With the population fast approaching 1 billion in the late 1970s, the government needed to seriously consider taking control of population growth to limit the effect on economic growth. In 1979, as part of wider government reforms, China implemented a one-child policy as a way of controlling population growth. The policy limited the great majority of families to one child each. There were exceptions for ethnic minorities, parents whose firstborn was disabled, and rural families whose firstborn was not a boy. The one-child policy was generally accepted to mean one birth per family. This meant that women who gave birth to two or more children during the same labour were not penalised. The one-child policy ended in 2015 which allowed all families to have two children.

 

There were multiple methods of enforcing the policy. Families that complied with the rule were provided with a certificate that gave them access to certain benefits. Some of the benefits included education and healthcare subsidies (typically a payment or tax reduction), better housing, longer leave from their job, and interest-free loans.

 

After its implementation, China’s fertility and birth rates decreased. There is a difference between fertility and birth rate. Fertility rate is the average number of children born to women during their reproductive years whereas birth rate is the number of live births per every 1,000 women in the total population. By the mid-1990s, China’s fertility rate had dropped below two children per woman. China’s overall natural increase declined with Chinese officials stating that the policy prevented up to 400 million births. The one-child policy also transformed the role of women in Chinese society. Before the one-child policy, boys would benefit first from education. After its implementation, more families with one girl registered their children in school programmes more often. This allowed a generation of girls to benefit from a better standard of living.

 

However, families who did not comply with the one-child policy would receive a fine known as a social upbringing fee. In Chinese culture, it was generally seen to be more preferable to have a boy rather than a girl. Boys would carry on the family name, earn a higher wage, and look after their parents during their elderly years. This put pressure on women to have a boy. Developments in ultrasound technology in the 1990s meant that women were able to find out the gender of their baby before they were born. This caused an increase in the number of abortions of female fetuses. This has resulted in a gender imbalance. In 2016, there were 33 million more men than women in China. With lower value placed on the life of a girl, there was an increase in neglect and deaths of baby girls. There were also reports of infanticide of baby girls and forced abortions in some places.

 

Today, China has an ageing population. As fewer babies were born, fewer people were dying, and life expectancy increased. By 2050, almost a third of China’s population will be over the age of 60. This means the bulk of the population will be economically inactive people, which could derail the world’s second largest economy. It will also put a strain on state services such as healthcare and social care and the children who have to look after two parents and four grandparents, often thought of as the 4-2-1 problem. To combat this problem and increase future labour supply, China recently announced that it will allow families to have up to three children. However, Chinese families are now used to having only one child, and some say that society is so competitive that having more than one child would be exhausting.

China's economic development

 

The China that existed 40 years ago in 1981 was very different to the China that exists today. The population was 993,885,000 and the country’s GDP was $195.8 billion with a GNI per capita of $220. Life expectancy had increased from 43.7 years in 1960 to 67.2 years. The fertility rate was 2.5, down by 0.2 since the introduction of the one-child policy in 1979. Most people lived in rural areas with only 20% living in urban areas. Poverty was widespread with 84% of people living on less than $1.90 a day. To change this, China needed to develop.

 

Development is the increasing standard of living and quality of life in a place. As a country develops technologically and economically, the standard of living and quality of life gets better. The World Bank classify countries with a GNI per capita of $12,696 or above as high-income countries. There are around 80 HICs. Countries with a GNI per capita between $1,046 and $4,095 are classified as lower middle-income countries. Countries with a GNI per capita between $4,096 and $12,695 are classified as upper middle-income countries. There are around 30 countries with a GNI per capita of $1,045 or below. These are known as low-income countries. Most, but not all, LICs are in Africa. It is important to remember that GNI per capita is an average and is influenced by the size of a country’s population. Not everybody will earn the GNI per capita, some will earn more, and others will earn less. In 2019, China’s GNI per capita was $10,390 making the country an upper middle-income country.

 

Like other countries, China must overcome historical, physical, and economic barriers to development. Historically, China’s communist government controlled economic output by setting production goals, setting prices, and allocating resources. Nearly three quarters of industrial production was by state-owned enterprises (SOE). China wanted to make its economy self-sufficient.

 

Physically, with China’s mountainous and dry regions, 90% of the land is not suitable for farming. Between 1958 and 1961, the rising population outpaced food production. This resulted in a terrible famine that cost some 30 million people their lives. Devastating floods from the Yellow River have caused terrible natural disasters. In 1931, a flood made 80 million people homeless. Estimates of the number of people killed by the flood and subsequent disease and famine range between 850,000 and 4 million. Today, China is combatting desertification in the northwest. If left unchallenged, it will undermine agricultural output. Hungry children do not go to school and hungry adults do not go to work.

 

Economically, free enterprise businesses and transnational corporations (TNCs) were pretty much barred from China. This meant less productivity as there was no competition and fewer jobs as there were not enough businesses operating in China. The lack of exports kept the economy low because the country was not trading with the rest of the world.

 

In 1979, China introduced a number of social and economic changes under an ‘open up and reform’ policy. One such reform was the one-child policy; this ensured that population growth did not outpace food production and economic growth. China allowed families to farm the land for themselves (subsistence farming) and sell any surplus food they produced (commercial farming). This provided people with a higher household income to spend on education and healthcare. The government also allowed people to set up free enterprise businesses allowing people to determine the products they make, the prices they sell them for, and the services they provide. In the 1980s, factories were built on the southeast coast of China and those living in rural areas started migrating there for the jobs which increased the urban population. To keep businesses coming, the government had to ensure that the urbanisation was sustainable and so new homes were built and access to healthcare and education improved. Attracted by the low-paid labour and increasing urban population, TNCs started building and opening factories in China too. This created even more jobs and increased productivity and exports of cheap goods. Consequently, the economy has been growing at an average of 10% every year. Today, China has the second largest economy in the world with a GDP of $14.2 trillion (2019) and is the world’s largest exporter.

 

Since the ‘open up and reform’ policies in 1979, the standard of living and quality of life in China has improved dramatically. In 2019, the life expectancy was 76.9 years and GNI per capita was $10,390. Over 800 million people lifted out of poverty. In 2019, less than 1% of the population lived in poverty.

The impact of China's economic growth on the workforce

 

Urbanisation and exports of cheap electronic goods have led to economic growth and development in China. The ‘open up and reform’ policies in 1979 have controlled and slowed population growth, allowed farmers to earn an income, encouraged free enterprise, and established China as the ‘Factory of the World’. By opening its borders to TNCs, thousands of companies have constructed and opened factories in China. This has provided more employment opportunities and increased China’s productivity. In 2019, the country’s GDP was $14.2 trillion. The country’s GNI per capita has risen from $70 in 1960 to $220 in 1981 to $10,390 in 2019. China is no longer a LIC, but an upper middle-income country. The economic growth experienced after the reforms has brought 800 million people out of poverty. In 2019, less than1% of the population lived in poverty.

 

However, such rapid economic growth has resulted in social and economic challenges. One such challenge was the rise in sweatshops. A sweatshop is a factory often producing clothing or electronic goods where people work long hours for low wages in often poor conditions. The term is not exclusive to China and was first used in the 1850s to describe clothing factories in Europe and the UK. When China opened its borders, it provided TNCs with the incentive of a low-paid workforce. This attracted lots of TNCs as they were able to save money on the cost of labour and keep more of the profit they made.

 

Many of the factories in China are modern, provide employees with personal protective equipment (PPE), and comply with safety laws and regulations. However, even some of the most modern factories are overcrowded, dangerous and require employees to work long hours for low wages. In some factories, people are not paid properly for overtime. In some cases, the right to pay employees low wages has resulted in less value being placed on them.

 

In 2018, a study by Hong Kong Economic Rights Institute found that difficult working conditions including punishment for minor offences and high staff turnover in Chinese factories contributed to a spate of employee suicides over the years. In 2018, managers at a Chinese firm were jailed for whipping employees with belts and forcing employees to drink urine and eat cockroaches as a punishment for not meeting targets. Furthermore, in 2019, a factory making beauty products was temporarily closed by authorities after it made employees crawl along a public road for not meeting end of year targets.

 

Foxconn is China’s largest single private employer (not a SOE). Foxconn has many factories that produce goods in China for Amazon and Apple, amongst other TNCs. In 2018, a report found that the company had a high percentage of underpaid temporary employees working long hours. The report showed that some employees were working up to 80 hours overtime a month, much higher than the 36 hours normally permitted by law.

 

This unethical treatment occurs because factory owners want more work to increase profits. Factory owners punish employees for poor performance in a bid to speed up their production lines so that targets are not missed. Many employees will not speak in case they are fired.

 

In recent years, many TNCs like Amazon and Apple have started to audit the working conditions in factories making their products. This forces factory bosses who want the work to clean up their act.

The impact of China's economic growth on the environment and biodiversity

 

Rapid urbanisation and industrialisation have made China an economic powerhouse. The ‘open up and reform’ policies in 1979 allowed people to establish free enterprise businesses and so in the 1980s, factories were built on the southeast coast of China. The new factories created jobs which attracted those living in rural areas. Consequently, people began to migrate to the southeast coast and the population there started to increase. The reforms also allowed companies from overseas (TNCs) to build factories and operate in China. With the promise of a low-paid workforce, many TNCs flocked to China. This created even more jobs which attracted even more people. To keep the businesses coming, the government had to ensure that the urbanisation was sustainable and so new homes were built and access to healthcare and education improved. China’s urban population increased from 19% in 1980 to 35% by 2000. In 2012, 30% of China’s population worked in industry. This number has been declining as China diversifies its economy and more people work in the tertiary sector providing services. Although the economic growth has brought 800 million people out of poverty and made China the world’s second largest economy, it has left a footprint on the environment.

 

The decades of economic growth in China have dramatically increased the country’s energy demand (how much it needs) and consumption (how much it uses). Energy is used to generate electricity, produce heat, or air conditioning, and for transport. China is the world’s largest consumer of energy, the world’s largest producer and consumer of coal, and by no surprise, the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide. The country uses coal to generate most of the electricity that supplies the domestic demand and the vast export-oriented manufacturing sector. China fulfils its demand for coal by importing it from neighbouring regions, mainly Australia, Indonesia, Mongolia, and Russia. Further industrialisation and urbanisation mean the energy demand will continue to rise. However, the country’s reliance on coal has come at a cost to both people and the environment.

 

When fossil fuels are burnt to produce electricity or power transport, gases such as carbon dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and sulphur dioxide are released into the atmosphere as a by-product. These gases pollute the air and worsen air quality. In some places and on some days, the air pollution is visible. Air pollution from the burning of fossil fuels is a major cause of climate change and can impact on people’s health. Long-term exposure to air pollution can irritate the eyes and cause asthma, and other respiratory (breathing) problems. It is estimated that about 30.8 million Chinese people died prematurely between 2000 and 2016 due to breathing in polluted air.

 

The increasing demand for energy has led to river systems being exploited in the hope of boosting hydroelectric power. Hydroelectric power is China’s second largest source of energy, after coal. The Three Gorges dam on the Yangtze River is just one of many dams in the country. Although hydroelectric power accounts for some 18% of China’s electricity production and does not emit greenhouse gases as a by-product, the construction of dams can result in deforestation and impact on biodiversity. The large constructions can stop fish migrating downstream. Somewhere between 2005 and 2010, the Yangtze’s largest fish, the Chinese paddlefish had gone extinct. The Chinese paddlefish would migrate from the middle course of the Yangtze in March and April to spawn in the Jinsha River upstream, but the route was blocked by the Gezhouba dam. Ultimately, fish stocks will fall, and fisheries will suffer.

 

The southwest of China is the country’s most biodiverse region. It was once covered in large forests. However, as the population increased so did deforestation. Trees were felled for firewood and timber, as well as to clear land for agriculture, road building and new settlements. With increased car ownership, there is a demand for rubber. There are 300,000 rubber farmers in China. Forests are cleared to make way for rubber tree plantations. This results in habitat loss with pandas forced to take refuge in higher land, where there is less bamboo to feed on. To ensure pandas do not become extinct, Sichuan has protected a large area of bamboo forest where pandas are cared for and bred. Gibbons have been known to disappear completely from rubber plantations.

 

Deforestation is a problem everywhere in China. It happens legally and illegally. If caught, illegal loggers can go to prison for up to seven years. Trees are crucial for the environment. They provide habits, improve air quality, regulate climate and patterns of rainfall, prevent flooding, and stabilise the soil. To combat growing concerns, the Chinese government provide farmers with a payment for ecosystem service (PES) to plant and maintain forests.

China's Belt and Road Initiative

 

China has the world’s second largest economy with a GNI of $14.2 trillion. This was not the case before the country adopted free-market principles in 1979. When China ‘opened up’, many free enterprise businesses and TNCs built factories in the country, mostly on the relatively flat eastern plains and near the coast. The government invested heavily in infrastructure by building new roads, railways, and making rivers navigable. This allows for the movement of goods within the country. Eventually, the goods might reach China’s coast.

 

Transportation by sea accounts for 90% of the world’s trade because it is relatively cheaper, can carry more goods than road and plane, and it does not take as long as it once did. This places China in a good position with seven of the ten largest container ports in the world. This infrastructure has enabled China to export cheap goods which has rocketed the country’s economy and raised it from a low-income country to an upper middle-income country.

 

Other countries could do the same, but the world has a large gap in infrastructure that restricts trade, openness, and prosperity. China has a plan to change this with its ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ (BRI), an example of foreign direct investment. The BRI is a global plan to fund infrastructure developments in other countries with the hope of boosting trade and stimulating economic growth. It will connect more than 60 countries across Asia, Africa, and Europe through the land (Belt) and maritime (Road) networks and make the world more interdependent as countries reliant on one another for trade. China sees it as an innovation of the ancient Silk Road.

 

The Silk Road was an ancient trade route that connected the western world with the Middle East and Asia. It was a major line of trade between the Roman Empire and China and later between medieval European kingdoms and China. Silk and spices travelled west from China and wool, gold and silver travelled east to China. The Silk Road operated from the 130 BCE (second century) to 1453 BCE (fifteenth century) and made China very wealthy at that time. As sea transportation became the more popular option for trading goods, the use of the Silk Road began to decline.

 

A lot of China’s FDI is in developing countries. As part of the BRI, the Export-Import (Exim) Bank of China provided landlocked Ethiopia with a loan for up to 70% of the $475 million needed to construct a fully electrified cross-border railway linking its capital, Addis Ababa to the Red Sea port of Djibouti. This gives Ethiopia better access to the sea for imports and exports. The railway also has the capacity for 15,000 passengers per hour in each direction increasing the exchange of knowledge and skills. The railway reduces travel time from three days by pot-holed road to 12 hours by railway and increases productivity in the country, leading to economic growth. The urban railway has also started to attract businesses close to the lines which will create jobs for the locals. However, the railway was constructed by Chinese firms and staffed by Chinese controllers, technicians, and station masters for the first five years. Furthermore, in 2018, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister announced that its original 10-year plan to repay the loan from China has been extended by 20 years. This shows that Ethiopia is struggling to repay the debt.

 

The BRI is also behind the construction of the Padma Bridge in Bangladesh. When completed, the project will connect nearly 30 million people in the southwest of Bangladesh to the rest of the country, reducing travel times and enhancing regional trade. It is estimated to boost Bangladesh’s GDP by 1.5%. The construction of the bridge was funded mainly by a loan of $2.6 billion from the Exim Bank of China, and the work was completed by Chinese firms.

 

The investment in infrastructure projects overseas provides China with a larger market for its goods and technology and provides jobs for its large population. Critics fear the BRI is a ‘debt-trap’ that will give China too much power over smaller and poorer countries. Some countries such as India say it is a smokescreen that China is hiding behind when what the country really wants is to seize strategic control of the Indian Ocean. In 2017, Sri Lanka signed its Hambantota Port over to China for 99 years after the country struggled to repay the $1.1 billion debt. There are fears it could be a military base after China opened an overseas military base in Djibouti. It should be noted, other countries such as the USA, Japan, France, and Italy all have military bases in Djibouti.

China's water supply

 

Water is crucial at all stages of a country’s development, and China – the word’s second largest economy is no exception. Water supports the country’s 1.4 billion people and expanding industries, but it is limited. Most of the water that we use is “hidden” water needed to grow food, manufacture goods, and generate power.

 

Like a carbon footprint, a “water footprint” shows the extent and location of water used by individuals, companies, and countries. In China, the average water footprint when including hidden water is 2,934 litres per person per day. When including hidden water, it takes 185 litres of water to produce a bag of potato crisps, 4,100 litres to produce a cotton t-shirt, 5,000 litres to produce a kilogram of rice, 8,000 litres to produce a pair of leather shoes, and 10,000 litres to produce a pair of jeans. We must think carefully about our consumption patterns.

 

About 71% of the Earth’s surface is covered by water, but over 97% of that water is salty. The remaining 2.7% of water is fresh. However, it is not where we think it is. About 68.9% of the world’s freshwater is stored in ice sheets, glaciers, and permanent snow cover in the mountains and polar regions. Some 30.8% of the world’s freshwater is groundwater. Surprisingly, only 0.3% of the world’s freshwater is in liquid form and readily accessible at the surface from rivers, lakes, and reservoirs.

 

More than 80% of China’s freshwater comes from surface water. Many of China’s rivers, including the Yangtze River and Yellow River have their source up in the Plateau of Tibet, north of the Himalayas (which means abode of snow). In fact, many of Asia’s life supporting rivers have their source in the Plateau of Tibet. For that reason, it is known as the “Water Tower of Asia”. The region holds the third largest store of freshwater, after Antarctica and the Arctic, and the glacial meltwater that feeds the rivers is the main source of freshwater for about 40% of the world’s population. All the rivers serve a crucial function; they fertilise the floodplains and rice paddies and provide drinking water and hydroelectric power.

 

China’s water supply is under pressure from climate change, increasing population, agriculture, expanding industries, and energy production. In 2019, Greenpeace reported that 82% of China’s glaciers have retreated (suffered from melting). As a result, glacial run-off into the Yangtze has reduced by almost 14% since 1990. Moreover, increased temperatures have changed atmospheric circulation. It is becoming more difficult for summer monsoons to reach northern and inland areas. Consequently, places such as Beijing are experiencing drought.

 

Nevertheless, China uses the “Water Tower of Asia” to its advantage. China has plans to dam and divert many of the great rivers that flow from Tibet. This will generate a large quantity of hydroelectric power to help China meet its carbon neutral goal by 2060 and improve the water supply in the dry northern region of China.

 

To construct a dam, the surrounding landscape must be changed completely. Trees are felled to make space and land behind the dam is flooded to create a reservoir. The dam itself prevents fish from migrating with can result in extinction. The construction of the Three Gorges Dam resulted in 1.3 million people being displaced, the extinction of the Chinese River Dolphin, and the loss of good agricultural land, which is already in short supply in China. However, it does produce hydroelectric power and allow the flow of the Yangtze River to be controlled, which results in less flooding downstream.

 

To meet predicted water shortages in the upper and middle course of the Yellow River, China is planning to open a new western route on its South-to-North Water Diversion Project. There is already a central route and an eastern route that transfers water from where it is abundant in the south to where it is much needed in the north, in Beijing and Tianjin.

 

Moreover, there is growing tension between China and its neighbouring countries that also rely on meltwater rivers flowing from Tibet. High in the Himalayas, which expands across the southwest of the Plateau of Tibet, China is planning on constructing a dam along the Yarlung Tsangpo River, the world’s highest river. However, the Yarlung Tsangpo River leaves China and flows into India and Bangladesh where it is referred to as the Brahmaputra. The construction of the dam would provide China with control of the Yarlung Tsangpo’s flow of water and could limit the amount of water flowing into India and Bangladesh. India said it would respond by constructing its own dam on another tributary.

China's relationship with the Plateau of Tibet

 

The Plateau of Tibet is located in the southwest of China between the Kunlun Mountains to the north and the Himalayas to the south and southwest. The region has an average height of 4,500m above sea level and is sometimes referred to as the “Roof of The World”. The northern section, called Qiangtang is home to many brackish lakes. These are lakes with more salt content than freshwater, but not as much as seawater. Many of the brackish lakes are remnants of the ancient sea that once covered the area of land pushed upwards by the collision of the Indian Plate with the Eurasian Plate. Home to the headwaters of many rivers, the Plateau of Tibet is sometimes referred to as the “Water Tower of Asia”. The southern section contains the sources of the Indus and Brahmaputra Rivers (Yarlung Tsangpo). Other rivers with their source in the highlands include the Yangtze River, Yellow River, Mekong River, and Salween River. The grasslands are used for pastoral farming and barley is grown on the plateau. The most extensive farming happens on the fertile plains of the Brahmaputra River and its tributaries (smaller rivers that flow into a larger river). Lhasa, the capital of Tibet is 3,650m above sea level. Around 3 million people live in Tibet.

 

The Plateau of Tibet has great potential for hydroelectric power and geothermal power. Surveys have discovered extensive goldfields, borax (used for cleaning), radium, iron, titanium, lead, and copper. Although rich in natural resources, the economy of Tibet remains largely undeveloped. Before the 1950s, life in Tibet was very different. There were no modern industries, just craftsmen, carpet weavers, tanners, potters, goldsmiths, carpenters, tailors, and incense-stick makers. There were no banks; just small loans provided by local merchants and the Tibetan government. There was little infrastructure; almost all transportation was by foot or on the backs on animals.

 

Although the Plateau of Tibet covers ¼ of China, the region has not always been a part of the country. Before the 1950s, Tibet was a separate country governed by a Buddhist leader called the Dalai Lama. In 1950, Chinese troops entered Tibet and overwhelmed the Tibetan troops. This gave China control of eastern Tibet. In 1951, Tibet and China agreed to a Chinese civil and military base in Lhasa, but China was to have no authority in the leadership of Tibet. A spate of conflict ended with the Dalai Lama, most of his ministers, and some followers escaping across the Himalayas and taking asylum in India. China took control of Tibet in 1959.

 

China invested heavily in the economic development of Tibet by mining its mineral wealth and building dams on the great rivers. In 1952, an iron and woodwork factory opened in Lhasa, followed by the opening of a vehicle repair shop and a tannery. This created jobs in mining and industry. Since the early 1950s, networks of roads have been constructed, especially highways to nearby provinces. An important railway line between Xining and Lhasa was completed in 2006. An airport in Lhasa provides commercial services to travellers. Tourism in now a major part of Tibet’s economy. By 2014, China had moved 2.3 million nomads into villages as a way of protecting the ecosystem from overgrazing and land degradation. However, it is thought that China wants the land to develop mining activities.

 

Many dams have been constructed on the rivers flowing through the Plateau of Tibet. This generates hydroelectric power and constitutes clean energy to the country’s energy mix. As China plans to become carbon neutral by 2060, many more dams have been proposed on the great rivers. This includes a dam on the Yarlung Tsangpo River. However, the Yarlung Tsangpo River leaves China and flows into India and Bangladesh where it is known as the Brahmaputra River. The construction of a dam on the Yarlung Tsangpo River could reduce the amount of water flowing downstream to India and Bangladesh. As a result, there is growing tension between China and India.

 

India and China have been in disputes over territory in the Himalayas for many years. Both countries are racing to build infrastructure along the Line of Actual Control between India and Tibet. A new road to a high-altitude Indian air base is thought to be the trigger of a bloody conflict in June 2020 that left 20 Indian soldiers dead. China did not comment on any fatalities. The damming of rivers that feed India could make the tension between the two rivers much worse.