De-Boggling in China


Colin Austin ©  24 April 2014




Well I am half way through my China trip - busy de-boggling.  One aim of the trip was to look for Chinese herbs, medicinal plants and vegetables which people could grow in their wicking beds to improve their health.


I thought it may be difficult to find these plants but the opposite is happening, the problem is not to find the plants but rather to work out what is quackery and what is real - after all this is the country that believes eating rhino horn increases male potency, I think a fantasy of wishful thinking and envy. But more of that later – let’s get boggling.


I only know two things for sure about China, if you think you know what is going on you are probably wrong and suffering from a delusion and in the remote possibility that you may just be right it makes no difference anyway as they will change everything in six months.


In my last newsletter I talked about the explosion in obesity and diabetes in China, how China had changed from a country in which obesity and diabetes were rare to one with reportedly the world’s largest problem with diabetes.  (Just having pushed passed India which still pips the USA and Australia).


As I investigate I realized I needed to take a much broader view of what is happening in China.  This can only be described as mind boggling and which will have dramatic impact on the rest of the world.


That’s a bit weird


Many of the great discoveries have come from someone noticing something out of the ordinary, just a bit weird, without any real science. Then later science cuts in with its classic and well defined processes such as double blind experiments with statistical analysis to support or refute this observation.  Penicillin, stainless steel and the high pressure steam engines are examples. I call this pre-science and was the process I amusing.  In reality it simply means just looking around looking for anything unusual or a bit weird.


Let me give an example, I was just watching people come out of the supermarket just nosing about looking at what they were buying. I was struck by the huge amount of toilet paper they were buying – was this significant? It could be they were just stocking up but Chinese people tend to shop more frequently than in the West so maybe there was something going on here.


Then I noticed that I was going to the toilet much more frequently than back home.  I was living in a normal Chinese family home eating a pretty normal Chinese diet.  Yes - Chinese food is a natural laxative so residence time is cut down.  I could not help contrasting this with when I was in the US and every other advert seemed to be for a laxative.  Was this significant or not? In that classic phrase that appears at the end of nearly every research paper – this needs further investigation.




I am living in Shenzhen (just over the border from Hong Kong).  I first visited Shenzhen some thirty years ago just as Deng Xiaoping was opening up China.  I was working with many companies in Hong Kong who were then busy moving their manufacturing to Shenzhen to take advantage of more available land and cheaper labour.  At that time it was really nothing more than a rural village and pretty primitive.


It is now transformed into a mind boggling mega city - hence my need for de-boggling.  I just walk out into the street, it is full of upmarket German prestige cars BMW’s, Audies, Porches and Mercedes, there is the odd Bentley and the yesterday there was an Aston Martin in our parking lot, maybe the real James Bond. 


Not what you expect in a developing country.

China the upside


But China is not a developing country, it is only a single country politically, a sociologist would say it is an aggregate of multiple states with each state bigger than most countries.


The history of China is one of conflict and corruption with fighting between the various warlords and factions.  Among the great achievements of the current Government is achieving peace and stability, I hear very little discussion about politics among the Chinese people – they just look to the Government to provide ongoing increases in prosperity.  It will be interesting to see what happens as the need for action on environmental issues, such as the ubiquitous air pollution, become better recognized.


In the early ‘opening up’ phase technology was imported with overseas companies setting up operations or joint ventures.  But the Chinese Governments has taken a proactive role in increasing living standards such as setting up an advanced education system which is pumping our qualified people, particularly engineers, on a scale which is comparable to the rate of any Chinese factory churning out consumer products. I contrast the pressures on my Chinese granddaughters (acquired when I married Xiulan) to perform in this highly competitive environment.  Its work work work for the poor kids.


Sometimes back President Obama was discussing with Steve Jobs about manufacturing Apple products in America. Steve commented that to make the IPhone he needed some 3,000 qualified production engineers, all those positions were filled within a month in China, but he simply could never do that in the US.


But now the era of relying on overseas technology is over.  Many Chinese have gained expertise by working for overseas companies and have become entrepreneurs setting up their own businesses often manufacturing innovative products fully designed and developed in China.  (My acquired son, with a group of friends, has set up a business making smart phones, if you want a cheap smart phone just let me know. I have got one and prefer it my Samsung S4)


The 150km corridor along the Pearl River from Shenzhen to Guangzhou houses a population some four times that of Australia and is home to the much of the world’s electronic manufacturing industry. It also has automotive, consumer goods and many other industries and brings in a great deal of wealth, which unfortunately is not evenly distributed.


But this Pearl River industrial complex is just one of many such exploding regions in China, Fujian, Shanghai, Beijing, Manchuria, Chongqing etc. each one the size of a significant country.  The manufacturing capacity of these regions is just mind boggling and has the capacity to supply the rest of the world with all the manufactured goods it needs.

Roses and honey


But it is not all roses and honey. Many people have moved from rural areas to these region but they are legally classified as from another state so miss out on the social services and many civil rights provided to locals. (They even talk about having a passport). They often live in factory dormitories working long hours for basic pay. People begging and sleeping under bridges are common. (Local people call them migrants even though they are ethnic Han Chinese - perhaps they could call them ‘train’ people aka ‘boat’ people).


This mass movement from the rural areas to the centers of manufacturing is the largest mass migration in human history – hundreds of millions of people.  (It seems throughout history from the Romans to the British then the US and now China that the wealthy countries have benefited from a pseudo slave population.)


The Chinese Government has tried to reduce this flow of people to the major centers by establishing major industries in previously rural areas.  The pharmaceutical industry is a good example.  It is not just some simple incentive scheme to get companies to move to these rural areas. 


The Government started by establishing major research and educational centers to provide the skilled manpower, then followed this up by building modern factories available at nominal rents, the normal legal and financial obstacles which face any entrepreneur from the West are removed and the financial system geared to assist new companies which conform to the Governments plans.  This is much more than the interventionism which is so looked down upon by right wing politicians; it is cooperative pro-actionist on a grand scale.


The Chinese Governments long ago recognized the difficulty Governments face in running companies but found they could have all the control they wanted by managing the financial system - the banking system is either owned or controlled by the Government.

Personal reflection


I guess this hits home hard to me.  I had built up Australia’s leading exporter of technical software, a profitable and successful company.  But there was a downside I had had to give some $4million dollars of personal guarantees.  I was in a high risk technical business which required continuous innovation and was subject to risks beyond my control.


When the first Iraq war started our sales just stopped and we could easily have been wiped out leaving me with all those guarantees which would have forced me personally into bankruptcy.  Let me tell you it is pretty difficult to repay $4million by putting your cap out on the pavement and playing a violin outside a railway station.


My company, which used to bring significant money into Australia, has now been absorbed into one of those giant American conglomerates with little benefit to Australia. It is much easier for entrepreneurs in China and I meet overseas Chinese who have been living and working overseas but have returned to China just because business is easier.


Companies fail all the time in China, but the social and economic penalties are a lot less, they will not be hung out to dry like in our Western financial system. Failed entrepreneurs will often pick themselves up and start over again sometimes creating highly successful companies.


Basket case to world leader


In thirty years China has come from what could at best be described as an economic basket case, recovering from one of the worst famines the world has experienced to become the second largest economy. I doubt if many in the West have any imagination on what will happen in the next thirty years.  Certainly the political systems in the West are not currently geared to match the effective and long term planning of China.


In Australia, with its short term electoral cycle and total belief in market economics shows no sign of developing an effective long term economic strategy.  No doubt for some time we will prosper by selling our mineral and agricultural produce to the Chinese but that is just because it suits the Chinese.  The Chinese Government is astute enough to realize that is survives by successful policies that satisfying the needs of the Chinese people.  It is not there to look after the Australian population. That’s our job and we need to get a bit more real.


The American political system seems to have become hostage to the twin philosophies of conglomeration and globalization. Massive conglomerates operating globally with turnovers larger than a small country seem able to either operate beyond any law or use their massive economic clout to get the laws that suit them.


Europe, often regarded as the source of Western culture seems to have bogged itself down into a system of ineffective bureaucracy.


This leaves the door wide open for China to move into the role of the dominating world economic power.

China – the downside


But this explosion in manufacturing capability is not without its negative side which I, when in a schizophrenic state of mind, can readily relate to.  When I was a child I used to play on what we kids called waste land.  It probably belonged to some old ladies who have subsequently sold it to developers and is now a housing estate but to us kids it was a wild adventure playground. 


This has left me with an appreciation of the natural world.  So having as a child been exposed to the wonders of nature and in my working life been a cog (may be just a small cog) in the computerization of manufacturing industry I am clearly highly prone to becoming boggled by what I see happening in China.


While China is on its way to becoming the world’s dominating manufacturing country, if it not there already, the negative side is its environmental impact.  I doubt if there are many people who have not heard of Beijing’s notorious air pollution, but the environmental concerns are not limited to Beijing’s air, the whole country is under threat from China’s industrialization.


China, with its extensive mountain ranges is a naturally beautiful country and it does appear that it is holding the battle against destruction in its key regions of natural beauty, let’s hope for prosperity it wins this battle, but there is a more immediate battle with its food production.


When I sold my company I decided I wanted to spend my remaining time and energies on soil and water and the outcome - food production.  In China we have far from a pretty sight.



Chinese farming


China, for some four thousand years has had an agricultural system which would make many a permacultures green with envy.  It may have been labour intensive but it certainly survived for four thousand years which I think few would question as being a sustainable credential.


But the mass migration of the young and fit, both male and female, to the cities is creating a gaping hole in this traditional agriculture.  Having spent most of this newsletter talking about the mechanization of industry in China it will be no surprise when I say that China seems to be adopting the worst practices of Western agriculture with damaging results.


This is not a total truth, there are areas like the Loess plateau where traditional peasant style farming, trying to scrape sufficient food to survive was resulting in significant environmental damage which has now been reversed by enlightened adoption of modern soil conservation techniques.


Traditional farming is not automatically sustainable, something I learned in Ethiopia - people were so poor that all they could think about was surviving today.  Chopping down the remaining trees and burning animal manure is just as destructive as some modern farming techniques.


If you went round any of the numerous local markets which abound in China you would say all my talk about self-destructive farming is just total nonsense.  There is an abundant supply of fresh vegetables, almost certainly picked from the farms which surround the industrial mega-cities and transported directly to market that same morning.


There is little doubt that this basic system is superior to that in Australia where food is picked before maturity, shipped large distances, stored in warehouses before it hits the supermarket shelves, only to be stored again in the household fridge.

Does my organic farming really come second


Comparing Chinese farm produce with my home grown vegetables would lead to the initial conclusion that Chinese farming wins hands down.


I fight a continuous battle against insects and pests and take care to avoid damage to both the plants and the soil biology by not using toxic chemicals and try and use techniques which will preserve the soil biology. But the fact is that the cane toads, beneficial insects and companion planting are simply no match for the toxic chemicals used in China (and in most commercial agriculture), at least in the short term based on initial appearance.


Even greater concern to me is (what seems to me) excessive use of acidic nitrogen fertilizers which is creating hard crusty soils (even if you can call them soils).   


Now the Chinese would probably be too polite to tell me that this is none of my business but they would be quite justified in thinking that were it not for one reason.



World food production


When I sold my company and took the decision to become involved with soil, water and food production one of my projects was to go to Africa to see if my expertise in water and fluid flow could be of any use in providing sustenance food in drought times.  That is of course where the wicking bed concept came from.


But those trips were a real touch with reality.  I recently read that the amount of food we are currently producing provided enough calories to feed double the current world’s population. (The article did not consider the micronutrients such as vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals).


The reality is that the dominant cause of malnutrition is political instability and war.


Number two is the acquisition of the best agricultural land in developing countries for the export to the West of high commercial crops such as coffee, cocoa etc. often by multi nationals.


I doubt if my comments on the impact of Chinese manufacturing on the global economy will come as any surprise to anyone who has recently visited any shopping mall.  The impact of China on global food security may be equally significant.  It is perfectly reasonable to expect the Chinese to look to other countries to ensure the food supply for its population of 1.4 billion so its activities in Africa, South America and also Australia should be no surprise.


Chinese efforts to protect its own food supply will affect the entire global food supply.

It’s not how much food but what is in it that matters


Recent reports say that China has now the largest population of diabetic sufferers in the world. We tend to think of obesity and diabetes as a Western problem particularly in countries like the US and Australia - but it is a global problem and it stems from our food system.


All the reports I read on diabetes and diet indicates that the problem stems from a lack of balance in our modern food system.  We have a surplus of the energy components of food, fats, sugars and carbohydrates contributing to obesity and diabetes.  As I just said we are producing enough energy food to supply the world twice over.  The many articles warning of a future food crisis are often simplistic.  (I call it the Armageddon press).


The real fear is the lack of balance between energy and the micro nutrients, vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals may play a more critical role.


The challenge for future food is not quantity but to produce food with the right nutrient balance in a sustainable way.


Historically humans have evolved to cope with a lousy diet


One factor which seems to be missing in the debate on diet is the capacity of the human body to correct for a poor diet.  Let us face it there are tribes eating a diet of almost exclusively meat or fish who have, according to the diet experts, an extremely unbalance diet and should in theory should be very unhealthy.  Yet in reality they appear to be fit and healthy.


When I read about the trace elements, minerals, vitamins and phytochemicals that modern science is just learning about, I see that many are extremely harmful in large quantities, they are essentially poisons when in bulk. So why aren’t people dropping dead all over the place?  Perhaps it is because the body has elaborate systems which can compensate (if it is allowed too).


You can look at facts in very different ways.  Just consider how we evaluate the fact that even as little as a decade ago diabetes was rare in China but now one in ten are suffering (that’s some 100 million people, sounds like a major disaster).


But look at the same facts in a different way - nine out of ten Chinese are fit and healthy with beautiful bodies (I know I have studied - in the name of science of course).  So what are they doing right?


Could it be something to do with the bulk rolls of toilet paper I see being carried out of the supermarkets?  I am always stunned by the amount of food the Chinese can eat.  We go out to restaurants and out comes course after course, fish then beef then chicken then pork then multiple vegetable dishes then weird things I have no idea what they are so I eat without looking or thinking.  But this huge pile of food, typically containing all the so called bad things like fats and carbohydrates, just disappears down Chinese throats,    It just adds to the mind boggling that so much food could be consumed, and typically the people around the table consuming this vast quantity of food are not obese.


So why? 


At the start I said how mind boggling China is, if you think you understand it you are probably wrong but it will change in the next six months anyway.  Food is equally mind boggling, at the personal level we face a wide and often conflicting opinions form the experts about what we should eat which seems to miss the importance of the soil from which all out food comes while at the global level we have a food industry, generally controlled by large corporation which is overproducing food which is widely condemned as unhealthy and is slowly destroying the nutrient value of our soils.


Will I gain more insights during my next month in China? Will I find (despite my skepticism) that super-plant which enable people to eat as much as they like of whatever they like?  Will I find out how the majority of Chinese remain fit, slim and healthy despite a diet that most experts would condemn?   Will I find clues to an agricultural system which will feed the world with healthy food without destroying our soils?


Will I be able to de-boggle my mind to present some effective answers to any or all of these questions in my next newsletter?


All I know for sure is that life is never dull in China.