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Better Environment and Livelihood in Inner Mongolia

   Inner Mongolia, founded in 1947, is one of China’s five autonomous regions, the other four being Tibet, Xinjiang Uygur, Ningxia Hui, and Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. It occupies nearly one-eighth of China’s land territory, but has traditionally constituted a disproportionately small share of the national economy.

   The region has been looking up since the turn of the century, however, with a GDP growth showing unprecedented velocity – the highest across China for seven successive years. Even so, the per capita income remains short of the national average. Of its population of 24 million, 660,000 still live under the poverty line – an annual net income of RMB 1,196. The fragile eco-system of the region means efforts to enhance the economy there have to be made as scrupulously as the crossing of a tightrope. Difficulties aside, Inner Mongolia is setting an example of how to strike a balance between enriching the people and sustaining the natural environment.

Ecological Migration

   The story of Wang Ershe, aged 60, is just one illustrating the human dimension of ecological impacts. In 2005 Wang and his family were one of 50-odd households relocated to Tiexi New District of Dongsheng District, Ordos City. Their hometown – Chaideng Town, 40 kilometers away from their adoptive home – is chronically plagued by water shortages. Even in what’s considered a bumper harvest year, grain yields are barely enough to sustain a family.

   Here, Wang Ershe earns RMB 800 a month at his new job as a night watcher for the district government. His wife keeps house and looks after their granddaughter, a second-grader. With the second income of a pension (RMB 200 per month), plus a subsistence allowance (RMB 1,500 per year), the Wangs have seen a substantial improvement in their income, and in their lives in general. The couple is also qualified for a government subsidy to be applied against the cost of a home in the city. For a modest RMB 35,000 out of their own pocket, they secured a courtyard dwelling of 96 square meters. A better life is also enjoyed by their son and daughter-in-law, who started a small business in Ordos, making a decent income of RMB 50,000 to 60,000 a year. The young couple has acquired a home of their own.

   Inner Mongolia is known as a major frontier in China’s long battle with desertification. The invasion by deserts was finally contained by 2004. Ordos City in southern Inner Mongolia is one of the region’s economic power engines, yet it works with the grimmest ecological frailty. Of its 87,000 square kilometers of land, 48 percent is desert and 48 percent hills and valleys. Annual rainfall is recorded at 350 mm, but evaporation goes as high as 3,000 mm. Only four percent of its territory is fit for human habitation.

   After the nation enacted policies of converting farmlands to forests and prairies in 2004, Inner Mongolia enforced specific local measures such as bans on grazing in some areas, fallow and rotating grazing in other areas. Local farmers and herders in compliance with the policies received compensation from the government, making the return to a hunting and gathering subsistence unnecessary. Such efforts soon paid off. Between 2000 and 2008, vegetation coverage in Ordos rose from 30 to 70 percent. One of the benefits was a dramatic reduction in the annual sandstorms typically endured by the city, from 80 in 2000 to seven in 2007.

   The relocation of residents out of ecologically unsustainable areas, common in Inner Mongolia since 2000, was packaged with job offers in cities or lands by the Yellow River. Migrants to these locales can make RMB 1,000 or more a month, compared with RMB 200 or so for tending fields or flocks in their old hometowns. The lure of gainful employment has so far reduced the farming and herding population of Ordos from 900,000 in 2000 to below 300,000 today.

   For communities allowed to remain intact, reforestation has become a new means of making a living. The local government encourages them to grow desert-viable trees like sand willow (Salix psammophila) and sea buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides L.). The woods they create are designated the private property of the growers and can be inherited by their children. Liu Fenghai, 46, started to grow sand willows in 2000. The family of four runs a field of 200 hectares, which generated an income of RMB 10,000 in 2008. At present, rural residents of Ordos can each expect to make RMB 1,900 from the reforestation industry every year. The gross output value of the sector is estimated at RMB 2.456 billion annually. More than 30 enterprises have been built using sand willow to make plywood and paper.

Renovating Mining Zones

   Resource-rich Inner Mongolia also boasts the biggest coal deposit in China, some 658.3 billion tons. The region produced 457 million tons of coal in 2008, a 30 percent hike from the year before. Naturally, mining has been a staple sector of the local economy, filling the region’s coffers and creating jobs. Now the government’s work is to ensure that every citizen enjoys a fair share of the benefits.

   In Ulan Mulun Village of Ordos 61-year-old Han Cuiqiang takes her dog for their daily visit to the houses and apartment buildings presently under construction, of which one will be hers. In the village are 11 coal mines of various sizes, whose annual production capacity stands at 35 million tons. Of those, the ones run by the villagers’ committee yield 300,000 tons a year, generating a revenue of RMB 15 million.

   The village housing project commenced in 2006 is expected to accommodate 302 households or 1,125 people. Villagers can barter their old homes for new ones that are invariably bigger, and get the extra space at cost. With an annual per capita net income of RMB 20,000, plus subsidies from the mines and district government, all families can afford their new abodes.

   Many lives are touched by the new policies. Now that her family’s half-hectare of farmland has been turned to growing trees, Han lives on the slope behind the new construction site. Her three sons are all in mining-related businesses, and her only daughter is a teacher in a school. Though unable to give an exact figure of the subsidy her family has received, she happily points out that they need not pay a cent for their 240-square-meter house.

   New construction in Baotou, the largest industrial city in the autonomous region northeast of Ordos, includes 150 apartment buildings designed for 14,500 households of 39,000 people. Replacing the old slum neighborhoods of Shiguai Shantytown, the residences will be ready in July.

   An old mining zone, Shiguai began to see the consequences of excessive exploitation, recording such phenomena as cave-ins and landslides in recent years that put local homes and public infrastructures at increasing risk. In 2005 the city launched an extensive project to reinforce the structures and grounds of homes, schools, hospitals and other facilities in the district. Meanwhile new industries are nurtured to provide jobs for locals, who face diminishing opportunities in the moribund mining sector.

Expanding Community Medical Care

   In the community medical center of No. 18 Youyi in Kundulun District, Baotou City, an electronic screen flashes charts comparing its medicine prices to the rates set by the government. The city introduced a zero-profit system on medicine sales in its community medical centers eight years ago, designed to keep the costs of prescription drugs lower than set standards. For generic examinations and treatments for common chronic ailments such as hypertension, a patient pays as little as RMB 3 a year.

   According to Wang Zhixiang, director of the No. 18 Youyi community medical center, her staff has conducted three in-home surveys among local residents, and established health files for 85 percent of them. Extra attention is paid to the elderly people (over 60), children, women, and people with disabilities. Regular visits are made to victims of chronic disease. The center receives 100 or so patients every day.

   So far, 189 community healthcare clinics have been established in Baotou City, covering 98 percent of the urban population. Half of them are sponsored by big enterprises. For instance, No. 18 Youyi community clinic is run by the Baogang Group Hospital. No private stake can be held in this type of healthcare institute, to ensure that service quality suffers no interference from commercial interests. “Doctors in major hospitals are required to devote a certain proportion of their practice to community medical centers. These centers must provide satisfactory services or they cannot maintain people’s trust,” said Sun Dejun, head of the Health Department of the municipal government.

   To promote this general practitioner system in the area, 2003 saw the community medical center of No. 18 Youyi enter into formal cooperation with the St. Luke’s Foundation of the United States. The community center and the foundation manage an exchange program, where American experts are dispatched on a regular basis to examine the center’s patients and upgrade the training of its doctors, and the center staff members are welcomed for periods of study in the U.S.

Compared with more developed cities, the public health sector of Baotou currently has little chance of excelling in sophisticated utilities or cutting edge medical technologies. “Our success is an ‘inside job’,” Sun Dejun counters proudly, referring to its staff’s professionalism and the impressive residents’ health database, the product of ten years of in-home surveys among residents.


Han Cuiqiang, aged 61, happily anticipates her new house, which nears completion. 

VOL.59 NO.12 December 2010 Advertise on Site Contact Us