Lanzhou, China


When my mother had had enough of running, screeching children, she would tell us, “Everyone outside!” Unless rain or snow poured down, we were expected to jump out in the fresh air and leave her in peace for at least an hour. My protests, as the eldest (“I’m not making any noise, I’m just reading!”), were met with professional deafness. Fresh air would do me good, she said firmly. Even if its temperature hovered below freezing.


This was probably true. Truer still: she relied on my watchful eyes to ensure my younger siblings’ safety and wellbeing.


Tossing kids, especially squabbling brothers, out of the house into the wilds of suburbia left my mother in peace. She was not the only woman to have hit upon that answer, and in winter my brothers spent their time building forts, stockpiling snowballs, and persuading their friends across the street into a battle with white missiles.


Imagine my mother’s solution multiplied by . . . well, a lot. On a national level. In a nation where the noisy, troublesome younger brothers number in the tens of millions.


Citizens of China sometimes refer to their country as “Mother China”. Mother is definitely sending the boys out to build . . . after they flatten 700 mountains.


Plans are afoot for a huge undertaking in the western city of Lanzhou, nearly 1000 miles from Beijing. Lanzhou is even farther from populous Shanghai (1311 miles). In order to create a “new city” – Lanzhou’s population already numbers above 3 million – hundreds of thousands of people will be imported to flatten the surrounding mountains and then construct the new roads and town.


Already a transportation hub and industrial site prone to earthquakes, Lanzhou will become the backyard for some of the excess young men created by the one-two punch of the Chinese one-child policy plus the massive use of sex-selective abortion to ensure sons. This risky practice continues despite obvious flaws (some kindergarten classrooms contain only a couple of girls) and even more dangerous projections. Despite recent suggestions that China might relax its one-child policy because of a rapidly aging population, there is no plan to require women carrying female fetuses to bring them to birth. Absent such a provision, China might easily go the way of India (where the increasingly popular two-child family is more often than not the family of two sons).


So. There’s Mother China on one side: “Go west and play in the dirt! Get out of the eastern cities, the crowded places. We’ll pay you to create this new city, the pride of western China . . . and you’ll be well out of our way, with your testosterone and aggression, out under the big sky!”


On the other side, Lanzhou itself, a city whose current population falls between those of Chicago and Los Angeles. Presumably, enormous civic pride met the announcement of the new project (which, of course, will take years to complete). Yet destroying the mountains of Lanzhou means an ecological nightmare. The soil is loess. Loess is made up of silt deposited over time, and is highly prone to erosion. Strong westerly winds from the Gobi Desert pick up the easily dispersed soil and waft it into the atmosphere, where it is carried east and southeast to Beijing, Shanghai, Guangdong – basically, all of China’s largest cities.


Already, Lanzhou’s own air quality is dangerously poor. Releasing more soil to be rushed into the air as particulate will worsen air quality and endanger the health of everyone nearby and in the winds’ path.


In addition, the Yellow River runs through Lanzhou. It is already well-used for industry as well as for crops and human domestic use. Imagine the pressures on the river of the horde of new workers – not to mention those who will follow. The Yellow River (the second longest in China, prone to flooding and course changes due to its rising riverbed) then winds its way through the nation. What water will be left for those downstream, and what will be its quality? Again, a health disaster.


Yet the most obvious threat to Lanzhou will be the invaders. Oh, they’ll call themselves planner, engineers, construction workers, and so on. Really, though, a huge plague of young men will descend on Lanzhou, many more than the area is prepared for or can tolerate.


Perhaps they will be housed away from the city proper. Perhaps they’ll be kept under close watch, locked into their dorms at night and allowed only brief tantalizing glimpses of the city – these eastern boys with their education and knowledge.


How well do you suppose surveillance will work? When the numbers of young women have already been made low, and the competition for them extreme? When any group of young men contains extroverts who lead the way in taking risks, challenging authority and creating mayhem? When their numbers will be in the hundreds of thousands?




China faces a terrible dilemma, and no amount of “by 2030, theirs will be the first economy in the world!” can disguise the fact that – even if that turns out to be true – it will come with a steep price tag of trouble and pain. In the past, a centralized state could rid itself of a population that threatened it. These days, that’s not only unethical, it’s impossible. Unless a nation shuts down its internet, texting, Twitter and other forms of social media, it faces immediate worldwide wrath for selective genocide.


What will China do with all its noisy, wrangling, upsetting-the-peace young men? Sending them outside to play in the dirt can result in even worse outcomes. While China needs to act immediately to raise the proportion of newborn girls, its excess boys and young men are here on the ground. Keeping them busy, productive and away from the populous east – without creating more harm – is a problem that, so far, has no effective resolution.