Spring in Peking--when dust storms battle with green belts

Spring is not my favorite season in Peking. The sprouting of green in Beihai Park and in the Summer Palace is welcome, as is the flourishing of forsythia and peach blossoms and the fragrance of lilacs.

But along with the flowers come the inevitable dust storms whirling in from the Mongolian steppes. Outdoors, women and children venture forth on their bicycles looking wraithlike with faces veiled in pink or purple gauze. Indoors, even behind tightly shut windows, fine dust accumulates on tables and chairs.

There is a man-made aspect to these storms. The progressive deforestation and desertification of Inner Mongolia has made things worse. Since coming to power in 1949, the People's Republic has made a determined effort to turn the desert green again. But the 10 years of turmoil known as the Cultural Revolution (1966- 76) interrupted this effort, and it is only in the last couple of years that protecting the environment and planting trees have become subjects of urgent concern.

Since the beginning of the month, the natural history museum in the precincts of the Temple of Heaven has been holding an exhibit on ''Protecting Nature in China.'' This is the first exhibit featuring the environment since the founding of the People's Republic. It has been drawing a constant stream of visitors, many of them schoolchildren with bright red pioneer scarves.

The exhibit is comprehensive, covering everything from soil erosion and the noxious effects of DDT (which still is not banned in China) to traffic jams and noise pollution in the cities. If present policies of disregard for nature and the environment continue, the exhibit warns, ''by 2000, 20 percent of China's animals and plants will be exterminated and one-third of China's agricultural land will be destroyed.''

Every year, the exhibit tells us, the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers wash 2.6 billion tons of mud to the sea because of soil erosion on their upper reaches. The answer: green belts and more trees.

China does not yet have a full-fledged environment ministry or commission--only a ''working group on the protection of the environment'' in the state council, the executive branch of government. At top levels of government and among scholars and scientists, there is growing concern over the ecological damage being wrought by industrialization, urbanization, and intensive farming.

How to spread this concern to the factory and commune level is the problem. The exhibit at the natural history museum is one of the first steps aimed at popularizing the cause.

Meanwhile, the romance of wide open spaces in China's northwest remains. These grasslands are becoming increasingly eroded by overgrazing and the unintelligent emphasis on growing grain during the Cultural Revolution. But it is only the romance that is stressed in one of the most popular films to hit the screen in recent years, ''Mu Ma Ren'' (''The Horse Herder'').

Xu Jingyou is a horse herder in the grasslands of Gansu. His father, who went off to the United States to study before the advent of the People's Republic, has become a multimillionaire and wants young Xu to join him in business in San Francisco.

Xu's feelings are very complex. Xu grew up in Peking and became a middle-school teacher. He is enthusiastic about building China. Branded a rightist and then a counterrevolutionary during the Cultural Revolution, he is packed off to the desolate north.

At first he contemplates suicide. But as he works day and night with thundering horses and the warmhearted lassoo-wielding folk who care for them, his joy in life revives. He marries a girl from Sichuan who rode the freight trains to escape famine in her native province, and establishes a happy home. The Cultural Revolution ends, and Xu is rehabilitated.

Then Xu's father returns. Xu is not tempted, either by the sumptuous repasts at the Peking hotel, or by the discos at the international club, foretastes of the life that awaits him in America. But he is moved by his father's desperate unhappiness, the emptiness of his life despite his riches.

The scenes between father and son are handled with restraint and credibility. In the end, Xu returns to his wife and child and to his school among the horse herders, while his father flies sadly back to America.

Last year, ''Bitter Love,'' a film about an artist persecuted during the Cultural Revolution, was banned and its writer Bai Hua forced to make a self-criticism. In the film the artist-hero has no words to answer his daughter's bitter taunt, ''You love your country, but does your country love you?''

''The Horse Herder'' is in a sense an antidote to this film, and this is why it has been so enthusiastically recommended by the Communist Youth League and other official organizations. But the hills and pastures of Gansu are breathtakingly filmed, and city-dwellers cooped up in their cubbyhole apartments can rejoice that China still has landscapes of infinite green into which they can escape for the space of two hours. How to preserve these landscapes is the task of today's generation.

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