Book of the week: When a Billion Chinese Jump: How China will Save Mankind - or Destroy it

Kerry Brown on a sobering snapshot of a ravenous giant whose new prosperity could bring global tragedy

July 8, 2010

When journalist and academic Jonathan Watts was small, he prayed every night that all the people in China would not jump up at the same time, as he had been told this would push the Earth off its axis and destroy the world. Three decades later, after several years based in Beijing, he is still worried, but by a far more likely calamity - China's looming environmental catastrophe.

The 2009 Copenhagen Climate Change Conference showed all too starkly that the Chinese government continues to believe that pollution and man-made environmental degradation were problems created by the West, and that the West must shoulder the burden of solving them. Its government, led by two technocrats that Watts nicknames President Water (Hu Jintao is a hydro-engineer by training) and Premier Earth (Wen Jiabao is a geologist), has placed economic development as its greatest responsibility. Everything else, for the time being, takes second place.

Watts has written a nationwide audit of where China's environment stands as of the end of the first decade of the 21st century. He travels from the south-west to the diverse, lush natural world in Yunnan, right over to the vast arid deserts of Xinjiang in the north-west, and to the booming coastal provinces on the coast from south to north. He also travels inland, to places like Henan, a province only twice the size of Scotland but crowded with more than 100 million people.

His eyewitness accounts are the great strength of this important book. He doesn't just write about the melting glaciers, but in both Tibet and Xinjiang goes to see them, talking to the scientists based nearby who calculate that they are receding at a rate of 10m a year. He sees for himself the huge deforestation that, in the space of half a century, has changed the north-east from one of the world's largest forests into a rust belt that is still being exploited for what little timber it has left.

In Shanghai, he meets middle-class Chinese consumers who are more carbon-wasteful than people in the UK, and speaks to those who have become wealthy and famous selling brands, cars and lifestyles that are now heaping more pressure on the huge energy-burning furnace that is the Chinese economic model.

He manages to steal into illegal, dangerous mines (China has lost a staggering 170,000 miners in accidents in the past 30 years) and goes hunting for the final Baiji, a freshwater dolphin that lived solely in the Yangtze. The failure of his team to find a single specimen is proof that yet another endangered species has now become extinct.

China's vastness means that different areas have different problems. Coal usage, and its huge damage to the environment in terms of how it is mined, transported and then used, is the greatest villain. But fierce competition is offered by overfishing, pollution of water (the Yellow River, long called China's Sorrow for its vast floods throughout thousands of years of history, is reduced to a dirty, depleted trickle), destruction of agricultural land by poisons, and overfarming. This perfect storm is exacerbated by corrupt local officials obsessed by GDP growth at the expense of everything else, and ineffective implementation of national environmental rules.

There are some bright moments, but all too few. Civil society groups in places such as northern Inner Mongolia, the region of China with the highest per capita carbon emissions, are starting to fight back, raising awareness of their local problems and the likely national and global impact if these aren't addressed. Cities in the north-east such as Dalian and Shenyang, and even the vast Chongqing down in the south, are piloting bold experiments, using human waste as a source of fuel, trying to revolutionise city planning to make it more energy efficient, and contemplating covering the Gobi Desert with solar panels. Billions of trees have been planted. A central Ministry of the Environment has been created. China's leaders talk more and more of creating a "green economy". They have set themselves bold targets to improve energy efficiency and diversify energy sources.

But China is fighting the legacy of its own history. Most of the people Watts interviews speak almost as though mankind were somehow apart from nature, needing to battle and fight with it. One older adviser even suggests that 200 nuclear bombs should be used to blast a vast hole through the Himalayas to create a wind tunnel that would improve the wind circulation from south to north Asia!

Confucianism set the template for this mindset, emphasising society rather than the environment. Mao Zedong took it to extremes, writing about nature almost as though it were something to be attacked, curbed or tamed. His limitless monstrous egotism was disastrous in allowing a huge surge in population, something that had to be attacked with radical family planning laws almost as soon as he died (Watts states that Chinese women have had as many as 260 billion abortions in the past decades), and promoting huge campaigns such as the Great Leap Forward in the 1950s and 1960s, which saw immense tracts of the country given over to sloppy, unsustainable industrial projects.

Watts says early on in his journey that while the UK taught people how to produce with the Industrial Revolution, and the US in the 20th century taught people how to consume, it is now China's turn to teach how to sustain. The pace and scale of its industrialisation, and its dependence on fossil fuels, means that as technology currently stands, it is impossible to see things continuing without some natural catastrophe.

Watts doesn't look into the future, but his statement of where things stand, with whole areas affected by cancer and stillborn births (China has higher per capita figures for both than any developed country) makes the situation clear enough. Stay as we are, and China's coal usage, energy hunger and pollution are very likely going to destroy it, and the world beyond. We can either passively let this happen or we can try to do something about it.

Watts' ending is bleakly philosophical, looking for hope in the many thousands of small initiatives and community responses across the country, rather than to some massive centrally driven campaign to clean things up.

Environmental degradation is not new to China - forests were over-exploited as early as the Han dynasty 2,000 years ago. This is why so much of central and western China is arid dustland now. But the shift from being a primarily agrarian society to one where the majority either live or work in cities, which is what is happening in China now, has created a new sort of society, the like of which the world has never seen before.

One of the key things to take from Watts' passionate but balanced book is the crucial need for people in China to think about the natural world, and mankind's place in it, in a different way. Some day, far sooner than people may think, the Chinese government is going to have to tell its citizens that they need to consume less and live in a different way. To the ruling Communist Party battling a number of other threats, this is a terrifying thought.

But at the moment, as this powerful description shows, China is well on the way to being the first country in human history to poison itself before it grows rich.


Jonathan Watts is currently a journalist who writes on East Asia for The Guardian. However, he is about to move into academia by taking up a post as assistant professor of communications at Kansai University, Japan.

Mr Watts has served as president of the Foreign Correspondents' Club of China and as vice-president of the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan. During his career he has reported on issues ranging from the tsunami in the Indian Ocean in 2004 to the fortunes of the North Korean football team in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

In 2007 he received the Press Award from One World Media - a UK-based organisation that aims to increase global understanding through effective use of the media - for his report on land-grabbing by the Chinese government and its effects on local peasants.

When a Billion Chinese Jump: How China will Save Mankind - or Destroy it

By Jonathan Watts
Faber and Faber, 320pp, £14.99
ISBN 9780571239818
Published 1 July 2010

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