The smoking dragon


BIOGRAPHY: When A Billion Chinese Jump: How China Will Save Mankind – Or Destroy It,by Jonathan Watts, Faber and Faber, 483pp. £14.99

IN MANY OF the books written about China’s astonishing rise during the past 30 years, the country takes on the characteristics of a giant, a colossus that physically alters our world. James Kynge’s China shakes the world, while in Martin Jacques’s view it will transform and shape the globe in its image. Will Hutton’s China is a juggernaut dominating the 21st century.

In When A Billion Chinese Jump: How China Will Save Mankind - Or Destroy It, Jonathan Watts’s China has a similar overbearing physicality. The billion Chinese jumping in the book’s title refers to the myth that if a billion Chinese jumped at the same time, the world would fall off its axis. Many who grew up in the years before China’s period of opening up and reform are familiar with this fairy tale, this urban legend, but there is more than just childish fantasy behind this theory about China’s impact on the planet. The giant has jumped, and the repercussions are global.

China is now the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, its rivers are heavily polluted, the air in the cities is dangerously dirty on some days, its deserts are encroaching on the cities.

This is contemporary China as an environmental story. It’s fascinating, and not a little disturbing, to note how many of the big issues that we have come to associate with China are related to ecological questions, and how enmeshed so much of what has happened in the past 30 years is in the damage wrought to the natural environment.

China is home to 46,000 glaciers, more than any other country, but they are disappearing at a disturbing rate as temperatures in the Himalayas rise.

Every week China builds two 660-megawatt coal-fired power plants, and coal accounts for 69.5 per cent of the primary energy in China – 42 per cent more than the world’s average.

Watts was the Guardian’s China correspondent for seven years before becoming Asia environment correspondent and this is a comprehensively reported book, insightful and humane. It’s a subject where simply crunching the numbers could function to present the argument, but When A Billion Chinese Jumpwears its research lightly and has great compassion.

The book is a journey through China, starting in lofty Tibetan areas of China, before descending to the plains, taking in coal miners, Shanghai nouveau riche, farmers in the heartland and dam-builders and activists, Christians and Daoists alike. While the big picture is the backdrop, everywhere the story is told through individuals. With 1.3 billion people, it’s very easy to characterise China as a faceless nation, but the human element is well drawn here and gives a convincing illustration of the effect of global warming.

“On the road, I have seen how the earth’s lungs – the forests – have been decimated; its skin – the soil – is getting drier and more reliant on chemicals, the pressure on the earth’s arteries – the rivers – are higher owing to blocking dams and clogging pollution. Our energy reserves – coal and oil – are being run down faster than ever . . .

“Many nations show some of these symptoms. But they are all apparent in China, where the impacts of development are accumulated, amplified and accelerated.”

While the argument for how China could destroy the planet is relatively clear, how exactly will China save mankind?

To explain China’s reluctance to set carbon targets at international climate talks such as Copenhagen, Watts takes us down a coal mine with the story of Meng Xianchen and Meng Xianyou, who were trapped in a collapsed illegal mine and given up for dead, before they scratched their way out to safety after six days. “Cheap coal generates electricity for Beijing, Shanghai and Chongqing, fires the steel mills of Huaxi, powers the production lines of Guangdong, and allows consumers in the West to buy Chinese goods at a knockdown price. No other fuel has such an impact on the environment,” he writes.

There is sympathy in this book for the Chinese government’s argument on carbon emissions, that foreign companies have basically outsourced their pollution to China and that this should be reflected when it comes to dealing with China’s environmental issues at international climate change conferences.

He accepts that President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao cannot say to their people that they must not consume as much as the citizens of rich nations.

On his journey, Watts finds people who are looking for ways to combine climate solutions and profits, who are trying to find an alternative to the hydrocarbon economy. As he points out, while China is committed to a coal-fired future, it is also a growing player in the renewable energy sector. Every hour it builds a new wind turbine.

Watts visits a makeshift recycling plant in the town of Guiyu, where the people of the town risk their health to do the clean-up job for the West. Elsewhere, a stretch limousine arrives to bring the author to the village of Huaxi, a model Communist village that is the richest in China. The focus on the individual is significant because it is from individuals that any solution to the problem can be found, and individuals are responsible and capable of adapting, and thinking small can be a big idea, something that is capable of changing the behaviour even of a giant.

“Now China has jumped, we must all rebalance our lives.”

Clifford Coonan is China correspondent of The Irish Times