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Books newlight on 10 Sep 2011 02:27 pm

Book review: When a Billion Chinese Jump

My review of Jonathan Watts’s book When a Billion Chinese Jump for China Today. This was written in Chinese and later translated into English.

2010-09-11. When A Billion Chinese Jump

When A Billion Chinese Jump: How China Will Save Mankind – Or Destroy It

Author: Jonathan Watts

496 pages, paperback

£8.46

Published by Faber and Faber

THE book’s title comes from a childhood experience of its author in the 1970s. On learning the concept of one billion, he was introduced to the nation with a population of that size, and warned: “If everyone in China jumps at exactly the same time, it will shake the earth off its axis and kill us all.” After that whenever he prayed for family and friends at night, he would usually sign off with the plea: “Please make sure everyone in China doesn’t jump at the same time.” Thirty years on, the boy who used to worry about the fate of mankind was a journalist on a respected British newspaper and did come to China.

Jonathan Watts was a reporter for the London-based Guardian, and that newspaper’s correspondent in Japan before being sent to China in 2003. The rocket-fueled economy and dramatic transformation in the social environment attracted him to the country – this was where it was all happening. Living in China reminded him of his childhood fear that a billion Chinese are jumping at the same time, but instead of jumping the fear is now of them embracing Western consumerism. A billion Chinese jumping simultaneously might produce a small earthquake, but if they all followed an American lifestyle, the resources consumed and the ensuing environmental damage would lead catastrophic destruction.

Initially his reporting brief from China was not environment-focused. Like many others, he believed the solution to environmental pollution and climate change could be found in smart ideas, strong actions, increased investment and new technology: but he changed his mind after the “biggest news story” of his career.

It was the last large-scale search for Baiji, a freshwater dolphin found only in the Yangtze River. Scientists from all over the world, equipped with the most advanced equipment, made careful searches of the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze, but not a single one was spotted. The next year, the species was declared functionally extinct. Watts was the accompanying reporter in the expedition, and witnessed the atmosphere on the ship change from optimistic and expectant to depressed and angry. He was no longer convinced by reassurances that humanity would eventually get it right. Sometimes it may be too late to remedy the damage caused by the “get rich first, clean up later” model. How could we assume we are becoming more civilized when a 25-million-year-old species, an animal once worshipped, had been wiped out by neglect, greed and human filth?

Watts subsequently focused on environmental issues and became Asia environment correspondent for the Guardian in 2008. When a Billion Chinese Jump brings together selected reports and investigations from 2003 to 2010 and reports made specifically for this particular book. His eco-travelogue starts in Zhongdian (now renamed Shangri-la) in Southwest Yunnan Province and ends in the north of Inner Mongolia in Xanadu, the summer capital of Kublai Khan’s Yuan Dynasty. His tracks take in export factory zones in eastern and southern China, metropolitan Shanghai, the biodiversity-endangered southwest of China and the polluted industrial cities of the northwest.

Watts serves up worrying illustrations of environmental pollution and climate change, documenting conversations with local residents, officials, environmentalists and scientific workers. Throughout the book, he ponders the dilemma that China and the whole world is facing: It is the right of Chinese to pursue a better life, but adopting a Western standard of living in a country of 1.3 billion people will consume huge resources and produce prodigious waste. Can the planet take it?

The author warns time and again that we cannot count solely on scientific development to improve the environment, nor have blind faith in its ability to manage nature. Recent years have produced many wake-up calls, alerting Chinese society to the fragility of its environment, the rarity of natural resources, and the fact that China’s economy could soon, and in some places already has, hit the “environmental wall” – the point where economic development reaches the limits of what the environment can sustain, and growth begins to hobble. But the Chinese have “jumped” onto the consumerism train, and people in India, Brazil and Africa are looking to jump aboard too. Jonathan Watts, a self-confessed “born worrier,” just hopes China can find a way to balance a robust economy and healthy environment in the 21st century.

It brings to mind Watts’ comment when reporting on the Qinghai-Tibet Railway for The Guardian: “In the 19th century, Britain and Europe taught the world how to produce. In the 20th century, the US taught us how to consume. If China is to lead the world in the 21st century, it must teach us how to sustain.”

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