Saturday, November 5, 2011

When a Billion Chinese Jump

My biggest problem with living in China when I was there was the pollution. Language issues, trying to understand social mores, being treated differently because I was a foreigner, and any homesickness I felt being on the other side of the planet from my home all paled in comparison to the you-can-only-fathom-it-if-you've-been-there pollution that engulfs China.

Xi'an's pollution, in particular, is horrific. Xi'an, the city I lived in for three and a half years, is just to the south and to the west of the richest coal reserves in China. Xi'an's streets are choked with cars and its economic activity (carbon emissions) is booming. South of Xi'an stand the mighty Qinling Mountains, a very formidable range. You may not know there are mountains near you if you live in Xi'an, though. The peaks of the Qinling range are not visible 350 days out of the year. The beauty of the Qinling Mountains are no match for Xi'an's all-encompassing smog.

Jonathan Watts, a China correspondent from The Guardian, last year published a book entirely about China and its environment, When a Billion Chinese Jump: How China Will Save Mankind - or Destroy It.

I'd heard a lot of hype about this book for more than a year in the China blog and Twitter-sphere. Having now read it, the book lives up to the big buildup it's garnered. When a Billion Chinese Jump expanded and refined my knowledge of environmental issues in China a great deal. Watts' book put important facts and figures into my brain to go along with the negative experiences I've had with China's pollution.

The organization of Watts book is very good. It is split into four sections - Nature, Man, Imbalance, and Alternatives - and highlights each of these themes by focusing on different corresponding regions in China - the Southwest, the Southeast, the Northwest, and the Northeast. The result is a full portrait of what is going on in the humongous land mass that is China. The good, the bad, and the ugly all make it into Watts study of Chinese people and their relationship with their land.

I've talked before on my blog about how western China is the most interesting part of the country to me. The West is the frontier land of China that is often overlooked by journalists and policy-makers who only spend time in the large metropoli of eastern China.

Nobody can accuse Watts of not getting the full picture of China in When a Billion Chinese Jump. He visits nearly every nook and cranny of every corner of China - the snow-peaked mountains and glaciers of Tibet and Sichuan, the barren deserts of the former Silk Road in Xinjiang, and the idyllic scenery of Yunnan - to get the widest-ranging scope of China's environmental impact possible.

One thing I found very interesting on a personal level is that Watts visits every city in the on-and-off series on this blog - Chinese Cities that You've Never Heard of But Should Know. The giant factory that is Guangzhou and its surrounding area, the "model village" of Huaxi, the excesses of Ordos, and the Bladerunner-esque city of Chongqing are all places that Watts highlights.

I think it's pretty cool that Watts and I see eye-to-eye on what are the larger-than-life stories going on in China today. There were several points in When a Billion Chinese Jump where I felt Watts had written the book just for my reading. That's a great feeling to get when plowing through a meaty book.

One of my favorite chapters in the book is titled, "Why Do So Many People Hate Henan?" I laughed out loud when I saw chapter title in the table of contents. I imagine that anyone who's ever lived or spent a some time in China know the reputation that Henan Province and its people have amongst non-Henanese Chinese people.

Watts writes: "The antipathy of so many Chinese feel toward Henan seems to mirror the prejudice that many foreigners express towards China: that it is dirty, overcrowded, and untrustworthy."

Watts reminds the reader, though, that Henan is the birthplace of some of the most glorious Chinese things from China: tai qi, kung fu, and Zen Buddhism. Watts writes convincingly that Henan, which at one time was a bucolic place, is the dystopia it is now because of a systematic destruction of its environment. Instead of being known for some of the most beautiful things China has offered to the world, Henan is now famous for pollution-induced cancer villages, corruption-induced AIDS villages, and the worst of the worst man-made problems in China.

The story of Henan is tragic. Watts hammers what's gone on there hard because the entire country of China is on the brink of becoming one big Henan-like hellhole.

I'm going to highlight a passage from When a Billion Chinese Jump that I liked. It features a general theme found throughout the book: ingrained Chinese cultural traits make one wonder whether there is any hope that China will be able to change its attitude towards its environment.

From page 68 and 69:

Whether China's deeply ingrained negative cultural attitudes towards nature can be overcome is going to be one of the most important things to watch in the world over the next several decades.

My only criticism of When a Billion Chinese Jump is that it, at times, sounds a bit patronizing. Hearing Watts, an Englishman, lament fast food's growth, the Barbie store in Shanghai, and China's embrace of materialism was a bit much at times. I do think that it is near impossible to avoid this problem when a westerner writes a critical book about a developing country. Reading about "Barbie's eco-footprint" (the CO2 that Barbie, if a real person, would've been responsible for emitting) made me cringe some, though.

Watts book is a great guide to understanding China's struggle to build sustainable economic and societal structures. Watts knows a ton about China and such is reflected in his very serious, yet readable, book. I recommend anyone with even a hint of a green world-view or interest in China to pick up When a Billion Chinese Jump.