The odd title of
this book by the Asia environment correspondent for The Guardian, “When a Billion Chinese Jump”, comes from a warning
he heard as a child. If everyone in China jumped at the same time, he was told,
the shock would knock the earth off its axis and kill everyone on the planet.  You don’t have to read too far into the
book before you realize that the world’s second largest economy may be killing
all of us in its head-long dash to modernise with scant regard for our planet.

Jonathan Watts
argues that Chinese have so deep a cultural prejudice against nature that even the
central government’s efforts to protect and improve the environment are
ignored.

The book is more a
travelogue than a scientific tome. Watts peels the onion of environmental
degradation as he journeys across China, from the village in Yunnan (which
supposedly is Shangri-la in the novel “The Lost Horizon”) to the more developed
and industrialized cities of the coast, to its hinterland, coal fields in
Shaanxi, and Inner Mongolia and the encroaching desert. He relates the environmental
catastrophe through the voices of environmental activists, scientists,
government officials and disenfranchised victims suffering disease and
indignity.

Consider some of
the following environmental crimes:

  • Since 1949 China has built 87,000
    dams – most of them environmental catastrophes. Some Chinese and foreign
    seismologists have claimed that the devastating Sichuan earthquake of 2008
    occurred because one of the dams placed so much weight on a fault line
    that “had been relatively inactive for thousands of years”.
  • In 2006 some 8.6 million tonnes of
    untreated sewage was pumped into the South China Sea by just two provinces
    – Guangdong and Fujian in the country’s industrialised south.
  • By 2020 the volume of urban
    rubbish in China is expected to reach 400 million tonnes – the equivalent
    of the rest of the world in 1997.
  • Half the world’s current airborne
    dust comes from China.

This is scary
stuff. China’s voracious appetite threatens the world.

But scarier still
is that the people interviewed by Watts on his journey across China speak as
though man and nature are disconnected from each other. They tend to believe
that nature is something to be conquered and used, rapaciously if we wish. Even
Chinese scientists seem to believe this. One of them has suggested using 200
nuclear bombs to blast a hole through the Himalayas to improve wind circulation
in China.

Watts attributes
this to Confucianism. This ancient philosophy privileges social harmony and the
material needs of society over nature. Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward in 1958 started
a mad rush to industrialise that trampled everything in its path and created
the world’s worst man-made famine. Although China’s current development spree
is by no means so catastrophic, the environment is still being trashed because Chinese
are still Confucians at heart. As Watts points out, fixing the environment will
require more than legislation and government edicts from Beijing; it will
require a deep cultural shift.

In such an
impressive book there are some disappointing lapses.

Watts fails to
mention China’s belief in its own superiority. This was most evident in
imperial times, but it lingers on today. Other nations are regarded as
barbarians who should pay homage to China. This seems to explain why China
ignores neighbouring countries when disposing of its waste. China currently
seeds clouds over Beijing and Inner Mongolia (part of China) with chemicals to
force it to rain on its territory, ignoring the desertification of the
grasslands of independent Mongolia.

Another fault is
that Watt doesn’t look into a crystal ball. For example, what will happen when
water becomes even scarcer than it is today? There is already discussion in
Chinese scientific and military circles about harnessing the headwaters of the
Ganges and diverting them away from India and into China. Forecasting is the
real jump that could shake the world to its core, is it not?

Watts sees hope
for the future in a myriad of small, community level initiatives throughout the
country. But China is vast and each region has gigantic problems. Thinking
locally is like sticking your finger in the crack in the dam. There are just
too many cracks. What is needed is a concerted effort by the Central Government
to coordinate national action.

China needs a
cultural shift, not from Communism to capitalism, but from Confucianism back to
Taoism – an older Chinese philosophy that taught man to live in harmony with
nature. And then it needs to think of itself as a citizen of the world, not as
the centre of the world.

Depressingly these
changes seem very distant. In the meantime, China, which has the highest per
capita rates of cancer and stillborn births in the world, will continue to poison
itself — and perhaps the rest of us as well.


Constance Kong is
the pen name of a Shanghai-based business consultant.

Constance Kong is the pen name of a Shanghai-based business consultant.