The environmental situation in China is anything but simple. ‘China is a 3000-year-old civilisation in the body of an industrial teenager; mega-rich, dirt-poor, overpopulated, under-resourced, ethnically diverse mass of humanity that is going through several stages of development simultaneously,’ writes Jonathan Watts in his upcoming book When a Billion Chinese Jump.
The Diplomat contributor Brian Chapman spoke with Watts about his book—part reporting, part travelogue—about the dark reality of the country’s factory pollution, cancer villages, species loss and emissions hazards. And about what China can do to make its growth green and sustainable.
Many of the articles you’ve written recently for The Guardian are tied closely to the subjects you cover in the book. What prompted you to write a book on the subject, rather than just continue reporting?
I think the trend in my career has been towards spending more time on longer stories. When I was in Japan, I’d be doing three or four stories a week, just as I was in China. After I moved to China in 2003, I found myself doing a lot more long, feature travel journalism stories. I think China does that to you because it’s so big—it’s so fast-moving that you capture that sense of motion and scale.
It helps to have a bit more space, and during the course of the story to try and cover quite a lot of ground to show the diversity of the place, which often gets lost when you do single stories on a day-to-day basis.
In your book you seem to start off quite pessimistically about China’s environment, but by the end, you have an almost optimistic tone.
I think there are huge mood swings when you cover China. You can see things that just totally depress you and huge setbacks for people who seem to be thoroughly decent people trying to do the right thing to improve their lives and improve society. But they end up sometimes getting locked up for upsetting somebody in power or falling victim to some kind of accident.
And then you can also see amazing improvements in people’s lifestyles and really huge ambitions. I think the same for the environment. China’s environmental crisis is worse than most people realize. But at the same time, I think China is doing a lot more to try and tackle those problems than people outside of the country realise.
There’s an awful lot of reasons to be pessimistic about the way things are going not just in China, but because China’s environmental decline is pretty much a result of what humanity has been doing for the past 200-odd years to the planet. It’s sort of reached a peak here after accumulating over all this time. So you really have to be reinventing things because the global economy has started to hit an ecological wall here in China. By that I mean the fact that the rivers are so overexploited, the deserts are creeping up on cities and farm fields, you’re seeing a much more changeable climate, glaciers melting, there are cancer clusters around some of the worst-regulated factories, particularly in the countryside.
So there are an awful lot of ways in which the environment is a mess. It can be pretty grim to cover. And yet, this is also the place where, because the economy is growing so fast, because the central government really does have control over so many economic and financial levers, it’s able to pour money into the search for a solution, and that’s sort of when the positive side of what’s going on in China comes out, in that the renewable energy sector is just surging, almost to the point of creating a new bubble.
For example, China is now erecting wind turbines every hour—the old Silk Road is lined with wind turbines. The government also has promised to do more to promote the domestic industry in geothermal energy, to do more on biomass. There are a lot of car manufacturers here that are hoping they can leap over big companies in Japan and the US by going almost directly to hybrid cars and electric cars, and trying to, they hope in the future, mass-produce them and conquer the market in that area. Also, because China is urbanising so quickly, this is also the place where architects are experimenting with eco cities and trying to build whole cities from scratch that are more pedestrianised, that rely less on car culture, that have more self-sufficiency in terms of energy generation and so on.
If you want, you can look at China and paint a totally grim and negative picture. But at the same time, you can also look at China and paint a wonderful picture of: ‘This is the country that can save the world.’ That is typically China; it just spans the extremes. I think the truth is somewhere between the two.
All that said, I guess I’d have to give a cautionary note and say that overall, I think my impression is more on the negative side. It’s funny, in the process of writing the book, I guess my views and my approach changed a great deal. When I started out, I figured a book about the environment in China would be about pollution, and would be about climate change, and would be about the Communist Party’s lack of transparency, and traditional medicine making conservation worse. And all those things are significant and important. But in the process of writing, I spent a lot of time trying to put all of those problems into a historical and geographical context. And one of my conclusions is that I’m actually more worried now about consumption.
And I’m even more worried about biodiversity loss than even climate change, although that’s obviously a huge, important issue and very pressing. But the loss of so many species is really calamitous. There has been a big change and I can see that maybe if the problems that China faces are China-specific, in terms of the political system and the ancient traditions in regard to medicine, for example, others really do represent a global, human problem. A lot of these problems are accumulating problems that are just starting to reach the point of when they just can’t go on.
There’s a passage in your book in which you mention writing during your travels that: ‘In the 19th century, Britain taught the world how to produce. In the twentieth, the US taught us how to consume. If China is to lead the world in the twenty-first century, it must teach us how to sustain.’ Meaning change will have to go through China because it’s just so huge?
Absolutely. By figuring out how to put China on a sustainable track half, if not all, the world’s problems are solved, because other countries that are coming up behind in terms of economic development, like India or Brazil or Indonesia, would have a model to follow. But at the same time, if you can’t do that, you end up with a country like China following a really nightmarish extreme: the US model of energy consumption. Even if it was the much more scaled down, more modest, more the efficient consumption of Japan, or even just of Europe, you’d still have a calamitous situation on your hands because you’ve got these Chinese multiples of everything.
This is the real challenge of China: Can you persuade people and educate people, can people themselves realise that the US model, the Western model, even the Japanese model may have some elements they can take, but on the Chinese scale, they really need to find a Chinese solution for what’s sustainable and manageable?
The idea of ‘get rich first, clean up later’ is brought up as a common way of thinking about the environment in terms of economic development. But how can we get rich off of sustainability?
That’s the key point, which is why I think ‘get rich first and clean up later’ isn’t really applicable in the case of China and is really the reason why China is showing so many strains of environmental stress, because that just doesn’t work as it relates to East Asian global development. It’s why the government is trying very hard to try to find a way to be sustainable and still make money, and that’s why it’s investing so much in low-carbon technology. But they obviously can’t say to their own people, ‘Okay, all of you—consume less.’ It’s just not politically realistic while the people in their country look on the lifestyle very enviously of the US and Japan and other places.
I think the key is really two approaches to take. One is a technological, supply-side solution, and the other is a cultural or value orientated, demand-side solution. And what I mean by the first one is what China is already doing, this is what the government feels comfortable with, it’s finding smart, new technologies that provide much more energy in the future, particularly solar and wind, and using those new technologies, improving the lifestyle of people so that they can actually consume more in the future. And because the technology is so good, hopefully this will be not so much of a strain.
Then, though, you really do have the question of if that’s really going to work. And I’m very doubtful, as what technologies often do is that they make things more efficient, but they also tend to actually create new demands. And you end up solving one problem only to create two new problems, which is in a way kind of what happened to the world. But there comes a point in a finite world where you can’t keep doing that anymore. No government ever wants to say to their own people, ‘Consume less.’ It doesn’t matter whether it’s a communist government or a democratic government. You can’t get elected and keep the support of the people if you say, ‘Tomorrow you’ll have less than you have today.’
It’s all about trying to make sustainable consumption more attractive than excess, unsustainable consumption. And the only way you can do that is a change in the way people think. That could be a religious thing, it could be a philosophical thing, it could be an education thing, it could be a propaganda thing. Certainly it could be a media thing. You can’t give up on the technology. But at the same time, there’s a tendency at the moment in China and the whole world to just put all our eggs in the technology basket, hoping 10 years from now, 20 years from now, the scientists will have solved all our problems, which strikes me as rather complacent and potentially dangerous.
A surprising element in the book was learning just how much power lies in local governments, and not in the central government.
It certainly surprised me when I first came to China. Although now I realise how much it’s a feature of modern China that although we think of the Chinese government as authoritarian, it only applies in some cases. This is definitely not a totalitarian state that controls every element of a person’s life, but China is authoritarian in some things. Namely it’s very, very good at allocating large sums of money and encouraging economic expansion. But when it comes to restraint and constraint, I think it really struggles, and much more than people in the outside world realise.
When it comes down to it, it’s extremely difficult for Beijing to control a country of such a huge size and that’s actually more diverse than a lot of people realise. Basically, local governments pick and choose which sort of things to apply, and as often as not, they pick whichever ones will make more money for them. You see this again and again and again, that China’s environmental problems are not the result of the laws and policies. It’s really a big problem with implementation.
You also mention as a way to help the environment a return, so to speak, to Daoism and a more sustainable, nature-respecting or nature-loving philosophy.
It’s something that struck me being in China, and actually before I started researching this book, that the people who seemed most interested in the environmental issues, a lot of them did actually have something like religious or philosophical beliefs, though not all of them by any means. On one side, in particular, you have Tibetan Buddhism and some of the other ethnic minorities’ religions, particularly in Yunnan Province, which is very much about nature worship and respect for certain lakes and sacred mountains and so on. But also amongst the main Han majority population, going back a long way, you still have elements of Daoism.
It’s more a case [in Daoism] of letting nature go its own way. Don’t try and control everything and direct everything, it’s a more of a go-with-the-flow way of looking at the world. And that’s still alive to a degree. I guess the view of a lot of environmentalists is that China sort of needs to rediscover its Daoist side a bit more to overcome its problems and to appreciate nature a bit more.
The main point to make is that in Chinese society at the moment, partly because of the environment and because the society is changing so quickly, there really is this search for new values. That partly means picking up foreign ideas. It partly means picking out what’s the best of the communist system, and partly trying to keep the benefits of the capitalist market system. And it really is about, at least at the high levels and in academia, about thinking which views of our ancient past, our philosophies can we apply successfully today.
One of your recent articles was about the arrest of a well-known environmental activist. Is it dangerous to be an environmentalist in China?
I think it depends on how you do it. Going up against the authorities certainly is a lot riskier in China than in Britain, the US or Japan, and that’s certainly the case partly because there are big rules. But people also ignore the rules, especially at the local government level.
So it can be dangerous. There are times when environmental activists do get locked up for supposedly threatening stability, or upsetting someone in power. It happens. At the same time, though, it’s also important to note that there are an awful lot more NGOs than there were 10 or 15 years ago. Civil society is trying to make a space. The authorities are very suspicious of civil society. So it’s difficult and there are definite tensions and there are definite limits, and I’d say that nobody quite knows where they are and it really seems to depend on the place and the person and the subject.
Are NGOs the best place change can come from?
Certainly NGOs are a big part of it, but I think the hope is in people, in ordinary individuals and people and how they live their lives and what their values are. Really that’s what I see as absolutely crucial in trying to find a solution to the fix I really believe we’re in at the moment. NGOs are a part of that because they are all about trying to change values—think more for the environment—and they do have a role in education and value changing and lifestyle changing.
Your chapter about Shanghai in particular comes off as quite scathing.
It shouldn’t be seen as a reflection just of Shanghai. I think what I was trying to show in that chapter is that the people you meet in Shanghai are very much closest to those in developed nations. And I mean Japan and the UK and the US. In a sense they’re most like us. But the really big problem is us. It’s the fact that people in developed nations consume way more than the planet can sustain. So the chapter’s trying to show, in the China context, that the people who are doing that the most are people in places like Shanghai, and big cities like Guangzhou and Chongqing and Beijing, who have quite an affluent model lifestyle. In a sense, what they do now is what the rest of China might well end up doing five or ten years from now. And that’s the future, at least as the government wants the future to be with that level of consumption and affluence.
‘When a Billion Chinese Jump’ is published by Faber and Faber and will be released on July 15, 2010.