When a Billion Chinese Jump

The dark side of China's rapid industrialisation is terrible environmental damage, claims a British journalist.
Constance Kong | Mar 17 2011 | comment  

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.

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