From Red to Black: Can China Turn Green?

The following is a review of When a Billion Chinese Jump: How China Will Save Mankind – Or Destroy It, by Johnathan Watts.

Jonathan Watts (華衷) is a self-confessed worrier. When he was a child there was a popular urban myth in the West that if China’s one billion people all jumped at exactly the same time, it would “shake the earth off its axis and destroy us all.” For some time, the young Watts’ bedtime prayers ended by asking God to “help all the poor and hungry people, and please make sure everyone in China doesn’t jump at the same time.”

Watts’ childhood worry has been replaced with its adult version. China’s poor and hungry people have been helped, not by God but by an economic boom that has lifted some 400 million of them out of poverty in the past three decades. China’s welcome prosperity naturally means that its people are consuming more. So China is hungry for resources, for oil and gas, for timber and gold, for exotic mushrooms and for prized caterpillars. The 1.3 billion Chinese people have jumped—and the earth is shaking. The question now is how much damage they’ll do to their country and our planet.

This much we all know, more or less. Watts’ fine book shows us the gritty ground-level details about one of the most important challenges we as a species face. It is a book that takes us on a tour of China to see how a red China turned black – and looks for signs that the China of the future will be green. Watts is a journalist for the “Guardian” and this is a book in the best tradition of foreign correspondents’ reportage. He traveled extensively, logging more than 100,000 kilometers of travel throughout the vast country as part of his research. This is a unique and uniquely devastating portrayal of China. Yet Watts does not condemn. He seeks only to understand.

Watt’s tales are engaging vignettes that would stand on their own—and in fact, many of them did, drawn as they are from stories that he first published in the “Guardian.” But Watts uses these tales to knit a picture of a country that knows it has a serious problem but whose addiction to growth means it is at risk of systemic environmental collapse.

What first looks like a collection of disconnected threads slowly emerges as a complex tapestry. Watts weaves together the strands of a journey that begins in one of the country’s most unspoiled parts, the southern province of Yunnan. He tells the story of the tourist center of Zhongdian, now known as Shangri-la. Shangri-la, a mythical story written by an Englishman who had never been to China, was transformed from an object of scorn by Chinese officials who scoffed at its feudalistic fantasy to a travel marketer’s dream. As Chinese towns fought over the right to the Shangri-la name, the country’s State Council had to step in to solve the dispute. Zhongdian now has been transformed from a charming mountain town to a tourist showcase. Shangri-la is paradise lost.

The journey continues from the relative wild of Yunnan and Tibet to the country’s populated heartland. We see full-on consumerism in Shanghai, a city where the average citizen has a larger carbon footprint than her British counterpart and uses almost twice the developed-world average in toilet paper. And we get a sense of the scale of urbanization in Chongqing, a city where skyscrapers are going up in the air and holes for burying garbage are going down into the earth. With China’s urban population growing by 10 million to 20 million a year, the country has no choice but to build cities. Already, China has over 120 cities with more than one million people. During the first quarter of this century, China will build more than half of all the world’s new buildings, 50,000 of them skyscrapers, equivalent to ten New Yorks.

The West, too, shoulders its share of blame in Watts’ tale. Between 15% and 40% of China’s CO2 (carbon dioxide) emissions come from its exports

China’s top leaders have come to accept, more or less grudgingly, that the country’s growth path is unsustainable. Part of it is sheer numbers: China has one-fifth of the earth’s people but only one-tenth of its arable land. Environmental official Pan Yue (潘岳) warns desertification could force the resettlement of 186 million people, one of every seven people. There isn’t enough water, there isn’t enough clean energy, there isn’t enough cropland, to allow China to live a 21st century American lifestyle with 20th century energy and production methods.

And yet a China addicted to growth may not be able to save itself from destruction. Watts ridicules “New York Times” columnist Thomas Friedman’s notion that he would like to “be Chinese for a day,” as if China’s authoritarian government has a magic answer to deal with environmental issues. Instead, Watts convincingly shows that China has the worst of both worlds. Its authoritarian leaders are unable to enforce their writ on the ground yet a repressive political system means that there are few checks to power. Local officials, developers and polluters have their way. Ordinary people are denied a voice as environmental laws are broken with impunity. Clusters of cancer villages suffer. Widows of coal miners who have died in mine collapses are afraid to tell their stories. “We have filthy officials and filthy water,” said river activists in one province. “For clean water, we need clean officials.”

The final section of the book looks at alternatives. Most of these solutions reflect China’s faith in science and a long-standing belief that man can triumph over nature. These are engineered solutions, “reckless, even desperate measures.” There are dams built near seismic faults, increased reliance on genetically modified food and trees, the massive south-north water diversion project, coal liquefication, and a project to pull down the chimneys of buildings with the most polluting boilers – just some of China’s many experiments to cope with its tightening environmental constraints.

Yet the incremental experimentation should not, in Watts’ view, mask the brutal fact that China is losing the war. Its environment is becoming more degraded and its future more precarious.

The book’s fault reflects its strength. Watts is understandably reluctant to do away with his rich stories, but the book would have benefited from tighter editing. Some readers may not have the patience to follow a discussion of the illegal trade in animals that wanders into a paragraph on sexual experimentation, prostitution, and a sex-toy factory. A chapter on Barbie dolls and consumerism ends up with a waspish profile of cosmetics legend Kan Yue-Sai (靳羽西). There are too many of these digressions.

Watts’ childhood fears were overblown. But he is right to worry today. A fast-growing China will face environmental constraints on a scale that no country has ever seen. Much as he tries, Watts can find little ground for optimism. In the minds of its leaders, China faces a choice between the demand for growth and the need for a clean-up. Growth is winning and the environment is losing.

Originally published in the Hong Kong Economic Journal. Can be accessed at