books development globalisation

When a Billion Chinese Jump, by Johnathan Watts

Why bother cutting my emissions when China is building a new power station every week? That’s a common enough objection to taking responsibility for one’s ecological footprint. China overtook the US as the world’s biggest emitter of carbon this year, and has doggedly stood by its rights to develop and industrialize, and nobody is going to tell China what to do. At the same time however, China has more installed solar capacity than any other country, has the biggest high speed rail network, and is pioneering green technologies from carbon capture and storage to electric car batteries.

When a Billion Chinese Jump is the book that makes sense of China’s role in a world of climate change, and what an excellent book it is too. The title comes from the author’s childhood fear that if everyone in China jumped at once, the earth would tilt off its axis. Now, he reasons, a billion Chinese have jumped – economically speaking – and the earth needs to rebalance.

The book is written as a travelogue. Jonathan Watts makes his way across the country from West to East, investigating a variety of environmental issues along the way. It’s a great travel book in itself, full of local characters and exotic places, both pleasant and unpleasant. Watts travels to disaster zones, goes down coal mines, and is shown around eco-city building sites and model communist villages. He visits the “awe-inspiringly grim” places where our recycling is sorted, and the six storey Barbie mansion in Shanghai. He talks to tiger farmers and communist party leaders, mushrooms foragers, coal miners, millionaires. It being China, such investigations aren’t without their risks, and every once in a while he has to beat a hasty retreat or even hide from the authorities. But Watts is a journalist, not an adventurer, and the focus is very much on the places and the life stories he encounters.

There is, as we all know, a dark side to China’s remarkable growth boom. Each chapter in the book covers a different region of China, and also a different issue: deforestation, pollution, erosion, conspicuous consumption, carbon emissions. It is at times a little terrifying, more often tragic – the price of China’s industrial success is misery for millions of ordinary people.

Looking at all of this up close, Watts begins to unpick the story behind China’s development, and it’s a unique and fascinating ones. Driven by Mao’s Great Leap Forward, nowhere on earth has pursued industrialization with such single-minded determination. It’s hard to overstate just how extreme this drive to industrialize has been. It borders on parody sometimes – the men paid to shovel soot onto glaciers to make them melt faster, the planes that are scrambled over desert regions to shoot down passing clouds, or one village’s literal monument to materialism, a pavilion where each household has listed their possessions to show how far they have come.

Nothing will stand in the way of China’s rise, and there is huge pride in industry over farming, cities over countryside. This puts a distinctly utilitarian slant on China’s attitude to the environment, and encourages industrial solutions to environmental problems – ecological ‘construction’ rather than ‘restoration’ or ‘preservation’. Rather than clean up and regulate pollution on the Yangtze, for example, the authorities built a lake reserve to move the endangered Yangtze river dolphins into – except that the dolphin was extinct before it was ready. Instead of protecting the forests where pandas live, pandas are bred in captivity, and the section on panda farming is eye-opening to say the least.

China’s political system doesn’t help either, being neither democracy nor dictatorship. As Watts puts it, there’s no Mao driving the aggressive top-down capitalism any more. Instead, there are “hundreds or thousands of little Maos in local government and industry, each with a personal fiefdom, each trying to build an empire, and each desperate to make their mark with a big project.” It is at the local level that heavy industry is built, and pollution levels are ignored. Each area has targets, want to raise productivity in their community, and it is here that economic growth is pursued most recklessly.

And who can blame them, when so many Chinese are poor? At one point in the book, Watts is exploring a village that imports waste from the West and sorts it. It’s a dump, the people living in shacks surrounded by great piles of plastics and metals and scrap, the air smoky and the water grey. Are they not concerned about the pollution, Watts asks, and one worker’s reply kind of sums up the whole deal: “I don’t care about the environment. If your stomach isn’t full, how can you worry about your health?”

The population of China today is twice the entire world’s population in 1750, when industrialization first began in the UK. It has been the development paradigm of choice ever since, but for this many people, at this level of consumption, it is folly. In this sense, China in the 21st century “represents both the apotheosis of human development and the folly of continuing with business as usual” says Watts. “The planet’s problems were not made in China, but they are sliding past the point of no return here.”

If it is to succeed, China must re-invent industry, and work out a whole new way of developing. With its huge reserve of labour and remarkable ability to pull off national projects, it’s better placed than anyone to do just that. But it needs to start soon. “Though it has promised to create an eco-civilisation, the government continues to prioritise growth, social stability and enhanced national power” the book concludes. And thus, as the book’s tagline make clear, ‘China will save the World – or destroy it’.


  1. Yeah, I’m reading this now. It’s brutally depressing. I’m actually living in Shanghai, and reading the SH chapter makes me want to vomit. Hoo boy… Can’t wait to finish this thing.

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