Ashley / China in the media

When a Billion Chinese Jump – A China Book Review

“Let China sleep, for when she wakes, she will shake the world.”  – Napoleon

Image source here

We got a kindle for Christmas (thanks Mom!) and while Phil and I earnestly wax philosophical about how we will never abandon the feel of a book and the smell of its pages I hate to say it, e-books are pretty awesome. Especially as a expat on the go, when English books aren’t always available and packing light is a high priority I think the kindle might be here to stay.

The first book I read on the kindle was “When a Billion Chinese Jump: How China Will Save Mankind or Destroy It” by Jonathan Watts. The Asian Environmental journalist for the Guardian has written prolifically on the Watts is making rounds on Asian literary tours and is set to visit Chengdu’s Bookworm literary festival on March 19th.

The title of the book is based an adage told to the author once that, “If everyone in China jumps at exactly the same time, it will shake the earth off its axis and kill us all.” China is at a crucial time in its history, politically, socially, environmentally, one could even say, they’re jumping. Thankfully, not all at the same time…yet. However with the environmental choices and problems facing the nation they might as well be jumping. In his book, Watts travels throughout China and organizing his work geographically, focuses on a different environmental concern/effort in each province (and impressively covers a good amount of them). This “road trip reporting” was in a style very similar to Hessler’s Country Driving (just with many more footnotes) and Watts’ states that “as the country is so big and moving so fast…[it] was a good way to capture that dynamism.”

His work is extremely well-researched and well-written (the notes at the end of each chapter might inspire a new book review), but it was also an extremely disheartening book to read. I’m planning several trips through China this spring, to Tibet and Yunnan, but after my reading, it seems that not only are these places past their environmental prime, but one of the reasons behind their decline is tourism. I’m still going, but plan to make an effort to “tread lightly.”

Reading Watts was so very informative in not only the way China is struggling with extreme development and increasing materialism but how that blasts away the delicate balance within the environment. He also does a great job to articulate how that affects someone living here:

“Living amid such a rapidly shifting landscape, it was hard to know whether to celebrate, commiserate or simply gaze in awe. The scale and speed of change pushed everything to extremes. On one day, China looked to be emerging as a new superpower. The next, it appeared to be the blasted centre of an environmental apocalypse. Most of the time, it was simply enshrouded in smog.”

Some fun facts discovered from the book:

  • “In 2007 the World Bank estimated the annual cost of pollution in China at 5.8 percent of its GDP. Take that away from the official figures and the ‘miracle’ of Chinese growth shrinks to a level similar to that of Europe or the United States.
  • The annual migration [of chun jie or Chinese New Year] is bigger than the hajj, its financial impact is enough to make or break a mid-sized country.
  • Diet and weight also affect the health of the planet. The demographer Joel Cohen has estimated that the earth could sustain ten billon people if everyone became a vegan.
  • Barely 1 per cent of the urban population [in China] breaths air considered healthy by the World Health Organization.

Watts isn’t all doom and gloom though as he highlights positive projects and conservationists who are working for the good of the good. China actually dedicates more than any other nation to developing renewable energy. But, according to Watts, “a handful of huge, high-profile, low-carbon projects are being swamped by millions of tiny, barely registered, high-carbon habits.” All of this leaves me wondering if Watts thinks China is on the way out of the environmental woods or if it has to get worse before it gets better. I plan on asking him that when I listen to him speak in a couple of weeks. At the end of the day I’m not sure if he even knows, but an overarching message of the book Watts simply advocates for environmental change to come from every lifestyle:

“The cultural and economic line between ‘them’ and ‘us’ has blurred. But our shared environmental reflection could hardly be more clear or less flattering. Faced by resources depletions and climate change, the world community needs to shift away from nationalist competition to consume and towards internationalist cooperation to conserve.”

If your interested in dipping your toes in Watts’ extensive journalism check out his recent coverage of “China: the year in environment” and his article on “China’s coal addiction” in Foreign Policy or just check out his blog. His book can be purchased on amazon here.

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