China takes a great leap backwards

February 12, 2011
A golf course development on Hong Kong’s Hainan Island.

When a Billion Chinese Jump — How China Will Save the World, or Destroy It
By Jonathan Watts
Faber & Faber, 2010
485 pages, $32.95

When Jonathan Watts was a child growing up in England, he used to pray that all the people in China would not jump at once, lest they send the earth spinning off its axis.

Little did he realise that China had already jumped, with Chairman Mao Zedong's Great Leap Forward in 1958. Back then, Mao declared war on nature with the goal of eventually securing an economic growth rate greater than that of Britain.

China’s gross domestic product finally surpassed that of Britain in 2005, two years after Watts began working from Beijing as The Guardian’s Asia environment correspondent.

When A Billion Chinese Jump is his meticulously researched and annotated travelogue of the country today, as its addiction to growth threatens to lead the world to disaster.

Watts starts his journey in Shangri-La, the mythical paradise of James Hilton's 1933 novel Lost Horizon.

Before Hilton invented it, Shangri-La didn't exist, so the Chinese government renamed the idyllic mountain town of Lijiang to try to kick-start China's nascent tourism industry.

The place is now teeming with prostitution, gambling, cheap souvenirs, refuse, concrete hotels and karaoke bars so loud that the locals have had to move out of town to get any sleep. It is a fitting introduction to a country that is changing beyond recognition.

Watts takes the Sky Train to Tibet, whose name in Chinese is Xisang, or western treasure house, owing to its vast mineral wealth. The Sky Train, a feat of modern Chinese engineering, threatens to bring environmental ruin after it cut freight prices to China by 75%.

Parts of the line have started to buckle through global warming and coolant is already being pumped into the track’s foundations at great expense.

The train is also a threat to endangered species, which are at risk right across China through urbanisation and an enduring belief in traditional medicine.

Li Shizen's famous work on Chinese medicine, written in the 16th century in an age of abundant natural resources and low population density, is still followed to this day, when far more people can afford its rarest remedies.

Up until the 1990s, Chinese zoos listed the edible parts of animals and the emphasis is still on captive breeding rather than conservation. Even though China has more protected land than any other nation, it is not managed well.

To supplement their low pay, rangers often turn to poaching the species they are supposed to protect. The biggest consumers of rare species are government officials at state banquets.

The combined result is that the die-off rate in China, which is home to half the species in the northern hemisphere, is more than twice the global average.

China's president, Hu Jintao, is a hydrologist and its premier, Wen Jiabao, is a geologist. The pair are continuing a Chinese tradition of disturbingly ambitious hydro-engineering schemes.

They include an abandoned plan to reroute India's rivers to China and a continuing effort to divert the Yangtze from the fertile south to irrigate the arid north.

Such schemes have proven fatal.

Watts visits Sichuan province, where a huge dam is threatening to break its banks after China’s deadliest earthquake in 30 years. He learns the dam could have caused the earthquake, from the pressure of the water bearing down on a nearby fault line.

The phenomenon is nothing new. By 1980, 2796 dams had failed in China, with a death toll of more than 240,000.

North of Shanghai, Watts finds capitalism has spread to every corner of the countryside.

His bus journey starts to take three times as long as it should as the driver picks up deliveries and bits of business along the way.

When Watts switches to a taxi, his driver stops half way through the journey to bargain with another cabbie. The driver ends up selling Watts for a profit.

Watts eventually reaches Huaxi, the “Number One Village in China”. Like many villages in China, it no longer resembles a village. As Watts tours its filthy, polluting factories, village chief Wu Renbao proudly tells him: “It doesn’t matter whether it is a new kind of ism or an old kind of ism, our aim is to make everyone rich.”

It’s a sentiment that is strongest in Shanghai, whose 19 million residents are embracing US-style consumerism with a worrying fervour.

For the whole of China to follow suit and consume like the average American would require the resources of 4.5 planet Earths. Kentucky Fried Chicken is already the biggest restaurant chain in China and obesity is growing as fast as the distended economy.

China’s “economic miracle”, however, is a lie.

In 2007, the World Bank estimated the annual cost of pollution in China at 5.8% of its gross domestic product, cutting its growth to the same rate as Western economies. “Adding the costs of desertification, erosion, soil decline and environmental degradation raises the figure to 8-12% of GDP, which would push China’s economy into reverse gear,” says Watts.

But China is growing in other ways — not least, the way in which it seems to have taken Australia’s worst environmental problems and amplified them.

In Australia, fertiliser run-off from farms is polluting the Great Barrier Reef. In China, run-off has made the country the biggest polluter of the Pacific Ocean. Algal blooms several times the size of London threatened to disrupt the sailing events during Beijing‘s Olympic Games.

In Australia, the settlers’ theft of Aboriginal land for irrigated farming has severely affected the flow of rivers in the Murray Darling Basin and elsewhere.

In China, the migration of Han Chinese into Inner Mongolia has introduced industrialisation and inappropriate irrigation. It has caused widespread desertification, 70km-long slicks on the Huai river and has stopped the Yellow River reaching the ocean for months at a time.

Cancer rates along the Huai have multiplied like malignant cells.

In Australia, the emphasis is on individuals conserving water, even though most is wasted by industry. China’s government has also unfairly shifted the blame for environmental problems onto the public.

Watts visits a new housing complex in Ordos, Inner Mongolia, that has introduced sand toilets. Most of the residents have had to move out because of the stench.

In Tasmania, old growth forests are under constant threat. In China, the Great Leap Forward wiped out the vast forests of the north. Some have been replaced by commercial forests, which are devoid of wildlife.

In other areas, a crackdown on local logging means China now helps to deplete the world’s forests as the world’s second biggest timber importer. The wood comes mainly from South American rainforests and illegal logging in Siberia.

Australia has abundant sunshine that could be harnessed for solar power, but ignores it in favour of the coal industry.

Likewise, the deserts of Gansu could be China’s greatest asset. It has developed solar technology more advanced that that of the United States. Yet China remains locked into coal production and a belief that a “clean coal” solution will eventually be found. Nearly 70% of its energy still comes from coal.

In Ordos, China is pouring money into coal liquefaction, in which black carbon is “cracked” with hydrogen extracted from water to produce clear diesel. The diesel, intended as a back-up as oil starts to run low, is the world’s dirtiest fuel.

For each ton of the end product, more than three tons of CO2 are released into the air and 6.5 tons of water are pumped from an aquifer 70 kilometres away. The project produced one million tons of diesel in its first year.

When stricter environmental regulation was enforced on the Chinese coal industry in 2008, China began importing more coal from Australia, where regulations are not so tough.

When Watts starts to look for glimmers of hope, two-thirds of the way into his book, readers may find themselves heaving a sigh of relief. But such hopes are quickly extinguished.

He asks if dictatorships may be better than Western-style democracies in bringing about the swift changes needed to save the planet — but China’s dictatorship is weak.

“Unable to claim either an imperial mandate from heaven above or a popular mandate from the people below, China’s leaders often follow rather than guide development,” he says.

The power lies with “hundreds or thousands of little Maos in local government and industry” — and they are hell-bent on making as much money as possible.

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