‘Lifestyles will have to be redesigned’

A Guardian journalist’s ranting about the ‘neglect, greed and human filth’ of modern China shows that new prejudices about a Green Peril have replaced old fears of the ‘Yellow Peril’.

James Woudhuysen

Topics Books

Jonathan Watts is Asia environment correspondent for the UK Guardian. His book, When a Billion Chinese Jump, contains a wealth of scholarly detail: in some ways, it is a landmark work. There is much to learn here – but a whole lot more to detest.

I pity Watts. He and his family live in China, but over nearly 500 pages he recites an almost unremitting litany of disgust, despair and contempt. He has witnessed ‘environmental tragedies, consumer excess and inspiring dedication’, but it is the first two of these that dominate his narrative, and it is the environment which, he says, has become his obsession. As he concedes, his book is a travelogue in which locations and topics are determined purely by his own experience. His experience is considerable, but he should know that impressionism is no substitute for insight.

Watts can certainly turn a phrase. He deals with what he calls the consequences of 200 years of industrialisation and urbanisation ‘in close up, playing at fast-forward on a continent-wide screen’. On his first, too credulous visit to the Three Gorges Dam, the illuminated construction works looked, he says, ‘like the set of a Spielberg science-fiction epic’. The Zipingpu mega-dam on the Min, one of the Yangtse’s tributaries, ‘constipates the river to generate power’. And Beijing’s reckless approach to China’s rivers means that, between it, New Delhi and other South Asian capitals, ‘water tensions are unlikely to be doused any time soon’.

For Watts it is an outrage that Utopia in China is not about nature, but about people. If, around 122BC, Daoism had only triumphed against Confucianism and statist legalism, ‘China might have had an ancient model of sustainability and a deeper reverence for nature’. In the manner of environmentalism, Watts harbours a powerful sense of loss – of forests and fungi (Yunnan); grassland, the permafrost and the chiru gazelle (Tibet); the Yangtse dolphin, or baiji (Hubei); black bears, lions, black swans and tigers (Guizhou); and pandas (Sichuan).

Now, take the demise of the baiji. After 20million years, this loss is indeed a great pity. But for Watts, it poses a deep question: ‘How could we assume our species was developing and becoming more civilised when an animal once worshipped has been wiped out by neglect, greed and human filth?’ Well, greed and ‘selfish desires’ appear early in When A Billion Chinese Jump (pages 16 and 61) as drivers of key developments in Chinese society, and filth is the story in provinces as varied as Guangdong, Jiangsu and Zhejiang, Chongqing, Henan, Shaanxi and Shanxi (in Chongqing, Watts measures ‘Gross Domestic Pollution’).

But psychological guesswork and a fixation on some very real dirt do little to explain how a better kind of growth might be assured for China in the future. Instead, the empirical objects of Watts’ critique seem to have a weird power over him. ‘For a journalist’, Watts attests, Guangdong, which he says has the reputation of being the global economy’s toilet bowl, is also ‘a gold mine’, because it has ‘pioneered a model of corrupt, land-grabbing, labour-abusing, environment-degrading development’. Likewise, the hidden rubbish recyclers in the province’s Shijing village make him ‘thrilled’: the junk they deal in is ‘a journalistic treasure’.

Watts visits Henan, a place of AIDS villages and cancer clusters, to test a theory: that the Chinese badmouth the province because, underneath everything, it is overpopulated. In this sense, the cradle of Han civilisation contains a special kind of filth – people. It encapsulates not just what China is doing to its land, but what overpopulation is doing to the planet, and ‘Malthus’s grim theory remains as relevant as ever’, Watts says.

We do get some reassurance. Of course we learn, courtesy of America’s discredited Paul Ehrlich, that population restraint is good for the environment. Still, Watts finds Chinese Stalinism’s restraining measures – forced abortions, property seizures, abductions of relatives, the binding and handcuffing of pregnant women – ‘difficult to accept’.

Despite this affecting nuance, the Watts world is mostly a black-and-white one. ‘In the nineteenth century’, he once wrote in his notebook, ‘Britain taught the world how to produce. In the twentieth, the US taught us how to consume. If China is to lead the world in the twenty-first century, it must teach us how to sustain.’ Yes, this is just a jotting. But as so often with environmentalists, America is reduced to consumption (no Wright brothers, no assembly line, no nuclear power, no landing on the moon!), and sustainability is invoked but never defined.

Watts believes that the world has finite resources (a fact oft repeated), that the West has a throwaway lifestyle (the detritus of which is dumped in China), and that China is addicted to growth. China cannot outsource rubbish, pollution and dirty industry in the way that Japan and South Korea once did, ‘because the planet’s tips are full to overflowing’. Instead, it is forced to in-source filth to the poor western provinces of Gansu, Ningxia and Inner Mongolia. The only long-term solution, in relation to China’s use of coal and in relation to everything else, is to reduce demand – beginning with demand in Shanghai. For Watts, Shanghai’s friendly shoppers are of more concern than Henan’s snarling polluters. The conspicuous consumption city, he suggests, is typified by its Barbie store and restaurant, for upwardly mobile Shanghainese single women are ‘getting ever closer to the unsustainable, energy-intensive Barbie lifestyle… a garage full of cars, a huge home and a penchant for foreign travel and shopping’.

Watts is aware of the possibility that human endeavour might be able to rid China and the planet of the unhappy byproducts of growth. But in the end, the possibility always eludes him.

He is right to attack those who glibly believe that a newly created middle class will one day refuse to tolerate old dirty industries, and that these will anyway turn into high-tech and service-sector businesses. This post-Cold War, environmental version of Simon Kuznets’ hump-shaved curve of rising and then declining inequality is a model of development that, in the harsh realm of reality, may not at all be followed – in China or anywhere else. But it is incontrovertible that growth is the necessary (though by no means always sufficient) precondition for environmental clean-up. As a migrant labourer very properly has to lecture Watts: ‘I don’t care about the environment. If your stomach isn’t full, how can you worry about your health?’

To his credit, Watts turns in an interesting chapter on how science in China – around solar power, cleaner coal, wind power – is being used to deal with the mathematical ‘multiples’ of a growing population, rising wealth and increasing consumption. Yet here, as elsewhere, he is too charitable to China’s leaders (elsewhere in the book, using the by now classic Western account, the green initiatives of central government are always being thwarted by ‘weak governance’ and bureaucratic resistance at local level). For Watts, the Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party believes that ‘man is not the problem; he is the solution. Everything else – Nature, God, Fate – can be outsmarted.’ But as we have seen from Beijing’s efforts in the domain of population restraint, the Politburo believes that human beings are very much a problem. And Watts shares that view. China, he writes, is taking bigger strides to develop renewable energy than any other nation, but its demand for energy is growing even faster – so ‘lifestyles will also have to be redesigned’.

In fact, a glance at China Daily shows that, especially in Hong Kong and among the youth, the regime is also trying to get people to redesign their lifestyles to lower energy use. Green Non-Governmental Organisations, which as Watts’ final chapter notes have received the sanction of the Communist Party, are at the forefront of the all-too-familiar environmentalist zeal to lower carbon footprints through cycling, the use of eco-friendly gyms and so on.

In the domain of energy, as elsewhere, might China be given a chance, perchance? Watts hints that the nation may be in a position to kick its ‘coal-puffing habit’ in two decades, which by world-historic standards would be amazingly fast. He quotes the head of the Dalian National Laboratory for Clean Energy to the effect that covering just a third of the deserts of Gansu and Xinjiang would meet the current energy needs of the entire country. But all this isn’t good enough for the author. Clean coal technology is expensive, photovoltaic panels and the refinement of the silicon in them lead to pollution and waste, and nuclear power – in which, by the way, China is forging ahead from a low base – has ‘well-known risks’ (unspecified).

Occasionally, Watts registers grounds for hope: though the die-off of Chinese animal species is reckoned to be taking place at twice the speed of the global average, and wildlife is ‘caught in a pincer between traditional medicine and modern development’, the Tibetan chiru and the grey snub-nosed monkey have been brought back from the brink. China will have built 50,000 skyscrapers by 2025, making tall, dense cities which, compared to the sprawling ones of the past, consume less land and allow for greater efficiency in transport, energy and waste management. In the north-eastern rust belt, Shenyang, which was ‘Grimsville’ in 2003, the Hun and Pu rivers no longer run black. Joining the six million inhabitants of the north-eastern port of Dalian, previously a centre for heavy industry, Watts wakes to ‘that rarest of treats in urban China: clear skies’. But the gains Watts celebrates are nearly all environmental, and rarely to do with living standards. He barely refers to what China has achieved in the realm of reducing poverty.

According to the World Bank, if China had not taken 400million people out of poverty between 1981 and 2004, there would have been no cut in the numbers of the poor in all the planet’s developing countries. Given this, China’s enormous environmental lapses, though lamentable, are unsurprising. Watts notes that Yu Lebo, one porter among the 100,000 in Chongqing, earns 20 yuan (£1.60) for 12 hours’ backbreaking work. Would he rather this situation persisted, so long as flora and fauna can be preserved? It appears so. Clean-up in Chongqing, he groans, remains ‘a low priority compared to economic growth. As people move off the land and into the sky, they produce less and consume more. In theory, they become socialised and civilised. In practice, they spend more time shopping and eating junk food.’

This is a kind of Iron Law of Sick Chinese Development. It bears no relation to the facts – in terms of wealth production, output per head is, the world over, higher in cities than on the land. But Watts’ sweeping condemnation confirms how his travels do not amount to serious political economy.

Take his treatment of gui gouwu zhongxin (ghost malls), glitzy branded retail outlets where shoppers are never to be seen. Why do these exist? Are they around because, as a Shanghai marketing consultant tells Watts, ‘Every official in China wants one to show their city is on the international map’? Or are they around, as Watts adds, because they are designed to ‘generate desire, not meet needs’? Or might they just reflect how global retailers want an advertising presence all over China, and, even more, how they want to indulge in the burgeoning trend for property speculation there? The significant, if not yet catastrophic, rise in (residential) property prices in China gets just two sentences in this book (on page 222).

Ah, but you see the Middle Kingdom is threatening to tip us all over the edge. Indeed, if pollution costs China 5.8 per cent of its GDP in terms of health costs, lost man hours, premature deaths and damage to infrastructure and crops, then erosion, desertification and environmental degradation raise the figure to eight to 12 per cent of GDP, pushing China’s economy into reverse gear. On top of that, factor in its contribution to climate change and its expanding consumption of the world’s non-renewable resources, and it ‘becomes conceivable that China’s environmental crunch contributed to the global financial crash of 2008’, says Watts.

What a country! Its prostitutes are everywhere, its dams are a disaster, its fertilisers wreck the soil, its fish stocks are being decimated, its water shortages are growing, its deserts encroach on its cities, its glaciers are shrinking, its climate is more hostile – and it could well have helped create the credit crunch, too!

What does China have to contribute? Technological innovation, yes; but that, Watts perceptively observes, ‘is not enough’. Among Watts’ putative sources of inspiration are Daoism, the nature worship of Tibetan and Mongolian Buddhists, the religious devotion of Uighurs and Christians, and the Beijing cabbies who prefer hot flasks of tea over cooled cans of Coke.

Sometimes Watts is acute enough to notice Western hypocrisy about China – when the West pillories China for building railways to Tibet, for example. But in general he is like those Western conservationists who, he says, want to leave vast tracts of the country as an unspoiled and wild sanctuary. Near the front of Jump, and right on the last page, he opines that looking and going backwards can amount to moving forward, to progress. Yet he is himself going backwards with alacrity. Early on, we are introduced to Francis Younghusband, a British major who invaded Tibet in 1903-1904 and mowed down 700 monks in four minutes. Watts then quotes Younghusband as follows:

‘The strong moral conviction is growing up that in these days of overcrowding the resources of the rich portions of the Earth cannot be allowed to run to waste in the hands of semi-civilised peoples who will not develop them.’

To this, Watts adds: ‘The self-righteousness of those who plunder resources continues today.’

Yes, and today the self-righteousness also continues of those who moan about China’s overcrowding and waste, and of those who intimate that its people are only semi-civilised.

Watts says that we, and especially China, need to rethink our values. Perhaps he just might rethink his own.

James Woudhuysen is author, with Joe Kaplinsky, of Energise! A Future for Energy Innovation, published by Beautiful Books. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).) He is also a contributor to BIG POTATOES: The London Manifesto for Innovation.

When a Billion Chinese Jump: How China Will Save Mankind – Or Destroy It, by Jonathan Watts, is published by Faber and Faber. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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