China’s Ecological Tragedy

when a billion

When a Billion Chinese Jump: How China Will Save Mankind – Or Destroy it

 By Jonathan Watts (2010 Faber and Faber)

 Book Review

 (Yesterday the Wall Street Journal reported that nearly 1/5 of China’s farmland is contaminated with heavy metals, such as arsenic and cadmium, that are absorbed by rice and very damaging to human health.) 

The major premise of When a Billion Chinese Jump is the enormous threat China’s burgeoning middle class poses to climate stability with their insatiable demand for gas-guzzling cars and energy-intensive homes and consumer goods.

The reader comes away with an overall impression of an environmental war zone: severely contaminated rivers, aquifer depletion, clear cut forests, smog, landslides, toxic waste-related cancer villages, and mass species extinction

Watts makes no secret of his belief that catastrophic climate change can’t be prevented – no matter what the rest of the world does – unless China drastically curbs its reliance on coal for energy production.

China: the West’s Industrial Cesspool

Watts traces a variety of political, economic, and philosophical influences that have led to China’s current ecological disaster. Ironically the key factor behind the country’s rapid development – the outsourcing of western industry – is number one on the list. For the past thirty years, western companies have been exporting their industrial base to China and other Asian countries to exploit low labor costs. They have simultaneously exported the major ecological damage associated with heavy industry – along with mountains of defunct electronic devices for end-of-life disposal.

The second major cause of China’s ecological nightmare is the reality that most of provincial China operates outside the law. Despite China’s “totalitarian” central government real power, according to Watts, rests in a middle band of local party chiefs, factory owners, and foreign investors and outsourcers.

He believes centralized control of China began its decline with Mao’s death. In his view, each successive government is more politically “timid” than the previous. The Ministry of Environmental Protection has developed many far-sighted environmental regulations that the Politburo is afraid of enforcing at a regional and local level. They are terrified of imposing any measures that might impair development. Without elections, the central government has no popular mandate. This means that surging development and nationalism are the only source of their legitimacy.

An interesting side effect of this endemic corruption is that illegal protests and riots – usually over crop and health damage caused by pollutions – are extremely common. In most cases, rioting is the only way to ensure environmental protections are enforced.

The Chinese Environmental Movement

The book’s most interesting chapter concerns the Chinese environmental movement. When Beijing shut down the pro-democracy movement after the 1989 Tienanmen Square massacre, many pro-democracy advocates found it was safer to transplant their activism to the environmental movement. Especially after President Hu Jintao explicitly called for greater public, NGO (non-governmental organization) and journalistic oversight to expose companies that breach environmental regulations.

Despite nominal central support for greater openness and transparency, Chinese environmentalists still play a cat and mouse game with government authorities. National environmental networks have been forbidden since 2008, owing to deep Politburo suspicion of the role the CIA played in instigating the 2004-2005 color revolutions in Eastern Europe.

Watts talks about an invisible line circumscribing acceptable activism – activists, journalists and lawyers don’t know where the line is till they cross it and local security officials beat them up and throw them in jail.