Book Review: When a Billion Chinese Jump: How China will save mankind – or destroy it

Initially published in REDSTAR Magazine, Qingdao, China.

The first time a journalist friend of mine recommended to me this book, I responded “what an exaggerating title!” But the more I read, the more I began to resonate with the author, and now also feel that immediate action needs to be taken to save China’s environment.

In his book When A Billion Chinese Jump, Jonathan Watts draws attention to the environmental issues in China. As a former correspondent for the Guardian in China, he has never stopped being concerned for the environment and the people there who are facing the consequences of environmental degradation due to the rapid urbanisation socio-economic development in the last 30 years, in which China has become truly the manufactory of the world. But Jonathan also believes that the environmental endeavours in China are coming positively into shape to restore the degraded rivers, soils, and mountains.

In this book that he claims as a travelogue, Jonathan recorded what he saw during his field trips across China. He started from where Westerners refer to as the mysterious land of utopia – Shangri-La, where a wide range of high-altitude floras and faunas grow, as well as a number of ethnic groups. In his book, Jonathan recorded many points of interest, including geologically significant points and cultural-historic features, including the Tiger Leaping Gorge, the numerous glaciers, the Bai and the Naxi ethnic people, and the Tibetan Panchen Lama. He regularly cites ancient Chinese literature, such as the Book of the Huainan Prince, to demonstrate how Chinese people have accumulated much wisdom in human-environment relationships over millenniums. But he also criticizes how such thoughts have given way in the pursuit of modern development and economic growth primarily in the last four decades.

Book cover

Jonathan travelled through the Tibetan Plateau, Sichuan, and Guangxi Provinces, where he categorized as the “natural areas of China”. He later travelled to the Southeastern regions – Guangdong, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Chongqing, and Shanghai, where he referred to as the “human developed areas”.

During the Financial Crisis, Guangdong as the main manufacturing hub of China suffered from massive factory shutdowns. Jonathan denounces these factories for a large number of toxic byproducts they produce and the negative impact on local populations health and wellbeing. While in Shanghai, a leading metropolis, a New York of China, he observed the fever of conspicuous consumption.

Continuing to the central and western regions of China, he revealed the development imbalances between the population-laden Henan Province, the coal-trapped Shaanxi (and Shanxi), the desert-surrounded Gansu and Ningxia, and the ethnically tense Xinjiang.

Through the survival story of two brothers who worked together as coal miners trapped in a mining accident in Shaanxi, Jonathan examined the life and fate of this “underground” population, how they work, eat, and survive the humid, dark and suffocating mining environments, risking their lives to fuel China’s great industrialisation. Many of these miners often end up with much shorter life expectancy due to the chronic harm the mine sites do to their bodies, pneumoconiosis being the most common consequence.

Jonathan Watts

In the last chapter of his book, Jonathan tries to look on the bright side by asking: how can a heavily polluted China become cleaner and greener? He examines Tianjin, Hebei, and Liaoning, the provinces surrounding the capital and where the PM2.5 levels had been notoriously high. What has been done in China and what can we all do to fix it? Jonathan invites readers for their free thoughts at the end.

The book is a mixture of observations, travel logs, reports and commentaries. Published in 2010, this book is a wonderful literature to show the beginning of transition in China’s political agenda from prioritising the economy to prioritising the environment.

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