Many Poisoned Rivers

In Literary Review, Jonathan Mirsky reviews Guardian correspondent Jonathan Watts’ new book, When A Billion Chinese Jump: How China Will Save Mankind — Or Destroy It:

Only last year, Thomas Friedman, three-times Pulitzer Prize winner and a regular columnist in the New York Times, wrote: ‘One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages … It is not an accident that China is committed to overtaking us in electric cars, solar power, energy efficiency, batteries, nuclear power and wind power.’ A year earlier, Friedman wished that ‘we could be like China for a day’ so that the US could really get things done on saving the environment. Friedman could not have read The China Price: The True Cost of Chinese Competitive Advantage by Alexandra Harney (2008), an exposé of the hell-hole which is Chinese manufacturing for the cheap Western market. Nor could he have read Mark Elvin’s The Retreat of the Elephants (2004), or Elizabeth Economy’s The River Runs Black (also 2004; both books were reviewed here), which deal with China’s historic and current ravaging of its environment. Now comes Jonathan Watts’s meticulously documented, wide-ranging account of this destruction – from the near extermination of the Tibetan chiru, an antelope whose coat is used to make the fashionable shahtoosh shawl, to China’s role as the greatest polluter of the Pacific through its overuse of chemicals, in fertilisers and factories, that flow down the country’s many poisoned rivers to the sea.

Watts’s brilliant title comes from a warning he learned as a child: ‘If everyone in China jumps at exactly the same time, it will shake the earth off its axis and kill us all.’ He remembered this during his time in Beijing as Asia environment correspondent for The Guardian and it spurred him to make an arduous trip through much of China, from the satanic mills of Guangdong to the new railway that is hastening the cultural ruin of Tibet. Soon after he moved to China in 2003, Watts suspected that ‘the decisions taken in Beijing, more than anywhere else, would determine whether humanity thrived or perished … No other country was in such a mess.’

At first you might imagine that Watts is peddling the latest version of the Yellow Peril. After you’ve read about fifty pages you will find his occasional attempts at fairness bizarre, as in his clichéd conclusion that, faced with two ‘extremes’, ‘the truth was probably somewhere in between’. But there is no ‘in between’. China is destroying itself and threatening the rest of us. And, like useful idiots, we are helping the Chinese do it.