Witnessing the Birth of a Superpower

The Guardian’s outgoing Asia environment correspondent Jonathan Watts reviews his nine years of reporting from China before taking up a new role as the newspaper’s Latin America correspondent next month.

This has been an era of protest in China. The government stopped releasing figures a few years ago, but academics with access to internal documents say there are tens of thousands of demonstrations each year. The reasons are manifold – land grabs, ethnic unrest, factory layoffs, corruption cases and territorial disputes. But I have come to believe the fundamental cause is ecological stress: foul air, filthy water, growing pressure on the soil and an ever more desperate quest for resources that is pushing development into remote mountains, deserts and forests that were a last hold-out for bio and ethnic diversity.

This is not primarily China’s fault. It is a historical, global trend. China is merely roaring along the same unsustainable path set by the developed world, but on a bigger scale, a faster speed and at a period in human history when there is much less ecological room for manoeuvre. The wealthy portion of the world has been exporting environmental stress for centuries. Outsourcing energy-intensive industries and resource extraction have put many problems out of sight and out of mind for western consumers. But they cannot be ignored in China.

[…] As I have noted at greater length elsewhere, I had come to fear that China may be where the 200-odd-year-old carbon-fuelled capital-driven model of economic development runs into an ecological wall. Britain, where it started, and China may be bookends on a period of global expansion that has never been seen before and may never be repeated again.