China’s search for greener values

In his new book, When a Billion Chinese Jump, Jonathan Watts tells the story of an unfolding ecological crisis as seen from the ground. Here, he talks to Sam Geall about its economic and cultural implications.

As the Beijing-based Asia environment correspondent for the Guardian, Jonathan Watts has reported on environmental issues in China for several years. His new book, When a Billion Chinese Jump, is a travelogue that tells the story of China’s breakneck development and its consequences, from melting glaciers in Xinjiang and cancer villages in Henan, to dam projects in Sichuan and skyscrapers in Shanghai.  

Sam Geall: The urgency of China’s environmental situation has struck many people in the past year or so, especially since the Copenhagen climate conference, but you have been writing this book for four years. How did you become convinced of the importance of this topic?

Jonathan Watts: The book grew and it changed. Because the country is so big and changing so fast, I found that this kind of road-trip reporting was a good way to capture that dynamism. And I found myself writing more and more environmental stories – whether it was a protest against a proposed factory development; a pollution spill into a river; Beijing’s air quality ahead of the Olympics; or the loss of another species. The subject almost chose itself.

But if I had to choose one moment when it really hit me in the face – that the environment situation in China is a matter of global, species-wide concern – it would be the story of the [now-extinct] baiji dolphin. When I went out to report it, I didn’t think it would be an epic story. It was only when I sat down and did the research and tried to put it in context, that I realised how incredibly significant the loss of something is after 20 million years – something that has been on the earth more than twice as long as humanity. That really hit me.

The situation is still changing. When I started the book four years ago, everyone was talking about pollution – also perhaps about climate change, political systems and how they influence governance. But I found myself shooting at a moving target: as I looked more into the story my priorities changed, and the story changed. It’s about pollution, climate change and one-party governance, but it’s even more about consumption and biodiversity and the long-term trend of human development. This is not just about China. In a sense, China is extraordinarily unfortunate to be hitting this stage of development at this time in human history.

SG: The book points to some of the deeper dynamics at play in China’s response to the environmental situation. One is the tension between the Daoist tradition, with its desire to find harmony, and Confucian philosophy, with its tendency to impose order on the natural world. How did you find this shaped China’s response to this stage of development?

JW: Looking for a solution to the predicament we are in, of living unsustainably, the importance of values comes up again and again. The focus in China is mainly on science and technology, on hardware – on things that if you drop them will hurt your toe. The importance of values hasn’t really kicked in, but it’s absolutely essential. Where do you get these values? Clearly western values haven’t stopped the west from screwing up the environment. So, it’s worth looking to China’s philosophical and cultural roots.

One of the sub-themes of the book is an exploration of China’s Daoist side. There have always been competing philosophies in China. It intrigued me that you can’t really have a Daoist civilisation – it’s almost an embrace and acceptance of the wild, of anarchy and chaos. Most of the time Confucianism has been the predominant philosophy, though there have been times that China is more Legalist. However, in Chinese history, you hear that some Mandarins were Confucians while working in their official positions, but when they went home they tended their gardens, or wrote poetry, and gave space to their Daoist sides. Maybe that’s one of the secrets of Chinese civilisation and why it has lasted so long: that balance of the two sides.

I spoke to the popular philosopher Yu Dan, who has made her name writing about Confucian ideas – which is very much in line with Party orthodoxy at the moment. She told me that she is more of a Daoist, but that she doesn’t think “China is ready for Daoism yet”. Certainly in the last 60 years, that Daoist side has faded. The trend has been to order things.

SG: One ecological example you give is the contrast between the traditional irrigation system at Dujiangyan and the large-scale hydro-engineering project at the Zipingpu Dam, both in Sichuan province.

JW: I was first in Dujiangyan around the time of the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, but it was only afterwards when I interviewed the environmental philosopher Tang Xiyang that I realised its significance. Tang is the one who says: “If China is going to solve its problems, it needs more Daoism.” He told me that if I wanted to see how that would work in practice, then I should look at Dujiangyan. It’s an example of how things can be: they can last, they can endure – you can work with nature, rather than against it.

This is the long-term view. The other type of development is brittle. The hydrological engineering solutions are very impressive – when I saw the Three Gorges Dam I was amazed and knocked out by what humans can do – but they create new instabilities, which build up. And China has learned this painfully in its history: the events of 1958 come up in the book – that height of human hubris, the sense that you can overcome nature and impose your will on nature.

The Maoist view of nature hasn’t gone completely. There are lots of questions being asked about it, but the mega-projects have a certain momentum. Even some of the projects I have seen completed in the last seven years are the fulfillment of Mao’s dreams. The railway to Tibet, the south-to-north water diversion scheme, the Zipingpu Dam – these were all Maoist ideas. It’s almost like Mao Zedong was the big dreamer, and now there is a government of implementers.

But I don’t think that old vision of conquering nature is as strong as it once was. At the exhibition centre at the Three Gorges Dam, there are no pictures of the current leaders, premier Wen Jiabao and president Hu Jintao. The top leaders of the country did not attend the topping-off ceremony for the dam. This suggests to me that there are reservations about the wisdom of that project and concerns about where it is going.

SG: Do you think a new set of values is starting to take root?

JW: I see a search for new values – a real yearning for new values – and a sense that solving environmental problems needs to be part of any new set of values. I don’t see a clearly defined new ethos, or even the reinvention of an old ethos, that completely gets to the heart of this. There are causes for optimism – the growth of green NGOs, the increased coverage of environmental issues in the media – but these do not represent the prevailing ideology.

However, China’s history of the last 100 years is one of dramatic change, with some ideas catching on so quickly that it’s almost terrifying. Whether it’s the fervour of political revolution, or the fervour to make lots of money, the country has been able to make 180-degree turns. I have to hope that this might be the case with the environment.

SG: So, could China become the world’s first green superpower?

I wanted to ask that question in this book. We are heading into a difficult 30 or 40 years for our species. We are over the limit already by just about every ecological measure. And yet our population is probably going to rise by another two billion in the next 40 years. We need to get through this rough period and over that 40-year hump: after that, populations should start to fall and there should be better technology and economic models too. But now, the country that is in the best position – and the worst position – is China. 

China is in the best position because its economy is growing so quickly that it does have a lot of resources. It’s in the worst position because it’s reached this supercharged phase of growth at a very unfortunate time in terms of the history of global development. China can’t outsource its problems like other countries have been able to do. This is a country that has to reinvent itself.

The big contrast between China and the United States, particularly in renewable energy for instance, is that China is trapped by momentum, it has to keep moving forward. By contrast, the US is trapped by inertia – it’s trying to protect what it already has. This is also why China is in a better position to become a green superpower.

SG: One intention of your book seems to be to introduce a note of scepticism amid much western optimism about China’s ability to save the world economy.

JW: There is still a widespread assumption that one model has proven itself again and again over the past 200 years: the get-rich-first, clean-up-later model. But what worked for Britain in the nineteenth century, for the US in the twentieth century and for Japan and South Korea in the late twentieth century, may not work for China, because of scale and because of timing.

In a sense, Britain and China may prove to be bookends on this phase of development that will be seen as abnormal in the long-term scale of human development. Britain was one small country producing an awful lot of pollution and extracting and using resources unsustainably. At that point it didn’t really have a great planetary impact, but then this moved to Europe, and to the US, and the number of countries that were unsustainable and producing too much got bigger and bigger. Meanwhile, the number of countries left to absorb the impacts gets smaller and smaller. Where does China dump its waste? How does China extract enough from the rest of the world to provide for its people? I believe this is where economic development hits an ecological wall.

The environment and the economy, which used to run pretty much in parallel, have become so detached from one another. The economists, the governments and the corporations all think the solution to the world’s problems is more consumption in China, whereas the environmentalists are all saying: be careful what you wish for. If there is to be any solution, it is in the reattachment of economy and environment. China is moving in the right direction with its recently discussed ecological compensation scheme: this would require that economically rich parts of China, like Beijing, Shanghai or Guangzhou, pay the ecologically rich parts of China, like Yunnan, Heilongjiang and Guangxi, for “environmental services”. This means directly giving a value to forests because they absorb carbon, or wetlands because they absorb pollution.

This would mean that a laptop would become more expensive, but the price would be at a much more realistic level in terms of reflecting ecological limits and what things are really worth – which brings us back to the importance of values.

Sam Geall is deputy editor of chinadialogue.

Jonathan Watts is Asia environment correspondent for the Guardian. His book, When a Billion Chinese Jump, is published by Faber and Faber.

Homepage image by Shreyans Bhansali