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Jonathan Mirsky
MANY POISONED RIVERS
When a Billion Chinese Jump: How China Will Save Mankind - Or Destroy It
By Jonathan Watts (Faber & Faber 483pp £14.99)

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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.

It is hard to single out the most repulsive examples of self-destruction. Millions of tons of sewage down the Yellow River; the North China water table now sucked so dry that it has become nearly impossible to plumb; the squillions of acres of denuded grasslands and felled forests. The mind denies and goes numb. But some horrors can be comprehended because they are small. Chinese authorities, ever on the qui vive to lure tourists, have been identifying famed beauty spots as Shangri-la - 'a remarkable act of chutzpah', Watts writes, 'for a government that was, in theory, at least, communist, atheist, and scientifically orientated'. One such designated treasure was Lake Bigu in Yunnan province. Once a place of great beauty, it has since been 'violated'. In 2001, one of China's most respected filmmakers, Chen Kaige, came to the lake to make The Promise. Encouraged by the local authority - typically keen to make a fast yuan - Chen drove 100 pilings into the lake for a bridge and built a five-storey house for the love scenes. After he finished shooting he left, but the house and the rotting bridge across the lake remain, and sheep choke to death on discarded rubbish.

Here's where Westerners come in. We love ourselves for recycling, but where do you suppose all those obsolete computers and plastic bottles go? Why, to China, at so much per ton. In one town, Watts saw small recycling shops 'breaking down the world's discarded plastic bags, bottles and wrappers': 'bales of Dutch Kinder Eggs, Italian nappies, French-packaged Lego ... Tesco milk cartons, Marks and Spencer's cranberry juice, Kellogg's cornflakes boxes, Walkers crisp packets, Snickers wrappers and Persil powder containers'. These were turned into hundreds of thousands of plastic pellets sorted by colour, and made into low grade sheeting for holdalls and wrapping. 'The cost was ditches full of garbage and a population plagued by health concerns.' In another town, where 'hundreds of millions of computers, mobile phones and other devices [had been] discarded', he saw women and children stripping circuit boards and exposing themselves to a 'toxic cocktail' of chemicals. Children in that town had 50 per cent more lead in their blood than the limit set in the US; it can result in mental retardation. According to Watts, 'American companies ... claim to be recycling domestically while actually shipping e-waste to China and elsewhere using shell companies in Hong Kong and Singapore.'

Species are dying in China (the chapter on the Yangtze River dolphin is especially grim, although Watts has missed the best book on the subject, Witness to Extinction, by Samuel Turvey, reviewed here in December 2008), fish stocks are depleting, water grows ever scarcer, climate change is ignored, and climate itself becomes an adversary. Local governments encourage 'growth', the new middle class buys like billy-o, and China's national leaders accuse the West of being unfair about China not being green enough, since - true enough - we did our despoiling during the nineteenth-century Industrial Revolution.

During years travelling around China, I saw the beginnings of what Watts describes. What staggered me in his book was this: in the West we are suffering fear and loathing of the Chinese Century and China's impressive 10 per cent national growth, compared with our paltry advances. But I didn't know that the World Bank, as Watts shows, has calculated the annual bill for Chinese pollution - health costs, premature deaths, damaged infrastructure and crops - at 5.8 per cent of GDP. That lowers the Chinese miracle to our level. And if you add in erosion, desertification and environmental degradation, the World Bank calculates there is an 8 to 12 per cent bite into China's GDP, stopping the miracle in its eroded tracks. Watts suggests that if we factor in climate change and the gobbling up of non-renewable resources around the planet, 'it becomes conceivable that China's environmental crunch contributed to the global financial crash of 2008'.

This is a revealing and depressing book. There is no 'middle truth' in it. During his painstaking investigative journeys, which called on all his powers as a top-class reporter, Jonathan Watts concluded that 'China has felt at times like the end of the world.'