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Book: Apocalyptic vision

August 4, 2010

As a kid, Jonathan Watts had nightmares about China.
Mugdha Prasad
DowntoEarth (India)
Issue: August 15, 2010

When a Billion Cchinese Jump, How Vhina will save mankind -- or destroy it"
By Jonathan Watts,
Faber & Faber
483pp -- £14.99

"If everyone in China jumps at exactly the same
time, it will shake the earth off its axis and
kill us all,” he thought. The apocalyptic thought
came back to him in 2003 when he moved to Beijing
as The Guardian’s correspondent. It spurred him
to make a trip through most of China, from the
satanic mills of Guangdong to the new railway lines in Tibet.

The result is an account replete with examples of
self-destruction. He visits billions of hectares
of denuded grassland, finds the North China water
table sucked so dry that it has become nearly
impossible to plumb and is dumbstruck at vast
expanses of plastic. Sometimes he finds a shaky
commitment to low-carbon economy, but quickly
discovers that the idea nature exists to be exploited is too entrenched.

Chinese authorities, ever on the lookout to lure
tourists, have been identifying famed beauty
spots as Shangri-la. One such designated treasure
was Lake Bigu in Yunnan province. Once a place of
great beauty, it is now a rubbish heap. In 2001,
one of China’s most respected filmmakers Chen
Kaige, encouraged by the local authority, drove
100 pilings into the lake for a bridge and built
a five-storey house for love scenes. The house
and the rotting bridge across the lake remain,
and sheep choke on discarded rubbish.

imagePhoto: Peter DurandIt is easy to lampoon
Chinese industrialisation. Watts shows how the
global economy has impinged on it. Recycling, for
example, is now fashionable in the West. But
where do all those obsolete computers and plastic
bottles go? To China. Watts argues that American
companies claim to be recycling domestically
while actually shipping e-waste to China. In one
town Watts saw small recycling shops “breaking
down the world’s discarded plastic bags, bottles
and wrappers, 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
low-grade sheets. In return, the people of the
town got ditches full of garbage and several health problems.

* Mugdha Prasad is doing a PhD in international
relations at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi
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