China is forging ahead in its bid to catch up with the Western world but concerns are mounting about its environmental health

On a trip to northern China, Jonathan Watts started a fight at a banquet table. It was the author and journalist's third banquet in a matter of days, each one more lavish than the next.

The Beijing-based writer was meant to be in northwestern Gansu to observe the region's "white forest" of wind turbines, a striking symbol of China's massive push to develop sustainable energy.

But at every stop at a new township - and faced with another grotesque, two-hour long feast - he was reminded of how unsustainable the country's habits could be.

The tall, bespectacled Englishman says: "They assure you, 'don't worry, it's just a snack', but you turn up and there's 12 people and all this food. You've got this extraordinary waste. So by the third banquet, I had a bit of a row with them."


These culinary ceremonies are one of the symptoms of China's embrace of capitalism and consumerism. But, as Watts told New Zealand audiences this week in a speaking tour, China has not yet fully embraced environmentalism.

"China is a green superpower and a black superpower at the same time. Someone once said you can't understand China unless you're able to hold two mutually contradictory ideas in your head at the same time."

In a six-month trip from Shangri-La to Tibet to inner Mongolia, through coal mines, arid farming land and cancer-plagued villages, he observed first-hand the ecological toll of the country's rampant rise in capitalism. His mixture of absurd, exhilarating and tragic findings across China makes up the chapters of When A Billion Chinese Jump. The title comes from the nightmarish scenario he was warned of as a child - that if all of China's population jumped at once, the world would be knocked off its axis.

Watts tells the Weekend Herald that this naive belief stemmed from the fact that China was then a faraway, oriental, unknowable country.

Thirty years on, China is becoming more like us. The faster, greater, cheaper consumer lifestyle is already unsustainable when adopted by a billion people. If China makes the jump, it could yet tip the world off its axis.

The scale of China's expansion cannot be understated. The country will build 50,000 skyscrapers in the first quarter of this century - the equivalent of 10 New Yorks. A new coal-generated power plant is built every week. More than 87,000 new dams have been constructed.

In the past 10 years the cost of mostly unregulated industrial growth has become apparent, says Watts. His children cannot go outdoors on their school breaks in Beijing because the smog is too harmful. In rural areas, desertification and resource depletion is rife.

Watts, who says he is not a "died-in-the-wool-greenie", explains China's huge appetite is relevant to New Zealand because it is likely to put pressure on foreign countries to expand their pursuit of dirty fuels.

"I'm not lecturing you, but it is apparent that you have beautifully clear skies and clear water compared to Beijing. Maybe they're worth more than you realise. I wouldn't sacrifice them too quickly for the benefits that might come from more resource exploitation. That's largely driven by China's demand. I saw it in Australia - there's this huge kind of sucking sound; everything's being drawn towards China."

China's industrialisation is also occurring with incredible swiftness. Watts cites an American economist who semi-jokingly calculated that a "China year" (a similar concept to "dog years") was equivalent to four American years, such was the country's dizzying rate of growth.

But the key problem with China's rapid, massive expansion is its timing.

When Britain industrialised, there was room on the planet for development and to "outsource" the consequences of its growth to smaller countries. In the 21st century, emerging countries such as Brazil, Indonesia and India are also seeking more prosperous lifestyles. That leaves China, halfway in between the richest nations and the emerging economies, fast running out of room and mineral resources to keep growing.

"It's as if China has come to a feast that has being going on for 200 years, where most of the food is gone and yet it is the biggest, hungriest person coming to the table. That is the situation we're in now."

When A Billion Chinese Jump sometimes portrays an unloved, dystopian country. Watts said he finished the trip not in despair, but feeling pessimistic.

He shows an Auckland audience photographs of shellfish in the middle of a desert, where irrigation and climate change has dried up lakes. He also shows images of the absurd - fishermen using electricity and explosives, and small bears riding horses for people's entertainment.

But he also identified many signs of hope. China builds a new wind turbine every hour and plants more trees than the rest of the world combined.

While most nations are led by ex-lawyers or businesspeople, China is led by a geologist in Premier Wen Jiabao and a hydro-engineer in President Hu Jintao, who Watts nicknames Premier Earth and President Water. If the central government's lofty goals and the local governments' self-interest can be united, China has the advantage of scientists leading the country from the very top. There is also potential for China to embrace environmentalism because it is at the core of its ancient philosophy. Before the nation adopted a Leninist/Marxist model, which emphasised human dominion over nature, Chinese culture was centred on Taoism and Buddhism - anchored on nature worship.

In 2012, China's new urban middle class is leading the charge to close dirty factories and clean up rivers. When a country reaches the limits of human health, Watts says, it reaches the limits of human tolerance.

He emphasised China's increasing awareness of its environmental problems in a bizarre moment this week.

In Auckland on Thursday, he became involved in another fight. At a seminar in the top floor of the Westpac Bank building, a Malaysian businessman stood and heckled Watts: "Jonathan, I paid $35 for my ticket ... and all you are doing is condemning China!"

Watts replied calmly as the furious man was escorted out: "Sir, I give this same talk in China and the people there say I am too sympathetic."

Making the Earth move
* When a Billion Chinese Jump: How China will save mankind - or destroy it, by Jonathan Watts (Faber & Faber $30, paperback).

Public lectures
*Wellington, Monday: The Theatrette, Massey University, Museum Building, 5.30pm
*Christchurch, Wednesday: Riccarton Park Function Centre, Upper Riccarton, 5.30pm