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Book Review- When a Billion Chinese Jump: How China will save mankind or destroy it

I recently finished Jonathan Watts’ book “When A Billion Chinese Jump,” and I must say that it is one of the finest books I have read on China. While the author was attempting to create a complete picture of China’s environmental situation, he actually created a much broader guide through his pan-China adventure in which he visits almost every province.

His journey begins in Shangrila, or Deqing as it was called before the marketing campaign. There he notices that in the rush to create an eco-tourism paradise, the companies are actually destroying the main attraction. There he also takes time to introduce a concept that he refers to as the Daoist approach to nature, a bit of Tibetan culture, as well as sharing interesting conversations he had with passing locals. The scope is far beyond what I had been expecting of a book that was supposed to just be about China’s environment.

I have a feeling my wife is also glad that I have finished this book, as I was constantly interrupting her reading/napping to share yet another crazy fact about China’s environmental policies. Like that in the 1950’s the gov’t covered glaciers in Xinjiang with coal dust so that they would melt faster, allowing them to open up new farms in the desert. Or that during the Great Leap Forward Chinese scientist tried to crossbreed tomatoes and cotton so that they wouldn’t need to dye fabric. And the most startling fact of the book, that when all environmental damage is accounted for, China’s GDP is actually moving in reverse.

Jonathan Watts’ understanding of Chinese history and culture, along with access to dozens, if not hundreds of sources working in various companies, gov’t offices, and social organizations helps him to create a rock solid case about China’s current environmental challenges and efforts to overcome them.

The one fault I found with this book is that he often blames Western powers for building so many heavily polluting factories in China. While this is a valid point, I would have been interested to see him compare China’s environment pre-opening up, to today. I think though that some of these points may have been added to help balance the views in his book.

If I were asked to recommend a few books for understanding modern China, this would be at the top of the list, and hopefully it is being added to 100-level courses in East Asian Studies, as it introduces so many of the concepts that are essential for getting at the bigger picture.

Buy When A Billion Chinese Jump on Amazon

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My photos of a few of the places mentioned in this book

Stories from today’s news that wouldn’t surprise you if you had read this book:


11 Comments

  1. George Ding says:

    Thanks for the recommendation, can’t wait to grab this one. It only comes in paperback right?

  2. yaxue c. says:

    Thanks for the review and recommendation. Please add an Amazon link here? I for one am going to get a copy.

  3. Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

    It’s a great book but it left me worried about China’s future and therefore the future of the planet.

  4. NiubiCowboy says:

    I’d previously read many of the same facts and figures mentioned in Watts’ book in other titles that focused on specific issues (water, infrastructure, energy, GDP), but the way in which he wove all of these elements together in his book was incredible. Sometimes it felt as if Watts was trying desperately to reveal a silver lining in some chapters even though the silver lining was crooked and made of aluminum rather than silver.

    Also, since I first read about green GDP a few years ago, I’ve always been surprised that the idea hasn’t been publicized more widely in the nefarious, mustache-twirling “Western media.” You’d think an indicator that suggests China is actually experiencing negative growth would gain more traction among people in the know. I’d be curious to know how the rest of the world’s growth figures would be altered if their economies were examined under the lens of green GDP.

  5. […] action on air quality, and the Party will be forced to concede to maintain control (check out my review of When a billion Chinese jump, a thoughtful book on this […]

  6. ge says:

    started to read about it then lost interest, now think i’ll go back to reading it.

  7. Steven Gaynor says:

    Echo previous poster , can you put China’s negative green GDP in perspective. What are other countries green GDP?

  8. […] Watts’ book, “When A Billion Chinese Jump,” you can read my review here.  Advertisement Eco World Content From Across The Internet. Featured on EcoPressed Not So […]

  9. […] more on China’s water problems I reccomend Jonathan Watts’ excellent book “When a Billion Chinese Jump,” and this photo essay from Foreign Policy. Rate this: Share […]

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