China Books

When a Billion Chinese Jump by Jon Watts

Image from Faber & Faber

Jonathan Watts's book about the environment When A Billion Chinese Jump (published July 15 by Faber & Faber), focuses especially on China and how its realities and policies will affect the rest of the world.

Isabel Hilton's review for the paper Watts works for is here, a Chinadialogue feature here, and his interview with Danwei during the Copenhagen summit here.

Below is an excerpt about the coal industry in China.

When a Billion Chinese Jump; excerpt

by Jonathan Watts

The Carbon Trap

Cold, dark, silent. Close to death. Buried in the depths of a collapsed, illegal coal mine, Meng Xianchen and Meng Xianyou knew they had been given up for dead.

The rescue effort had been abandoned. The two brothers could no longer hear the sound of mechanical diggers, drills and spades above their heads. Dismayed and exhausted, they had stopped yelling frantically for help.

How long had it been? Hours, days, weeks? There was no way of knowing. When their mobile phone batteries died, they lost all track of time.

And place. With the silence and the darkness came disorientation. They were unsure which way led to the surface and which led deeper into the mountain. They had little evidence that they were even still alive. It was like being lost inside a tomb.

Above ground, their families were already preparing a funeral. In accordance with tradition, relatives had started burning 'ghost money' for the two brothers to spend in the other world. Negotiations had begun with the local authorities about compensation. Yet down below, the Mengs stubbornly refused to die.

Driven by a powerful instinct to survive, they fought against the earth and the darkness, against death itself. The brothers started digging. They hacked and shovelled, using a single pick and their bare hands. They were only a few dozen metres from the surface, but despite twenty years of mining experience, they were so panicked and confused by the darkness that they started to worry they were tunnelling deeper into the mountain. They changed direction once, twice, three times, before deciding to head straight up.

With every hour that passed they grew wearier and more depressed. It grew harder to dig, exhausting even to crawl. They filled water bottles with urine. The taste was so foul, they could only drink in small sips and felt like crying after they swallowed. Desperately hungry, Xianchen took to nibbling finger-sized pieces of coal, not knowing it had zero nutritional value. Yet they kept digging. Their companionship was a source of comfort and strength. They slept in each other's arms to stave off the cold and told jokes about their wives to maintain morale. 'My wife will be happy after I die. She can find a rich husband in Shenyang to replace me,' mused Xianchen out loud, then laughingly contradicted himself. 'But then again, she is an ugly woman with two children so it will be hard for her to remarry.' Humour does not get much blacker than laughter in a collapsed coal mine. But it kept them going for six days, until finally, miraculously, they scratched their way to the surface.

Weak and close to starvation, they emerged blinking into the light, then staggered to the village where they were met with a hero's welcome and incredulous joy that the dead could rise from their tombs. They were carried off to hospital, where the doctors treated their damaged kidneys and journalists bombarded them with questions. The mine owner, meanwhile, was on the run. Aware that the standard bribes would not protect him from a deadly accident investigation, he had fled as soon as he heard of the collapse.

The survival of the magnificent Meng brothers made front-page headlines in Beijing. Their experience captured the Chinese zeitgeist of the past thirty years - gritty, poor, dirty, illegal, dangerous, willing to go to almost any lengths to get ahead, ill as a result, but surviving long after being written off. They had been trapped in a carbon hell in which they dug, ate, inhaled and were almost suffocated by coal, yet they had lived to tell the tale.

China finds itself in a similar predicament in the first decade of this century. Demand for energy continues to grow and most of it comes from underground. The economy is utterly dependent on coal. It provides 69.5 per cent of the country's energy, a greater degree of reliance than that of any other major nation. This, more than anything, explains why China is so cautious in setting carbon targets in international climate talks such as the 2009 summit in Copenhagen. Cheap coal generates electricity for Beijing, Shanghai and Chongqing, fires the steel mills of Huaxi, powers the production lines of Guangdong, and allows consumers in the West to buy Chinese goods at a knockdown price. No other fuel has such an impact on the environment.

Collieries destroy arable land and grazing pastures, erode topsoil, worsen air and water pollution, increase levels of river sediment (raising the risk of floods), and accelerate deforestation (especially if the coal is used to make charcoal). The country's most pressing environmental problems - acid rain, smog, lung disease, water contamination, loss of aquifers and the filthy layer of black dust that settled on many villages - can all be traced back in varying degrees to this single cause.

Then there are the losses caused by global warming. In 2007 China overtook the US as the world's biggest emitter of greenhouse gases because it was so dependent on this fossil fuel. For each unit of energy, coal produces 80 per cent more carbon dioxide than natural gas, and 20 per cent more than oil. This does not even include methane released from mines, for which China accounts for almost half the global total.

Coal is compressed history, buried death. Geologists estimate the seams of anthracite and bituminate in northern China were formed from the Jurassic period onward. Within them are the remains of ferns, trees, mosses and other life-forms from millions of years ago. Though long extinguished on the surface world, they still - like ghosts or the Meng brothers - possess form and energy. Consider coal with a superstitious eye and foul air might seem a curse suffered for disinterring pre-ancient life. Described with a little poetic licence, global warming is a planetary fever caused by burning too much of our past. But whether we prefer these archaic formulations or modern science, the conclusion is the same: the more we dig and burn, the worse we breathe.

Given the low priority the Chinese coal industry places on ecological and health concerns, it is little surprise that safety standards are also appalling. The country's collieries are the most dangerous in the world. Since the start of economic reforms, the equivalent of an entire city of people has died underground.

More than 170,000 miners have been killed in tunnel collapses, explosions and floods, a death rate per tonne at least thirty times higher than that in the United States. Countless more will perish prematurely of pneumoconiosis, also known as black lung disease, because there is little or no protection from the dust in the enclosed tunnels. Mine deaths are so frequent that if the Meng brothers had been less stubborn about surviving, the collapse at their pit could easily have gone unreported. All that is unique in their story is that they emerged to tell the tale.

There are currently 2 Comments for When a Billion Chinese Jump by Jon Watts.

Comments on When a Billion Chinese Jump by Jon Watts

I have nothing better to do except inhale and exhale so I might as well spend however many hours and hours digging to retrieve my family member's corpse for a true funeral. Why would you go home and cook dinner if their bodies are still down there? If they could dig themselves out, how hard was it to not dig for them?

I'm all over this book. Heard about it on the Sinica podcast. Pure genius.

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