Watts is an incredibly dogged reporter, putting himself in some politically risky situations and traveling to some of the most desolate places in northern and western China to paint a portrait of the country. When A Billion Chinese Jump should indeed "be compulsory reading for all," as the review on the cover states. For any businessperson who thinks "China is the present and the future," the book explains how much more complex (and ominous) the reality is.
The book's subtitle, "How China Will Save the World - or Destroy it," is misleading. For one, it makes the book sound as if it has a broader scope than it does. Watts's talent is for on-the-ground reporting, and while he does provide plenty of historical context, he does not spend much time discussing what China's activities mean for the world and vice versa. A limited amount of broader context could have been helpful.
Secondly, the subtitle is more hopeful than the book. Watts is about 80% pessimistic and 20% optimistic. He visits promising "eco-villages" that are incompetently run and crumbling around their few residents. He visits the northeastern city of Dalian, which has made great strides in cleaning up pollution and investing in cleaner energy, but in reality has just moved the dirtiest industry outside city limits and continues dumping solid waste into the ocean. He describes China's simultaneous lip service to green energy while continuing its commitment to coal for the next two decades. Perhaps his publisher pushed for some rays of sunshine, but Watts himself does not sound sanguine about the fate of China and the world.
Another aspect of WABCJ that kept it at four stars instead of five: Watts visits so many places in China and talks to so many people, it's hard to keep them straight. He'll often devote no more than a page on a city and his conversations with people there before hopping in a cab for another 1,000 km to the next locale. It can be exhausting to read, and I can only imagine how it was for him.
But the book is fascinating the whole way through. Watts explains how traditional Chinese medicine helped fuel the attitude that nature and wildlife are to be conquered and consumed rather than preserved. Hence the incredibly destructive Three Gorges Dam (plus thousands of other dams, some built on fault lines), the emphasis on destructive farming methods and the attempts at controlling the weather via cloud seeding and other methods.
Watts laments that China, much like the U.S. and other nations, is intent on expanding access to scarce resources rather than quelling demand for those resources. Is that possible? The authoritarian regime of Chairman Mao is gone, replaced by a decentralized government in which regional party bosses are beholden to local industry and couldn't care less about dictates from Beijing.
Like the U.S. and much of the West, China is addicted to growth and the consumerism that comes with it. Watts seems to realize that there is little hope of reversing course while there are still resources to consume and mouths to feed. His China travelogue is an excellent and scary picture of a country teetering on the brink.