Q&A with Jonathan Watts: Cancer Villages and Environmental Health in China
Jonathan Watts arrived in China in 2003 after a distinguished career covering Japan for the Guardian in London. He was filling very big shoes, taking over for John Gittings, who had written about China since the Cultural Revolution. Watts quickly established himself as a clear-eyed observer of the massive changes under way economically, politically and culturally. In 2008, he took a break to write a book about the environmental and health effects of China's rapid growth.
He returned to writing full-time for the Guardian in the newly created post of Asia Environment Correspondent and has been on a book tour for When A Billion Chinese Jump: How China Will Save Mankind -- Or Destroy It. In reporting the book, he visited tiger farms, coal mines and so-called "cancer villages," where people blame the high cancer rate on polluting companies.
I spoke to him while he was in Seattle to talk about his book. The first part of our interview is below. It has been edited for space and clarity.
Q: You mention in your bio that you have covered "more rubbish dumps than he cares to remember." And, in reviewing your work, it does appear that you have been to more than your fair share. Have you created a mini-beat out of other people's garbage?
A: Definitely not by choice. It's partly me and partly China. The partly me thing is when I left Japan in 2003, I wrote a valedictory article about Japan, and I wrote about rubbish, illustrating the changes in Japan over time through the quality of rubbish you get. When I arrived, you had top quality rubbish that you could actually fill your house with it and have some great stuff. When I left, the rubbish wasn't nearly as good because people were recycling so much of it and people were throwing away stuff that wasn't quite as good.
As a journalist, I do have a tendency to get down and dirty anyway and try to examine what is going on at a macro level by really looking at that ultra-micro level of what people throw away. I don't know what that says about my personality. And the other side is that waste is particularly relevant to what's going on in China now. One of the themes in the book is that we cannot look at China in isolation or this time in isolation. You have to look at it horizontally, in other words, globally, and you have to look at it vertically, in other words through the course of history.
My thesis, if I can call it that, is that there is this accumulated waste from an unsustainable development model that has been growing bigger and bigger for 200 years. It pretty much started with my country, and the whole idea is that as one country becomes bigger, they outsource their dirty industry to the next country. And then that country becomes richer and they outsource their dirty industry. Britain to Europe. Europe to the US. The US to Japan. Japan to Taiwan. And pretty much everyone, now, to China. So China has a big chunk of the accumulated waste of the whole world for the past 200 years. And how has it dealt with that? And how can it pass it on to someone else? Pretty much, it can't. When you get to the China level of accumulated waste, there is no carpet to sweep it under anymore.
There are electronic waste dumps in some parts of China where all of the world's computers and printers and mobile phones end up, and you can see people picking through them, trying to find something of value. These computer graveyards are sort of the intestines for the world economy. And you also have plastic waste that is smuggled into the country. And you have very dirty production processes like yellow phosphorus. Other countries don't want to do that stuff anymore, and so it ends up in China. And the waste from this dirty production ends up in the air and river systems. That's a very long-winded way of saying that waste dumps are very revealing about all the things that led up to that point.
Q: I assume that when you left Japan and went to China you felt you were going backward in terms of waste. Is that right?
A: I think that would be fair to say. In terms of human development, Japan was right up there. When I was in Japan, I didn't do many environment stories. Really, the big themes were looking at new technology, the financial crisis, the aging society. But in China, the environment just kept coming up again and again.
Q: Leading up to the book, you were finding all of these environmental stories that would later become chapters, but when they were still just daily stories, how did you get your editors interested in environmental stories in remote parts of China? Was it easier to get them interested in, say, a cancer village than in some of something like plastic smuggling?
A: To the Guardian's credit, they have always focused on the environment for the environment's sake, seeing it as a global problem. It's in some ways like, "You consumers over there in the West think that you can just buy whatever you want without consequences, but look at what you're doing." It's that liberal guilt thing. So, yes, there should be human impact. But another big thing has been conservation, tigers and dolphins and pandas. People are really interested in this stuff. People are not as interested in the insects and the reptiles, but, in these charismatic mega-fauna there is loads of interest.
Q: You also connect environmental degradation to the loss of medicinal herbs, and I assume that the reason that plays so well with readers is that there is a sense of "What if I get some rare illness and the cure has been destroyed because of clear-cutting?"
A: With the traditional medicines there are two sides. One is the broad idea of how we are in danger of losing stuff that might be absolutely essential in the future to finding a cure to this or that. A lot of the medicines we use in the West are based on traditional knowledge and based in ingredients in faraway countries. As we saw at the Nagoya Conference, this was a huge issue.
On the other side, people say, "These Chinese will use anything for traditional medicine even if it doesn't make sense. And because they are so obsessed with tiger penises and tiger bones and the horns of certain animals they're just hoovering up the world's animals irresponsibly and recklessly. There are those two sides of the coin.
Q: You have this fear in the book about losing all these traditional medicines but, as you said, the traditional medicines could also be part of the problem. That's one of those interesting contradictions about China, and if we look more carefully at ourselves in the US, we would probably find the same things.
A: And it's also about how you treat the animals. If you think of animals mainly for farming or for medicine, then even rare animals become farm animals. There are tiger farms and scorpion farms, and you need things like this if you are a Chinese doctor. It can be pretty shocking, really, especially the tiger farms. There are more tigers in one farm in Guilin than in all of the wild in India. It's staggering.
Q: I hesitated to ask you this because it's a tough thing to admit, but have you taken any of these medicines that were derived from rare animals?
A: Not knowingly. I haven't always checked the ingredients, I have to confess. But how often have I had Chinese medicine? Almost never. Some Chinese friends have given me some cold medicine and said this will make you feel better. And when I had altitude sickness once I was given some Chinese medicine, and I didn't check. I just took it. I have eaten some weird stuff for sure, bugs and things. But I wouldn't eat anything that I knew was endangered.
Q: How do you get access to accurate statistical information about the impacts of environmental damage on population health in China?
A: It's a mix. What I relied on the most were World Bank figures along with work done by Chinese ministries of the environment. They did a couple of big joint studies together that were pretty authoritative. There you have pretty clear estimates using analytical models developed over time in the countries and applied to China to show how many premature deaths are due to pollution each year. And then you have the difficulties of things like cancer villages where it's not really at the level of science. There hasn't really been enough thorough epidemiological research into these things so you have to be more cautious in that regard and I hope it comes across as more cautious.
You can say that the media has identified what they say are 100 to 400 villages, and then you can go to those places and talk to people about their fears. You can talk to doctors about what they've learned, too. They usually have noticed some kind of rise but haven't studied it in any detail. Then you can put in the World Bank figures as a background. The next step is to analyze which chemicals are being dumped into local rivers and see what sort of health problems might result for that.
Q: So what you end up with is not necessarily causation, and you try to make that clear in the book. But I didn't know whether you would have had similar problems gathering health and environment statistics in Japan or if you had a particularly difficult time finding this information in China.
A: Statistics are a monster of a problem in China. Running through the statistics is a painful job, as any economist who looks at China will tell you. They are forever revising their GDP figures, and the AIDS figures are always a problem. The World Health Organization has said it's not sure if it's 100,000 people or 2 million people. The range of figures you are getting is enormous. It's a combination of the size of China and the enormous divergence between the very rich, modern areas with a well-oiled bureaucracy to the far regions where that certainly isn't the case. They're just scrabbling to make a half-decent living.
And the third thing is that officials cheat on all sorts of things, and this isn't just happening China. But it is easier in China in a lot of ways because you have less accountability. You're not going to have another party come in and question the figures you produced in your term of office, and you don't have a media that is free to probe these sorts of things. For all those reason it's tougher to get really solid data.
Q: You would think that you could have perfect data there because it is a centralized, powerful government with a lot of control, but I think that's a naïve view of how things really work there, isn't it?
A: I didn't really understand it either. It kind of shocked me to think that this supposedly authoritarian state doesn't seem to have any authority at times. Particularly when it comes to environmental issues and health issues, local governments just completely ignore what the center says and instead are working in collusion with companies that are either foreign or are suppliers of foreign companies. Some of these companies are getting away with murder, semi-literally. If you put pollutants into the river system you won't kill people immediately, but you will kill them over a period of time.