Q&A with Jonathan Watts, Part 2: Reporting inside the circle of fire in China
Jonathan Watts has had a dream assignment, in many ways. He has been able to watch China transform itself into a true economic superpower and has detailed the resulting environmental and societal problems in his stories for the Guardian in London. Now the paper's Asia Environment Correspondent, Watts has just had a book published by Simon & Schuster, When A Billion Chinese Jump: How China Will Save Mankind - Or Destroy It.
I spoke to him recently while he was in Seattle speaking about the book. The first part of our interview ran last week. The second part is below. It has been edited for space and clarity.
Q: China can be a tough beat for a journalist, right? Because you don't want to write something that is going to result in you being shut out or even thrown out. But yet you don't pull any punches, as far as I can tell, in the book.
A: I've never not done a story because I thought the authorities would be worried about it. I don't think you can pull your punches. Where there is some restraint is in protecting sources. As a foreign correspondent in China, in one sense it's one of the safest places in the world to work. But it's as though there is a circle of fire around you that protects you but can burn anyone you come in contact with, and that's the real worry. You don't want to get someone else in trouble.
There are a couple of bits in the book where I have slightly tweaked it to cover up the identity of someone who told me something. It's a legitimate thing to do. I'm not deceiving the reader, but I am being cautious.
Q: But you wouldn't have written the book with that in mind had you been writing about Japan, where you also have worked?
A: Probably not. I have been detained at least five times in China, and those kinds of detentions are more about stopping you from doing the story than anything else. It's taking you out for a cup of tea that you didn't want to drink. Or taking you down to the police station for two or three hours. It's not nice. It's wrong, but the consequences are more extreme for the people who have been my sources. Something like five or six people I've spoken to over the years are in prison now. It's not because of my stories, but because of what they do. They are activists, and that has landed them in trouble. I have had to warn people, "If this goes public, you will upset someone." And people almost always say, "I know that, but it has to be said."
Q: You don't think people realize that before they talk with you?
A: I do think they realize it, especially the human rights activists and others who have made it their life to fight for certain causes. Other times, if someone hasn't been really involved in politics – an artist or someone like that who is a bit more naïve – generally I will try to make certain they understand the potential risks.
Q: You are taking on some powerful interests in your book. Not only do you point fingers at the government for some of its policies and its tendency to turn a blind eye to environmental degradation, but you name other names, too. You nail the very popular Chinese film director Chen Kaige for destroying a pristine mountain lake in one chapter. Have you felt any heat as a result?
A: No. in Chen Kaige's case, he'd been named before. This case had been in the papers. He was exposed for doing what he did. I had gone to see this area where he filmed at the time, but in the end, I didn't write about it for the Guardian. And it's a good thing that there was an outcry.
The fact that this case got into the public consciousness and people did get upset was one of those notable points in the steady change in China. I'm sure it happened a lot before that film directors would have gone to some fantastic, beautiful location and completely changed their surroundings for the short term interests of their film and nobody would have said a word because they didn't have a norm to compare it against. Everyone just wanted the money.
In a sense it's kind of a symbol of what's going on with the Chinese economy. Big industry comes in and does what it wants for a while and only later do people say, "Wait a minute. What's going on? We better sets some rules and standards here."
Q: So you had notes about the film shoot that you saved, clearly. When did you start deciding thathe little gems you were picking up during your beat reporting were turning into a book and how did you go about transforming your notes into a book?
A: I arrived in China in 2003 and I decided I wanted to write a book in 2006. So pretty much from 2007 onward I was starting to think, "How is this going to fit into a book?" And, of the material that ended up in the book, about slightly less than half is based on trips I made for the Guardian for news stories. Slightly more than half is from trips I made particularly during those six months off where I traveled just for the book.
So melding these different things together was sort of the big writing challenge. Once you know you are writing a book you are taking down loads of extra details. Whereas for the older material you can't fill it out with those extra things. Then you have to flesh out the material by going back and doing more research through other books or through telephone conversations or other things.
Q: Is this just the way you organize your beat reporting that you are able to go back through these notebooks and cultivate what you needed? I know a lot of reporters, including myself, who would go back to their old stacks of notebooks and not even be able to read their handwriting.
A: I'm pretty good with my notebooks, usually. When I began in 1996 and pretty much until now I have archived my notebooks. It's boring journalese, but I like a big chunky book rather than a tiny book. And for each story, I will always put a topline or title and a date on the pages. On the cover of the book, I write the dates and the topics covered in the books. It's not perfect, but it's reasonably well-organized, especially considering that I'm such a disorganizedperson normally.
Q: How much do you get on audio?
A: Not quite so much audio, but I have captured quite a big chunk of video and a lot of photographs. I do quite a bit of that already for the Guardian. The Web is just a voracious beast that can eat endless content, so, as a reporter, you have to produce galleries all the time. You go somewhere and sometimes you get 20 pictures online with a story.
Q: We talked about the work you did while you were on your book break, but did you have any time while you were working that you also were able to work on the book?
A: The original idea was that I would work on the book while I wrote for the paper. I will go to bed a little later and write at night. I will wake up two hours early and write in the morning. I will find a way to fit it all in. That was completely unrealistic. I was not getting anywhere for the first year, and I needed to get that time off. After those months off, I broke the back of the book and had a lot of words down. The editing and the rewriting and the cleaning up I would do on weekends or on my own time while I was back writing for the Guardian.
Q: Were you writing chapter by chapter or just waiting and turning all of the chapters in to your editor at the end?
A: I had to turn the whole thing in the end rather than chapter by chapter. It was completed in February of this year, and it was first published in the U.K. in July and in the U.S. in November.
Q: That seems fast.
A: It was actually 16 months late. I was working full-time for most of the writing, and the subject is enormous. You need a range of different disciplines to get a grip on the topic. You're dealing with conservation, with climate change, with government policy. What also made it take longer is that after probably about the first year of writing, I decided that I would have to do this with footnotes. I had to go back and do it all over again and make it properly annotated. It's a 500-page book with 100 pages of notes.
Q: Why did you feel it had to be so heavily annotated?
A: I just felt that a lot of the things I'm arguing are contentious, and I thought that people should know where these ideas came from. I just wanted to make it as robust as possible and as defensible as possible.
Q: Were you anticipating challenges?
A: I thought it might upset some people. If you look at the comments page on the Guardian, you will see that this topic is like the new religion. Either you are a believer that the climate is going to pieces or you are not and you think humanity can overcome everything. And this is so divisive.
Q: So it was the environment part of the book that was more contentious, in your view, than the China part?
A: It was the environment part. But it was also the China part. China can stir up all kinds of passions as well. Overseas and within China, particularly within China. People might say, "There is another foreign correspondent who is dissing our country unfairly." So I thought I had to show people where I got this idea and this idea and this idea to build as strong a case as possible.
Q: What about other environmental writers and China experts who have really explored these topics in the past? You must have been concerned someone like Nicholas Kristof, who obviously knows a lot about China, might read your book and say, "Who is this guy? He has it all wrong."
A: You want those people to think you've put together a strong case. These are the experts in the field and you want them to know where you are coming from. It's not that I was anticipating a big backlash, but people do tend to have fairly strong views on China and the direction it is going.
Q: Do you have another book in mind now?
A: It was agonizing to write, probably because of the subject. There are some funny bitsand some hopeful bits, but there's an awful lot of grim stuff as well. That said, I would love to write another book. I've got a lot out of this process. To be able to dig deeply into a particular subject is very rewarding. But I haven't finished this book tour yet. After I finish, I'll have a chance to think about what I want to do next.