When a Billion Chinese Jump
By Jonathan Watts
Paperback, 448 pages
List price: $17.00
The egghead leading China's charge toward an efficient, low-carbon future almost never made it to university. Professor Li Can grew up during the Cultural Revolution with a politically unfortunate habit: he loved to study. This went down well with his high school teachers, but, in those days, it was not much good being a top-level student if you were a second-rate revolutionary.
By 1975, the nation's universities had been closed for almost a decade. Business was still frowned upon. For a bright young man, the only career tracks were through the Communist Party or the government. Lacking the ideological zeal for either, Li's only choice after graduation was to return to his home in a remote corner of Gansu and become a barefoot doctor. His high school education was all the qualification he needed to perform acupuncture and rudimentary medicine around local villages near the old Silk Road.
This was a period of massive transition for China, but the changes almost passed Li by. After Mao died, a new leadership took over. Soon after, they announced the full reopening of the universities. Li did not hear about it for weeks because nobody in his village had a telephone or a radio.
Fortunately, the deputy headmaster of his old school remembered the brilliant pupil who had been forced to return to the desert, He cycled 30 kilometers to Li's home to tell him the news and recommended he join the first wave of students to take the Gaokao entrance exam. There was barely any time to prepare and few teaching materials. In those conditions, the future head of China's clean energy research lab did well to come forty-ninth out of 150 students in his region. None of the prestigious universities would accept him. Desperate to secure a place, he applied for a course at a second-rate university in a field he had little interest in.
"I chose chemistry. To be honest, it was not my favorite subject. I had always preferred math and literature, but I thought I would have more chance of securing a place with chemistry. You cannot understand what it was like then."1
I had a soft spot for Li's generation. The wave of university students who came of age as the country removed the ideological blinkers of the Cultural Revolution tended to be more open-minded, down-to-earth, and appreciative of education than others. "I can still do acupuncture," the former barefoot doctor said with a smile as he poured a fresh cup of green tea. He had come a long way from curing desert villagers with traditional medicine.
We were sitting in Li's spacious study in the Dalian National Laboratory for Clean Energy. The research center had just been established to spearhead China's efforts to escape the energy crunch and ease the risks of global warming. Li was the first head. He was engaging company. As he talked about the future of China, the world, and energy, it was clear he had huge ambitions.
"Solar is the most important renewable energy source for China's future. Wind and biomass are good, but their potential is limited. With solar, though, we can do more. There is a lot of land available for solar farms in the deserts of Gansu and Xinjiang. We have calculated that if we covered just a third of those areas with photovoltaic cells then we could meet the current energy needs of the entire country."
That would mean filling the old Silk Road with billions of solar panels. Professor Li's old home in Gansu would become a power hub for the nation. The barren deserts would be transformed into China's greatest asset. If any nation could build such a model it was likely to be China, which had the land, the scale of vision, and the manufacturing resources. It was a thrilling prospect. Li had high-level backing to make it work. The science and technology minister, Wan Gang, told me solar was the best long-term hope. "The sun has more than enough energy for all our needs, but we currently lack the understanding to utilize that," he said. "Since 2007, we have been using more solar power, and I think we will increase in the future. The priority is to strengthen research and build a strong business model."
But realization was still a long way off. In the short and medium term, the boffins (research scientists) working under Li would work on ways to improve the efficiency of coal. Major experiments were taking place across the country. In some cases the work was more advanced than anything in the U.S. or Europe, suggesting China might one day become a leader in low-carbon technology.2
It was heady stuff but exactly what I was looking for in the northeast rust belt, where I planned to put "Scientific Development" under the microscope. Could brainpower and money solve China's environmental problems and make the country a green superpower that could save the world from the accumulated side effects of industrialization and overconsumption? Cities were trying to go green. Industry was moving toward greater efficiency, and the state was planning to ramp up spending on research and development to levels close to those of the U.S., Germany, and Japan.3 Businesses and local governments were generating a new boom in wind farms, photovoltaic cell manufacturing, electric cars, "ecocities," and smart-grid technology.
The government had just announced a new front line of the intellectual effort to produce more light and heat with less smoke and waste: the National Laboratory for Clean Energy. If climate change was the biggest challenge facing the planet, and China was the country most responsible for greenhouse gas emissions, then this laboratory was where much of the hope had to be focused in the search for a scientific solution to save the planet.
It was based in the Dalian Institute of Chemical Physics, a reassuringly boffin-friendly environment. Nerdy types wandered through a pleasantly green campus. The only distraction was a giant electronic screen that at first appeared to be made for displaying the latest football scores or stock indices. But look a little closer and the data was good solid science: "Test run of new vanadium redox battery-powered display. Time since last recharge: 30 days, 17 hours." Inside the buildings, the corridor walls were decorated with complex flowcharts and compound diagrams. In the workrooms, students with impressively unkempt hair had their noses deep in lovingly worn research papers and books. The laboratories fitted the 1950s mad-scientist stereotype: semichaotic and crammed full of spectrometers, chemical lasers, and manifold catalyzing experiments, most of which seemed to be housed inside Robbie-the-Robot stainless-steel casings.
The changing role of the institute has tracked trends in resource availability. Founded in 1949, its original goal was to find alternative supplies of energy. Most of the scientists worked on synthetic replacements for oil, which was then in desperately short supply in China. Their role changed completely in 1959 with the discovery of the huge Daqing oil fields in Heilongjiang.4 After that, the institute quickly reinvented itself as an intellectual resource for the petrochemical industry. By the time of my visit, the wheel had turned again. With more than three-quarters of Daqing's reserves gone, scientists were switching in droves to renewable energy and coal-conversion technology. In their labs, they could see the future and—in the long term, at least—it was green.
China planned to invest about $300 billion to provide 15 percent of its power from renewables by 2020.5 But far bigger sums would be invested in "new energy," including "clean coal" technology. This would ensure that, for the medium term, the color of development would remain a smoky brown. For the next twenty years, and probably much longer, China would be unable to kick its coal-puffing habit. The government has yet to set a target for when its carbon emissions might peak. Wan, the minister, told me he personally expected the peak between 2030 and 2040. Other officials put it closer to 2050. There was simply no other energy available to fuel the massive economic growth that the government was planning. Allthe scientists could do was try to ease the damage to the nation's lungs and the world's climate.
But Li insisted a real change was possible. He aimed to use solar energy to convert carbon dioxide into hydrogen, which could then be used as clean fuel. Under his instruction, scientists will focus on catalytic processes to improve the efficiency of coal, through conversion to natural gas, and to deal with polluting emissions, such as sulfur and carbon dioxide, by converting them into other fuels such as methanol.
Many foreign scientists and economists believe it is essential for China to capture and store carbon dioxide so it would not add to the volume of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere.6 But Li was skeptical. "Burying carbon dioxide is expensive, energy intensive, and potentially dangerous. I think it's better to find a way to convert it into other chemicals that we can use."
This was already being done in the institute's labs, but the processes were decades away from being commercially viable.8 China's best short-term hope for coal was to improve its efficiency through conversion to natural gas or methanol. Strategic goals were at play too. As Madame Qian had told me earlier, the government wanted to tap Xinjiang's massive coal reserves. This rich vein of fossil fuels had been left underground because of the cost of transporting heavy coal 3,000 kilometers to the factories on the coast. But if the coal could be converted to gas, it could flow cheaply along the west-east pipelines. This would be more efficient, but it could hardly be called clean energy.
I asked Li if he believed global warming was a man-made phenomenon. "The climate has changed. My grandfather told me that his grandfather had told him that our home in northern China used to be a forest. That made a big impact on me. Now our home is a desert," he said. "I haven't personally researched the causes so I don't have firm beliefs, but Nobel scientists say carbon is responsible and I trust them. Even though I am not really a hundred percent convinced, I think mankind needs to err on the side of caution by trying to reduce greenhouse gases."
Again, this was echoed by Minister Wan: "Human activities definitely have an impact on the climate, but the question is how much of an impact. That requires scientific research," he told me. "There are different views about climate change. My role is to create an environment in which scientists can discuss this. Science requires democracy."
As an affected nation and a responsible member of the world community, he said China has to take precautionary action immediately. "The goal is to change lifestyles and modes of production, so we cannot wait for the research findings to come out before we act."
This opened up the business opportunity of a generation. China moved into the clean technology sector at a characteristically rapid speed. From 2005 until 2009, the capacity of wind power generation doubled every year. Car and battery makers promised to outstrip their U.S., Japanese, and European rivals in the race to mass-produce electric and hybrid cars. Plans were unveiled for a more efficient "smart grid" to distribute electricity. Already the world's biggest manufacturer and exporter of photovoltaic panels, China launched a program to install millions of solar heaters and mulled feed-in tariff incentives to further promote solar power. The world's first solar billionaire, Shi Zhengrong, the founder and CEO of Sun-tech, had previously told me he expected his company to grow into a global energy giant like BP or Shell.
But there was a danger of moving too far, too fast. Low-carbon economic zones sprang up across the country. Municipalities quickly realized they could reinvent themselves and secure investment by talking the language of "eco," "green" and "environmentally friendly."
A brighter, more orderly canvas was on display at the final stop on my journey through the former rust belt. Dalian has arguably taken a bigger technological leap than any other city to clean up its environment. Home to 6 million people, this giant port has won accolades and investment over the past ten years as a result of cleaning up its air and opening up its development zones to green energy labs and high-tech companies. I was told that if any existing Chinese megalopolis could claim to be an eco-city, it was Dalian.
I woke up on my first morning in the city to that rarest of treats in urban China: clear skies. Against a sharp blue background, the red national flags fluttering atop government buildings seemed to blaze with pride. Clean, modern, and open, this was smart China at its best. While Shanghai was plagued by an overemphasis on fashion, Guangzhou by money, and Beijing by power, Dalian was blessed by moderate amounts of all three, along with sea breezes that helped to blow away what little pollution was emitted by the high-tech industries that concentrated here. This city boasted the cleanest urban air in China, with all but a few days of the year meeting the national "blue sky" standard.33
The transformation was remarkable. Twenty years earlier, Dalian had been a center for heavy industry with air as foul as the rest of the rust belt. But the collapse of the old state-owned industries in the nineties proved a blessing. The former mayor, Bo Xilai, put parks and lawns on the sites of many dismantled factories (earning the nickname "Grass Bo" in the process), upgraded the city's power plants, relocated the remaining heavy industry outside the city center, and invested heavily in wastewater treatment and public transport, which is now used for 45 percent of journeys—the highest level in China. In the process, Dalian reinvented itself as a clean, modern base for software and informational technology companies from Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. Bo, the son of Communist Party "immortal" Bo Yibo, was rewarded with promotion to the post of Liaoning governor, and the city was chosen to host the summer Davos conference.34 Average incomes in Dalian are high and living standards are considered to be among the best in China.35
"We have come to realize that a good environment gives us a competitive advantage," the current mayor, Xia Deren, told me in the Japanese-built city hall. "This is a recent discovery. Practice has taught us the benefits of clean air and water in attracting talented personnel and high-value-added companies."
Xia claimed to be going even further than his predecessor in greening Dalian. By his own reckoning, he spent more than a quarter of his time on policies to reduce emissions and improve energy efficiency. The city was pioneering the manufacture and adoption of hybrid buses and the hydrogen fuel cells that will be necessary if cars are ever to run solely on clean and efficient electricity.36 The city had also built up one of China's biggest wind-power production bases and won the right to host China's first national clean-energy laboratory. By 2013, said Xia, Dalian planned to go a step further than any other Chinese city in reducing carbon emissions by replacing all of the city's coal-fired power plants with nuclear generators.
I asked Xia if he thought the nation could turn from red to green.37 His answer was unequivocal. "Yes, we should build a green China. We need to make our country greener and greener. All the top people in the world recognize this. I am confident that we will do more in the future for ecological conservation and sustainability."
It was an encouraging message, though even Dalian still had a long way to go. Wen Bo, a native of the city and member of the Pacific Environment conservation group, warned against taking an overly rosy view of his home. "The city looks clean because the sea wind blows the pollutants away, but there are a lot of problems that are not visible," he said. "We discharge a huge volume of solid waste into the ocean, which damages marine life, and our dirty factories have been relocated, not closed down, so the damage has simply moved from the urban to the rural environment."
Clearly, there was no perfect model. Nuclear power had well-known risks. Solar energy led to pollution and waste during the manufacture of photovoltaic panels and the refinement of silicon. Up to a third of wind turbines spun uselessly in isolation because they were not connected to the grid. "Clean coal" technology was expensive and carbon sequestration largely unproven. There was a real danger of a bubble forming in the renewable energy sector as local governments rushed to jump on the bandwagon. Yet overall, the push for renewable energy was one of the most positive stories to come out of China in many years. The government was clearly determined to make a technological leap. It was good for business. It was good for national security. And it was good for prestige. In short, it was a power play. China was bidding to own the low-carbon economy of the future.
But this alone did not mean sustainability. China was still ramping up coal production, expanding power-intensive industries, and boosting consumption. Clean energy was just one more area in which to expand. In many ways, President Hu's Scientific Outlook on Development is a rebranding exercise. Rather than genuine sustainability, it is economy lite. As with low-tar tobacco, low-alcohol beer, or low-fat cheese, it tacitly acknowledges the health concerns related to business as usual, but instead of promoting change it has watered down the product, slapped on a new label, raised the price, and aimed for an even bigger market.
The communist engineers in the politburo were trained to optimize production and enhance technology rather than trim demand and reappraise values. Though it has promised to create an eco-civilization, the government continues to prioritize economic growth, social stability, and enhanced national power. Overreliance on technology looks likely to take China further from a sustainable balance with nature.
It was time to return to Beijing. First, a last seafood dinner at a grill-your-own restaurant, then a dash to Dalian station, just in time to catch the 9:45 p.m. overnight train.
Many passengers were already getting their heads down, including an old man in the bunk below mine. But a gruff, middle-aged man opposite was in a garrulous mood. Seeing me open my laptop, he asked what I was doing.
"I'm trying to write a book."
"China's environmental problems."
He snorted. "The problems are caused by foreigners. They pollute here what they can't in their own countries."
"Yes, that's true. But China is also responsible."
"Probably. The pollution is very bad. I live near the Bohai Sea. Have you seen it there? Terrible. It will take decades to clean up."
He asks where I'm from.
A louder snort. "That's the country that first brought pollution to China."
"We certainly didn't help."
Either tired or disappointed by the lack of verbal combat, he rolled over to sleep.
The next morning, the gruff man was in a mellower mood. We chatted in the corridor as other passengers, mostly men in their long johns, passed back and forth on their way to the washroom. He told me he was a police investigator. A gang of five thieves from Hunan had killed a woman in Dalian during a failed robbery, then fled to their home province. He was on his way to help hunt them down.
"Were the thieves black society?" I asked, using the Chinese term for organized crime.
"No, they were just poor and desperate," he replied. "The economic downturn has made life tougher for a lot of people."
The old man in the compartment returned from cleaning his teeth and joined in the conversation, which took an unexpected revolutionary turn as we approached the outskirts of Beijing.
"Which environment do you like better, Dalian or Beijing?" he asked, staring through the window as the brown fields of the countryside gave way to the gray buildings of the city.
"Dalian," I replied. "It's much cleaner, but I prefer to live in Beijing. My friends are here. It's interesting. Pollution is a big problem, but I think it will improve in the future."
The policeman interjected. "Right, in the past we took investment from anyone. Now we can afford to be more choosy. But clearing up the environment will take a long time because of corruption. Our officials don't follow their own rules."
The old man agreed. "The problem of a corrupt bureaucracy cannot be solved by bureaucrats. We need a mass movement to clear them out. I think there will be one within five years."
The policeman said nothing. His generation had a different view of mass uprisings. The old man, now in his eighties, was in his prime during the triumph of the anti-imperialist revolution. The policeman, now in his fifties, spent his youth watching the abject failure of the Cultural Revolution. While both generations agreed on the need to clear up corruption and the environment, they differed on how it should be done.
Snow started to fall as we pulled into the terminus. A row of cleaners wearing Eastern Star uniforms were waiting on the platform to tidy up the train. The digital clock above their head read 8:25:07. After an eleven-hour journey, we had reached our destination seven seconds behind schedule. China could do the efficiency thing when it chose to. No doubt about that. But, as I was to learn, efficiency could create as many problems as it solved.
Excerpted from When A Billion Chinese Jump by Jonathan Watts. Copyright © 2010 by Jonathan Watts. Excerpted with permission by Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.