by Tobias Thornes
A wide and enticing country brews, always, just beyond our western comprehension, like a cauldron of constant change the taste of whose broth we never can be sure. Such is the allure of tantalising China: a rich civilisation veiled behind a mist of mystery. And I, like so many awe-stricken adventurers, am drawn irresistibly thither. There is only one open border between India and China. Fortunately, this lies on the wild fringes of the scarcely-populated Sikkim province, an oasis of natural beauty abounding with such fauna as leopard, bear, deer, wolf, badger and golden eagles severely threatened elsewhere. Trekking slowly up into the four kilometre high Nathu La mountain pass, a portion of the ages-old Silk Road until recently barred to non-Indian nationals, I watch one whirl above me. Lulled by the loveliness of this sun-splashed spectacle of beauty – the abounding blue of the cloud-streaked sky, the vivacious verdancy of the forest, the perfect ice white and soft slate grey of the reclining mountains – it’s almost as if I’ve stepped out of time and trouble. Hours ease by unmarked in my gentle amble, and I cross into Tibet with an overwhelming sense of awe and peace.
But trouble survives, if latent, even here, a soil stained by the blood of many in the brutal clash between Chinese officials and Tibetan separatists for control of this cherished plateau. My many mountain-dwelling days, coloured by the rich experience of ancient Buddhist rituals still playing out in those high hills, could not shield me from the grim reality awaiting further down. The regional capital Lhansa, a ‘development zone’ growing with the same rapidity as so many Chinese settlements hastening to ‘westernise’ themselves, is where I again meet modernity. It is with some regret that I board the world’s highest railway, though I turn down its offer of a direct forty-hour bullet to Beijing, preferring to make my way north and eastwards piece by piece. The journey, set against a backdrop of sweeping Chinese scenery, is not an unpleasant one. There’s change afoot at every stop, it’s true. But there’s also an ancient Chinese way and wisdom at the heart of these scattered communities that refuses to be conquered despite Maoist and then Capitalist assaults. The cherry trees still blossom in the fertile valleys; the temple bells still ring from the hills. The words of Confucius still resound, if you listen for them – words about harmony with nature and with one another that the central government would do well to hear.
It used to be said that Beijing was a city of nine million bicycles, until the choking smog of coal fires and cars made cycling here toxic. In 2018, I find the air cleaner, with many of those fires and vehicles replaced by more efficient electric alternatives, though I don’t quite bring myself to cycle those congested, still-polluted streets. Slowly, the smoke is clearing, it seems: industrialisation doesn’t have to accompany growing prosperity; the bicycles need not bow out to cars. A fresh wind of change is blowing here, buoyed on by a unique Chinese optimism and a government that at least cares about climate change and the environment – or does it?
In a brand new electric car, I’m zipped northwards on the highway to Inner Mongolia by the local environmental campaigner who became my friend and guide. In recent years the Chinese have pioneered better, longer-lasting batteries that mean we can travel two hundred miles between stops to charge. These twenty- to thirty-minute breaks, familiar to electric car users the world over, give us chance to pause and watch the world go by, or to walk, escaping the faceless grey blot of each filling station car park to explore the surrounding countryside as we discuss the future of his country and its ‘green’ industry. It’s very likely, he explains, that the power charging our car will come from a new suite of renewable generators springing up across China as it strides ahead to develop more efficient wind and solar generators and, in embarrassingly stark contrast to its neighbour India and the supposedly enlightened Germany, phases out dirty coal.
But this isn’t coming without costs of its own. The government has displayed little democratic concern when it comes to pushing through its renewables revolution whatever the social and – ironically – environmental costs. New hydroelectric dams throttle and flood ancient rivers and valleys, and wind and solar’s slates are far from clean. Could the ‘greening’ of the dragon be more about political power and so-called ‘greenwash’ in the eyes of the world than a genuine commitment to the well-being of China’s inhabitants? Alas, our destination suggests this may be so.
Baotou is the world’s largest source of rare Earth elements – the very precious metals on which a growing glut of mobile telephones, computers, solar panels, wind turbines and, yes, even our electric cars’ batteries – depend. China prides itself on providing more than ninety-five per cent of the global supply. And as the world stampedes towards renewables and the batteries needed to make up for their intermittency, its economic leverage can only increase. But those mining these metals, and their neighbours, see few of the benefits. In the decade to 2012, the population of this town plummeted ten-fold to just three hundred, and it’s not difficult to see why its people fled. The once fertile farmland has been poisoned by sulphuric acid and solvents released during metal extraction; livestock has died, and crops are laced with toxins. Putrid ponds of waste fester, so laced with expensive elements that residents were prosecuted for trying to sell samples.
Our greed for more precious metals is ripping ever deeper scars into our planet. All because we seek to prop up unsustainable levels of electricity consumption through ‘renewable’ ways of producing it and fail to recycle what we’ve already used in all the gadgets – such gleaming gems of human innovation – that we thoughtlessly toss away and replace. Electric cars and solar panels are, at present, little better than gimmicks, designed to keep us consuming and living fast-paced lives while fooling ourselves that we’re free from environmental sin. At least the Chinese urban poor will stop complaining that their cities are too polluted to breathe in, even if that pollution is merely swept out of sight elsewhere.
On my way to Beijing I passed through Wen’an in Hebei, famed for its forests, streams and wildlife until the world’s greed for guilt-free plastic brought the recycling industry here. Nothing green survived in the resulting dead zone, where factories pumped the fumes of burnt unrecyclable remnants into the plasticised lungs of the stressed inhabitants. The industry was shut down in 2011, but China continues to produce and import vast quantities of plastics, and my host assures me that the same problems are resurfacing elsewhere. They call it modernisation. ‘We used to fear water-borne diseases,’ he tells me. ‘But the land was healthy. Now these diseases are gone, but people get high blood pressure from the stress, or cancer from the plastics.’ The deadly cycle of poverty still wheels on.