An important book, poorly written. The People's Republic of
Chemicals purports to reveal how the offshoring of American manufacturing to
China helped China become the most polluted country on the planet. It does
achieve that goal, though perhaps in spite of itself. While the title suggests
a discussion on chemicals, the vast preponderance of the book is focused on the
massive air pollution problems in China. This isn’t surprising given the authors’
previous collaboration, a book about the smoggy days of Los Angeles.
The early chapters provide some historical background on China’s dynastic rule and frequent invasions by the Japanese, the British, and others, as well as its own political infighting. Their overly rosy characterization of Mao’s various attempts to control everything once he and the communists took over is somewhat naïve – or at the very least, incomplete – but they generally capture the essence of how China came to set itself up as the world’s factory. The authors’ explanation of how entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO) and various bilateral and multilateral trade agreements spurred the rapid growth of industry and economy, while perhaps overly rancorous, is well done.
In short, the book documents through rapid-fire detail and personal anecdote the rise of Chinese manufacturing and with it the extraordinary increase in coal-based pollution. The authors relate how bad the air pollution has become, and the subterfuge of the Chinese government to deny its existence even as giant screens in Tiananmen Square broadcast barely visible images of splendid panoramic vistas through the gritty air. The book does a good job of showing how China periodically shut down industry and banned automobiles in an effort to clear the air, usually when foreign dignitaries were in Beijing for meetings, during the 2008 Olympics, and for other events in which foreign media were present. Finally, near the end they discuss chemicals other than smog, though only superficially. They also touch on some attempts by China to do something about a problem they recognize but can’t solve alone. This last point deserved much more attention than it got. Still, the information they present is important for all of us to know and understand.
The biggest negative about the book is the writing. It often appears that the two authors each took the lead on different chapters. Some chapters are clearly written and eminently informative. Other chapters are so full of hyperventilating prose seemingly more interested in hearing its own breathless recitation of a thesaurus than communicating the information. In fact, these chapters and sections contain so many clichés (sometimes not even getting them right, e.g., “pedal-to-the-medal”) and bombastic turns of phrases that half the sentences carry no meaning whatsoever.
That said, the basic message, though too often lost in the laborious, self-indulgent writing, is that China became a cesspool of pollution in part because of our offshoring of manufacturing jobs to them. With global warming and prevailing air currents, that pollution is coming back to haunt us. So as difficult as it sometimes is to get beyond the verbal gymnastics, the book is still a worthwhile read.