Category Archives: development

“Will China Build 82 Unneeded Airports By 2015? You Betcha.”

This piece is by Gordon Chang, so I had to cut out a lot of prophecies calling for the certain demise of the Chinese economy, but it works well as a counterpoint to the last article. While sewer systems around the country go entirely unbuilt, China is going on a massive airport building spree:

By then, China will have 230 airports, up from the current 182, according to Huang Min, director of infrastructure at the National Development and Reform Commission. Most of the new facilities will be feeder airports in the central and western portions of the country. About 80% of the population will be within 100 kilometers of an airport by the middle of this decade. Additional building is projected to increase that percentage nine points by 2020.

Does China need all these new airports? Beijing justifies the ambitious building program on several grounds. State media, for instance, points to the aviation industry’s three decades of double-digit growth and suggests that is just the beginning. China’s aviation market, according to central government officials, has the biggest potential for expansion in the world. State media notes that, in comparison, the U.S. has 19,000 airports.

In reality, the case for more airports is not as clear as Beijing makes it out to be. For one thing, many of China’s airports are sinkholes. Last year, about 130 of them lost more than 2 billion yuan.

Chinese officials last week made the argument that these facilities were money losers because China had too few of them, not too many. “It’s like planting trees,” said CAAC’s Li. “One tree will die, but if you plant more, it will become a forest, and the trees will grow higher and higher.” The imagery does not make sense, but his concrete example was helpful. He noted all 12 regional airports in Yunnan province were profitable due to the “network effect.”

Unfortunately, China’s recent record on adding airports is mixed. Chinese airlines, for instance, are concerned about what will surely be the biggest project in the country, the plan to build a second airport in Beijing.

The new one is slated for a patch of land at least 50 kilometers away from the Capital International Airport. Airline consultants point out that the government should instead be planning to expand the existing one, instead of building a sprawling facility on the other side of town, near Hebei province.

The reason? Airlines fear they will be forced to operate from both airports, thereby increasing costs and reducing flexibility. That’s exactly what happens in Shanghai, where Shanghai-based China Eastern Airlines has had to fly out of both Hongqiao International Airport and Pudong International Airport since 1999. The original plan was to close the decrepit Hongqiao when Pudong was opened, but local officials convinced Beijing to allow them to not only keep Hongqiao but also significantly expand it as well.

I’ve seen a handful of ludicrously useless airports in China myself- the one under construction in the grasslands outside Labrang was impressive, but the entirely empty one near Kangding really took the cake. Sure this money couldn’t be better spent on some other infrastructure project?

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“Is Prosperity Strengthening Beijing’s Iron Grip?”

The New York Times on how success is making the Chinese government stronger in some ways, leading to worse human rights conditions:

This is the historic price and promise of industrialization: It is no fun, but it is better than subsistence living back on the farm. And, modernization theorists like Seymour Martin Lipset have argued, as people get richer thanks to dismal jobs like those at Foxconn, they are able to demand more rights.

That is a powerful argument, and it has been true not only in the Western developed world, which industrialized first, but also in 20th-century stars like Japan and South Korea. But Daron Acemoglu, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, warns that we should not assume that the happy connection between prosperity and democracy will automatically hold true for China. That is because China is industrializing in the age of Apple — in an era of globalization and the technology revolution.

The result, Mr. Acemoglu argues, is that China is able to deliver strong economic growth without transforming its domestic political and social institutions.

But globalization and the technology revolution mean that China’s authoritarian rulers have been able to deliver strong economic growth without surrendering political and social control: “Instead of having to develop an entire industry, an emerging market economy can house just some of the tasks such as assembly and operation. This not only enabled China to grow very rapidly by relying on world technology and leveraging its cheap and abundant labor force, but has also mollified demands for structural, social and institutional changes that previous societies undergoing catch-up growth had experienced,” he writes.

Mr. Acemoglu sees a powerful, and worrying, paradox at work. It is the triumph of the open society in the West, with its focus on individual rights, independence and iconoclasm that created the technology revolution. But the impact of those discoveries on the world’s mightiest dictatorship may be to prolong its reign.

They didn’t share many of the details of his argument, but parts of that seem undeniable. As prosperity grows in China, the government dedicates more and more resources to repressing the people, and simultaneously uses increasingly sophisticated techniques. Are we sure this stage of development has only one possible outcome?

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“Why is Batang County Experiencing so Many Power Cuts?”

High Peaks Pure Earth is still plugging along with the Woeser translations, now reaching the point where she and husband Wang Lixiong reach Batang in Kham:

When I was travelling through Kham last Summer, I went to Batang with a special purpose. On our way from Lithang to Batang we drove on muddy roads, passing through vast grasslands, my friend who was driving said that the the conditions were even worse than on the Xinjiang-Tibet highway, which is referring to the road linking Kargilik (Xinjiang) and the northern Tibetan town of Ngari. But even on this muddy road, we still saw Han Chinese tourists on self-drive tours with their off-road vehicles being decorated with the Chinese flag. 106 years ago, Zhao Erfeng who led military troops into the area to suppress Batang also passed by this area. I realised that the police car was still following us.

As it is the case in many places in Tibet, wherever we find mountains, there is mining, wherever there is water, we find hydroelectric power plants, and wherever there are mountains and water, as for example in Batang, we find mining and hydroelectric power plants. When we arrived at the Batang county town it was already getting dark but the whole city was without electricity, only a few shops and hotels used generators for lighting. It was summer, the nicest season, why was there no electricity? After we had found a hotel to stay, we asked some locals about this and came to know that they were currently building a hydroelectric power plant inside Batang. For this reason, all electricity supply was used at the construction site and, as a result, since the beginning of 2010, there have been many power cuts in the city, causing much inconvenience to its inhabitants. Subsequently, many retired cadres went to the regional government to express their dissatisfaction, saying that people wanted to watch TV in the evening, upon which the power cuts happened largely during the day and electricity came back between 7 and 11 in the evening.

But of course, retired cadres weren’t the only people who were dissatisfied. Whenever I mentioned this problem to local Batang people, I was immediately infected by their deep anxiety. Power cuts, even for several years, are not that bad but what is really terrible are the consequences of the excessive building of hydroelectric power plants. For example, in summer 2010, Drugchu County experienced severe landslides, which were not only related to the heavy rainstorms but actually more to the destruction of the environment. Excessive deforestation, excessive excavation of mountains, violent breaking up of rivers by hydroelectric power plants of different sizes, all this has in the name of “development” represented an extreme plundering of natural resources, resulting in Drugchu County to perish miserably; and this will also lead to other similar places being confronted with the same danger. Whenever I mentioned Drugchu County, Batang people were in a state of lingering fear.

As always, a good read.

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“China’s Dangerous Tofu Projects”

The Diplomat on why China urgently needs to address their building standards problems:

In July 2010, anger over shoddy construction erupted in an area hit hard by the Sichuan earthquake when a building intended to be a new home for earthquake victims collapsed (or was demolished, according to state sources) just a few weeks before completion.

In November 2010, 53 people were killed in a high-rise apartment building fire caused by an unlicensed welder. And last month, a car accident in Jiangsu Province revealed that a dam built atop of a Yangtze River tributary was filled with reeds instead of steel beams.

Why is the quality of some of these structures so poor? Corruption and graft undoubtedly play a role when project money is skimmed off the top for and by officials, leaving less funding for quality materials, qualified staff, and acceptable workmanship. Additionally, projects are often granted to companies that have more political ties than qualifications. In January, the Beijing Municipal People’s Procuratorate disclosed that bribery and corruption cases increased in 2010, with urban development and rural election issues involved in the majority of cases. From January to August 2011, the Communist Party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection announced that 6,800 officials had been prosecuted for corruption in infrastructure projects.

But there’s a reason the “tofu project” conversation should be restarted: new measures to combat this problem have recently emerged. After a State Council meeting on January 12 of this year, the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection, and Quarantine announced that they would establish a “blacklist” of businesses reported for quality issues and “shoddy practices.”

Ultimately aside from the danger to human life, “tofu projects” create credibility issues for the government, undermining citizens’ belief in the reliability of government to create safe infrastructure.

And the issue also offers an interesting case study of center-local relations, since many of these issues arise at the local level. At this point, there are far too many counterincentives for rapid construction (mostly at the local level) for there to be an effective central response – officials are rewarded for growth, and large infrastructure projects give local governments status. Sadly it will therefore probably take more accidents like those I described to create sufficient political will to clean up and prevent so many of these projects happening in the future.

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“Razing History”

A writer named Jonathan Kaiman has a piece in The Atlantic about Beijing’s war on hutongs, which are still being demolished despite official claims that they would be protected:

The demolition of Beijing’s historical courtyard alleyways, called hutong, has long been one of the city’s most controversial issues. At the height of the city’s headlong rush to modernity in the 1990s, about 600 hutong were destroyed each year, displacing an estimated 500,000 residents. Seemingly overnight, the city was transformed from a warren of Ming dynasty-era neighborhoods into an ultramodern urban sprawl, pocked with gleaming office towers and traversed by eight-lane highways.

Remaining hutong dwellers are worried, and for good reason — they have a lot to lose. Their courtyard houses have survived centuries of war and revolution, the strain of collective ownership, and the turbulence of early economic reform. Passed down from generation to generation, they are often last-remaining monuments to entire family lines.

Patchy compensation schemes have left some displaced families insolvent. Unable to afford a new home in the old city, which is gentrifying almost as quickly as it’s disappearing, they are forced to move into shoddy high-rise communities on the city’s exurban outskirts.

But Zhongnanhai-area demolitions are not like other demolitions. They’re more frightening, less easy to understand. Their location eliminates the possibility of a commercial motive. I called the neighborhood police and the district government looking for answers, but their spokespeople hung up the phone or put me through to disconnected lines. Remaining tenants responded to my questions about their neighborhood’s future with incredulous stares.

In January, 2005, over a decade of negotiations between officials and hutong preservationists culminated in the passage of a sweeping proposal called the Beijing City Master Plan. The Master Plan designated a large swath of hutong in central Beijing as a “historical and cultural protected area,” immune from redevelopment. On a map of protected areas, the hutong around Zhongnanhai glowed in a bright, safe yellow. Obviously, it didn’t do much good.

Overhead satellite images viewed on Google Earth suggest that the protected safe zones were neither safe nor protected. In images from early 2005, a small area by Zhongnanhai’s eastern border appears as a dense cluster of trees and rooftops, virtually indistinguishable from any other hutong neighborhood in Beijing. In an image from April, 2006, it is a construction zone.

I decided to take one last walk through the neighborhood on a bright afternoon in early February, but found the site sealed off by a high concrete wall. I followed the perimeter until I came across a discrete metal door. Within seconds, somebody opened it.

The man wore a black police coat and ushered out another man, who was wearing a hardhat. Although I only caught a glimpse of the site, I could see immediately that the last remaining street was gone. The space was enormous, the ground covered in white dust from the wreckage. A fleet of empty police cars was parked to one side. A few men walked around holding clipboards.

Then I saw it, at the far end of the expanse — one house was still standing. Of course it could be empty, I thought. But what if it wasn’t? I strained my eyes for signs of movement. The house’s roof still looked intact, but its walls were crumbling, its windows broken. Under the circumstances, what could possibly justify staying behind?

Issues of human rights aside, it’s really sad to see China’s architectural heritage getting demolished like this. I find it hard to believe that the government couldn’t invest more in renovating these homes (many of which have water, electrical, and plumbing issues) instead of of completely destroying them, but apparently selling the land to developers makes more sense to them right now. A pity.

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February 9th: TibetWatch

There hasn’t been much else about yesterdays protests yet, but AFP is reporting that Tibet Party chief Chen Quanguo is holding to his threat of dismissing officials if protests or other disturbances occur in their districts:

Tibet’s top leader has fired three officials for failing to crack down on unrest in the region, state press said Thursday, a day after another Tibetan set himself alight to protest China’s rule.

Chen Quanguo, Communist Party head of Tibet, announced the sackings in a Wednesday meeting at which he also called for increased pressure on Tibetan separatists led by what he called the “Dalai clique”, the Tibet Daily reported.

The three fired officials worked for the region’s human resources department, a government organ responsible for job placement.

His appointment was met with muted optimism, and firing officials instead of carpet-bombing districts with PAP might sound like an improvement… but firing them for not ‘striking’ the ‘Dalai Clique’ hard enough… Yeah, that sounds pretty ominous.

Meanwhile, ChinaDialogue has an article about the efforts to resettle Tibetan nomads. Given the prominent position herdsmen have had in recent protests, this could likely be called a major source of discontent across Tibet:

The provision of adequate public services is one of the biggest challenges. Infrastructure in some of the relocation sites is excellent, just like in a modern town. But in some cases, basic amenities including water, electricity, roads, schools, toilets and healthcare facilities, not to mention television, have not kept pace with the rising population. These services have a direct impact on migrants’ lives, and their absence makes it harder to attract inhabitants, as well as making future development work much harder.

In Guoluobanma county, for example, the influx of migrants has put serious pressure on the local healthcare system: the county hospital cannot cope with the increased numbers, while the Tibetan medicine hospital has no inpatient beds. The nearest alternatives are distant. The town of Dawu is 320 kilometres away, and Xining, the provincial capital, 786 kilometres away. Access to medical care has become a major issue for local people.

Housing projects built by the local government are mostly located on the outskirts of towns. We have seen places with cable television wired up – but no electricity, or vice versa. Even when television is available, the herders don’t watch it much, as many of them don’t speak Mandarin. And of course, they can’t easily communicate with the rest of the community. Existing residents tend not to welcome the newcomers, and there’s little sense of kinship or belonging.

Just getting by is hard. The herders used to live by moving their herds around the grasslands, finding fresh grass and water, but relocation has taken away their livelihood: they are not herders anymore, but nor are they farmers or urban workers, and low incomes have become a major problem.

The herders had expected to live comfortable lives in the towns; they put a lot of faith in the local government. They never expected that they would not only lose their original way of life, but also suffer what they call the “four hardships”: not being able to afford meat, milk, butter tea or heating fuel. The herders’ standard of living is generally lower now than it was before – and much lower than that of other locals. In Guoluo, a typical migrant’s income is around a fifth of that of an established resident. Poor locals, moreover, receive government welfare; not so poor migrants.

In the village of Xiangda, in Nangqên county, virtually everyone lost their land and several thousand people across the prefecture now struggle to make ends meet. These people are not ecological migrants – they have not been relocated – but they are demanding the same treatment as those who are. They too have made sacrifices for the sake of protecting the ecology of Sanjiangyuan, and the government should not ignore their hopes and needs.

Finally for today, Merab Sarpa has a great exploration of Chinese education policies in Tibetan areas. From their conclusion:

In The Will to Empower, Cruikshank (1999) questions and analyzes power relationships and asserts that in spite of the emancipatory claim of those who seek to empower others, the relations of empowerment are themselves relations of power. This seems to be case with China’s attempts to empower its minorities, although here the government’s intention is dubious. In Chinese government discourse, education to the minorities in Mandarin and Han Chinese culture represents an attempt to empower the minorities and bring economic and educational development to ethnic minority regions. Yet, from the minorities’ perspective, it has clear disempowering effects, as the educational displacement causes low school enrollment and erosion of their language and culture.

One of the central issues in the discourse on minority education is national unity and stability. In the case of Tibet, the government establishes a link between Tibetan Buddhism and language with local ethnic nationalism. Thus, deliberate attempts were made to exclude Tibetan culture, including religion and language from education. However, government efforts have not diminished ethnic nationalism, but rather increased alienation and created sense of exclusion. It is quite evident from the Tibetan and Uyghur experiences that the cultural exclusion, ideological education and mainstreaming seldom results in national integration. On the contrary, it has led to protests and unrest that threaten national unity. Uprisings in Tibet and Uyghur area in 2008 and 2009 respectively, and Tibetan students’ protests in 2010 are cases in point. A more culturally oriented education could in fact bring the minorities closer to the Chinese nation and promote unity in diversity. Beijing must recognize that the child’s community and local milieu form the primary social context in which learning takes place, and in which knowledge acquires its meaning.

Thus, a genuine bilingual education rooted in minority culture could be the true panacea for China’s minority educational problem. In the case of Tibet, Tibetan language should be promoted as the first language. Along with that, it is important to create economic and political expanse for Tibetan language to gain functional utility. This entails making Tibetan language the language of administration and commerce. Without the prospect of political and socio-economic gains and opportunities, even the choice for an education in Tibetan language would be a ‘false choice’ (Zhou & Ross, 2004).

I really hope Merab Sarpa can keep up this quality of writing.

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“After 20 Years of ‘Peaceful Evolution,’ China Faces Another Historic Moment”

Damien Ma at The Atlantic has a lengthy piece up about Deng Xiaoping, the evolution of the Chinese political science, and why today it’s approaching another fork in the road:

Twenty years ago this month, the octogenarian Deng Xiaoping embarked on his “southern tour,” a journey that would turn out to be one of the most significant acts of modern Chinese history. Although Deng would die five years later at 92, his organs donated to medical research, the elder leader’s bold maneuvering in the winter of 1992 made the China of today possible. Deliberately ambiguous in intention, the trip was in fact a political campaign of sorts aimed at achieving two crucial objectives: First, to sustain the political conditions that would facilitate continuous reform and economic liberalization; and, second, to rescue the Communist Party — via a reform agenda – -from reducing itself into a speck in the dustbin of history.

Indeed, Deng was thrusting himself into a political climate that was entirely anathema to his “reform and opening up” policy. The conservatives in the party seemingly emerged victorious after the Tiananmen crackdown three years earlier, only to have the collapse of the Soviet Union hand them another convenient justification to block economic and political reforms. A considerable conservative faction vehemently discredited further reform, claiming that it would bring the party to its knees. To them, the Tiananmen tragedy of 1989 and the Soviet disintegration were all products of “peaceful evolution,” which they viewed as the clear and present danger. Peaceful evolution was the most serious and threatening in the economic sphere, they claimed, and any economic reforms must be first and foremost subject to the question, “is your surname socialism or capitalism”?

Very much worth a read.

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“Chinese police besiege town and cut of food supplies in bid to quell riots”

Sounds like things are still getting worse, not better, in Wukan. Malcolm Moore has… more:

The latest protests began on Sunday, when police attempting to arrest a villager were repelled by villagers armed with sticks. The police fired tear gas before retreating.

At the same time, the local government brought the village’s simmering anger to a boil by admitting that Xue Jinbo, a 43-year-old butcher who had represented the villagers in their negotiations with the government, had died in police custody of “cardiac failure”.

Mr Xue was taken into custody last week and accused of inciting riots. Mr Xue was widely believed to have been tortured, perhaps to death, and his family were rumoured to have found several of his bones broken when receiving his corpse.

On Monday, around 6,000 people attended Mr Xue’s funeral and photographs of the massed crowds paying their respects circulated on the Chinese internet. “We’re very pained and angry at his death,” said one villager who declined to be named. “He didn’t commit any crime. He was just a negotiator speaking with the government, trying to get our land back. He was defending farmers’ rights.”

Meanwhile, more photographs showed thousands of Chinese police massing on the roads surrounding Wukan and villagers said that a blockade had been imposed. Villagers using the internet inside the cordon claimed that supplies of food, including rice were running low. “A lot of policemen are assembled outside the village,” wrote one villager on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, who named himself as Charles Suen.

If the Guangdong Model is a serious alternative, now would be a good time to prove it…

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“Materialism in modern China”

Tom from SeeingRedinChina writes about his personal experiences with materialism in China- as always with him, worth a read:

As I’ve mentioned before, when co-workers return from overseas trips, more often than not, I hear about what they bought rather than what they saw. One friend told me he had spent over $25,000 on watches during a brief trip to Taiwan. Another said she had bought 4 new designer bags on a trip to Hong Kong. This binge shopping is shrugged off when people discuss how much they “saved” by avoiding China’s high taxes on these products.

The Party has realized the value in promoting the pursuit of material goods, as it bolsters the economy and maintains the status quo. The other day, the People’s Daily approved the idea that gov’t officials shouldn’t spend more than 180,000RMB on a car, which is more than most Chinese farmers make in 30 years, as if this was a reasonable way to spend public funds (they were heralding the Gov’t’s responsible nature in lowering the limit from 200,000RMB).

This growth of materialism in China’s more affluent areas surprised me when I arrived in Chengdu from the countryside of Guangxi. I actually experienced culture shock the first time I visited one of the large foreign supermarkets (Metro). My Chinese co-worker laughed at me as I marveled at all of the choices while slowly wandering down each and every aisle. To her, I was another country bumpkin (she actually used 土包子 tubaozi) exploring China’s big cities for the first time.

In some ways I was.

When I was in Guangxi, I tried my best to live simply. Students were either given a little pocket money from their parents who made much less than $1,000/year, or worked part time jobs that paid about 2-3RMB/hour ($.25-.37 at the time). Nobody had much money to spend, so it was pointless to dream of things they could never afford.

In the present, they felt fortunate for the little they had. They wore additional fabric sleeves to protect their jackets and sweaters in the winter, they moved carefully through the rain for the sake of their shoes, and almost never left a scrap of food behind during a meal. I greatly admired their sense of thrift, and I think my grandparents, who grew up in the Great Depression, would too.

This absence of materialism in the Chinese countryside was one of the things I most frequently praised China for. Now, living in Nanjing, the never ending pursuit of material goods that I see around me is one of the things that bothers me most. Possibly because just as Guangxi made me thankful for what I had, Nanjing just makes me want more.

I still can’t blame Chinese for this- coming so suddenly from having almost nothing, and then arriving at a time where ordinary people can suddenly afford so much… well, I understand why so many people get swept up in it. I’ve got to agree with Tom in the end, though- seeing so much uninhibited materialism can feel pretty depressing at times.

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“How Tracks Froze from Hangzhou to Changsha”

Caixin Online claims that the national high-speed rail push has been badly damaged by the Wenzhou crash and the earlier sacking of corrupt Rail Minister Liu Zhijun. Given how invested the Party has been in the high-speed network as a sign of a newly reinvigorated China I’d be surprised if they allow it to continue to wither like this, but for now it seems to be slowing down:

July 1, 2013, is still the official target date for completing a bullet railway line between the willow-shaded city of Hangzhou and historic Changsha.

But central government funding for the 295-kilometer, Zhejiang Province section of the 10 billion yuan project froze in February and began only a partial thaw in November.

The ministry’s provincial rail bureaus and building contractors have struggled to obtain bank financing. Equipment suppliers haven’t been paid. And tens of thousands of laborers haven’t seen a paycheck since spring.

Today, cranes stand idle and work crews have vanished from construction sites along the route, part of tracks eventually slated to connect Shanghai with the Yunnan Province capital Kunming. Partially completed tunnels and piers without bridges bespeak a grand infrastructure project in limbo.

420 million yuan was allocated to the Zhejiang section. And a Jiangxi Province source with a project supplier told Caixin the amount earmarked for work in that province was only about 200 million yuan, most of which went toward overdue worker paychecks.

The source said his company paid back 1 million yuan of his nearly 100 million yuan of overdue payments.

Contractors and the provincial rail bureaus overseeing the project were heartened again in early November by news that the Ministry of Railways would raise another 250 billion yuan through bank loans.

Ministry officials convened a “back-to-work” meeting November 2, where each bureau was ordered to raise 100 million yuan in matching funds within two months.

Yet the amount of money promised this fall pales in comparison to 2010 financing, when the national fast-train buildout was moving at full-throttle speed. For example, the Zhejiang section of the Hangzhou-Changsha line alone received some 10 billion yuan last year.

Through the summer, some hopeful contractors tapped their own funds to keep projects alive. Ringing in their ears were the words of rail bureau officials who, since March 2010, had urged them to meet accelerated project schedules.

After the funding train derailed, however, building crews and material suppliers were along those left in the lurch. Some workers haven’t been paid since April, according to rail bureau officials. And some material suppliers have complained they’ve been owed money since July.

The big stall is also raising technical risks. For example, engineers have warned about the integrity of elevated tracks on the Zhejiang segment, many of which have been only been partially completed.

For unfinished bridges, one chief engineer told Caixin, “concrete quality will change with time. Suspending or slowing construction affects bridge quality.” Similarly, he said, half-done tunnels “bring the risk of collapse.”

Today, while bridge piers and tunnel walls weaken, contractors who had been gung-ho for bullet trains are shopping for new clients.

Scrawled on walls that surround construction sites along the Hangzhou-Changsha right-of-way are phone numbers for crane suppliers whose company bosses, when contacted, said they will no longer take jobs on China’s high-speed railway.

Could the earlier arguments against the viability of the entire project have resurfaced after Liu Zhijun was fired? Or is this just a momentary slackening? We’ll see.

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“The Curious Case Of The Vanishing Chinese City”

NPR, on the bizarre redistricting projects that happen here:

Imagine a city like Los Angeles disappearing from the map completely. That’s exactly what happened to Chaohu, a city in eastern China’s Anhui province with a similar population — about 4 million. The people have remained, but the city has vanished in an administrative sleight of hand.

That was the Kafkaesque reality for Chaohu’s inhabitants, who went to bed one night and woke up the morning of Aug. 22 to find out that their city no longer existed. For many, their first inkling that something had changed was from the local news.

“Anhui province is today announcing the cancellation of Chaohu city,” the broadcast said. It went on to explain that the city once known as Chaohu had been divided into three. The nearby cities of Hefei, Wuhu and Ma’anshan each absorbed a piece of territory. The broadcast confusingly described the move as “an inherent need at a certain level of economic growth.”

“I’m unhappy about it,” says a man who gives his name as Mr. Luo. “Chaohu was great. Why did they get rid of it?”

Luo is busy gambling on cards — which is illegal in China — just yards from the police station. Among his fellow gamblers, this bemusement is common, followed by resignation.

In recent years, Hefei’s GDP growth has been an average of 17 percent. So this move serves the long-term aim of boosting Hefei’s competitive advantage by giving it land to expand, so it can challenge the more prominent cities of Nanjing and Wuhan.

In what used to be Chaohu, the city government offices are, for once, deserted.

There’s no sign at the gate, because Chaohu city no longer exists. The government buildings themselves are eerily quiet, since the local government, too, has been dissolved and no one can really explain what’s going on.

The imposing government building in the former city of Chaohu is now largely empty because the city ceased to exist last month. Government officials will be reassigned to the three other cities that have taken over parts of Chaohu.

“I’ve got no official ID, so don’t try to interview me,” an officious official tells NPR as he bustles around his office in the news division of Chaohu city’s former propaganda department.

He pretends to be busy dusting his shelves. In reality, he’s waiting — with all the other ex-Chaohu officials — to find out which of the three cities he’s been reassigned to.

Ah yes, ‘the inherent needs of a certain level of economic growth.’

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“Hutong Economics”

Evan Osnos, on the rapid decomposition of his new house in Beijing:

He had an alternative idea: he proposed tacking a large sheet of metal across the bottom of the door to stop the wood from swelling. I pictured the reaction I’d get when Sarabeth returned to find our doors reinforced with makeshift tin-plating. Instead, I asked why the doors were rotting in the first place after only four years. He laughed harder this time.

“When I renovated this house, the landlord only wanted to pay for materials that would last five years, because his lease—from the landlord above him—only lasts five years. So when it came to choosing the metal and the wood and the details, we only bought materials that would last for five years.”

In the spirit of Beijing these days, it had a certain logic. We often see houses in the neighborhood demolished and rebuilt in the course of a few weeks, so it’s not much of a stretch to imagine the lifetime of a house in terms of a few years. Chinese friends who are among the wave of new homeowners these days often complain that their buildings look decrepit after five years.

I’ll leave it up to you to imagine how this ties in with the property bubble and construction industries.

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“Blue Dragon Mountain: the Chinese village ‘that doesn’t exist'”

An interesting one from Peter Foster at the Telegraph about one case where the forcefully relocated have managed to hold their own:

In December 1998 bulldozers demolished their homes to make way for a reservoir to supply drinking water to the rapidly expanding tourist centre of Harbin, but when the local government failed to give adequate compensation, the villagers decided to move back in.

“We returned to the village on April 10 [1999] and at first it was very hard,” recalled Yu Liyou, one of the original returnees, speaking under the watchful gaze of Chairman Mao Zedong whose beatifically smiling portraits are still found in rural homes in China.

“We all lived together in a simple collective house and divided into four work brigades to rebuild the village. It was just like the production teams in the old days.” And so began a decade-long stand-off against the local authorities that continues to this day and has become a national example of how the nameless, numberless casualties of China’s economic progress can sometimes stand up for themselves.

Officially the village of Blue Dragon Mountain – Qinglongshan in Chinese – ceased to exist in 1998: its name was erased from maps, the electricity was disconnected, the dirt road closed and its inhabitants relocated to neighbouring districts where – officially – they still ‘live’.

“I talked to those government people, and they said, ‘there’s nothing here, look on the map, you don’t exist’,” said a 76-year-old village elder, Xiao Yongting, “So I replied, ‘well, if we don’t exist, what are we? An independent nation state?”

This story of bravado in the face of officialdom, delivered by the old man as he cracked sunflower seeds expertly between his two remaining teeth, raises a round of appreciative snorts from the fellow villagers.

But the seditious cackles disguises the limits of the villagers’ victory: for all their defiance, the government officials are factually correct; in the eyes of the all-powerful Chinese bureaucracy the inhabitants of Blue Dragon Mountain don’t exist as they have no ID cards and no resident’s papers.

Without these documents they must live in limbo, unable even to buy a train ticket, or check into a hotel (ID card required), which makes long-distance travel all but impossible; they also cannot open a bank account, apply for rural medical insurance, take a job with a registered company or enroll in a university.

He goes on to say that there’s growing pressure to reform or end the hukou system. That’s true, but it seems far too useful a tool for the government to give up. We’ll see what they do with it.

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Filed under development, forced relocation, housing demolition

“Ordos: Boom town to ghost town”

Melissa Chan from Al Jazeera has yet another great piece up on her blog- this one about Ordos, a city that exemplifies the weirdness of the housing market here:

We had discovered Ordos by accident. Our team was in the area filming a report on the environment when we learned the city was nearby. I had heard about “Ordos 100″, a residential building project that had invited 100 globally renowned architects to design 100 homes for the city. It would be a fun detour.

We imagined wealthy residents, made rich over the past decade from the region’s mining boom, living in homes created by the Ordos 100 project. But instead, we found ourselves arriving at Ordos in the evening, checking into the only hotel we could find – a fancy one, encased in marble whose staff looked perplexed to see us.

We were the only guests there for the night. In the morning, we drove past streets of empty, but beautiful buildings. Never mind Ordos 100 – we never found it. City centre had us spellbound, and wondering if officials had watched that film classic, Field of Dreams.

Others who later visited Ordos, including economist Ting Lu of Bank of America-Merrill Lynch, pointed out that the real estate was not sitting idle, but had all been sold. So while the city lacked human beings, it was certainly supplying this odd demand from Chinese purchasers for empty apartments.

Inflation hit a three-year high this past July at 6.5 per cent, meaning that wherever Chinese store their savings, it had better yield something that can keep up with the rate of inflation.

The stock market is no longer a popular choice for many ordinary citizens, who find it too unpredictable. That really only leaves property to dump your money.

Ordos is one oversized, inefficient bank vault.

And when we decided to check in after two years to see how “Bank of Ordos” was doing, we found a surprise: construction is still happening at a fierce pace.

Ordos now boasts Asia’s largest fountain show. Its theatre has managed to hold a few concerts this year. There are definitely more signs of life than the last time around – but still comparatively little relative to the size of the city. We came to realise just how little when our team got thirsty midway through our shoot and decided to buy water.

We ended up spinning around and around city blocks, searching for a store selling water. Eventually we found sine – but not without the feeling we had gone on a treasure hunt. There is no major supermarket in Ordos, because not enough people live in the city.

As it turned out, while no real-estate sales offices in Ordos really wanted to talk to us, we were told off camera that apartment units up for sale in the secondary market were not getting offers. And, as we poked around apartment buildings in Ordos, we noticed broken windows and cracked paint on the exteriors, suggesting that building managers were not too fussed about keeping the place spiffy.

A wander into the buildings themselves showed dusty hallways and vacant apartment units. Some apartments were clearly halfway through interior decorating when work stopped, presumably because the owners decided, quite practically, that since they were not going to live in the unit, why bother?

People rebut stories like this by talking about how many people in China still live in tiny shacks in the countryside, or caves in the dusty north. There’ll always be demand for housing, right?

But if it’s housing like this, that cave-dwellers will never be able to afford, then doesn’t that defeat the whole purpose? What is the inherent value of a concrete cube you can’t actually sell to anyone? And if you end up having to dramatically slash the price down to a tiny fraction of what it is now just to attract a renter, then haven’t you essentially lost your entire investment? Especially given how poorly these places have been constructed and the short lifespan they’ll presumably enjoy, I don’t see how this can continue without a crash some day.

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“Dog boom as China’s attitudes on pets, palates change”

The government might be getting worse by the day, but some things are improving here (via CNN):

When Shenzhen housewife Zhang Lin was growing up in rural Guangdong province, her family kept guard dogs, some of which were slaughtered for meat during the Lunar New Year.

Now she is the owner of Dou-dou, a high-energy miniature poodle she bought for 4,000 yuan ($626), more than triple this southern Chinese city’s monthly minimum wage. She never eats dog meat and treats Dou-dou like her child.

“Growing up, we always had dogs around, but their purpose was [for] meat and guarding the house,” Zhang said. “Dou-dou is my companion.”

Zhang regularly takes Dou-dou to King Glory Plaza, a large public square dominated by an upscale shopping mall, where the Shenzhen middle class come out to play. At night, the square is filled with children whizzing by on roller-skates and couples relaxing on benches, as well as with China’s newest beneficiaries of economic growth: dogs. Poodles, huskies, Labradors run off leash, tails wagging and tongues flailing, as their owners share health and grooming tips. Despite Shenzhen’s tiny apartments, most of the dogs at the square are large breeds.

How dogs are viewed is undergoing a major shift in China, and nowhere are the conflicting attitudes more evident than in Shenzhen, a city in a part of the country where dog meat is commonly eaten. Except for the occasional mutt, King Glory Plaza is a purebred showcase, as dogs have become a status symbol for many residents with newfound disposable income.

This new coddling of dogs as pets does not mean the old custom of eating dog meat has disappeared. Type the Chinese character for dog, gou, into an iPhone, and predictive text will offer you meat, rou, as a logical follow-up character.

One man who sells in-demand breeds at a pet store in Dongmen says his career of selling dogs hasn’t changed his outlook on eating dog meat.

“How is it any different from eating any other animal?” he says. “It’s just the same as beef.”

But some dog owners recoil at the thought.

“I have eaten dog meat, once when I was young,” says Pang, the owner of golden retriever Shunliu. “But now I could never eat dog meat. When others eat dog meat I also tell them they shouldn’t. When you really understand dogs you could never eat their meat. You could never be so cruel to your most loyal friend.”

A few more years and maybe some more of those dog restaurants will disappear? You’ll probably never get them out of the ‘eat anything from the land except for a car, sea except for a boat, and air except for a plane’ south, but the rest of the country might come around…

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“China indebted to corruption”

The Australian has a piece on the rash of bridge collapses, which is being attributed to shoddy construction facilitated by the bribery system here:

In heavy, driving rain, Friday rush-hour and forced contraflow, traffic on the approach ramp to the mighty No 3 Qiantang Bridge in Hangzhou slows to a near-stagnant creep: plenty of time to take in the view.

There is the 10m gash left after the side wall abruptly fell off last month. Nearby is the 7m crack in the road, which a heavily laden lorry was swerving to avoid when it flew off the edge.

All along the bridge are 10cm scars where joints have slipped out of alignment and the shoddy concrete edges have eroded away. Finally, there is the 50-strong team of construction workers carrying-out the £6 million ($9.22m) emergency repair work that the whole debacle has triggered.

This, along with tens of thousands of other grand infrastructure projects across the country, is how the new China is being built. Not visible on the bridge are the various national engineering prizes won by the creator of this crumbling catastrophe: they sit proudly in the head offices of the Hunan Road and Bridge Construction Group.

The July accident was not the company’s first: in 2007, two more of its bridges collapsed, one at the cost of 64 lives. But what is starting to worry both the Chinese authorities and the general public is that the trouble is not restricted to HRBC and its flawed creations: in fact, the bridge collapses in China are starting to have the feel of a pandemic.

Between July 11 and July 19 this year, four bridges crumpled in different regions of China – all of them, in common with thousands of other bridges in the world’s fastest growing economy, started carrying traffic between 1997 and 1999.

Behind the accidents, say analysts, are features of the Chinese economy that could eventually become its undoing: huge corruption, an obsessive praise of construction speed over build quality, and the failure to realise the gnawing, long-term cost of both those issues.

Explanations for the various bridge collapses tend to focus on the way the contracts to build them are distributed. Via virtually non-existent tender processes, local governments hand out projects to companies they themselves own. The work itself, however, is sub-contracted down an often bafflingly long chain of smaller companies, with bribes paid at each level and successive layers of cash creamed from each strata.

By the time the first shovel of cement enters the mixer, the actual budget that remains allows for only the cheapest labour and often inferior materials.

Suggestions of corruption relating to the No 3 bridge are not new. Chinese media openly reported its failure to pass safety checks in 1997, with prominent engineers flatly refusing to have their names associated with any sign-off. A year later, a quality standard was miraculously granted, without any discernible changes being made to the bridge itself.

Looming over the whole scene is the increasingly troubling question of local government debt in China: economists are already exercised about how far dangerously high levels of indebtedness have been masked, how many of the estimated 14.2 trillion yuan ($2.09 trillion) of loans to local government entities will turn bad even if the global economy limps back to health, and how the world’s second-biggest economy will react if the brakes are suddenly applied to fixed-asset investment, currently accounting for around 70per cent of gross domestic product.

The concern is that, in the country’s unprecedented spree of infrastructure construction and other spending, local governments have already taken themselves close to the danger zone on debt: that line will inevitably be crossed if decades of shoddy work now require billions of yuan to put right.

And, unlike the money that can cheerfully be borrowed to finance projects such as bridges, stadiums, and high-speed rail lines in whose glorious light local party bosses can bask, raising the money to fix pre-existing venality and sloppiness holds zero appeal. The potentially colossal bill for repairing what China did not build right in the first place, say economists, could be the fault line on which the local debt problem starts to totter.

This is just another issue that makes me skeptical when people say the Chinese economy is invulnerable. It has huge strengths, sure, but also huge weaknesses. Would it survive a domino effect of problems like this setting each other off?

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Filed under corruption, development, economy

“A Silk Road culture pushed to the brink”

Adrienne Mong from NBC’s Behind The Wall visited Kashgar after the attacks, and has written an interesting piece about her stay. Definitely worth a few minutes:

Sure enough, throughout Kashgar—where 80 percent of the population is Uighur–there were small squads of soldiers equipped with firearms and riot shields outside virtually every major government ministry building.

Much larger teams of troops manned People’s Square, facing out onto the Mao statue across Renmin Lu, and around the Id Kah Mosque, the largest of its kind in Xinjiang. And a shopping mall that catered largely to Han Chinese was home to a smattering of black-uniformed police sporting reflective sunglasses.

“The Xinjiang story is always [about] playing the double game,” said Nicholas Bequelin of Human Rights Watch. “When the local officials emphasize security, they get more support from Beijing. At the same time, they reassure the Han [Chinese] population that it’s safe to be there to demonstrate to Beijing that they’re doing a good job at maintaining stability.”

Which may have explained the appearance of normalcy. The streets were crowded with life. We passed only one checkpoint that consisted of two local police wilting under the sun, next to a busy sidewalk, occasionally stopping cars to check for IDs. A curfew that went into effect as night fell only hampered traffic flowing into, not out of, Kashgar.

We experienced no evident threat, and, as two Chinese-looking individuals wandering the streets of Kashgar, we encountered no hostility from Uighurs. If anything, we provoked more stares from the Chinese.

Zhang, a native of neighboring Gansu Province, came to Xinjiang when he was serving in the Chinese military 26 years ago. He made no effort to hide his feelings for Uighurs: “I hate them.”

But when we asked whether he’d go back to his hometown, he shrugged. “What would I go back for? There’s nothing there…. Here, I have my taxi business.”

The Uighurs we chatted with were much more circumspect (even after I reassured them I’m American). None would engage in a conversation about the weekend’s attacks. One person only went so far as to advise me not to take photographs of the security on People’s Square.

Although it remains unclear why the recent attacks took place, there’s been much speculation about growing Uighur resentment over the erosion of Kashgar’s native Uighur culture—typified by wholesale demolitions of the Old City that were first announced in 2001 but only began taking place in early 2009.

Government officials have argued that the Old City needs to be razed and rebuilt because they say the dusty brick and wood homes are unsanitary and dangerous, especially in an earthquake-prone region.

“The Old City is actually central to the story,” said Bequelin, who’s conducted research in the region for years. “What prompted the decision to re-draw Kashgar, because that is essentially what this is about…was simply the protest in Tibet in 2008. That’s what really made the government decide it has to be quite aggressive on Xinjiang.”

The more aggressively the authorities pursue “harmonious” policies, the faster their problems grow.

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Filed under development, ethnic conflict, protests, violence, Xinjiang

“End of the high-speed myth?”

ChinaDialogue writes more about the problems at the Ministry of Rail here in China, and concludes with a summary of some of their biggest problems:

The results of this investment can be seen everywhere. Railway construction projects abound in China, costing hundreds of billions of yuan every year. The possibilities for profits through that spending are clear, and a complex web of interests has arisen as a result. Many individuals are profiting from high-speed rail. According to a report by 21st Century Business Herald, senior executives in some 10 listed firms involved in the supply of power, communications, signaling, monitoring, locomotive and carriage systems are part of the Ministry of Railways clique.

Liu wanted as soon as possible to achieve his dream of “flight on the ground” for all weathers. His team told the media on more than one occasion: “Chinese high-speed trains will not collide.” The day the Wuhan to Guangzhou line opened, with an average speed of 273 kilometres per hour, ministry spokesperson Wang Yongping again stressed that China’s high speed railways are “world leaders in comfort, safety and speed”.

This also led the railway authorities to believe high-speed rail could continue to grow at breakneck pace.

You can see this in China’s medium- and long-term plans for the rail network. By 2020, China is supposed to have 50,000 kilometres of high-speed rail lines running at over 200 kilometres per hour, while all provincial capitals, except Haikou on Hainan island and Lhasa and Urumqi in the far west, are meant to be reachable from Beijing within eight hours.

These grand ambitions, which will see more high-speed tracks constructed than the rest of the world combined has built over the last 50 years, for a while put the ministry under pressure. But Liu pledged on several occasions that “China’s high-speed rail sector is operating very well overall.”

Five months after Liu was removed from his post, a fatal train crash has put his pledges in a very different light: the safety of high speed rail became uncertain on 23 July – and so did its future. This was reflected in the fierce reaction of the stock market on the first day of trading after the crash. Any company connected to high-speed rail saw sharp falls and even panic selling.

The Ministry of Railways made interest payments of over 40 billion yuan (US$6.2 billion) in 2009, according to a report on transportation development published last year by Minsheng Bank, who warned that in the future that figure could rise as high as 100 billion yuan (US$15.5 billion). The report also predicted that, by 2012, the ministry’s debt to assets ratio would be over 70%. After the Beijing to Shanghai high-speed line opened, the Ministry of Railways decided to cut its speed from 350 to 300 kilometres per hour. Hit with unexpected events like July’s crash, and saddled with an ever-increasing mountain of debt, will the charge of China’s high-speed trains continue to slow down?

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Filed under China, development, disasters

“Harbin’s Past, Modern Style”

Writing in China Beat, James Carter talks about the unique architectural heritage of Harbin, and why it may soon be lost. A familiar story, being played out in cities across China:

When I first visited Harbin, in the early 1990s, the city’s architecture was shabby, but magnificent. Russian-designed onion domes and spires are Harbin’s signature, but they were just one element. Near my dormitory, the former Danish embassy—then a kindergarten—resembled a fairy-tale castle. The city’s mosque, built in the 1920s, seemed to combine Islamic and art nouveau influences. Unique to the city, in the Fujiadian district—Harbin’s “Chinatown”—was the “Chinese Baroque” style, found nowhere else. Developed when Harbin was truly cosmopolitan (because of the Trans-Siberian Railway, it was closer to Europe than any other Chinese city and boasted a sizable population of Russians), this style blended European and Chinese with a result that was neither Chinese nor European, yet both Chinese and European.

A June China Daily article discussing ongoing changes to Harbin’s streetscape shows that this idea of Chinese Baroque has taken a new turn. The city government, eager to spur development in this economically depressed metropolis, is razing millions of square meters in the city center and replacing the old with new buildings intended to recapture the architectural sensibility of the structures being torn down. The new development style, also named “Chinese Baroque,” is meant to be modern and efficient, while maintaining the city’s architectural richness. But in the process the very buildings that made up Harbin’s older diversity are being lost.

Chinese Baroque, the sequel, will certainly maintain a sense of Harbin’s unique identity. But it will do so in the soulless, too-perfect spirit of Shanghai’s Xintiandi or Nanjing’s 1912, Beijing’s Qianmen Dajie or any of the other dozens of projects that remodel China’s architectural past in user-friendly packages. Soon, China’s major cities may all be unique… in exactly the same way.

I can see the appeal in the clean new ‘ancient’ areas, for people who grew up in far shabbier circumstances. I’m afraid that in time, though, the Chinese may come to regret choosing to replace, instead of repair, their ancient architecture.

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Filed under architecture, China, development, history

“At least 35 dead and 210 injured in high-speed train crash”

Fresh off CMP’s post about problems and corruption in the high-speed network, news of a deadly crash via Shanghaiist:

At least 35 people were killed and over 200 injured in a horrific high-speed rail collision in Wenzhou, Zhejiang at about 8:30pm last night. The accident happened when one train, D3115, lost power after being struck by lightening, and then was rear-ended by another train, D301. A total of six carriages were derailed, two falling from the viaduct.

D3115 was traveling from Hangzhou to Fuzhou, and D301 from Beijing to Fuzhou. There were more than 1,400 passengers on the two trains.

Some reports are now putting the dead at over 40, and the number will likely continue to rise.

According to Zhejiang radio, the driver of D301 was stabbed to death by the brake handle after using the last moment of his life to pull the emergency brake.

After a call was put out from a local Wenzhou hospital for help, hundreds shows up last night to donate blood.

The Railway Ministry has already ordered an “urgent overhaul of railway and train safety nationwide,” and 21 trains have been suspended.

This tragedy is particularly scary in that the collision was caused by an unplanned power outage on the train, something that has been plaguing the recently opened Shanghai-Beijing line. We can only hope the safety overhauls are both immediate and effective.

Sometimes you see people talking about how authoritarian governments have some kind of advantage over democratic governments in terms of their ability to get things done. News like this should make us re-evaluate that idea. Sure, the rail network is getting built, as per command- but without appropriate safety rules and oversight of the project, exactly what kind of network will they end up with? How safe will it be, how useful will it be, and how long will it last?

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Filed under China, corruption, development, disasters