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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