China Comment

Energy, Environment, and Economy

The Bell Tolls For Hutongs?

Hutongs, the classic dilapidated, though picturesque, alleyways with crowded living-spaces and poor sanitation, made the news section of USA Today on May 27th. An article by Calum MacLeod entitled “Beijing bulldozes its old neighborhoods” raised a few basic questions that lead to more complicated questions about Chinese sociology and politics. How do and how should hutongs interact with modern Chinese cities, and why does Beijing seem so ready to demolish these popular tourist locations. Below is a consideration of the issues and questions that they raise.

A Hutong Near the Bell Tower, 2006

1. Problems With Hutongs. Let’s get the negative things about hutongs in Beijing out of the way first. They are often dilapidated– and do not have indoor plumbing. Some have electrical issues and raise fire safety concerns. Bathrooms are established for an entire street. They also often have poor cobblestone roads and are prone to suffering flooding and muddy footpaths. The people who live in them are quite poor and they are often bothered by tourists who either walk or are carted around by pedicab drivers.

Hutongs also, as I discovered in some conversations with locals, are considered to be embarrassing– they demonstrate China’s poverty, something that the country hopes to leave behind as it becomes a world leader. If this view extends from common people up to China’s leadership, then perhaps plans to renovate Hutongs and make them plastic “show alleys” with new construction and clean walls, as was done in Qianmen District south of Tiananmen Square, will be the fate for most hutongs.

2. Good Things About Hutongs. Tourists love hutongs. Many travel on pedicabs north of the Forbidden City, around the Bell and Drum Tower, to Prince Gong’s Residence and even out to the back alleys beside Yonghegong Lama Temple in order to see a glimpse of what China once was. Hutongs, like Europe’s classic back alleys, are a picturesque stop and a treasure.

3. Beijing’s Compromise.

What Beijing appears to have attempted in order to retain the hutongs‘ tourist attracting potential, while improving sanitation, and removing poor people from the city center; is to remove thousands from their homes, widen some streets and to “refurbish” the hutongs— getting rid of much of the “living” street culture that made up the alleyways, and destroying the very flavor that draws people to experience them.

Suggestions

It is difficult to argue with claims that life in unremodeled hutongs is not a very good life choice. However,

A Remodeled Hutong Courtyard (Interior), 2008

some people have gentrified hutongs, improving the interior courtyards while retaining the beautiful reddish-brown exterior walls and cobblestone late 19th-century feel of the places. Perhaps a better solution to the Hutong problem is to keep them small and crowded and thus retaining Beijing’s distinctive character and remaining attractive to tourists but to gradually install upgraded plumbing, and to remodel the interiors to make them more livable. Either the hutongs could be increasingly gentrified as monied people buy property inside them (siheyuan, courtyard homes) in order to live close to the city center; or the city could subsidize the poor people to live there–maintaining their homes in traditional style as a cultural district that celebrates what China once was– a poor country that has gradually become much, much richer.

Is a compromise of this sort possible? Or are hutong’s only futures (1) to be plastered with 拆 (chai) signs, then demolished for necessary office buildings, or (2) to be turned into plastic, clean, and overly-sanitized tourist spots that are not to be lived in– or are to be lived in, but separated from the hustle and the bustle of the world?

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29 May, 2010 Posted by | China Environment/Health, China General, Isn't That Odd? | , , | 2 Comments

Beijingers Love Their Games? (Guest)

by: Danny J. (Guest Contributor)

In a survey of Chinese natives, 93% believed that ‘the Olympics will help China’s image around the globe’ and 96% said that the games ‘will be successful.’

These numbers, while enlightening on exposing Chinese national thought, don’t hit on one key question: How are Chinese, and Beijingers in particular, satisfied with the preparations for the games and the new security regulations?

This quote seems to sum up at least some Beijingers’ feelings: ‘For years we couldn’t wait for the Olympics to start. Now we can’t wait for them to be over.’ To be fair, many are still excited for the event, they are just a bit tired of all the extra measures.

The quoted person presumably wants the Olympics to be over so everything can be ‘normal’ again, without all the new rules and restrictions imposed on Beijing to clean it up – environmentally, legally, and even in terms of fashion (Shirts and ties for taxi drivers) . (ed: One interesting dramatized story about local discontent with the Olympic games can be found in this “sci-fi” tale from China Digital Times, reposting from the SCI-FI Great Wall blog. The story discusses how poor local Beijingers are pushed aside in the lead-up to the Olympics, all for the sake of honored foreign guests.)

Rules have been drawn up to guard against fashion no-no’s. Here’s the abridged version: ‘white socks worn with black shoes are out, leather skirts are frowned upon, bright nail varnish is a no and woe betide anyone whose colours clash.’ What will actually happen to someone who violates these new guidelines, let alone what these rules will do to that Chinese 农民(nongmin) summertime tradition of rolling up shirts to mid-chest height, is unclear.

Maybe it’s not just the fashion police who are bothering Beijingers. It could be the new Taxi protocol requiring identity checks at random police stops. Or it could be that a good number of clubs ‘have been forced to go dark,’ and the ones that are still open have a mandated 2 a.m. closing time. Then, in a move to clean up pollution, most barbecue or 串儿 restaurants/stalls have been closed.

Checkpoints on the outskirts of the city have helped decrease the number of vegetables in Beijing, and partially due to that and inflation, foodstuff prices have increased by around ’20 percent.’ Compounded together, it’s easy to understand a Beijinger’s frustration.

There is some good news: Water will not be in short supply in Beijing. It has been diverted from Hebei, to ensure that the Olympians get enough water. Hebei, already a bit short of water, might have some problems. On top of sufficient water, rules have been put in place to ensure cabbies ‘go easy on their garlic consumption.’

One more humorous measure involved ‘a series of measures banning cigarettes in schools, railway stations, office buildings and other public places.’ Wen Jiabao ‘has declared that the Olympics will be smoke free.’ 100,000 inspectors are on the lookout to ticket smokers, but the ticket is a mere $1.40, which among the middle classes is unlikely to curb much smoking. To emphasize this, a general reaction to the rare non-smoking sign: “If I point to the no-smoking sign, the passenger will just laugh and keep smoking.”

Chinese may love their Olympic games, but with over 350 million Chinese smokers, 1/3rd of the world’s smoking population, many Chinese also love their cigarettes and their normal lives.

This piece does not necessarily reflect the views of chinacomment. However, it is interesting, so I hope you will find it enjoyable. Once again, I thank Danny very much for his contribution.

(Note: Chinacomment is currently on vacation and without constant access to computer until the beginning of September; however, updates will continue at the pace of 1-3 a week since Chinacomment does have a sizable backlog of relevant material to post.)

12 August, 2008 Posted by | China General, Isn't That Odd? | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Isn’t That Odd: Dumpling Museum

Danwei had a hilarious photo, by Joel Martinsen, of what could either be a mistranslation into English, or an attempt to create an come-on for foreign visitors. Considering China’s highly innovative and capitalistic nature, it would not surprise me if this mistranslation was done on purpose to lure in Olympic guests. Congratulations to the marketer who thought of that!

Two shops here, side by side:
From Danwei.org - Dumpling Museum

One is the “Aqui Pasta Museum” and the other is the “Dishes Dumpling Museum”. From what I can gather from my translation of the Chinese characters, the actual Chinese lettering is saying: “House of Dumplings Place” rather than Museum, 博物馆 bowuguan。 “馆”as a character is also used in “饭馆”fanguan or “restaurant.” Now, Isn’t That Odd?

4 August, 2008 Posted by | Isn't That Odd? | , , , | Leave a comment

Maslow’s Hierarchy

The People’s Republic of China’s growth since 1949 mirrors development of not just the rise of great powers; but it also surprisingly reflects psychologist Abraham Maslow’s Developmental Hierarchy of Needs (Quotations from HERE).

1.) “Physiological Needs

These are biological needs…They are the strongest needs”

To sustain the country in the late 1950s, collectivization programs were instituted, farms were consolidated, and backyard furnaces smelted steel. Then, the Great Leap Forward bust, and a famine began that would cost the lives of millions. China recovered, eventually, but it embarked upon increasingly insular policies. (PBS) In Wild Swans, Jung Chan discusses the struggle for survival.

From 1966-1976, China suffered the Great Cultural Revolution, when students were sent into the countryside to labor alongside peasants, and intelligensia were humiliated (some were murdered). Even cadres suffered, but former “landlord-class”, “entrepreneurs”, and professionals like doctors, lawyers, and teachers suffered the most.  To increase crop yields and to raise the Socialist spirit, people were forced into collectivized farms.

The Mao Jacket (Photo) became a popular form of clothing, paens to the great Chairman were sung, and the loyalty dance was danced. Ritual was embraced, and individuality was considered putting the self above the collective, thereby damaging productivity (Xing Lu’s book has more on the Cultural Revolution).

The Cultural Revolution might be argued to have domestically fulfilled security needs to ensure Mao’s superiority more than physiological needs. Internationally, however, it was most definitely an example of physiological needs. Because the regime was so concerned about internally maintaining order, China recalled ambassadors from abroad (Xiaohong Liu’s excellent book describes this) and basically walled itself off from the outside world, helping justify the phrase, the “bamboo curtain.” Instead of reaching out, China criticised Moscow and embarked on an extended period of isolation. 

In essence, the 1960s saw China concerned with itself, and its survival as a revolutionary Communist state.

2.) “Safety Needs

When all physiological needs are satisfied and are no longer controlling thoughts and behaviors, the needs for security can become active. ”

Post 1976, a new set of regimented order emerged. Out of the crumbling of the collective farms and state-owned enterprises during the 1980s-1990s, came a brief “Beijing Spring” and opening 改革开放 under the leadership of liberals such as Hu Yaobang, and Zhao Ziyang. This opening came to an end in 1989.

Arguably, need for security is still paramount even today, as is evident when Beijing cracks down on Tib#*#*tan protests, and internet censors monitor communications. (James Fallows of the Atlantic has a really interesting article on censorship  and concepts of security.)

In terms of international security; in 1979 Chinese troops crossed the border to punitively punish Vietnam for becoming involved in the unrest in Cambodia. After seizing a few objectives, the Chinese withdrew. Also of note is the 1995-1996 Taiwan Straits crisis.

3.) “Needs of Love, Affection and Belongingness

When the needs for safety and for physiological well-being are satisfied, the next class of needs for love, affection and belongingness can emerge. Maslow states that people seek to overcome feelings of loneliness and alienation. This involves both giving and receiving love, affection and the sense of belonging. ”

Look at the cute Olympic monsters, the fuwa, and consider China’s “Panda Diplomacy,” then consider how China coveted the Olympics because having them will demonstrate that China is a great country. The CS Monitor and other journalistic outlets have often repeated; “The Chinese government is treating the Games as a symbolic end to 150 years of humiliation by outside powers and a confirmation of its status as a global power to be reckoned with.” As a student said in response to Beijing’s reception of the Olympics; “I feel our motherland is already a great power in the East. Our nation has stood up.”

Nowadays, China wants the respect of its neighbors.  China emerged from the alienation of the 60s,70s, and post-1989. In 2001 it joined the WTO- acting as though it belongs in the company of great nations (Why China Wants to Join the WTO).

Thus, China is more susceptible to public opinion. In response to intense lobbying over the Darfur issue in Sudan, China sent more peacekeepers and has shown a greater willingness to cooperate with international bodies.

4.) “Needs for Esteem

When the first three classes of needs are satisfied, the needs for esteem can become dominant. These involve needs for both self-esteem and for the esteem a person gets from others… When these needs are satisfied, the person feels self-confident and valuable as a person in the world. When these needs are frustrated, the person feels inferior, weak, helpless and worthless. ”

China needs to be respected by others. Thus, “Chinese rage has focused on the alleged “anti-China” bias of the Western press,” according to the Economist. When foreign media outlets misrepresented pictures of Nepalese mistreating Ti#$$$$ans as Chinese mistreating Ti%%%%etans, Chinese were outraged. Also, when Chinese saw Western press as feeling sorry for T^^^b#t, they demonstrate the Ti&&&etans in France horribly mistreated one disabled Olympic torch bearer.

Peter Hays Gries discusses China’s new assertive nationalism in detail in his book: China’s New Nationalism.

By winning in the Olympics and putting on a good show, China will feel validated and have its esteem needs satisfied.

Also, China has established Confucius Insitiutes around the world to spread Chinese language and culture.

5.) “Needs for Self-Actualization

When all of the foregoing needs are satisfied, then and only then are the needs for self-actualization activated. Maslow describes self-actualization as a person’s need to be and do that which the person was “born to do.””

China has yet to reach this stage. When it does, it might explode onto the international scene, justifying territorial rights in claiming Taiwan, and settling oceanic disputes. At the self-actualization stage, China’s pursuit of these rights will be similar to its pursuit of rights during the security stage, but more sophisticated. China might press its demands through use of diplomatic isolation, economic pressures, or show of military force (not necessarily invasion). When China has become self-actualized, it will be confident in its strengths, capabilities and goals as a nation. Chinese military plans currently suppose the PRC will be a regional power by 2020.

Self-actualization comprises more than mere territorial claims. After China gains confidence to act on the world stage, it might try to remake the world in its image, much as the United States, the USSR, and Great Britain have done in past ages.

China will seek to set up its own international groupings and economic bodies. China already supports ASEAN and may be able to assume a leadership role in this USA-excluding trade body. The US’ group, a more expansive APEC, is confronting some problems due to its ambitious nature, and will confront more in coming years given America’s Democrats’ distaste for free trade.

When and if China will arrive at the highest level of Maslow’s hierarchy is debatable. Much can happen that might hinder China’s full development, from socioeconomic unrest, to internal splittism, to a slowing of the economy. Any of those items might cause China to turn in on itself and become less a leader and more preoccupied with solipsistic concerns.

(Note: Minor edits enacted on July 15th)

9 July, 2008 Posted by | China General, Isn't That Odd? | , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Isn’t That Odd? : Segways & Flamethrowers

Here’s an amusing article describing Chinese preparing for anti-terrorism drills.

Proximately from Engadget-but originally from Xinhua

Xinhua’s photo gallery is here: Although the Segway use can be justified (sort of- though they would seem to be pretty difficult to balance under stress conditions), a question arises looking at Xinhua’s photos, why is a flamethrower necessary for anti-terrorism drills at the Olympics?

 From Xinhua

In recent years, China installed fire extinguishers in Tiananmen to prevent people being lit on fire, after certain high-profile self-immolation protests in 2001.

One wonders how much danger the Beijing security details are expecting to handle– and with what degree of deadly force. I spoke with an Olympic volunteer and was told they were very concerned, as all people at all Olympics are, about incidents at entrances to Olympic venues.

Another especial reason for Beijing’s security worries; As recently as May 2008 an unexplained explosion that may have been intentional, went off on a Shanghai bus. Xinhua didn’t initially attribute the explosion to terror, but TIME Magazine and people on the ground have suspicions. At minimum, following the explosion, Shanghai instituted new regulations about carrying certain materials on buses and increased anti-terror patrols, which leads one to believe that there may be some reason for these heightened concerns.

With luck, nothing untoward will happen in China during the Olympics. For China’s sake, if something does happen, hopefully the police/military response is proportional and appropriate and that the coverage of said problem is transparent.

One thing that seems quite Odd is China has long believed very strongly that ignoring a problem, even after the problem has become well known, allows the country to save face. By covering-up details, forbidding publication of negative stories, and making everything seem happy, Chinese officials seek to win accolades (As I discuss in an earlier article).  Thus, they barred reporters from T$$$bet during the recent disturbances, then denied Chinese-instigated abuses (which may or may not have happened- since the West lacked independent reporting all it really has is a “monks said/Beijing says” dichotomy).

Simon Elegant at TIME Magazine thinks the media’s coverage style is changing and the Chinese government is more willing to admit to problems rather than covering-them up; but he also points out difficulties suffered by Chinese trying to discuss incidents online.

Oh China, such an odd and amusing, but often frustrating place.

7 July, 2008 Posted by | China Stability, Isn't That Odd? | , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Isn’t that Odd?: Plastic Bag Entrepreneurs

China has long been a country of entrepreneurs, from its urine merchants, to the indigents who walk around recycling plastic bottles and aluminum (they are ubiquitous, despite some efforts to remove them, both high and low tech [The former is an electronic recycling machine; the latter, a poignant transcript of a UK special on a “clean up” of homeless who make a living collecting plastic bottles]), to the proprietors of hundreds of mom and pop shops.

What follows is an amusing prediction for this week’s Isn’t That Odd.  If you’re in China and you see this happening, please post here- I’m asking my contacts to look out for this.

I predict that China’s new plastic bag policy is going to create a new wave of self-employment for their urban poor. Why? Well, first, let’s examine the policy:

1.) A National Policy Designed to Reduce Plastic Bag Waste
The policy of charging for plastic bags (at .2-.6 yuan), and phasing out the ultra-thin bags will hopefully decrease waste as people begin toting canvass and bamboo bags to the stores. However, some problems have been realized due to this policy, as a recent Xinhua article examined; ranging from vendors who are still utilizing the ultra-thin bags, to others who are not charging for bag usage.  “At a small grocery near the Carrefour, the shopkeeper still offered customers free plastic bags. As he said: “I sold vegetables worth 0.7 yuan. How can I charge 0.5 yuan for a bag?”

Other problems include:

It is more difficult to tote canvass bags everywhere when one goes outside. Penny-pinching people have to plan before going shopping, instead of previously being able to use free store-supplied plastic bags or to purchase new canvas bags at the grocery.

Also, at markets, fish-sellers now wrap fish in newspapers instead of inside plastic bags. This causes newsprint to leak onto the fish, which makes the food untasty and unsanitary. And places where the plastic bags are still used have suffered problems of people grabbing extra bags to use for private purposes- creating a shortage at some stores, as the Xinhua article goes on to explain.

Consequences: Depending on how much of a price these plastic bags might be oversold at, I wouldn’t be surprised to see some Chinese entrepreneurs standing outside stores, selling and undercutting the stores’ prices for plastic bags. They might grab a few extra bags when they are in the stores, they might repurpose previously-used bags, or they might (if they have some capital) go to a manufacturer and purchase bags in bulk.

If you’ve ever read Carl Crow’s venerable 400 Million Customers, you know how hardscrabble the Chinese can be in seeking out entrepreneurial opportunities.

My favorite tale of Mr. Crow’s (he wrote in the 1930s but his words are still relevant and amusing today- and inspired another informative book- James McGregor’s One Billion Customers.) is how Crow organized an ad promotion with a US manufacturer who wanted to introduce a better brand of soap (I think-I read the book a few years ago so my memory is slightly hazy) in Chinese stores. The manufacturer gave stores free soap samples to hand to their customers.

A month later, the manufacturer was quite upset, because brand awareness hadn’t increased. So Crow went to investigate. He found the stores and discovered several problems.

1.) Many stores were selling the “free” samples; because they figured it didn’t matter if one brand of soap was more popular than another; because they weren’t in the business of selling soap, consumers could buy their soap anywhere so giving soap for free would do nothing for their store! (They didn’t believe they could build store-brand loyalty with customers by giving something away for free- see point 2). And by selling the soap (cheaper than other brands), they could gain extra money that their neighbor stores wouldn’t get and could still win a little customer loyalty since customers would be glad that store A offered better prices!

2.) If something was free, many customers figured, it must be lower quality, or spoiled. So they didn’t want to take free samples. Only the poorest of the poor took the free samples, and they couldn’t afford to purchase this expensive soap anyway, so the marketing tactic fell flat!

 Oh, China- such an Odd and wonderful Capitalistic place.

4 July, 2008 Posted by | Book Review, China Business, China Environment/Health, Isn't That Odd? | , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Isn’t That Odd? China’s Wind Grid Troubles

In a few hours I’ll post a more indepth article about Chinese wind power; but for this edition of “Isn’t That Odd?” I’ll discuss a little about some results of inefficient bureaucracies in China.

Similar to their counterparts in many state bureaucracies, China’s bureaucrats have a way of dropping the ball.

In January 2008, Reuters pointed out that: “China’s wind power generating capacity surged to 5.6 gigawatts by the end of last year, but over a quarter of it is still not connected to the grid because of bad planning.” With the creation of a National Energy Commission in March 2008, these inefficiencies might disappear, but some people who were hoping for a more comprehensive Ministry disagree.

I wonder if my earlier comment sunk in though, so I’ll repeat it: Over a quarter of wind-generating capacity installed in 2007 is still not attached to the grid- but why? Maybe because as the article goes on to say; “local governments are keen to jump on the renewable energy bandwagon as Beijing pushes greener growth, [therefore] they are approving new wind farms without proper planning.”

Chinese local governments, pursuing directives from the top have long been infamous for making grandiose plans that gain them plaudits from central planners, but don’t actually solve problems that the people are actually facing.

In Great Leap Forward times (1957-1959) local cadres gave “excess” food to the central government for redistribution while their citizens starved, because the cadres couldn’t admit the harvest was weak without admitting failure. In later times, shoddy buildings were constructed and polluting industries flourished because the important thing was the number of people employed, not the quality of the factory, or the buildings. This can have tragic consequences, as demonstrated by the collapses of shoddily-constructed schools as a result of the Sichuan earthquake.

So, in wind too, as in previous pushes toward “self-strengthening,” today’s Chinese government officials are making the same mistake as their predecesors did with the “backyard furnaces” (where steel was smelted en masse, but was of such low quality that all it really contribuited was greater pollution), and the project to eliminate birds (because they ate crops… somehow it was forgotten that insects, which birds eat, can be much more destructive.)

Likely, many of these wind generators are subpar- not up to international standards since the local cadres were more interested in gaining governmental plaudits than in really cleaning up the environment.

Oh well, that’s central planning for you. At least the turbines are there; some will work, and ultimately the cadres who know what they’re doing will (hopefully) be commended. (To take a pollyanna view of the situation.)

The question is, how many incompetent cadres will be reprimanded… But that’s a topic for another article.

13 June, 2008 Posted by | China Energy, China Technology, Isn't That Odd? | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Isn’t That Odd? Segway Scooters

Isn’t That Odd is an occasional feature that aims to provide insight onto the Chinese psyche by pointing out particularly Chinese ways of thinking.

Segway Scooters, which in America cost about $5,000 on ebay and $4000-$6000 as of 2006 according to USA Today actually cost more in China- to the tune of $10,000!

Why do they cost so much? They have to be imported, and aren’t manufactured in China. In fact, they’re at a plant of a company based in New Hampshire.

******

Still… Couldn’t costs go down? Isn’t it surprising that they cost so very much more in China? According to the International Herald Tribune Article, Segway doesn’t want to move to China since it’s afraid its technology will be stolen by Chinese manufacturers. Well, they may be too late to prevent that. It appears copies have already begun emerging.

And as for the Segway name, which I believe is trademarked. It might have already been appropriated by a Chinese company making a remarkably similar product it calls “Segway scooter” (I suppose “Segway” is used in a similar manner as “Kleenex” is used when referring to tissues)

Compare this picture of a Segway on the Charmbright site Charmbright Segway Scooterto the ones on the real Segway site. Not being a Segway expert I can’t say whether the Chinese version is a copy, whether they are retailing the Segways on license (which I doubt since the Segway site has no mention of a “Charmbright.”). 

Charmbright’s listing says they are a “Manufacturer, Exporter, Agent” of Segway scooters from “Industrial Park, Jinhua,, Zhejiang, , China [CN]” which implies that they are creating them from scratch. Their post is quite recent; it’s from Apr 14, 2008.

So what is Charmbright? from their site: “CharmBright Limited is a professional manufacturer of sports products, marine products, fitness equipment and outdoor products. Our production line currently includes ATV, Dirt bikes Go karts, Scooters, Outboard motors, Inflatable boats, Trampolines, Pro-Jump, Waterbird, Skateboards, Fitness massager, etc.”   

Someone at Segway should probably check this out, for IP reasons.

7 June, 2008 Posted by | China Business, Isn't That Odd? | , , , , , , | 3 Comments