Sounds of Chengdu

chengdu sounds6

I walk from the crowded main route across the temple complex through an open door on my right. I wonder if visitors are supposed to be here, the corridor I walk through is deserted – and not yet ready for tourists it seems: the dried dusty-red paint on the walls is slowly coming off. At the other end I walk out into another small inner square, lined by a white wall and with another temple hall. The noise of the crowds on the other side has fallen away. I am alone, apart from a woman who is sweeping the square with an old-fashioned broom made of twigs. Swish. Swish. Swish. Swish. The pattern of sound becomes almost the only thing I can hear. Beyond the regular sweeps there are some birds singing. Beyond that, some soft Chinese chatter of people on the other side of the hall.


chengdu sounds2

I walk around the building to yet another corridor leading to yet another square surrounded by buildings in the style of this temple. Again, I feel as if I’m not supposed to be here – when I spot one or two others who clearly aren’t part of the scene in front of me I walk on. Here, I discover the source of the chatter I heard on the other side. In front of me, on the steps leading to one of the buildings are two monks, quietly chatting away. They are watching a game of table tennis that is happening in the middle of the square. Two more monks are playing against each other. The game looks friendly and relaxed, with laughter and short conversations between them and the third man standing next to them watching them play.


Another temple: a nunnery. I walk in cautiously, and as I come closer to the main temple hall I hear the sound of nuns chanting. Walking closer, I realize there is a ceremony happening in the temple: the hall is filled with at least 40 women in their traditional yellow Buddhist robes. The sound is hypnotizing, the low-sounding chant goes on and on and on. It repeats again and again. A cat is curled up on one of the benches in front of the altar. Quiet, unmoving, almost invisible. I take his example, sit down quietly, and take in the sound.



De trein als prestigeproject

Sinds een paar jaar ben je in een ruime 5 uur met de trein vanuit Beijing in Shanghai. Een rit die je daarvoor een volle dag kostte, of een lange nachttrein. De hogesnelheidstrein die deze twee steden nu verbindt is slechts een van de vele snelle treinen die nu in China door het land razen. De uitbreiding van het hogesnelheidsspoorwegnetwerk is verbluffend te noemen de afgelopen jaren: met de eerste lijn aangelegd in 2008, staat de teller intussen tot over de 10.000 km hogesnelheidspoor en verbindt het netwerk meer dan 100 steden (bron: Economist).

De uitbreiding van het spoorwegnetwerk, en vooral de toename van het aantal hogesnelheidslijnen, is belangrijk voor China: het zorgt voor een betere verbinding tussen de steden wat niet alleen logistiek goed is maar juist ook voor het persoonsvervoer tussen de steden. Zo zit de trein naar Shanghai waar ik zondagavond in zat bomvol – het was een van de laatste van die dag (om het halfuur gaat er een) en de enige waar ik nog een kaartje voor kon krijgen. Uiteraard stopt deze trein onderweg een aantal keer, bij toch geen kleine steden: Jinan en Xuzhou om er maar twee te noemen. Maar, vrijwel iedereen die in Beijing is ingestapt blijft zitten tot Shanghai.

Toegankelijke steden

De toegankelijkheid van steden neemt toe, wat ook zijn uitwerking heeft op de verdergaande verstedelijking in China. De hogesnelheidstreinen gaan namelijk ook steeds dieper het binnenland in, waardoor de verbinding tussen dat binnenland en de kust flink is versterkt en het makkelijker wordt voor mensen om een baan te nemen verder weg.

Het feit dat dit netwerk van hogesnelheidslijnen zo snel is opgebouwd geldt terecht als een knappe prestatie in het land. Het wordt niet voor niets als prestigeproject gezien in het land zelf. Maar, er is niet alleen goed nieuws. Na bijvoorbeeld een groot ongeluk bij Wenzhou in 2011 vragen sommigen zich af of de snelle bouw van het netwerk niet ten koste is gegaan van de veiligheid. De manier waarop de Chinese overheid met dat ongeluk omging (waarbij binnen een dag alle wrakstukken begraven moesten worden en alle discussie op sociale media werd gecensureerd) is een indicatie dat deze kritiek niet wordt gewaardeerd. En dat vooral niet moet worden getornd aan dit project van nationale trots.

Beide kanten zie ik terug in de filmpjes die doorlopend op de schermen te zien zijn in de trein. De machinisten worden afgebeeld als piloten: aantrekkelijke, sterke mannen die verantwoordelijk zijn voor het bijna ongemerkt voortrazen over het Chinese spoor. In detail wordt met een animatie uitgelegd hoe de spoorwegleiding met alle treinen in verbinding staat en deze monitort.

En dan de mechanici en veiligheidscrew: in strak uitgevoerde choreografieën laat het filmpje zien dat deze zelfverzekerde mannen en vrouwen precies weten wat ze doen en oog hebben voor alle details. Zodat wij zonder zorgen op onze plek van bestemming aankomen.

Vegetarian Beijing

China can be challenging when it comes to food, I find. Up front I usually give up my almost-vegetarian ambitions: I know it’ll make finding decent places to eat that much harder if I insist on reasonable vegetarian options.

Luckily, if you are vegetarian and you’re not too stuck on wanting Chinese food there are some pretty nice options around Beijing to try out – and there probably are good options for Chinese cuisine as well, so please leave your tips in the comments.

Vegetarian restaurants in Beijing

Wagas quickly became a favourite coffee and food place for me when I discovered it last year. Luckily it’s a chain restaurant so it’s in plenty of places. The good service, nice atmosphere and almost always excellent wifi already make it a good choice, but I love their food menu. Healthy, freshly made and it includes some good vegetarian options of salads, pasta’s, curry’s & sandwiches. Favourites are the Turkish pita with roasted pumpkin (and other veggies) and the spinach wrap with falafel and hummus.

Elements Fresh is another restaurant chain which serves good lunch food. I love their salads, filled with loads of vegetables.

Two local restaurants in Beijing that I discovered this week are:
> Backyard Café, tucked away in the embassy area is a cute little cafe aiming for health and wellness with fruit juices named ‘Liver cleanse’ to name one example. Not all their food is vegetarian but they seem to mostly use organic ingredients in their dishes.

> The Veggie Table is located in the Wudaoying Hutong near the Lama Temple. A fully vegan restaurant with great food. A comfortable and relaxed place, with a wide range of food and drinks on their menu. Including veggie burgers, but also apparently the best hummus in Beijing. The Veggie Plate gets their vegetables from local Beijing farms (including the Little Donkey Farm) and has an extensive explanation on why they serve the food the way they do. Further down the Hutong on the left hand side is a Chinese vegetarian restaurant, which I haven’t tried but could be worth a shot if you’re looking for local cuisine instead of curry or couscous.

Looking to get your hands on organic products to start cooking with yourself? One place to get these are small local farmers’ markets. There are several around, one option is the Farm to Neighbours market organized each Sunday in Baocheng Hutong.

Of course, other restaurants will have vegetarian dishes as well. But be careful, names of dishes can deceive. The vegetable ramen in a small Japanese place in District 798 looked great, but included meat after all.

Changing Beijing

‘Welcome to Harmony’

With these words the train attendant welcomes me and the other 1000+ travellers on board of the Beijing – Shanghai train. I’m disappointed I’m travelling at night, as I would have liked to have seen a bit of this route: along the East coast of China, past Tianjin, Jinan, Wuxi – cities that all sound quite familiar despite not having visited them yet.

The last time I left Beijing by train was in an opposite direction: west, to Xi’an and on to Lanzhou and Gansu province.

It turns out: not everything in China can be arranged late, especially not on an APEC-travel-inspired weekend. My plans to leave Beijing in the morning fell through when it turned out earlier that almost all trains were booked out. Until this one. So an evening trip it is. 5,5 hours at a speed averaging 270 km per hour (covering a distance of 1318 km).

Back in Beijing

The next few hours will give me time to take stock of my stay in China so far: being able to spend time in different parts of Beijing this time has given me a much better sense of the change in the city since the first time I was here. I have been here quite a few times in the meantime, but I never was able to venture far away from the meeting rooms I was meant to be in.

The city has become bigger, more crowded, more modern – none of which is surprising. But it also means that many of the places I remember from earlier visits have lost their charm and quirkiness and have left me a bit disoriented. It also feels the city is made up so much more FOR cars than for example Shanghai or Guangzhou that walking around it is a lot less satisfying – because that’s what I love to do: walk around cities to get to know them.

Hopefully Shanghai’s energy will rub off on me a bit in the next few days.

CCTV Beijing Koolhaas blue sky

On solutions and blue sky

It was already noticeable when driving into the city from the airport yesterday: Beijing is hosting the annual APEC Summit this weekend. For those who don’t know, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum encompasses 21 countries, together making up 54% of the world’s GDP and 44% of world trade. Among its member states are the United States, Japan and China: the top 3 economies of the world.

Not surprisingly, there’s a lot to talk about this week and most of which fits neatly with China’s domestic agenda as Elizabeth Economy points out: regional economic integration, innovative development and infrastructure development, to name a few.

Yet, the world’s eyes are more focused on if a bilateral meeting between Japan’s Shinzo Abe & China’s Xi Jinping will happen: it would be a welcome break in a very fraught relationship.

Blue sky for APEC

But even more than the political dimension of this summit, media in Europe (at least) is talking about the blue sky that is starting to appear in Beijing in preparation of the arrival of the expected heads of state.

Factories are being shut down, cars are restricted and yes, at least today this has resulted in a bright blue – and clean – sky, as you can see above. I took advantage by being outside a lot on a day of meetings talking about China’s pollution and solutions for this.

First, with a Dutch entrepreneur who has made it his business to bring promising and innovative technology to China, often with a focus on reducing pollution, for example by introducing technology for cleaner energy-from-coal production. The main take away: don’t be afraid to do business in China. Yes, there are risks but the opportunity for truly innovative technology here shouldn’t be missed. (And: China is further advanced then you might think, so make sure you really are innovative).

Cleaning up China’s textile production

Another meeting today was at the China office of American NGO NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council). We spoke mostly about their work on cleaning up the supply chain in the textile industry, focusing especially on dyeing mills. This work started after research showing the extent of water pollution in China, of which the chemical and textile industry are the main contributors. By working with large retailers, NRDC has slowly built a program working with mills directly on decreasing water pollution and improving energy conservation.

However, often, for companies in the textiles industry such as brands and retailers, focus is on working with their first tier supplier: the factories where clothing is sewn together. Mills are another step back in the supply chain and, especially for smaller companies, often unknown – as last week’s SOMO research showed for South-India where completely different issues are at stake.

So, while large international retailers such as H&M, GAP, Nike see a definite business need to tackle this issue partly based on reputational risk, this argument isn’t as strong for smaller companies. What incentive do they have to include second tier suppliers such as dyeing mills in their CSR activities? One reason can be an increased risk of an unreliable supply chain if there is little information about where fabrics come from: mills have been closed down by local governments in the past on the basis of excessive pollution which compromises the timely delivery of fabrics and ability to maintain critical production timelines. Or the risk of hazardous chemicals in the fabrics used.

Lots of work still to do.

China Stories

China Stories

It’s early on a warm and humid September morning when I walk out of the train station in Xi’an. It’s the first major Chinese train station I need to navigate my way through to find the two Chinese girls who are waiting for me at the exit. There are Chinese people everywhere. On the night train from Beijing to Xi’an I was already a bit of a curiosity. That doesn’t change here: despite the tourists that come to Xi’an for the terra cotta army, a tall white single woman inevitably stands out among the throng of short black haired Chinese.

An online friend has arranged for two of her English students to meet me. Of course, I’m much easier to spot than they are and the two Chinese girls find me quickly. First stop: breakfast. I surrender myself to their menu choice and soon our table is full of steaming hot food. I have no idea what I’m about to eat and for a European stomach it is anything but a normal breakfast. After the long train trip I can’t wait to dig in. There’s guan tang bao (steamed buns), the local specialty rou jia mo (bread filled with meat), hun dun (noodle soup with won tons) and qi shan shao zi mian (spicy noodles). I love trying out so many new flavours.

During my stay in Xi’an I soon discover that food is a big part of the city, also because the city has a large Muslim population. Walking around the Muslim quarter the scent of grilled lamb kebabs fills the streets. Stalls selling steamed buns are on every street corner. 

This is only a glimpse of my first trip to China: late summer 2006. After spending over 2,5 years in Japan in the years before, visiting China before the Olympic Games of 2008 was one of the things at the top of my list to do. The three weeks there were a journey towards the West: from big-city Beijing my destinations became ever more remote to small towns such as Xiahe (home to an important Tibetan monastery in the Gansu mountains) or the Western end of the Chinese wall in Jiayuguan. It became a discovery trip filled with sensations, flavours, scents (both the good – amazing food – and the bad – I can write a book on Chinese toilets), stunning scenery, challenging negotiations with taxi drivers or hotel managers and much much more.

Little did I know that that trip was only the first of many, as I started a job working on China only two years later. Every trip since that time has its own share of stories and experiences.

And yet, those three weeks of travelling on Chinese night trains, sharing a cup of tea with a Tibetan monk, walking on sand dunes at the Gobi desert have helped me to get to know China in such a different way than I could ever expect to on my work trips all of which have been unique in their own way. Without that trip, and without having the experience of seeing what life outside of first tier cities in China is like, my view of China would be much more one-sided.

This was written for #blogawaynl

Curious about the full 2006 trip? Have a look at the Flickr slideshow

Impact: China’s growing civil society

Hope for the people in China is not in the government, it’s not in the Communist Party. Hope is in civil society.

Listening to Teng Biao, renowned Chinese human rights lawyer, speaking today in Amsterdam, this quote stuck with me as one of his few positive comments on contemporary China.

He spoke about his career and experiences as a university lecturer and part-time lawyer in Beijing. His work focuses mostly on human rights cases, such as cases related to Tibet, Falun Gong or other politically sensitive topics. Doing this work at first meant that he was hindered in acting as a lawyer in these cases and he was faced with progressively increasing pressure: being disbarred, having his passport taken away, being kidnapped, being locked up, being tortured. He now lives in Hong Kong unable to return to his native Beijing for fear of being arrested. Again.

Over the past two months I have been speaking with over 40 Dutch companies about the business opportunities for them in China and how to go about making the most of these opportunities. And while talking about many of the positive developments in China that have happened in the last few years, it is sometimes easy to not look at all those things that are not improving in China. Such as the position of human rights defenders. And today’s talk was a bleak reminder of actually how dire a state they are in.

Under Xi Jinping’s leadership the political climate for these lawyers and other activists has been getting worse, in Teng’s view, with an increasing crackdown on movements such as the New Citizens Movement. In his talk, Teng called on foreign governments and ngo’s to keep putting pressure on the Chinese government so that this crackdown will relax. At the same time, it is unclear what effect this pressure has – but as Teng rightly points out: if you don’t say anything, you can be sure nothing changes.

Fortunately, despite the doom and gloom of Teng’s perspective he also sees positive developments. Influenced by amongst others globalization, the growing penetration of the internet and ongoing activities from the pro-democracy movement civil society is growing stronger.

Despite government pressure, despite the lack of an independent judicial system and many other forces working against it, the impact of civil society in China is increasing. During his talk, Teng shows pictures of protests in all forms across China. Pictures of events which wouldn’t have been allowed in any way in the 1990’s, as a keen listener from the audience observed.

As Teng states, the hope of the people in China is in a strengthening civil society to contribute towards change in China. Hopefully, the commitment and dedication of courageous and admirable people like Teng and his fellow human rights lawyers and other activists will see this happen.

Chinese cities in Africa

If it would be a contest, China is in pole position.

Last week I attended an evening at Pakhuis de Zwijger about Chinese cities in Africa, and the above is what has stuck with me. The evening was centred around the research of Michiel Hulshof and Daan Roggeveen within their Go West Project, where they are travelling to African cities to research how Chinese activity in Africa is influencing these cities.

China and Africa are becoming more and more connected: some examples of this are through Chinese investment and through Africans setting up in China. There has also been increasing attention on this activity, as China’s engagement with Africa is happening on very different terms than European engagement with the African continent.

The evening highlighted specific activities of China in some of the places that the duo has travelled to so far (including Nairobi, Lagos, Luanda, Addis Abbeba – to name a few African cities): development of mass housing and establishment of Special Economic Zones.

Some of the points that struck me during the evening:

  • throughout the evening, the language used was very much in terms of a contest: who can build the most and the biggest (buildings, infrastructure, etc) and who can tie African governments to their own country the strongest? China isn’t the only country that is actively seeking opportunities in Africa – others include of course European countries, but also for example Turkey and Brazil. But is it really a contest? Is it really about being the most important non-African governmental actor (in whichever form) on the African continent? I don’t know – in traditional geopolitical terms, possibly it is. But in terms related to how to progress on sustainable development in Africa I don’t think it should be.
  • the evening shared different examples of Chinese firms building mass housing complexes in African cities, or of establishing joint economic development zones with a local government authority. Yet, what didn’t come through much in these stories was what the impact is on the development of society in these African cities: how does living in a gated compound (copied from the Chinese model of housing) change the social structure in any given African city where the way communities were living will have been very different.
  • what is the contribution of Chinese investment to economic and sustainable development of African cities and communities? What comes across in the contributions of experts during this evening is that the Chinese firms come in with their own workers (though this is slowly changing), underbid local African firms and are only recently becoming more interested in contributing to local capacity building. Some Chinese firms are starting to engage in a more active CSR-policy (and in fact, the Chinese government is requiring companies active in the extractive industry to implement CSR in their operations) and during the evening Huawei was mentioned as an example of a company which is developing a local CSR programme that focuses on local capacity building.  Yet, building the skills and capacity locally across Africa will be important to contribute to future-proof development.

Finally, the conclusion of the evening was also that it isn’t possible to ‘just’ copy the Chinese model to gain similar results in development and economic growth. Parts of it may work, but Africa is – of course – a different place. Africa is not one place, and it is likely that the Chinese model can be more successfully implemented in countries with a more authoritative government (examples are Ethiopia or Angola).

In any case, yet again an interesting Go West Project to keep track of while the research into the influence of Chinese urbanism in Africa continues.

cotton shanghai

WereldZaken: MVO over de grens

Vandaag is WereldZaken gepubliceerd, een e-magazine met nieuws, verhalen en ervaringen over internationaal ondernemen. En deze editie staat geheel in het teken over maatschappelijk verantwoord ondernemen in het buitenland! Goed leesvoer dus.

Voor WereldZaken mocht ik een blog bijhouden van mijn verblijf in Shanghai in januari: ik schrijf o.a. over duurzaam voedsel, dilemma’s rond MVO in de productieketen en sociaal ondernemerschap.

Meer leesmateriaal

Wil je meer weten over waar ik in Shanghai mee bezig ben geweest? Op dit blog kun je daarover vanalles vinden. Lees bijvoorbeeld deze stukjes:

> over ondernemerschap: China & Nederland vergeleken

> over stedelijke ontwikkeling: Shanghai’s streetscapes

> over duurzaam voedsel: ethical food in China

> over de relatie Japan & China

In de categorie China zijn ook meer dagelijkse stukjes te vinden, en impressies van eerdere bezoeken en China-gerelateerde thema’s. Of, neem contact op als je specifieke vragen hebt, of een keer met een kop koffie verder wil praten.

Entrepreneurship: China vs Netherlands

Apart from the CSR-related discussions and work I’ve been busy with in Shanghai, the other topics I’ve explored mostly revolve around the topic of entrepreneurship. Either in the form of for example social entrepreneurship or co-working, but it also came up at unexpected places. For example when a local Toastmasters meeting I attended had ‘entrepreneurship’ as the theme of the night and as part of the evening an entrepreneur shared his insights on starting your own business.

Especially this presentation was for me a very clear illustration of the huge difference between entrepreneurship in China and the Netherlands. In the Netherlands, it’s become fairly common for people to be working independently, to be an entrepreneur. But that often means that people are working on their own, a ‘one (wo)man workshop’ so to speak (like myself). And while there are of course plenty of people starting a business which is product-based and which requires investment, this is not necessarily the norm anymore.

My sense is also that it is increasingly difficult to start a product-based company requiring (substantial) investment: banks have become notoriously cautious with providing credits to new businesses, and there’s a clear move towards other ways of financing, such as crowdfunding.

Listening to John Loong’s story (and combining this with what has come up in other conversations throughout this month) the situation in China is completely different. John shared his experience in setting up (so far) two companies, both with substantial start-up investment and both have grown/are growing rapidly. His first company was sold after only two years, with an increase in value from (I’m not completely clear on the numbers anymore but roughly) 2,5 million RMB to 30 million RMB. His new company has already (in 1-2 years’ time) grown to 60 employees.

I can’t imagine this happening in the Netherlands. Of course, there are fast growing companies (FD Gazellen is an example of an initiative which keeps track of fast growers), but this type of growth – both in speed of finding enough investors and in physical growth of the company seems unfeasible to me in the Dutch context. Interestingly, John did emphasize the one thing that I think is key in entrepreneurship in the Netherlands as well: follow your passion and do what you want to be doing. That said, a lot of his talk – and in fact, a recurring thing throughout the night – was still about the financial benefits of it.

Am I too negative about the sense of entrepreneurship in the Netherlands and the possibilities here?

Maybe. Then again: it isn’t really surprising that China just works faster also in this aspect. Almost the whole world looks at China – and surrounding countries – as THE place to lead worldwide growth. This is the place where skyscraping buildings are still being built, and at break-neck speed. This is, in the minds of many, where things still can get done – quickly and boldly.

Possibly on the other side of this is the growth of social entrepreneurship. Social business is supported by the local government – at least in the case of Shanghai – as a way of making use of business to solve local social issues such as the inclusion of minorities or disabled, providing better services for the elderly and so on. And, at the same time this should be a way to stimulate local economic development, especially in those parts of the city which might otherwise be left behind. Talking to Leigh-Anne, the project manager of incubator for social businesses and NGO’s The Nest, I was impressed with their big ambitions in making the physical space of the Nest an area of development, inclusion and collaboration. It seems early days still, not just for The Nest but for the development of social entrepreneurship in general in Shanghai, though hopefully the same eagerness and energy that surrounds the more regular start-up initiatives such as those of John Loong will spill over here to make this a success.

This brings me back to the comparison with the Netherlands, where the group of independently working entrepreneurs is still rising. This also leads to new forms of doing business and (professional) collaboration: co-working and networking platforms have grown quickly as a way of bringing these entrepreneurs together, provide space to work, and create opportunity to connect with like-minded people. Even though in absolute terms the number of freelancers and other individual entrepreneurs may be higher in Shanghai, in relative terms this is not the case at all. Which probably is also (part of) the explanation of my previous vent about the difficulty to find flexible workspace in this city: there is just not as much need for it. This also makes the business model for co-working locations in Shanghai very different – and more complex maybe, when they’re confronted with high rent for locations, and a community that is at the moment less open and less eager to find others to work with. In one of the conversations I had about this, I also got the feeling that despite all the growth and innovation happening in China, real creativity and people who dare to take a chance to think out of the box and try something different and new are still hard to find.

If anyone has some of their own insights to share about entrepreneurship in China, I’d love to read your comments!