This changes everything?

You know that feeling when you are really excited about something but then… nothing?

That’s kind of how I left Tuesday’s ‘A special night with Naomi Klein’, one of the events at this year’s IDFA festival and hosted by the John Adams Institute. I had been looking forward to this evening since I heard about it through a friend as it would focus on her latest book This Changes Everything on the link between climate change and capitalism.

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Go West: Chongqing & Chengdu

Last Friday saw the opening of the newest addition to the Dutch diplomatic and economic network in China: the Consulate-General in Chongqing was opened by the current Dutch ambassador to China, Mr. Aart Jacobi, and the vice-mayor of Chongqing.

I had a sneak peek in the office just the week before: looking out across Chongqing from the 52nd Floor of the Yingli International Financial Center was a pretty impressive sight. The CG’s main task is economic diplomacy: supporting Dutch companies interested in expanding their market to not only Chongqing but also to Sichuan or Shaanxi which the Consulate is also formally responsible for.

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air pollution

Cleaning up China’s sky

If you follow news on China even a little bit in the international media, you will have heard about the high levels of air pollution in pretty much all major Chinese cities. Airpocalypses even: when the level of pollution in a particular city gets so high that public life comes to a halt. Beijing experienced this on January 12, 2013 (to name the most extreme day) when the level of PM2.5 particles in the air (the main pollutant, and what is generally measured to assess the level of pollution at any given moment) reached a staggering 755. In Shanghai, the record stands close to 500, occurring on December 6, 2013. To put these numbers into perspective: the WHO recommends a level of 25 (of PM2.5) as the maximum level for clean air.

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change in chengdu

Speed of change

Beijing -> Xi’an -> Lanzhou -> Jiayuguan -> Dunhuang

This was the route that took me ever more west on my first trip to China. From Dunhuang I flew back to the coast, I had run out of time but I also felt that heading more west would require more Chinese-language skills – or a travel partner. Of which I had neither. Lees meer

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.