Weekend reading: bribery & business, China in the Mekong, and food in the city

Welcome to my new blog space! And my first post written here is, because it’s Saturday, my online discoveries from the past week.

Bribery & business in China
Last week I spoke to a co-worker about CSR in China, and she mentioned that in her view corruption is one of the most difficult issues in China for foreign companies. And the FT is talking about this issue this week, following the bribery scandal at GlaxoSmithKline that broke recently as well. Bottom line: the line between what is business as usual and what is bribery is very blurred.

On environment and China in the Mekong
As usual, this section includes something on China and the environment. China Dialogue has posted several interesting articles this week. One of these talks about how to deal with companies who are heavy polluters.

The second article I’d like to highlight discusses China’s strategy in the Mekong region, mostly focused on infrastructure. But what consequences does this strategy have for topics such as the environment and food security?

To fly or not to fly?
The following article touches on a more general topic, but one which is a bit of a personal dilemma as well: flying. The Guardian’s Jo Confino asks whether it’s okay for sustainability professionals to be jetting all over the world – as many do, including myself (though not nearly as much as some others). For travel within Europe I try to stick to train travel. And I was recently a bit shocked that people from cities like Amsterdam and Rotterdam think it very normal to fly to Paris, especially if your work is about promoting sustainable business. But what to do about the trips to Asia… travelling overland isn’t really an option. In a way, it’s even more of an incentive to really make those trips count.

Book recommendation
And not really an article that I found this week, but a recommendation if you’re looking for any books to take on holiday. I’m currently in the middle of Hungry City by Carolyn Steel. I’d heard a lot about it for the last few years or so, and finally got it last week. So good. Really recommended if you love food, but also when you are interested in how cities work, what impact food has on communities etc.

Pedestrian space: essential to liveable cities?

via Flickr/David O

Attractive and well-maintained public pedestrian space is probably essential to a smoothly functioning democratic society, because we are forced to develop and maintain a civic awareness there, our activities are visible and we can meet as equals Lees meer

Must-have: the new Haruki Murakami

japan 602

Haruki Murakami is probably the best known Japanese writer outside of Japan right now. And he has been for quite some time. In the Netherlands, his books are very popular and many of my friends have read his work. Not surprisingly, maybe, I’m a big fan.

This is no different in Japan. There always seems to be quite a buzz when he publishes something new.

So when I heard about the publication of his latest book on April 12th, I knew exactly what was at the top of my shopping list: 色彩を持たない多崎つくると、彼の巡礼の年 (in English: Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage).

It wasn’t hard to find: walking into the Kinokuniya-bookshop in Osaka when I arrived the books were stacked high (and in its 8th edition, 6 weeks after publication)

Architecture in China, a Dutch perspective

Shenzhen Stock Exchange being built / OMA design (taken April 2010)

Working in China as a non-Chinese brings all kinds of challenges with it. Of course, this isn’t a surprise. The book “You can’t change China, China changes you” explores exactly what those differences are, in one particular industry: architecture.

The book had been recommended to me a few times over the last couple of years, as I work on China and regularly with architects. So when I came across a copy in the local bookshop it was an easy choice to take home. Only at home did I realize that this was an English-language copy of an originally Dutch book. In itself not a problem, except that the book would have benefited from a good editor.

The book covers the adventures and experiences of Dutch architect John van de Water of NEXT Architects. Spanning several years from about 2004-2008, Van de Water shares with the reader his amazement, surprise, fascination while working in Beijing in cooperation with a Chinese architecture firm. And yes, the Chinese building & architecture industry is different – the book shows differences in how projects are acquired, the importance of the client, the perspective towards the role of the architect as part of a project etc. And of course the speed at which China is building.

It’s a good read, even for a non-architect, though I am sure that fellow-architects will gain more from it. The book contains a lot of theorizing, and abstract concepts on what the function of architecture in society should be. Sometimes these parts became a bit too pompous for my taste (but that could also have been the language issue noted above). And knowing the industry from inside would probably help to appreciate the differences more.

What the book has left me with is the sense that being an architect in China means that you need to be able to deal with unpredictable situations; whether this is a client which is constantly changing its mind or changing government plans, you never quite know what will happen the next day. In fact, that is probably the same in any industry across China.

Books with impact

A few weeks ago I posted my favourite books on China: what are must-read’s on this country if you want to get an idea of what is going on in this country, according to mthld of course.

But I don’t only read on China (and in that case, that list possibly would’ve been longer). Especially some of the books which I’ve read on the topic of sustainability and corporate social responsibility have made quite an impact on how I view these topics and what I have done about them in my personal life. But not only that, reading about these issues and getting a better understanding of them has also led me to work towards a career shift. I’m in the middle of this career shift right now in which I will combine the topics of international business and CSR much more than I have done so far. Exciting stuff.

More will follow about that later, for now – what are these books that have made such an impact?

Collapse by Jared Diamond
Diamond is the writer of another fascinating book (Guns, Germs and Steel) which is a recommended read as well – but for me this book is the more interesting of the two. In this book Diamond describes what made the difference for societies to either be successful or to fail. Often, according to Diamond, the reasons behind this are in part environmental and also dependent on how societies work with their natural environment. He sketches how caring for and maintaining the natural environment properly is a critical factor in the survival of a society. Fascinating reading, which gave me a much better understanding of longer term effects of environment and of not handling it as well as we should.

No Impact Man by Colin Beavan
Despite the title of this book, this book – and the one-week experiment that resulted from it, the No Impact Project – has probably influenced my personal life and the choices I make the most. The book is the result of one year living with no (or at least very minimal) impact on the environment in the middle of New York City. Colin Beavan’s year goes to a lot more extremes than is considered comfortable living, but it also shows what is possible. By participating in the No Impact Project (twice, and it’s starting again in the Netherlands in spring 2013) I’ve discovered much more about the possibilities of changes in your own behaviour towards a more sustainable way of living than I expected.

Prosperity without growth by Tim Jackson
Is continuous economic growth possible within the limits of the earth? Jackson argues that it isn’t , but he also argues that economic growth is not necessary for prosperity. However, this does require major changes in the current economic system, and in this book he explains some of them and how to make them work. Persuasive reading, and especially recommended if you are interested in the economic & business side of sustainability.

The necessary revolution by Peter Senge, and others
This is another book which looks at the more economic side of sustainability and the changes needed both to make business more sustainable but also how this will impact the rest of society. It looks at creating partnerships across society and how this will enable change to happen. Interesting ideas, and it contains good examples and best practices.

The ecology of commerce by Paul Hawken
This is an older book on the basics of what sustainibility means for business, and how business can work with this. Still worth a read.

With the amount of books written about CSR & sustainability of course there is a lot more out there. For the moment however, these are my personal favourites – and of course I am always curious to hear your’s. What is missing from this list?

Want to know more about China? My five reading suggestions

China is a much-discussed country following the increasingly important role it is taking up in the world. This also means there is a wealth of books out there (not to mention blogs, articles, and all kinds of other news) which all explore some part of China. A simple query on Amazon brings up tens of thousands of titles. Wow.

I recently finished another book on China, one which has gotten a lot of exposure and good reviews since it was published in 2010. The book made me look back at what I have been reading over the last few years and I’ve put together my personal top 5 of non-fiction books on China, for anyone looking for some interesting reading. The books are a mix of politics, society, history and a little bit of economics – and posted in random order.

Out of Mao’s Shadow by Philip Pan
This book is a collection of essays on Chinese regular citizens who made a difference, in one way or another, written by a former China-correspondent of the Washington Post. What I liked about it is that the stories are very personal, every chapter is on one individual. Together, the stories touch on a lot of important parts of Chinese history and society: Tiananmen Square in 1989, SARS in 2004, hutongs being demolished in Beijing etc. This means that you get a pretty good grasp of modern history and society, while at the same time being drawn in to the personal stories of these individuals.

The Party: The secret world of China’s communist rulers by Richard McGregor
I’ve seen this book at the top of various Top 10 China book listings, and I’m not surprised. The book describes how the Chinese Communist Party works and every chapter discusses a different part of its workings, including the judicial system, HR inside the party, state-owned enterprises etc. Fascinating to read how all-encompassing this system really is.

The Concrete Dragon by Thomas J. Campanella
The subtitle of this book is China’s urban revolution and what it means to the world, which sums up pretty well what this book is about. I’m quite interested by how cities grow and evolve, as this will be increasingly difficult to do well with an ever-expanding population and growing pressure on resources, land, etc. This is not only true in Europe, but much much more so in China where cities of several million inhabitants and more are the rule, rather than the exception. This book discusses how cities in China have evolved, discusses the impact on society of these changes, and shows some fascinating examples of Chinese urbanisation right now with a chapter devoted to for example themed suburbs and themeparks. It’s a more academic read than the other books in this list, but I enjoyed it a lot.

Tied to this book I also want to mention another book on Chinese urbanisation which looks at the same topics from the perspective of the people living in those cities: How the city moved to Mr. Sun, written by Dutch journalists Michiel Hulshof and Daan Roggeveen. The duo visited 13 of China’s new megacities: cities away from the Eastcoast and more inland such as Chongqing, Lanzhou and Hohhot. In these cities they follow the life of someone who lives there and this story represents the impact these expanding cities have on China and its population. Besides containing interesting stories, the book is also beautifully designed with lots of photographs and additional information.

Red Dust by Ma Jun
This is a very different book than the others which are listed in this post, as this is a travelogue by a Chinese journalist who leaves Beijing to travel around China for three years in the early 1980’s. I haven’t read it for a long time (and in fact, gave it away to an ex-colleague – as I’ve done with many of these books) but it still sticks with me as quite a special and fascinating travel story of China 30 years ago.

Mao’s Great Famine by Frank Dikötter
This book actually prompted this post, as I finished it most recently. It has received quite a bit of coverage since its publication in 2010 and it’s clear why: the book uses formerly inaccessable Chinese archives to go through the couple of years of the famine which occurred during the Great Leap Forward between 1958-1962. I didn’t know that much about this particular part of Chinese history. Most of the gruesome history is told about the Cultural Revolution – but not anymore. Through his research Dikötter estimates that around 45 million people died during these four years in China, through famine and related causes. The book contains LOTS of numbers, statistics and facts that made it slow reading, but the amount of research put into this book is dazzling and it’s very recommended if you want to get a better understanding of how the Chinese Communist Party made their decisions – at least during this time it seemed to be all about keeping up appearances to your boss and to the outside world. But at least not based on what is happening in the country itself.


So, the above are my favourites on China (in random order) but of course there is much more that I haven’t read, and I have a couple of books waiting on my book shelf, but this top 5 will be hard to break into.

What have you read, and what did you like? Please share your additional recommendations in the comments!