urban development Chongqing

Opportunities in sustainable urban development: bloginterview with Xiaocun Ruan

One of the reasons why I chose my company name is because it connects to the city – and with the city & my focus on sustainability in Asia, it connects to the theme of sustainable urban development. A hot topic in Asia, where many places are quickly urbanizing. And where it is becoming increasingly important to find ways to build sustainable and smart cities that use resources efficiently and provide a good standard of living for the millions of people who make that city their home. Unsurprisingly, a topic that appears on my blog regularly as well.

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What makes a city smart?

“How many of you have booked accomodation via Airbnb for this conference?”

It was the first question Molly Turner, Director of Public Policy and Civic Partnerships at Airbnb, started her presentation with but the answer seemingly surprised also herself: only a few hands were raised in the audience, consisting of several hundred people.

Undisturbed, she went on to talk about Airbnb and how it fits with the idea of a smart city – the overall theme of the conference I attended earlier this month.

Harnessing technological power to revolutionize how we live in cities

Her talk brought into the conference a theme which I felt lacking up until then: people. You can have all the high-tech applications available used in an urban infrastructure, but without people you have no city.

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urban development Chongqing

Under The Dome: frisse wind in de discussie over China’s smog?

Dit artikel verscheen eerder op China2025.

Groot nieuws in China was deze week de jaarlijkse bijeenkomst van het National People’s Congress, Groter nieuws kwam diezelfde tijd echter van buiten de politiek. De documentaire Under The Dome werd vrijwel direct een sensatie op het internet na de premiere eind februari en stal daarmee de show in verschillende media.

De documentaire, gemaakt door oud-CCTV verslaggever Chai Jing, gaat over de ernstige luchtvervuiling in China en werd al snel vergeleken met andere grote momenten in milieubewustwording (en –activisme): het boek Silent Spring van Rachel Carson (1962) bijvoorbeeld of de documentaire An Inconvenient Truth van Al Gore (2006).

Wordt Under The Dome voor China net zo iconisch?

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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

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.

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.

Shanghai’s noise pollution

Earlier this week I had a meeting in a noisy, crowded and loud Starbucks. Of course, this is not unusual at all. I already wrote earlier about the difficulty in finding places to be able to work at for a short time, the noise is one aspect that makes that difficult.

As we spoke, the level of noise in this particular place came up. The man I was meeting said that one of his main irritants of living in Shanghai is the noise pollution. And he’s right: there is noise and sound coming from everywhere all the time.

Today, I visited the Power Station of Art for an exhibition on design and its function in urbanization and cities. It was a lot bigger – and more interesting – than I had expected so unfortunately I couldn’t see all of the exhibition. It showed mostly different concepts and ideas on how cities can be designed to be more livable, especially in the Chinese context. These ideas were presented in the form of models, video installations, 3D or photography and included work from Chinese designers and artists, but also quite a few Dutch artists (including Daan Roosegaarde and the Go West Project), Japanese designers and a range of other international names. Topics covered included mobility, urban structure, production, etc.

But back to noise. This was also one of the parts of the exhibition. The explanation alongside one of the designs read:

If harmony metaphorically describes a society in unity, then noise could be seen as dissidence, or resistance to an otherwise smooth system. Nowhere is the mirage of harmony and contention to noise more clearly expressed than in public plazas in China […]

Interesting perspective.