Friday, December 6, 2013

Inside the Chinese miracle

The demolition of old structures to clear way for urban development in China has some well-known consequences, notably the violence associated with forcibly removing people from their homes. But in recent years, the country has been increasingly faced with another unwelcome byproduct of the drive to tear down and rebuild: mountains of construction debris. 
While the problem is often concealed, with hundreds of millions of tons of waste quietly dumped on the outskirts of China’s major cities each year, the rate of growth has made it increasingly inescapable. Now, hardly a week goes by without residents of some suburban enclave or village near a major metropolis waking to discover an illegal waste dump rising near their homes.
In January, construction waste was dumped on imperial tombs from the Ming Dynasty in the city of Xi’an. The debris caused a wall around the tomb site to collapse and half-buried a 600-year old statue of an official. In the Chaoyang district of Beijing, residents complained after a construction waste heap grew to a height of more than eight stories, raining dust on the neighborhood on windy days. A few miles away, debris from the construction of a new subway line was piled along a riverbank. The waste material climbed to more than five stories, raising fears that in case of heavy rains it would block the drainage of flood waters.
Along Beijing’s 5th ring road, a half ton of debris is piled along each kilometer on average, much of it construction waste, the Beijing Evening News reported in August. Chinese social media are filled with pictures of rubble dumped on roadsides and underneath bridges. Liu Xiaoming, a 58-year-old retiree, uses his Sina Weibo microblog account to highlight incidents of dumping around his town of Jiaxing in Zhejiang Province.
China’s Mountains of Construction Rubble (New York Times)
The conventional wisdom is that China will eventually get serious about the environment, and when it does, the skies will turn blue before we know it. This view finds comfort in the experiences of the U.K. and the U.S. and concludes that Beijing’s toxic-air challenge pales in comparison with London’s back in the days of Charles Dickens. But what if the comparison is a false one? What if China’s crisis is different and harder to reverse?  
Neither London in the 1850s or 1950s nor Pennsylvania in the 1940s was at the mercy of a paranoid authoritarian government whose legitimacy relies on 8 percent growth. Case studies of the past weren’t as linearly reliant on manufacturing. They weren’t dealing with urbanization anywhere near the scale of modern-day China. They didn’t rely on huge overseas investment predicated partly on the ability to pollute freely. Large numbers of their politicians weren’t becoming multimillionaires from the existing system.  
China is entering completely uncharted territory -- navigating the demands of a newly vocal middle class without the democratic and civil institutions that helped Japan and the U.S. clean up environmental damage in the 1970s. It’s also doing so with higher levels of corruption.  
The party is playing with fire. Anger over pollution has replaced land grabs as the primary cause of social unrest. The last 12 months have seen a sharp increase in protests against chemical plants and oil refineries. Fewer than 1 percent of China’s 500 largest cities meet the World Health Organization’s air-quality standards, while seven are ranked among the 10 most polluted in the world. Walking the streets of Beijing, it’s hard not to feel like you are trapped in an airport smoking lounge. 
China Is Choking on Its Success (Bloomberg)
For visitors, China’s water problem becomes apparent upon entering the hotel room. The smell of a polluted river might emanate from the showerhead. Need to quench your thirst? The drip from the tap is rarely potable. Can you trust the bottled water? Many Chinese don’t. What about brushing your teeth?  
Measured by the government’s own standards, more than half of the country’s largest lakes and reservoirs were so contaminated in 2011 that they were unsuitable for human consumption. China’s more than 4,700 underground water-quality testing stations show that nearly three-fifths of all water supplies are “relatively bad” or worse. Roughly half of rural residents lack access to drinking water that meets international standards. 
Despite China’s limited resource base, the country’s vertiginous and dense urban jungles continue to grow. More water is needed with each skyscraper added to urban China’s skylines, each ton of coal burned to heat them, and each steamer of dumplings sold on their steps. And every time water is discharged from a new residential complex or power plant, it returns to the river basins a little dirtier. China’s two major rivers — the Yellow River and the Yangtze River...traverse the country’s major industrial belts as they flow from west to east. By the time the water reaches China’s coastal population centers, it requires extensive treatment before it is potable.
The government has started a gargantuan supply-side project — the “South-to-North Diversion” — which will redistribute water from the wet South to the arid North through a massive complex network of aqueducts. It is an intriguing idea in the abstract, but leakage and contamination may make the water unusable by the time it reaches the cities of the North. And it does nothing to increase the overall scarcity of fresh water.  
If the past 35 years of a resource-intensive economic boom have demonstrated anything, it is that the Chinese government is capable of producing growth, revving it up when necessary and reining it in when domestic priorities demand. But the country’s leadership must now face the legacy of a long boom that drew down a finite resource base to an extent that the world has yet to grasp. Major changes must come for how China manages these scarce resources — if not willfully, then by the indomitable force of necessity.
If You Think China’s Air Is Bad ... (New York Times)

Shanghai's concentration of tiny, harmful PM 2.5 particles was 602.5 micrograms per cubic meter on Friday afternoon, an extremely hazardous level that was the highest since the city began recording such data last December. That compares with the World Health Organisation's safety guideline of 25 micrograms. 
The dirty air that has gripped Shanghai and its neighbouring provinces for days is attributed to coal burning, car exhaust, factories and weather patterns, and is a stark reminder that pollution is a serious challenge in China. 
The financial district was shrouded in a yellow haze and noticeably fewer people walked the city's streets. Vehicle traffic was thinner, as authorities pulled 30% of government vehicles from the roads. They also banned fireworks and stopped all public sporting events. 
Protective masks and air purifiers were selling briskly at local stores. 
"I feel like I'm living in clouds of smog," said Zheng Qiaoyun, a local resident who kept her 6-month-old son at home. "I have a headache, I'm coughing, and it's hard to breathe on my way to my office."
Schoolchildren ordered indoors as air pollution cloaks Shanghai (The Guardian)

Today, as the smog has cleared, a big reason for China's terrible pollution: Coal is used to fuel 70 percent of the country's energy needs.
China's Smog As Seen From Space (NPR)
Signs of social dysfunction abound. Young people, who while away their days in Internet cafes or pool halls, say that only a small fraction of them have jobs. The elderly are forced to take menial work to make ends meet. Neighborhood and family structures have been damaged. Most worrying are the suicides, which local residents say have become an all-too-familiar sign of despair.  
As China pushes ahead with government-led urbanization, a program expected to be endorsed at a Communist Party Central Committee meeting that began Saturday, many worry that the scores of new housing developments here may face the same plight as postwar housing projects in Western countries. Meant to solve one problem, they may be creating a new set of troubles that could plague Chinese cities for generations.  
“We’re talking hundreds of millions of people who are moving into these places, but the standard of living for these relocatees has actually dropped,” said Lynette Ong, a University of Toronto political scientist who has studied the resettlement areas. “On top of that is the quality of the buildings — there was a lot of corruption, and they skimped on materials.”  
“That was their land,” said Wei Ying, a 35-year-old unemployed woman whose parents live in a poorly built unit. “You have to understand how they feel in their heart.”  
The sense of despair and alienation surfaces in the suicides, a late-night leap from a balcony, drinking of pesticide or lying down on railroad tracks.  
“I have anxiety attacks because we have no income, no job, nothing,” said Feng Aiju, 40, a former farmer who moved to Huaming in 2008 against her will. She said she had spent a small fortune by local standards, $1,500, on antidepressants. “We never had a chance to speak; we were never asked anything. I want to go home.”  
Besides dissatisfaction over the amount of space they would receive, farmers were most concerned about jobs, a common worry in other resettlement projects. In the official literature, Huaming had that taken care of. Compared with relocation projects in remote rural areas, such as southern Shaanxi Province, Huaming is next to a major transportation corridor, the Beijing-Tianjin Expressway. It is also adjacent to Tianjin’s massive airport logistics center, which is expanding and adding thousands of jobs.  
Many farmers said, however, that they were not qualified for these jobs. “We know how to farm, but not how to work in an office,” said Wei Dushen, a former resident of Guanzhuang Village now living in town. “Those are for educated people.” Almost uniformly, Huaming residents say the only jobs open to them are in dead-end menial positions, such as street sweepers or low-level security guards. These jobs pay the equivalent of $150 a month.  
Even so, competition for them is fierce.  
“It’s survival of the fittest,” said Yang Huashuai, a 25-year-old electrician and gypsy-cab driver who said his family got three apartments. “If you don’t work hard, you don’t deserve to make it.”  
Many young people seem to have given up trying to find work. Internet cafes are packed with them playing games. Although the cafes are supposed to be limited to the commercial streets, they are found in converted apartments in many housing blocks.  In one, 28-year-old Zhang Wei said he had invested $4,300 to renovate an apartment and install computers. The unit’s former living room was packed with young people hunched over screens, many of them playing games like World of Warcraft for money.
“They’re all unemployed local people, but without qualifications, what can they do?” Mr. Zhang said.  
In a nearby unit, Liu Baohua, an unemployed 62-year-old farmer, said the buildings were almost uninhabitable during the winter. “These buildings look modern outside, but they’re not,” Mr. Liu said. “It’s the worst quality.”  
Mr. Liu’s apartment leaks water from the ceiling, which he said maintenance crews told him they could not fix. Windows were double-glazed but the quality was bad and seals broken, causing them to mist up with condensation. Radiators, he said, had almost no hot water. He also showed work bills from maintenance visits in January confirming that his north-facing bedroom was 55 degrees. “We need to buy space heaters to survive here,” Mr. Liu said. His wife works as a street sweeper and the couple get the equivalent of welfare for an additional $60 a month.  
For many, the disappointment leads to suicides. Recently, residents said, a 19-year-old man ill with cancer flung himself off the family’s third-floor balcony at 5:30 a.m. and landed on the parking lot next to two vans serving breakfast. His father dead and his mother living on welfare, the family was too poor to afford further cancer treatment. The story could not be verified with the authorities but was repeated independently by residents.  
More common are stories of old people who cannot get used to the new lives and quickly die of illnesses. One term that residents repeatedly use is “biesi” — “stifled to death” in the new towers.
New China Cities: Shoddy Homes, Broken Hope (New York Times)
A key element of China’s generation-long economic boom has been its ability to provide employers with a flow of cheap labor that is also relatively healthy and educated. How has such a magical combination been possible? 
The answer, to put it somewhat abstractly, is this: by spatially separating economic production from social reproduction, capital has been able to buy labor power at less than its value.
The labor of 250 million Chinese migrant workers, now the numerically and politically most important part of the working class, is largely deployed in the country’s many metropolises. But if the production of consumer goods, skyscrapers, and high-speed railways is taking place in the cities, the production of migrant labor power itself — social reproduction — by and large takes place in the countryside. That is where the social and financial costs of providing education, healthcare, and care for the aged are borne. 
This is a giant subsidy to urban capitalists, who are thus able to use massive amounts of labor without having to pay for either the worker’s formation or for reproduction on a generational basis. Cities have been able to consume the best working years of migrant youth and then spit them back into the countryside when they’re no longer desirable, with no further obligations.
But after underwriting decades of growth, this blatantly exploitative relationship between city and countryside is starting to show signs of stress. Most importantly, young migrants to the city are proving increasingly unwilling to return to the farm to start families as their parents had done in the 1980s and 1990s. The problem, though, is that it is still nearly impossible for working-class migrants to make a decent life in the city, as they are legally excluded from the social services that urban residents enjoy. 
The Chinese state maintains a formally tiered system of citizenship that is enforced through the household registration system known as hukou. This system ties the provision of public goods to place: if someone leaves their officially designated hometown, the state promises them nothing. Additionally, there is a deeply unequal distribution of social goods in terms of scope and quality that is dependent on place, with residents of cities like Beijing and Shanghai enjoying far superior and more diverse services than those of their rural compatriots.
This transparently unequal citizenship regime operates intergenerationally. A child born in Beijing to parents from rural Sichuan is guaranteed access to public services — but only in rural Sichuan. If the ideal of public goods is to serve as a bulwark against the market’s inherent tendency to reproduce class inequality, in China such institutions serve just the opposite purpose. This is not the informal class- and race-based segregation of today’s America, but old-fashioned, formal exclusion based on inherited characteristics. The implications for the rigidification of class structure are legion.
Outside the New China (Jacobin)

Welcome to the future.

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