Which pollution to clean first in China?

smogthepeopleRecently I came across several folks who are interested in bringing US Brownfield remediation technology to China. Their idea is based on the fact that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that as of June 2013, US Brownfields Program has assessed 20,449 properties completed 872 cleanups, leveraged 90,017 jobs and USD 20.1 billion in investment.  A report from China estimated 600,000 “identified” contaminated “industrial” sites.  Chinese central government has indicated intent to spending approximately RMB 600 billion on land remediation. This would be therefore a tremendous business opportunity for US firms who have the expertise in brownfield cleaning.

The extent of environmental pollution in China’s recent economic reform extended to every corner of the environment: air, water, and soil. Some even argue that if considering the environmental cost, China’s economic GDP growth can be close to zero. There is no doubt that huge investment will have to be made to clean up the polluted environment sooner or later.

Premier Li Keqiang, in his opening address to parliament on March 5, declared the war on pollution in an attempt to head off growing anger over the quality of China’s air, water and soil.  If the government is really serious this time, with limited resources, which pollution would get the priority to be addressed? It is definitely not the soil pollution. Soil pollution issues mostly remain a secret in most part of China (Only Guangdong last year released its soil survey results, revealing that 28% land were contaminated). With the pro-GDP growth model continues, I am more pessimistic on when and how local governments would be forced to spend on soil cleaning. It is definitely a huge price that government have to pay, but how to force them to pay might take a long struggle within China.  Hurdles before the technology input are huge.

Air pollution, the most visible one, especially it is most visible in the city of Beijing where the central government is located, will most likely get the priority. Reuters recently reported that Beijing’s mayor promised in January to spend 15 billion Yuan ($2.4 billion) on improving air quality this year as part of an “all-out effort” to tackle pollution. I recently came across an online news article showing spectacular birds-eye view of global cities. Till the end, a picture of Shanghai shows the Bund vaguely in a gloomy day, followed with a solid grey color titled Beijing.  Public awareness about the air pollution, and how it had in reality affected the daily life in Beijing, all have pushed this air cleaning policy to happen.

Although it is now on the top agenda of the Beijing government, it will be a tough negotiation between the Beijing and other regional governments. Since the origin of air pollution in Beijing is from provinces which hosts heavy polluted industries, including steel, coal and cement plants, which moved out from Beijing in recent years. Now Hebei’s factories are blamed for their hazardous smog that increasingly envelops the capital.

A succession of Hebei officials used the annual session of parliament in Beijing this month to urge the central government to boost subsidies to help with job losses and other costs from mandated cuts in industrial production across the country. One local official said Hebei was taking on too much of the burden.  More subsidies suggests that the central government and Beijing government will have to pay for the clean air.

While local officials said Hebei was making a sacrifice, environmentalists say it has been given a free ride for too long, routinely allowing its industries to beat rivals by ignoring environmental regulations and industrial standards imposed by Beijing.  Beijing, on the other hand, did not enforce its regulation to avoid the risk of unemployed steel workers spilling over into the already strained capital.

What kind of crisis can push the local government to start tackle the soil pollution?


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Hukou in China’s New Urbanization Policy

urbanizationChinese leadership is not content to wait for the natural process of urbanization — wherein rural residents see increased opportunities in cities and move of their own accord — to run its course. “People have been leaving the mountains to work in the cities on their own, but this hasn’t happened fast enough,” the New York Times quoted a local Communist Party official in charge of urbanization as saying this summer. Currently, according to Xinhua, a little over 51 percent of Chinese live in cities. The government hopes to boost this number to 60 percent by 2020.

The new urbanization plan claim to be a human centered urbanization plan, and “the primary task is to enable migrant workers to win urbanite status in an orderly manner.” In other words, urbanization will focus first on solving the hukou problem. It puts priority on a gradual reformation of the hukou system to allow migrants to more easily become official urban residents.

The Central Urbanization Work Conference (CUWC) called for concrete steps to reform the hukou system, but in a tiered approach. In coming years, China will “fully remove hukou restrictions in towns and small cities, gradually ease restrictions in mid-sized cities, setting reasonable conditions for settling in big cities while strictly controlling the population in megacities.” In other words, China will continue to emphasize the growth and development of “small cities” by removing hukou restrictions for these underdeveloped areas. But “megacities” like Beijing and Shanghai will likely continue to have strict limitations on hukous in a bid to fight overcrowding and rising housing costs.

The mismatch between where rural population want to go, and where government want them to move, as Economists article points out, is big. The hukou liberalisation focuses on cities with under 5m people. Yet most new jobs are being created in the 16 big cities with populations of more than 5m, and most of the dodgy government debt seems to be concentrated in the smaller cities whose officials are therefore unwilling to fork out for benefits for new urbanites. Large cities can give urban hukou, but only on a complicated points-based system which tends to favour the prosperous, giving graduates and skilled workers a better chance.

There is the government’s itch to speed up the process, which can result in new cities that have residents but no jobs or stores. Meanwhile, many rural residents who head to the cities of their own accord, in hopes of finding better-paying jobs, become second-class citizens. This would lead to another wave of urban to urban migration in big Chinese cities, and may lead to a series of social and political problems.

Ian Johnson once in New York Times vividly described how these two kinds of migration vary: one is forced migration ended up as an urban residents without jobs and depressed, the other is a voluntary migration towards economic opportunities and working hard.

For rural residents, it is possible to survive when there is a piece of farmland. When some of them are forced to become urban and lose the piece of land that support their livelihood, their drive to make a living in cities with working opportunities will be much higher. The urbanization is not only going to be another wave of taking rural land away from farmers, suggesting more social conflict and stability issues that the central government is worried about; it also put pressures on local governments with challenges for small and mid-size cities, since they need to get ready to absorb the millions of urbanizing rural population.

What has been proposed in this new urbanization plan about hukou policy, was in reality practiced already in many small and mid-sized cities. Migrants getting a local hukou is not a problem already for many years. This time the difference is, those who came earlier, were the ones who migrated on their own. What these cities are going to face now, is a bigger group that governments manage to relocate. There will be major differences on how they are going to be finally settled. For big cities, it still enjoys the hukou system to attract the cream part of the society.

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Happy Chinese new year of Horse!


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UCI – Urban China Initiative

By Yiping Fang

I was recently pointed to the relatively new ‘Urban China Initiative’, and found it so much closely related to what PSU-China Innovation and Urbanization program is interested in. Great to know that the initiative coordinated the strong resources from both US and China, and is contributing to a more sustainable urbanization process in China. Being an institute that is based in China, offering research grant to China related research from around the world, and focusing on translating research into practice, is a great strategy to be applauded.

A big share of money going to developing countries under the name of aid, in reality went to the pocket of  foreign experts or consultants. In developing countries,  consultants were those persons ‘who borrowed your watch and tells you what time it is’. Working in development field for a few years have made me wonder what can be a more effective model for knowledge creation in developing countries, in that I doubt whether knowledge can be easily transferred from developed countries to developing countries. This is especially in China, where the political economy and cultures are so much different from the west. Convincing Chinese is not any more that easy. I just came across this quote from a New Yorker article on China’s genomic factory:

“In the United States and in the West, you have a certain way,” he continued, smiling and waving his arms merrily. “You feel you are advanced and you are the best. Blah, blah, blah. You follow all these rules and have all these protocols and laws and regulations. You need somebody to change it. To blow it up. For the last five hundred years, you have been leading the way with innovation. We are no longer interested in following.”

Allowing knowledge to be created by Chinese in China is a critical step. I look forward to more research initiatives from UCI which is based in Beijing.

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Prosperity and Urbanization in Children’s song

By Yiping Fang flash儿童歌曲视频大全小燕子儿歌视频免费下载


There was a very popular children’s song in China, called ‘Xiao Yanzi’, literally the little swallows.  Recently I was shocked to get reminded its lyrics, when I was playing it on Youtube. The image on the right is an image from the song, which the city is the background.

小燕子穿花衣                                  Little swallows, wearing pretty dress,
年年春天到这里                              Here they come every year.
我问燕子为啥来                              I ask the swallows why they are here,
燕子说这里的春天最美丽              The swallow says, the spring here is most beautiful.
小燕子告诉你                                  Little swallows, I want to tell,
今年这里更美丽                              It is even more beautiful this year.
我们盖起了大工厂                          We built big factories,
装上了新机器                                  and installed new machines.
欢迎你长期住在这里                      You are welcomed to settle here permanently.

I was surprised to realize, that this popular kid’s song which had been accompanying my childhood, drew an equal sign between prosperity and industrialization / urbanization.  No kids was able to question the lyrics at their young age.  When I reflect, China already became a world factory. My generation finally realized that swallows would not want to live in the same area with factories.  I wonder whether this song, which was embedded in my generation’s brain, had contributed to the Chinese desire to develop, and the severe environmental issues that both urban and rural residents suffer today.

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The economics of demolition – Creative destruction

By Yiping Fang

A recent article in Economists titled “The economics of demolition – Creative destruction“, discusses about a research done by Dragonomics, on their estimation using 2010 Census and 2005 mini-census, it shows that a great deal of housing was built between 2005 and 2010. But a lot of housing was also unbuilt. Over five years, 1.85 billion square metres of 20th-century housing disappeared, more than 16% of the total.


REPEAT visitors to China are impressed by two things. The skyscrapers, shopping centres and other landmarks of development that were not there before—and the many buildings there before that are not there any longer. … China’s growing prosperity does not course through its society, it sweeps over it, obliterating evidence of an earlier, poorer era.

In my recent visit to Beijing after 10 years, I confessed to my colleagues that I could only recoganize around 10% of the buildings in the city. My friend who have grown up in Beijing told me he felt the same when he goes the part of the city he does not regularly visit.

In the article’s comment session, one reader named ‘Lu Junhua’ provided a history of construction/demolition in Beijing:

The old Beijing City endured through the dynasties of Ming and Qing, and stood there until the foundation of PRC. It had the imperial court, now known as the forbidden city, as the core part. The city was fortified by grand walls with nine gates, such as Zhengyang gate, Chongwen gate, Xuanwu gate, and so on.

PRC began to dismantle the walls in the year of 1953, to facilitate transportation. In the year of 1965, PRC decided to build subways in Beijing, which resulted in the demolition of the remaining walls and gates. Chongwen gate was dismantled in the year of 1966, Xuanwu gate in 1965, Dongzhi gate in 1965, Xizhi gate in 1969, Chaoyang gate in 1958, Fucheng gate in 1965, Desheng gate in 1955, Anding gate in 1969. Liang Sicheng, then as a famous architect, opposed to the demolitions of the historic walls and gates, but in vain. It is worth noting that, satirically, Liang’s former residence in Beijing was removed in the year of 2012.

Then came the expansion of Beijing city. The 3rd ring road was built in the 1980’s. The 4th ring road was finished building in the year of 2001, and 5th ring road in 2003, and the 6th ring road 2009.

Where there is construction, there is destruction. I see no chance that the city’s expansion would be reversed. But this time the destruction means not the demolition of old houses, but the cutting down of trees and plants on the farmlands.

I wonder what was the origin of this Chinese mentality of 不破不立,大破大立, i.e., if you do not destroy the old, you can not establish the new.  Historically during China’s dynasty changes, old palaces were usually destroyed and the new ones was built. The socialist China established in 1949 was considering to build the new central government to the west of the historic Beijing. However, the proposal was not implemented mainly due to the huge amount of money required for building everything anew rather than reuse the old Qing palace. During the socialist China and cultural revolution, the demolish or destroy involved anything with a connotation to capitalism or feudalism,  what should be established was more connected to the new ‘socialist’ ideology (See the poster image). There was no enough financial resources to build a lot of new things.

China’s GDP driven economic growth, the economists’ article says, does not consider the assets lost of demolition. As a result, the growth of the economy might not be that incredible if you deduct the assets demolished in these processes. This nuance of ignoring demolished housing in GDP calculation, as a result, promoted the development of new towns at an unprecedented speed. Some of these new towns become ghost towns.

Leaders in China need to recognize that urbanization is not only about building things.

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It is officially live!

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