art, China, development, environment

Phantom Landscapes: Wherein China’s built environment overtakes the natural one

A few years ago, the China Environmental Protection Foundation worked with advertising firm J Walter Thompson’s Shanghai office on an anti-pollution campaign featuring the work of Shanghai artist Yang Yongliang. Certainly the message here is as relevant today as it was in 2009.

(Click to enlarge)

A couple of the images appear to be from a series Yang calls Phantom Landscape II. While the work here takes off from the old shan shui style of landscape painting (shan means mountain, shui water), I believe these are digital creations. In any case, shan shui is one of the most evocative styles around, and Yang’s take on it is a lot of fun to look at. You can see more at his website.

Below: From a completely different series, A Bowl of Taipei 1
Image of mountains in a bowl by Yang Yongliang.

China, journalism

The Mike Daisey Almosts

This American Life's retraction notice.One of the interesting results of the retraction of This American Life’s Mike Daisey monologue on the Foxconn factory in China is the shoulda/coulda/woulda-ing of the press corps, particularly those who have some experience covering tech, China, and/or Mike Daisey. After hearing the original broadcast, Marketplace’s China correspondent thought some of the details were odd, and he followed up on his suspicions. Many others, it seems, did not, or were persuaded not to.

A few examples:

    • James Fallows calls it “The Sad and Infuriating Mike Daisey Case” and makes good points on how this will hurt Western press in China, and, especially, how the criticisms made by Daisey and others about Foxconn sucks up attention from more egregious labor problems. Fallows also describes having felt a sense of unease about the monologue’s veracity after first hearing it—a point that seems common to these posts.
    • Adrian Chen at Gawker details a sit-down with Daisey last fall to ask him about possible factual inconsistencies. And Daisey completely pulls the wool over his eyes:

      Throughout our interview, he’d been so convincing; his lies were so detailed and full of compassion and humor. And now I wondered why I was wasting my time trying to poke holes in his facts when I should be writing about the awful things he saw. We talked for a bit more and he invited me to his show. I went, and dropped the story.

    • Evan Osnos, for The New Yorker, details all the warning signs that China hands picked up on, and then makes this great point:

But when I heard it, a part of me was embarrassed by the prospect that maybe Daisey had found stuff that we in China had not. Lots of people had reported over the years on underage workers and harsh conditions, but very often the stories require complicated qualifications, debates about the efforts that factories take to guard against hiring underage workers (and—more qualifications—about the ones who slip through anyway). But, I concluded, weird things happen in China all the time. Even driving down the highway exit was sort of plausible. And, more seriously, I feared that maybe Daisey had approached the subject with such fresh outrage and investigative vigor that he had been able to find what so many over here had not.

In my (extremely limited) experience in China, I’d have to agree that weird things do happen all the time. Within three days of arriving in China for the first time, I was standing on the edge of a new shaft at an illegal coal mine as migrant workers hauled freshly excavated rocks from it. Are illegal coal mines hard to get to? My guess is yes, probably, but my experience was, no, not exactly. At least, not that time.* I can definitely understand Osnos’s semi-suspended skepticism when he heard Daisey’s story.

In these posts, I sense a sort of wistful “one that got away” element. But maybe I’m just projecting how I’d feel were I in their position. Any other examples of Daisey Monday-morning quarterbacking? If so, let me know and I’ll include here.

[Update] Jeff Yang writes for the Journal’s Speakeasy blog about the case, and how he received links to the TAL show from dozens of people, but he was reluctant to share it because he “felt like something was…off.”

[Update #2] Time Out Shanghai interviewed Adam Minter on his skepticism about Daisey’s story. Minter was on the radio show To The Point in February (worth a listen), along with Daisey, and essentially says that the concepts underlying Daisey’s criticisms are a misunderstanding of the situation (at best). He goes on to point out some of Daisey’s inconsistency on his blog. This is the most public rebuke of Daisey’s overaching theme (if not necessarily all the details) that I’ve seen in the wake of that initial TAL broadcast.

Interesting to note that, in a post a few days ago on Minter’s blog, he quotes an email from the NYT’s David Barboza. Barboza described the inconsistencies in his story, and questions This American Life’s factchecking. He also writes, “Rob Schmitz of Marketplace certainly produced a piece of first-rate journalism. I wish I had done that work myself, since I too had suspected that Daisey fabricated large parts of his story.”



*It’s important to note that credit for something like this must go to the incredibly skilled Chinese journalists, and sometimes non-journalists, who often work with foreigners in China.

Asia, China, journalism

Beijing Umbrella

Last week, with June 4 marking the 20th anniversary of the crackdown on the student protests in Tiananmen Square, Chinese officials blocked filming around Tiananmen by physically blocking shots. Below, the experience of BBC’s Beijing correspondent.

Umbrellas are one of the things I remember from Korea, Japan and China. As a boy, I think I was surprised to see people using umbrellas when it wasn’t raining. But some do use them when it’s sunny, so encountering people using umbrellas to shield themselves on a bright day at Tiananmen wouldn’t be so strange. At least, not until they turn out to be plain-clothes security agents.

China, environment, publictransport

The Beijing Underground; and Meltdown Live

Roving China correspondent Josh Chin has filed a brief video report with the Wall Street Journal on Beijing’s growing transit system. It’s done well, and for being just a few minutes long, feels awfully comprehensive. My favorite is this Chinese kid who grew up in Switzerland and in documenting the entire subway system online.

And if you’re online right now, and interested in such things, you can watch a live stream of Meltdown: The Impact of Climate Change on the Tibetan Plateau, hosted by the Asia Society and chinadiaologue, by visiting the society’s main webpage. Here is the day’s schedule, all times Eastern Standard:

8:00 am: Registration and Coffee

8:45 am: Welcome (Webcast begins)

9:00 am: Tibet on Film

* Michael Zhao, Center on US-China Relations
* David Breashears, Arcturus Pictures

10:00 am: Himalayan Meltdown

* Lonnie Thompson, School of Earth Sciences, Ohio State University
* Yao Tandon, Chinese Academy of Sciences

11:30 am: Plateau Survival

* Emily Yeh, University of Colorado, Boulder
* Daniel Miller, US Agency for International Development, New Delhi
* Yonten Nyima, University of Colorado, Boulder
* Julia Klein, Colorado State University

1:00 – 1:45 pm: Break

1:45 pm: A Region at Risk

* Saleemul Huq, Climate Change Group, International Institute for Environment and Development
* Katherine Morton, Department of International Relations, Australian National University
* Lara Hansen, WWF Global Climate Change Program

3:00 pm: Organizer Remarks

* Robert Barnett, Modern Tibetan Studies, Columbia University
* Elizabeth Economy, Council on Foreign Relations
* Isabel Hilton, chinadialogue
* Orville Schell, Asia Society Center on US-China Relations

4:00 pm: Afternoon Keynote Address

* Rajendra Pachauri, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and Nobel Laureate

5:00 pm: Closing Reception

(If you have a Mac, you may need to install the latest version of the Flip4Mac plugin to watch the webcast. Check Flip4Mac in your system preferences to see if you need an update, or just click this link to download.)

China, environment, multimedia

China Green

The Asia Society’s Center on U.S.–China Relations recently published China Green, a multimedia site that will highlight stories of China’s environment. Its initial set of videos and images focus on how climate change is affecting the Tibetan Plateau and the Himalayas, which host the headwaters of most of Asia’s major rivers.

screenshot of China Green website

The Asia Society took its first leap into multimedia and China’s environment last year with its Clearing the Air website, which introduced viewers to the environmental challenges—especially regarding air pollution—that China faces. The most compelling feature of that site is the calendar showing Beijing’s shifting air quality, Room With A View. The calendar is continually updated, its most recent image being of a clear blue sky on Monday, January 12:

image of beijing air

While visiting China Green, be sure to try using the interactive timelines comparing photos of Himalayan glaciers several decades ago with glaciers today. You’ll see what I mean on the opening page of China Green, as it shows the time-lapse loss of the Rongbuk Glacier. And if you know that you’ll be in New York City on January 16th, check out the Asia Society symposium Meltdown: The Impact of Climate Change on the Tibetan Plateau. [Update] If you can’t make it, the Asia Society will stream a live webcast of the event on its site that day.

Disclosure: China Green was produced by people I consider friends and colleagues. I’d like to especially point out the work of Michael Zhao, who has done a great amount of work in both multimedia and China’s relationship with the environment. A notable example of the combination of those being his look at the importation and processing of electronic waste in China, the first coverage of any depth I’ve seen on the subject.

China, development, international, journalism

The International Suburban Style


A few days ago, the AP’s Daisy Nguyen published a report on the trend of building suburban-style developments around the world. Developers in China and India and Africa are looking to Southern California (pictured above, partially) for a growth model. While this should be alarming to anyone concerned about resources and climate change (and willing, if you’re an American, to adopt the do-as-we-say-not-as-we-do ethos), it’s a classic example of how growing middle class populations are importing elements of American life. The article describes, for example, a community outside of Shanghai:

Grassy front lawns and driveways lead to pastel-colored homes that mimic French, Italian or Spanish architectural styles. Customized kitchens, screening rooms and basement wine cellars are very different from Chairman Mao’s vision of communal living.

“It’s hard to tell you’re not in Southern California,” [Pasadena-based architect Andy] Feola said.

On the highways outside of cities like Beijing and Delhi, I zipped past billboards that advertised gated communities, some with McMansions and garages large enough for SUVs. They seemed out of place, but such are our preconceptions of places like China and India. (And, to an extent, disappointments–who travels around the globe to hang out in suburbs?) But they wouldn’t build them if there were no demand. As affluence increases, so does the market.

From the environmental perspective, one would hope sustainable design could mitigate the negative effects of such development. Whether that is being applied in a robust way remains to be seen. But for some, it seems, the prospect of mass suburbanization should go full steam ahead. In my favorite quote from the story, one American architecture professor said: “It’s too bad that we as Americans are turning away from suburban sprawl as Asia adopts it.”

Regarding green development–in China, anyway–an article last week in the Christian Science Monitor noted that one grand project has stumbled. The correspondent, Simon Montlake, describes the situation of Dongtan, a planned eco-city outside of Shanghai that was being designed by the engineering firm Arup. (A related article published in The Telegraph last October is well worth a read, too.)

Dongtan’s plan hits all the right sustainability buttons: energy from waste, recycling, limited carbon emissions, density, energy-efficient buildings, etc. You may have seen the feature on this project, “Pop-Up Cities: China Builds a Bright Green Metropolis”, in Wired last year. I’ve been in touch with Arup employees in the past and they seemed devoted to making this work, not just in terms of design, but socially and economically. It’s tough when, after a streak of good press, something comes along to trip up a project. (Last year, Conde Nast was particularly good to Arup, with the Wired feature and a New Yorker feature.)

One of the main sources for the Monitor article was Kira Gould, the communications director at William McDonough + Partners. Montlake briefly mentioned the Huangbaiyu Cradle to Cradle Village project:

On a more modest scale, William McDonough + Partners designed an ecovillage of 400 households in northeast China, of which 42 houses have been built. The plan called for affordable solar-powered bungalows using local materials in a bid to free more land for farming. Instead, the developer built suburban-style tract homes that most local families have shunned, according to a PBS documentary earlier this year.

Ms. Gould concedes that mistakes were made in the design and construction of Huangbaiyu, the village. One complaint was that it didn’t create enough jobs. But that was never part of the project, says Gould. “We came to learn that economic development and sustainable development were often being used interchangeably,” she says.

To give you an idea of what that looks like, we have this:
a view of the model village

I should remark on a couple of points here, especially the take-away from my PBS report, as described in the article. I wrote a comment on the Monitor’s site a couple of days ago. (Shannon May, who studied the village, also wrote an interesting comment on the selfish reasons that have motivated Western firms to attempt green development in China.) My comment hasn’t yet been published; I’d guess the comment moderators have been short-staffed due to the holidays. In the meantime, here it is:

I’d like to thank Simon Montlake and the Monitor for mentioning the investigative piece I completed for FRONTLINE/World (PBS) earlier this year. But I must clarify one point raised in this article about my story.

The residents of this farming village currently live spread out in a long valley, near their crops, with livestock on their property. The plan created by William McDonough and his partners on this project outlined a single, dense community for the entire village.

While it is the case that the local developer built suburban-style tract homes, it is fair to say he did so based on the plan he received. (His modifications of details of the design are a point to debate.)

The planners recognized, before construction began, that the yards of the new houses would be smaller than those that currently exist. As noted in the narrative that accompanied the master plan: “The yards may be too small to support the number of livestock that currently occupy many yards in the village.” In practice, this meant the farmers could not keep their livestock–a major source of income–if they moved in.

And that, simply, is why no one wanted to. There was a fundamental flaw in the design: it neglected to account for this basic element of village life. The cause of this oversight is, to some extent, a mystery because no one from William McDonough + Partners would comment for my story. But the more important point to remember here is that villagers saw that this eco-village would require them to trade in their lives as farmers for lives in factories or offices or whatever would fit this suburban-style tract home design.

Who could blame the villagers, then, for hoping that some new jobs would come along with this high-profile international eco-village project, since participating in it would force them to give up their old ones?

Update: Nothing to update, which is my point. It is the 12th of January, and they’ve not included my comment. I have re-submitted.

Update: Comment now online at Monitor’s web site. 13 Jan 09.

Architecture, China, journalism, language

The Diane Dale Follow-Up at Greenbuild

Diane Dale and I encountered each other on the expo floor at Greenbuild last month. It was a Thursday afternoon, the 20th of November, and the conference was in full swing. We’d initially walked past each other without quite realizing it, but were soon standing together in the middle of one of the paths between the rows of exhibition booths. Scores of conference attendees streamed around us

Dale has worked with the architect William McDonough for several years. Since 2000, she has been the director of community design at William McDonough + Partners. Dale is of medium height, with blonde hair and rectangular glasses. She looks just like her picture. A couple of days earlier, she stood up during the question-and-answer section of the panel I participated in at Greenbuild’s International Forum. She didn’t have questions so much as comments, which I described in a previous post. In a nutshell, neither Dale nor anyone from McDonough + Partners, was especially happy with my FRONTLINE/World story on the Huangbaiyu Cradle to Cradle Village Project in China.

She started by saying she knew I had mentioned her on my blog. When I asked what she thought of what I’d written, she said she hadn’t read it (she later clarified that it was printed out for her). But she did want to follow up on some of the points I made in my blog post, and gave some additional information about the role of William McDonough + Partners in the Huangbaiyu project. She did most of the talking. Our conversation was probably about 20 minutes, maybe a little longer. I spoke briefly with Kira Gould, the director of communications for the firm, soon after, and then once more, briefly with Dale. For those interested in the details, I’ve outlined the points they made, as well as some questions and responses, after the jump.
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China, journalism

On Being Called Out

Yesterday was the International Forum of the gigantic Greenbuild Conference in Boston. The organizers of the forum invited me to speak and sit on a panel about New Communities in a green design context. My role was to discuss my Frontline/World story on the Huangbaiyu Cradle to Cradle Village. There were about 350 people in the audience, several standing along the back wall. I was on stage with Canadian developer Joe Van Belleghem, and the journalist Ken Shulman moderated. Joe and Ken each did a great job. I’m glad to have met them, and I enjoyed every minute that I was on stage with them.

During the question-and-answer portion of the session, Diane Dale, who directs community planning at William McDonough + Partners, stood up. She was well-spoken and gracious in many ways, but there was a sense that she was trying to call me out.

Although I think there may be an audio tape of the event, I caution that these are my recollections. I’m sure, once the tape comes out, we will all hear how inarticulate I actually was. Something to look forward to. In the meantime, I figure I might as well give a rough accounting for those who are interested. As several attendees noted after the exchange, there is always more than one side to every story.

Ms Dale introduced herself and said that she thought my presentation was not as critical as it could have been. She noted that her firm had been quite critical of the outcome and had learned many important lessons. She didn’t have questions so much as comments. The first of which, a big lesson learned, was the importance of translation–simply, good translation–which apparently hindered the effective communication of ideas and concepts.

In regard to the point of the yards being too small for animals, she noted that during the time of the design, SARS was floating around Asia. SARS, she reminded us, was a devastating, deadly illness. “They told us” that the animals would have to be kept separate from the houses.

And she seemed to question the fairness or purpose of this session because neither she nor anyone else from William McDonough + Partners was on the stage.

From what I recall, those were her main points.

I have a few initial thoughts that will no doubt be refined over time. Some of these points I managed to mention on stage; others have bubbled up since then, classic examples of l’esprit d’escalier. I neglected to address the SARS point while on stage, simply because I forgot. But that’s what blogs are for, I guess.

1. In regard to translation, two names immediately came to mind: Zhong Ping and Wang Miansheng. As far as I know, both are Chinese, native speakers. Both were employees of the China-US Center for Sustainable Development, which was the key coordinating organization for this project. These are people who have some influence within the organization and are familiar with the project, with China, with all the key elements of this effort. In fact, this is why I hoped to find Zhong Ping while I was in China (he was traveling); and asked to interview Wang Miansheng after returning to the U.S. (also traveling). To say that translation is a problem doesn’t jibe with having men like these on board.

Still, on the merits of Ms Dale’s translation point, I have to ask: if McDonough + Partners is a sophisticated design firm of international scope, why couldn’t they manage to hire one good translator in China? Hundreds if not thousands of other companies do it every day. I did it on a shoestring budget.

2. This SARS point. In the context of the Huangbaiyu story, this is news to me. When Ms. Dale says “they” told her colleagues about this design restriction, I’d like to know who “they” are. This issue is certainly not mentioned in the vision plan to justify the planners’ admission that “the yards may be too small to support the number of livestock that currently occupy many yards in the village.” My understanding is that this was written in 2004, or thereabouts, which places it after the main SARS outbreak. If SARS were a concern, why didn’t it say, “The yards have now been designed too small to support livestock in order to keep them away from humans due to disease concerns,” or something like that?

If this separation rule were an order from the central government, anyone familiar with the way things work in China will understand that just because the central government says it should happen, it doesn’t always happen on the ground, for better or worse. Had they ever heard of that?

For that matter, even if the animals were to be separated, what would be the method of taking care of them? Lone outposts of pigs and goats that farmers must trudge through the winter snows to feed and water every day? Should someone be posted nearby to guard them? Or would it be a single, collective space, where the community’s animals would live and which would probably begin to resemble a factory farm?

Frankly, I would have heard about the SARS issue much earlier had McDonough + Partners actually told me; but a year ago, they weren’t talking to me; before that, McDonough was publicly blaming the developer for the project’s outcome.

And in any case, as a journalist it’s not always enough for me to rely on what “they” tell me–it’s often better to just go and have a look myself. That’s why I went to Huangbaiyu rather than simply report on what McDonough + Partners might have told me here in America. I would hope a community designer would do the same: visit the place and take a walk around. It soon becomes clear that these farmers do live near and interact with their animals.

3. I think it’s perfectly appropriate that the USGBC invited me on stage to talk about this project in the context of my story. My reporting was fair and well-researched; the story is designed to give a look at the village and what contributed to the present outcome of the development. Another person who could deliver a fair, and even more thorough, analysis, would be Shannon May, the anthropologist who lived two years in the village.

That the McDonough people weren’t on stage does not seem especially critical in light of this. For what it’s worth, the fact that they did want a place on the stage suggests that they feel some sense of ownership or responsibility regarding the project’s outcome. The bigger issue this brings up is one of accountability, a point that is essential to my story. But if they wanted to go onstage simply to defend their reputation, that would defeat the purpose of the panel, because it becomes about them and not about the project.

As I pointed out yesterday at the event, it’s difficult to tell a story if people who are part of it refuse to participate. I spent a month trying to get on-the-record comments about this project from them, especially William McDonough. In fact, I corresponded with Kira Gould, McDonough’s communications director, who was sitting next to Ms Dale in the audience. McDonough and his firm had an opportunity to tell their story in my report. They are expert designers; I wanted to hear their expert conclusions. And they took a pass.

But now that the story’s out and I’ve been invited to speak on it, they want to be on stage, too. Frankly, this makes me think of someone who complains about an election but didn’t bother to vote. Like voting, a robust press is a part of what makes the democracy. Participation is key.

Several attendees who had no opinion or knowledge of the project approached me after the talk. A couple of them said that McDonough staffers had talked to them after my talk, as well. One woman said she’d just been told that the local officials completely cut the Americans out of the project, and McDonough + Partners could only participate as a kind of consultant with no real influence or control. Another attendee claims he was told by a McDonough staffer that they had almost no budget for their work on the village design, and that the budget barely paid for their plane tickets, which is why they couldn’t do a thorough job. Neither of those points came up during Ms Dale’s comments, though they sound as if they would be fundamental to the outcome.

Still, I was glad to finally hear something from William McDonough + Partners.

Illustration by Grady McFerrin of farm animals and model home.
articles, Asia, China, development

Western Promises

Cover of October issue of Dwell magazineDwell Magazine’s October issue is out, and it includes an essay, entitled “Western Promises,” that I wrote about my reporting on the Huangbaiyu Cradle to Cradle Village project.  Huangbaiyu, a small village in northeast China, set to become a leading example of the power of green design in a country that desperately needs it. The architect William McDonough had top billing as a major driver in the project, which was planned according to his “cradle-to-cradle” principles. But the project failed. In retrospect, it seems as if it was destined to fail, given the fundamental flaws that I describe in the piece.

This story started out as an assignment for PBS Frontline/World, and covers the same ground. I’m grateful to Frontline/World and the team of producers and editors there, and to the editors at Dwell for giving me an opportunity to reflect on the story.

The essay hasn’t been posted online, but as soon as it’s available, I will link to it. (In the meantime, check out the magazine in print.) It’s accompanied by some excellent illustrations by Grady McFerrin (see above, for example). And the editors deserve extra credit for coming up with the title.

[Update: It’s online here!]

China, cool, video


I haven’t been watching the Olympics, mainly because the rabbit-ears on our television don’t pick up NBC. But if I were, I’m sure I’d be just as disappointed with NBC as everyone else seems to be–the tape delays, the incessant commentary. Since NBC is blocking international video feeds online, I can’t see any that way, either (the software NBC streams is created by Microsoft and requires a PC or an Intel Mac). So I’ve missed out on the counterfeit fireworks, the counterfeit singer, the allegedly counterfeit 16-year-old gymnasts, [update 8/15: counterfeit ethnic children, too!] and all the other hijinks.

One thing I don’t regret missing, though, is the promotional marketing that NBC must be constantly playing. Boring, I’d guess, but designed to appeal to everybody. Boring. So points to BBC SPORT for choosing something inventive, and specific. That’s Monkey. Fans of Damon Albarn and the Gorillaz will be pleased.

A high-res version with more info is available at the BBC.

While we’re at it, here’s an old favorite:

China, success

Li Ning’s Reward

photo of gymnast Li Ning at the torch ceremony in beijing. photo by xinhua

I was surprised to hear that Li Ning was the final torch bearer at Beijing’s opening ceremonies. That’s him flying through the air, photographed by Xinhua. That Li should be the choice makes sense: after staying away from the Olympics for decades, China returned in 1984; then-19-year-old Li Ning left L.A. with six medals in gymnastics, three of them gold. So there is some national significance to Li’s selection.

Li is now an incredibly successful businessman, owner of a sports apparel and accessory company that does a brisk business in China. His company is called Li Ning.

li ning brand bagI own a Li Ning shoulder bag, bought almost exactly one year ago at one of the company’s stores on the third floor of a mall in Benxi City, Liaoning. The store’s columns were wrapped with life-sized posters of Shaquille O’Neal, appropriately branded. It’s a durable bag. I didn’t realize that it was such a recognizable brand until, one day in San Francisco, a Chinese emigre lifted up my bag and announced, “Li Ning.”

Li Ning. If you visit the company’s English-language web site, there is no mention of the Olympics. If you visit the company’s other English-language web site, there is some mention of the Olympics. Oh, Mr. Li and his executives must have desperately wanted their company to be an official sponsor of the Beijing Olympics, but lost out to Adidas. But Li Ning is no slouch, and the company is outfitting a number of teams, starting with the Swedish, and including the American ping pong team. He’s also got CCTV-5’s sportscasters. Li Ning’s continued presence, corporal and corporate, will, presumably, be noted.

So the more cynical side of me registered some surprise at Li Ning’s moment in the spotlight. Offend the advertisers and sponsors? But the takeaway seems to be that there are still some things money can’t buy, and Beijing’s organizers put national pride before commercial imperatives. Classic. And reassuring, so long as national pride does not transform into a nationalist imperative. This is China.