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, 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.

environment, movies

Watch This Movie: Up the Yangtze

Although the flooding is near completion–the last city to be inundated is going under this fall–the consequences of China’s Three Gorges Dam will shudder through generations.

But that’s a big story, and big stories are hard to tell well. One way is to find a character, a family, a community, and to show how the big story reverberates on the smallest level. The Chinese-Canadian filmmaker Yung Chang has found Yu Shui, her family, and a floating tourist ship offering Farewell Tours to the gorges, and through them he shows us some of those consequences in Up the Yangtze, his first feature-length documentary.

What we come away with is a multi-layered portrait of modern China, one whose brief moves beyond the dam and, in a series of subtle strokes, illuminates the conflict and paradox that define life for hundreds of millions. The strands are numerous and finely woven together: urban vs. rural, ambition, ownership, education, migration, resource allocation, and the uncomfortable relationship between Westerners and Chinese.

It’s worth noting that the dam has put people in uncomfortable situations since before it was built, such as when the People’s Congress passed a resolution in its favor in 1992. In that vote, fully a third of the congress either voted against or abstained from supporting the already controversial project, notable results from a body that is often dismissed as a rubber stamp.

I’ll grant that my perspective and enthusiasm is colored by my own limited experience in rural China, where many of the same themes I listed earlier are evident. But you can leave behind the political and social lens and enjoy the documentary for any number of other features, including the incredible cinematography, the intimate portrayal of family dynamics, and fleeting moments that are visually stunning and yet heartbreaking or frustrating.

I missed the film when it was in theaters this summer, but was lucky to catch it on PBS, where it screened as part of the POV series. You should now be able to watch it on DVD. In the meantime, here’s the trailer:

[Photo by Jonathan Chang]

China, cool, earth, light, science

Nerd Ecstasy: Exploratorium Eclipse Extravaganza

wide view of the total solar eclips in china on august 1, 2008, from the exploratorium

This morning, NASA and the Exploratorium webcast live from Xinjiang, China. You can watch their hour-long production at the Exploratorium’s Total Solar Eclipse web site. (That’s a photo from the Exploratorium blog above.)

The broadcast starts about 30 minutes before totality, when the moon completely blocks out the sun. The first fifteen minutes include a lesson from scientists on the ground about what happens during an eclipse. That’s followed by some back-and-forth between the scientists and a local Chinese news anchor, which includes a few minutes of classic Chinese journalism/propaganda/travelogue that touts the wonders of Xinjiang. Xinjiang has quite a few ethnic minorities, notably the Uighur, some of whom agitate for independence from China. Words like peace, harmony, and unity are sprinkled in this section of the show. The astro-drama begins at about the 33-minute mark.

Ah, to be in China again. The story I want to see stemming from this is the story of Yiwu County, perched among desert and mountains, a 16 hour drive from Urumqi and its airport, with, according to Wikipedia, 20,000 inhabitants. Over the last couple days, busloads of telescope-toting nerds and media have laid siege. In anticipation, the government set up a tent city to accommodate all 10,000 of them (as well as what one scientist calls a “Gobi Stonehenge.”). All that planning leading up to a two hour show. And now that this place has had its moment in the sun, so to speak, what next?

Here’s what the moon’s shadow looks like on earth during a total solar eclipse. Taken on the Russian Space Station Mir, 11 August 1999.

View of total solar eclipse from Russian Space Station Mir. 11 August 1999.

The next total solar eclipse is scheduled for 22 July 2009. Totality will occur from northern India, across Bhutan, and along the Chang Jiang (Yangtze River) to Shanghai.

China, environment, irony

Olympics Preview in Bay Area

Here’s my backyard on Thursday morning.

my backyard june 26, 2008

The roses are blooming. There’s a nice, warm light here. But what is it about this air that’s so familiar?

Take a look at the government’s air forecast map for this weekend:
air quality prediction for united states on june 28, 2008

California doesn’t look too good. All those little fire icons are making the air here “moderate,” at best, “very unhealthy,” at worst.

There are more than a thousand wildfires burning in California, and they are filling the place up with smoke. The smoke makes the light flattering, in its way, diffusing sunlight during the high contrast afternoon hours and making the magic hour light at sunset and sunrise even more attractive. The roses look better than ever.

There is a trade-off, I suppose. The regional air quality management agency is warning us not to do anything outside (here’s a PDF of its latest health advisory). People have irritated eyes and throats. That’s familiar, too.

The air these days seems as bad as Beijing’s. That’s what I’m reminded of. I hope to get back to China, soon. Until then, I guess we’ve got a taste of China here.

Our athletes should consider training out here in California, just to see how they might perform in Beijing. We’ve got an atmospheric preview of what many expect in August, and you don’t even have to cross the Pacific.

If the air quality board is still concerned for our health, they might consider contacting Beijing’s Weather Modification Office for advice.

A couple of blogs help to put Chinese air pollution in context relative to the U.S. and other countries. The Beijing Air Blog notes that air quality indices in China and the U.S. are roughly the same, numerically, but are not categorized similarly on a qualitative level (I’m looking for the SEPA standards to confirm). For example, unhealthy air in the U.S. is “lightly polluted” in China. Another site,, with the charming tagline “living in China despite the pollution,” displays Beijing’s air quality in the header, and you can click a menu to see how that would rate in other cities. A Good air day in Beijing still counts as a Very Bad day in Paris.

I’ve seen a lot of blue skies in China. Maybe I simply noticed them more since my expectations were so grim. During my last couple of days in Beijing in August, everyone noted that we were enjoying unusually clear weather. Driving through Shanxi, full of coal mines and power plants, the gray-blue skies could be oppressive, but one of the locals told us that air quality had improved a great deal over the last five years. The sky, he said, used to be black.

I remember my first few moments in Beijing: the acrid smell and the view, composed mainly of my plane and the soupy gray-brown air that blocked out everything else. It looked like this:

view of air pollution at Beijing airport

China, international, journalism, really?, television

Young, Restless, China

The always worthy Frontline is airing a documentary tonight following young Chinese adapting to a changing urban environment:

No shortage of stories coming from the city in China. (No shortage of cities in China; something like 100–or more–cities with populations that exceed one million.) I chalk this up, in part, to a fascination with people who are becoming more like us Americans.

There is a nod to rural China, something like 800 million out of the 1.2 billion Chinese, in this documentary by looking at migrant workers. The migrant’s story is about the only vehicle through which the media looks at rural China, though rural China is where most of China remains. Probably the best comment I’ve encountered on how we see rural China comes from an expatriate American credit card marketer in this spring’s China issue of Good magazine (a magazine I like, and to which I subscribe):

What should people in America know about China?
Whenever people hype China, remember that China is still two-thirds farmers. That means there are roughly 800 million farmers here. That is the real China. Even I don’t go to those places.

Neither did Good–or most anybody else.

–Update: The Frontline doc did quite a good job with the rural angle. —

anticipation, Asia, China, international, journalism, multimedia, photography


village boy

So there’s a story related to this picture. Actually, the story I’m telling is about the village where this boy lives. It’s the reason why I’ve embargoed all of my photos from China last August. Check Frontline/World tomorrow (Thursday, the last day of January) and you’ll see what I mean.

Asia, China, competition, education, politics, really?

Please Vote For Me

The good folks at China Digital Times have pointed us to a documentary by Chen Weijun about an experiment in democracy in Chinese grade school. It’s an amazing piece. With all the electioneering and scheming, you eventually forget that you’re watching a bunch of eight-year-olds in a (nominally) Communist country.
Here’s the YouTube intro: 

In an elementary school in the city of Wuhan in central China, three eight-year-old students campaign for the coveted position of class monitor. This is the first election for a class leader to be held in China. The three candidates hold debates, campaign tirelessly and show their intellectual and artistic skills, until one is voted the winner. Their parents, devoted to their only child, take part and start to influence the results. 


The remaining chapters after the jump. Continue reading