0:35 am
In with the old

Fly into Hong Kong and you land at an amazingly modern, $20 billion airport that's less than a decade old. A 24-minute ride on the sleek Airport Express train takes you into the middle of downtown, where you are surrounded by bold, glittering edifices. At first glance, this city gives off the impression that the only thing old is the junk on the cover of a tourist guidebook. Which just isn't the case. Down the block from my apartment is a 160-year old temple dedicated to the gods of literature and war. Head the other way and there's a colonial police station and prison from the same era. (A friend once lived in an apartment that overlooked the yard, and from his window you could see prisoners hula-hooping during their exercise period.) Even near the concrete jungle of Time's offices is a hillside temple where people sought help for the plague in the 19th century. Higher up the hill is a beautiful red brick colonial mansion known as Woodside, which housed a refinery manager and then occupying Japanese troops during World War II.

Hong Kong's architectural history can be overshadowed by towering office blocks and apartment buildings. And sometimes preserving it isn't always the highest priority. But that's changing. Last month protesters tried to block the destruction of the Star Ferry Pier and its clocktower in Central. At 49 years the streamline moderne-style pier was one year short of qualifying for classification as a historic building. It was demolished as part of a Central harbor redevelopment and reclamation program and will be turned into a shopping area. The government says it consulted widely with interested parties, and heard no objections. Some people have questioned the thoroughness of that consultation. Such processes always seem to have a shortcoming--the appearance of a wrecking ball always focuses the public's attention on what is about to be lost much more than hearings and bulletin board notices ever can.

I visited the old pier during one of the last protests before its destruction. Compared with the annual pro-democracy marches here the crowd seemed small, and the demonstrators appeared very young. But they were determined, and police had to drag many of them out before the demolition could be completed. A new pier has been built a few hundred meters to the northwest, and the Star Ferry now departs from there. The building seems bigger and airier, but it was built in an Edwardian style to replicate a 1912 terminal, which many critics say gives it a theme park feel. It's also a longer walk from the downtown core, and the ferry company anticipates losing passengers because of the inconvenience.

In response to the growing demand for historical preservation, the government released a list this week of 496 structures whose merits as historic buildings will be officially discussed. The debate has already started, with local papers pointing out that some of the buildings house vice dens. Patrick Ho, the Secretary for Home Affairs, said he was "delighted" by the rising public awareness on the subject of preservation. That delight could soon be tested. As part of the ongoing harborfront development, another well-known berth, Queen's Pier, is set to be torn down. Don't expect the preservationists to let it go easily. -- Austin Ramzy

22:11 pm
Migrants and Money II

In an earlier post I wrote about the closure of a school for the children of migrant workers in Shanghai (an estimated...wait for it....SIX MILLION migrant workers live in Shanghai) one of China's economic powerhouses. I concluded by wondering about the potential for violent protest. It's no suprise then that a couple of days after the closure, crowds of parents showed up to protest and scuffles broke out between the demonstrators and police. It's not clear how badly anyone was hurt--the original report came from a paper in Anhui province, home to many of the migrants working in Shanghai and was necessarily somewhat circumspect. Still the very fact that it occurred only underlines the urgency of addressing the needs of this huge and long suffering chunk of China's population. Here's a link to a nicely done AP story that gives some telling detail--like the fact the school was "squeezed between two evil-smelling chemical factories." Suffer the children indeed....


4:59 am
It's Not Easy Being Green

The China Daily reported today that the country had failed to meet targets in its efforts to save energy and curb pollution in 2006. Nationally, China was supposed to reduce its energy use per unit of GDP by 4% and pollution emissions by 2% last year. Instead, in most of the country, energy consumption and pollution went up. The State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) estimated that both chemical oxygen demand in water (which is a measure of the amount of gunk in the water that eats up oxygen that would normally sustain life in a river or lake) and sulfur dioxide emmissions in the air had increased by 2% over the past 12 months.

None of this comes as any great surprise. As Simon Elegant noted a few days ago, you don't need high tech instruments to see how polluted this place is. In September I watched people pulling dead fish by the bucket out of a river where paper mills had recently discharged their effluents (chemical oxygen demand in action.) A few weeks later, the Yellow River turned fushia. And it's not like China's leaders are denying the environmental situation is a problem. I haven't done a systematic study of this, but it did seem like in 2006 Chinese officials were beginning to speak more frankly about how bad things really are--are at least in comparison to previous years.

These admissions are obviously a major step in the right direction, particularly in a country where the public still hears a lot more about targets that are met, or surpassed, than the ones that are missed. Frankness still counts for a lot with people--both Chinese and foreign--who expect China's leaders to be less transparent. But the thing is that, as these new statistics show, simply admitting there's a problem and asking officials to try to do their utmost (a favorite phrase in Beijing's exhortations to the provinces), even setting ambitious targets, none of this is going to get the job done.

What local officials need if they're going to get serious about cleaning up is real incentives, not just moral suasion. Last month I attended an annual environmental awards ceremony in Beijing sponsored by SEPA and a bunch of other national level government bodies. Among those honored was a team economists who had put together a system for measuring "Green GDP" at SEPA's behest. The idea behind the system is to add environmental criteria to the measurement of a local government's performance and stop tying promotion of officials to economic growth alone. SEPA's a very weak arm of the Chinese government and this idea has yet to gain traction with other more powerful ministries. But some version of it really needs to be adopted soon. Until something major changes in China's environmental governance system, until more people are made personally accountable for dead fish and red rivers, the country's going to keep missing these targets. --SJ

1:24 am
You Noticed

One of the things about having a blog (we at the China Blog have learned in our lengthy four-day stint as bloggers) is that you spend a lot of time wondering who--apart from your Mom and your editors--actually reads what you write. We're still wondering. But we did get a partial answer this morning when news of our blog's birth appeared on Danwei and The China Digital Times. Who reads a blog about China? So far, other people who blog about China.

Who are these people? I'm now going to write about them. Then maybe they'll write about us. It could go on forever. Kind of like what happens if you hold two issues of our Person of the Year issue up to one another.

But seriously. There really are some great English-language sites that cover China with range and depth. If you're reading this and you don't already work for one of them, you might want to check them out.

Danwei bills itself as a site about media, advertising and urban life in China, but it's much more than that. "Danwei" is the Chinese word for "work unit," the all-encompassing Communist-era residential/professional/social/political entities to which all urban Chinese were once assigned. The site, like its namesake, contains multitudes. Founder Jeremy Goldkorn, a longtime Beijing resident who hails from South Africa, and his editors weed through and translate Chinese news, deconstruct officials pronouncements, keep on top of media gossip and just generally have a great eye for the absurd and, in particular, its many quintessentially Chinese variants. They also produce hilarious on-line video, including a regular feature called the "The Hardhat Show" about demolition and construction in Beijing.

The China Digital Times is run out of the University of California, Berkeley by Xiao Qiang, a Chinese human rights activist, who also heads up the Berkeley China Internet Project. CDT aggregates, translates and provides commentary on all manner of news related to China and includes podcasts, book reviews and a blog about the Chinese media.

Also indispensable is Roland Soong's EastSouthNorthWest. Based in Hong Kong, Soong is an apparent insomniac who translates from mainland mainstream media and blogs at lightening speed.


20:56 pm
Migrants and Money

If China's boom has a group of unrecognized heroes it must surely be the 120 million or so migrant workers whose labor is the force that keeps the huge dynamo turning. Migrants do all the grunt work that no one else wants to take on, toiling in mines, constructions sites and factories, usually in unspeakable conditions and often facing severe danger. Estimates vary but even taking officials figures at their face value (a silly thing to do admittedly), there were more than 8000 workplace deaths last year in China. Labor activists say that the real figure is much higher. In mines alone, for example, some 6000 deaths have reported annually in recent years (they dropped somewhat last year) but the good people at the Hong Kong based China Labor Bulletin believe the real figure is several times that. Many of these workers endure these appalling conditions to improve their own lives. But from my experience, the desire to see their children have better lives is an even stronger drive. I recall sitting with Xie Daibing in the tiny room he called home in the windblasted, arid northern province of Shanxi. Originally from Gansu. Xie, who worked in a nearby coal mine, had invited me into the space his company had alloted him, barely big enough to hold the traditional kang, a heated stone platform that served as bed, play area, study and dining table for Xie, his wife, their two daughters and a couple of sleepy chickens.

Xie said he was waiting for his mine to reopen. It had been temporarily closed after a shaft in a mine next door to his had flooded a few weeks earlier, killing 57 men. But Xie wasn't fazed, or at least he said he wasn't. "I have been able to bring my family up from Gansu," he said, pointing to the wall where a certificate had been proudly pasted testifying to the scholastic achievements of one his daughters. His girls attended a nearby private school that cost him a large chunk of his monthly wages, but Xie told me that it was much better than the schools at home and was worth every penny.

I was reminded of Xie when I read a story today about the closing by local authorities of a school for migrants in Shanghai. (link here to the South China Morning Post article). Because they have left their home towns to look for work, migrants usually don't have the proper hukou, the household registration which in the old days specified where Chinese could live. Like everything else, the hukou system is undergoing rapid change. Without it's huge floating population of workers, after all, the economy would seize up, and these days Chinese can travel around the country and live pretty much anywhere they want. But one element of the hukou system remains: without it children aren't allowed to attend local state schools. That leaves parents with the choice of paying for private school like Xie--often financially out of reach--or if they are lucky, sending them to special schools set up specifically for the children of migrants, often by fellow immigrants from the same home province. These schools have a precarious existence and are often subjects of harassment by local governments. Mirgant workers after all aren't exactly a group hefting much political clout. The case in Shanghai was typical. On the dubious grounds that the Jianying Hope School was violating safety and licensing regulations, over 100 police and officials moved in and put 2000 kids on the street, reducing many of the younger pupils to tears according to local media reports. Amazingly, it turns out the ground the school occupies has been earmarked for lucrative redevelopment. The children have been given crowded temporary quarters in a nearby school but it’s not clear whether the authorities will give them permanent quarters.

As they themselves are well aware, the authorities are playing with fire. China by its own account had some 87,000 ":mass incidents" last year. The term is vague term and encompasses everything from bar fights to protests and riots involving hundreds. But the sheer numbers are still a useful reminder of the violent strains imposed the country's careening boom. There are plenty of other things Chinese people get angry about –lack of health care, out of control pollution, illegal land seizures and so on. But depriving children schooling even more than most is an issue apt to enrage people enough for them to stage protests. If you take away their dream of a better life for their kids after all, most migrants workers have little left to lose.
--Simon Elegant

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