China’s Urban Nightmare

by Thomas Rippel on January 3, 2011

I have wondered many times how it is that in China, where the government has ultimate authority to turn some of the worlds grandest infrastructure projects into reality, they seem to have been unwilling or unable to take into consideration any sort meaningful urban planning. Cities like Shanghai  seem to be be a an endless sprawl of copy and paste sameness. The residential buildings seems to all be a slight variation of the same blueprint, inside and out. Given that local governments make most of their tax money through land sales, and not to speak of all the bribe money local officials can pocket during such transactions, parks and public spaces seem to be regarded as just a missed opportunity to make some extra cash. And really, how are public spaces supposed to be generating GDP anyways?

Here from a WSJ article with thoughts from a Harvard University planning expert Peter G. Rowe and James Brearley who just published the book “Network Cities” and runs a Shagnahi based architecture firm B.A.U..

Peter G. Rowe argues signature skylines have gotten attention as modern architecture in China but developing the periphery has been an afterthought. “This is where the formulaic, carpet like model of urban development is often most unforgiving of local circumstances, bland and with little urban-architectural distinction,” he says.

In Brearley’s own essay, a description of how Chinese residential areas get designed is perhaps more interesting to non-practitioners than his advice to architecture students about how they can restyle the land for the next 400 million people moving into cities.

Even for massive city remakes, Mr. Brearley explains, architects often get less than 30 minutes to present their plan. In fact, winning an urban planning competition often marks the end of the architect’s participation, as strict building codes require that final blueprints are done by a local design institute, where overworked draftsmen have little time or inclination to adhere to the original vision. All along, government officials promote speed in their quest to build as much as possible before their next job transfer, he writes. The result is standardized construction.

“There is surprisingly little exchange of ideas,” according to Mr. Brearley. His bottom line is architecture in China needs something like a “slow movement.”

With all the shoddy construction that is going on in China, maybe in 50 years when all of the trash that has been built up to now will have to be torn down, they will rethink their urban planning strategy and start over.

Yes, I am joking.

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This is a guest post by Harry Peng who is a fellow student at the University of Nottingham Ningbo, China. I am very happy to have him share his views here and hope that it will make for some interesting discussion!

Unlike Tom, I am not exactly a ‘China Outsider’. I was born in a small town in Southern China called ChenZhou in Hunan Province. After 12 years of secondary education in China, I did not go to a normal Chinese university, but a British one instead. And there are many reasons for it. I have later studied International Business in United Kingdom and worked in United States as a junior graphic designer for a short time. Even though I have lived in Chinaland for around 21 years, I wouldn’t say I am a ‘China Insider’ either. Because both culturally and politically speaking, China is complex and sometimes confusing – even to its very own citizens. I am very glad that I can write my thoughts here together with Tom, who is a very smart person I met in my university. English is not my native language and I started to use English only 5 years ago, so drop me a line if what I wrote is confusing to you.

In response to the last post entry that Thomas Rippel wrote, I think we need more clarifications on the legal body who initiated this decision(to ban the illegal VoIP like Skype) – Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT).

I think most Chinese ‘Netizens’ are still familiar with the dramas and chaos between the 360 and Tencent QQ few months ago. Are you still wondering how this could even happen if the market is well-regulated!? Because the IT sector in China isn’t well-regulated (or it hasn’t been regulated at all)! MIIT is legal body which has direct supervision over Chinese cyberspace, but when it comes to China, everything can happen. There are NO anti-trust laws/regulations in this sector which prevent the market from heading to a wrong direction – in this case, unfair competition between 360 and QQ.

So what has MIIT actually ‘achieved’ in the past few years?

First and foremost, they spent 41 million RMB (approx. 4m euro) to purchase software called “Green Dam”, not to even mention the company which developed this software only bid for 20m in gov’t procurement. This means MIIT paid this company 20m more for this content-censor software. The software is believed to be a part of the state censorship and surveillance programme. This has (not surprisingly) triggered a overwhelming national debate on the MIIT’s intention regarding this decision. In their official announcement, the MIIT, however, failed to address any of the issues raised in the public debate. Under huge pressure, this plan has been therefore terminated. Mainstream outlet is ordered to avoid (delete) any exaggerated coverages. You can find this story on Wikipedia and the Guardian.

Then they host this Internet Conference round-up every year. MIIT invites rich CEOs in every mainstream media outlet, like Sina, NetEase…etc. It’s just like a tea-party in case you are wondering what it is like, no substance (at all). They gather around having a high profile ‘chit-chat’, creating an industry agenda about how Chinese Internet is supposed to be regulated. They revise policies every year just to make sure their interests are and continue to be well-protected. Irrelevant ‘experts’ also got invited to serve as the MIIT’s ‘yes-men’ who present fabricated public opinions to make MIIT feel good. I think I don’t even have to go that far, you know what it’s like. In general they are creating an illusion in which they are very willing to live.

If you ever wanted to run a website or open a company in e-commerce in China, sure you can, all you need is patience. Thanks to MIIT for complicating the entry barriers in this industry. Probably they borrow the term ‘cross-platform’ from software developers, the registration process is also ‘cross-department’. You know what that means? That means you need enough patience to fill countless forms in countless departments. Once you finally opened your business, you are by far not done with them. You are still expected to abide by upcoming policies which is a way to restrict SMEs in this sector. Right! Because CEOs in SMEs never got invited to attend this annual Internet Conference which actually make policies!

This is also what MIIT proudly presents – the Chinese domain name registration. It does nothing but allows company to register a domain name in Chinese, like www.我爸是李刚.com. Get it? You need to switch between Chinese and English for just typing a single address. Surely those government officials in MIIT think that is a more convenient way to surf the internet. And did I mention you need to pay this service again apart from your English domain name registration?

So apart from making useless policies and profiting from the SMEs, MIIT did very little to promote a healthy growth in IT sector. This time they are pretty much trying to block the illegal ‘VoIP’ which, in their definition, are the VoIP services that aren’t operated by China Mobile/Unicom/Telecom. They justified their intention using the security concern that illegal VoIP could fake government/banks hotline number to conduct fraud while wireless carriers could do nothing about this. That’s right! They are blaming Chinese wireless carriers’ incapability on ‘illegal’ VoIP providers like Skype! This is very interesting. Shouldn’t the MIIT rather urge wireless operators to develop countermeasures that are capable to prevent the fraud? Tell me what this is if this is not a protectionist act! Last time I check, China is still a member of WTO.

So, I guess we can officially wait for China Mobile’s announcement for the ‘legal’ VoIP now. And lets just hope that they will have a little decency to match Skype’s rate in their service. Before this, make more Skype calls back home before it’s too late!


Happy New Year! Quick, make those Skype calls home before its too late!

January 1, 2011

I have recently been grumbling quite a lot about various internet services being banned in China, but the latest is quite a shocker – Skype (and all other VoiPs for that matter) are to be banned in China! According to the article on the People’s Daily website, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology has […]

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Walmart with Chinese Characteristics

December 16, 2010

I had one of those moments the other day where I just realized I have been in China for too long when I stop being amazed by some of the things I see here every day. So, let me share some pictures of a typical Walmart here in China.

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The Pseudo Reality of Economics

December 16, 2010

James Fallows from The Atlantic has been quite vocal in his dismay of the revolving revolving door of government positions to high paying jobs in the financial sector. In particular he has been lamenting the decision of Peter Orszag, who was previously Obama’s Director of the Office of Management and Budget, to take a multi-million-dollar per year job at […]

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China is Number One Yet Again

December 13, 2010

I just read an article in the New York Times on the recent PISA Test results where students from Shanghai were pretty much off the charts in every category, from reading to math to sciences. The PISA Test is a worldwide evaluation of 15 year old students issued by the OECD and has 65 counties and regions participating […]

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You May Own your Apartment, but who Owns the Land Underneath Your Feet?

September 28, 2010

An awful lot of my conversations with locals here in Ningbo and with students here at the University of Nottingham Ningbo, China campus have been about buying and renting apartments and the real estate sector in general. Its a topic on the forefront of many people’s minds and in each of these conversations I learn […]

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Taxi Driver Tales: The Economics and Culture of Renting and Buying in China

September 16, 2010

The past few days I have been having so many interesting discussions with taxi drivers that I decided not to buy myself an electric scooter. Chatting with taxi drivers is probably the fastest way to improve one’s Chinese – they love to talk. As part of my continued amazement of the sheer amount of new high rises […]

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China’s Race to the Finish-Line

September 14, 2010

Having just arrived in Ningbo, which will presumably be my home for the next three years, I have been talking to the taxi drivers and people on the bus about renting and buying an apartment in this city. Attending the Nottingham University of Ningbo, I am situated about 30 km south of the city center, […]

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What if…

February 11, 2010

What if Google leaves China (more on that here) and decides to make a free VPN service available? What a coup that would be! First, I myself only recently used a VPN for the first time and since I am not the most tech savvy person, I only understand the broad concept of it, which […]

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