Thursday, October 11, 2007
Monday, June 11, 2007
While the central government is clearly showing more interest in protecting the environment, local governments, eager to cut corners in the name of economics, are helping block the path to sustainable development. But the Xiamen protests, thousands of people strong, are the latest sign of people power in China, where tens of thousands of protests over tainted land and water are recorded every year, threatening the government's dream of a "harmonious society" while pointing the way forward for environmental action in a place that seriously needs some.
That local officials in Xiamen reportedly began blocking text messages too in an attempt to stem the protests, and that the protests continued apace, is an indication that, try as it might, China's authoritarian controls simply can't keep up with the power of cell phones blogs, bulletin boards, and the smartmobs they might create. (Local governments are getting into the SMS act themselves, using text messages to warn citizens of floods and even stop protests.)
Clearly, stopping protests just isn't possible the way it used to be. Between increasing countryside unrest (there may be nothing scarier to the government) and deadly pollution (China's rural cancer rate rose by 23 percent in the past two years, and more than 70 percent of the country's waterways and 90 percent of its underground water are contaminated by pollution) something's gotta give.
Since the plant's not been completely scrapped, residents are still protesting, according to Reuters. And the more word spreads, the more likely it is that protests will continue elsewhere too. An large expansion of a chemical plant in the southeastern city of Quanzhou that produces paraxylene and other chemicals was announced in March, funded by China's No. 2 oil company, Sinopec, Saudi Aramco, the Saudi government oil company, and ExxonMobil Corp. Paraxylene is a key material in polyethylene terephthalate (PET) saturated polyester polymers--the stuff of which the world's plastic bottles are made.
Tuesday, January 09, 2007
Fulbright scholar Jason Lee was overheard at a house party last month waxing enthusiastic about one of Beijing’s newest subway lines. “I mean, listen to this. I’m going to be able to go from Zhichun Lu to everything I’d wanna do: Gongti, Guanghua Lu, Guomao … ”
Lee’s ebullience didn’t exactly rub off on the party’s other guests, but his excitement is understandable. While only subway lines four, five and ten will be finished for the Olympics, officials recently announced that when the subway expansion is complete in the year 2020, it will include 22 lines and stretch to 561 kilometers, overtaking London’s and New York City’s subways as the longest metro system in the world.
But the city isn’t stopping there. Last month it made two other groundbreaking announcements: First, Beijing’s strategic underground city (the network of tunnels that currently weave beneath the Tian’anmen area) is currently being expanded so that by 2012 it will occupy 20 million square meters, making it the world’s largest network of its kind. President Hu Jintao has called it an “important strategic effort” for national security and for the safety of future generations.
Embarrassingly, Beijing’s underground city actually lags 40 years behind that of cities in Europe and the United States. In the event of a sudden large-scale disaster or war, shelters in the Western world can hold 80-90 percent of local citizens, while Beijing’s underground city can currently only provide safety for 8-10 percent of its people.
Another development flying below the radar (unless you attended November’s International Conference on Underground Space): Beijing is exploring the possibility of tripling the city’s 30 million square meters of public underground space “to ease ground traffic congestion, land use tension in downtown areas, and environmental problems.” The plan, proposed by the Beijing Urban Planning Commission, includes construction of six underground expressways by 2020 to further ease traffic congestion, mainly within the Second and Third Ring Roads. Aside from the logistical problems of such a project, Duan Jinyu, director of the transport planning department at Tsinghua University, told tbj it’s misdirected simply because “people don’t feel pleasant in underground space.”
Nevertheless, Jason Lee is looking at the bright side of the underside: “The flexibility of this new transportation will give Beijingers a better lifestyle.” However his excitement over Beijing’s subterranean dreams is somewhat hypothetical, perhaps like the plans themselves. “Actually, I won’t still be around in 2008,” he revealed after the party. “But I live so close to where the subway could be.”
Saturday, November 25, 2006
Date: Fri, 30 Apr 2004 20:24:07 -0400
Reverend Billy was arrested on 56th and 5th after he resisted a gang of policemen who started shoving him, and his old-fashioned cheerleader bullhorn, out of the Disney Store. He had led us in there with the zeal of a fervent multinational CEO conquering a ripe market, except this is exactly what he isn't. A wavy mane of blonde hair on top of a white suit and a pair of black sneaks that can't stop bouncing, he had already attracted a crowd in front of the Equestrian statue near the Plaza with his anti-consumerist entreaties. "Brothers and Sisters, We Will not go into STARBUCKS to buy a LA-TTE! What happens to your money when you hand it over to them? You cannot TRACK it! It goes to the pockets of Howard Schultz! It goes to Ariel Sharon! It stays far away from the hands of the coffee pickers of the Nicaraguas, of the South Americas! Can I get a WIT-ness!" Cheers, shouts of “A-MEN!” Next, fifty of us, the (wonderfully festive and harmonic) Stop Shopping Choir, and about the same number of policemen marched behind Billy as he led us across the street to FAO Schwartz, where he declaimed against "WAR TOYS!" Part political and social activists, part revelatory circus of performance art, the parish continued its procession past the overweight shoppers with bags dangling and mouths ajar, delivering the Good News to them as we passed. By the time I was standing outside of the Coca Cola building, listening to another preacher describe the "killer" practices of that company in its manufacturing and union-busting (this part was made less clear by lack of a bull-horn, and the din of traffic and shopping bag covered onlookers), I realized an eager tourist behind me was aiming his camcorder right at my mug. But this was not your average Midwestern gawker: upon closer inspection, he had an NYPD pin affixed to his jacket. Suddenly I felt daring, like a shirtless spring breaker in front of MTV producers: I put on my most concerned-looking face and delivered my own on-camera plea to "put down that camera, and live your own, real life!" Nevertheless, this surveillance persisted in the Disney Store by other "tourists"; there was much to capture. As the Reverened pulled out his megaphone near a large display of stuffed animals and shirts to proclaim the fact that "Your children wear these clothes--Other children make these clothes!", cops began to shove some of the assembled out of the store, their hands twitching over plastic cuffsand pepper spray holsters. It was understandable in some ways, but it was also infuriating: a policeman I and another fellow spoke with afterwards could give no explanation for Billy's arrest, though he did suggest that he had committed a crime of some sort. One charge I heard was "blocking the sidewalk".
As some of us later stood on the corner of 55th and 5th, a heavy-set man with a small face and a trench coat fixed his digital camera on our group. There was no badge but there was also no mistaking this man's familiarity with the words "perp" and "stake-out." Tell me, is anti-consumerist, anti-supercorporate activism really a threat in this day of international terrorism? Or perhaps the better question is, is there any longer a difference between a group of terrorists armed with guns and knives trying to destroy a government and a group of concerned people armed with flyers and songs hoping to make fun of (and, god, have fun, at the expense of) multinational corporations? Perhaps there’s not much of a difference so long as consumerism means being American, “free” speech refers more to dollars than to liberties, and every day our government looks a lot more like one of those big name-brand corporations
Thursday, November 23, 2006
It never made sense to me that China would block blogspot without blocking the dozens of other blogging sites. Perhaps it had something to do with blogspot owner Google's unwillingness to play ball with government censors as yahoo had done in notoriously releasing the name of a blogger to the government; but has Google's policy changed?
In fact, that's the worst thing about the censorship: we don't know. The censorship is so random, and it's so hard to know what will be censored, or why or when, that it feels almost calculated to be random. That of course creates the sense that the government has a wide r reach than it really does, and generally messes with your head. You'll never know what site will be blocked, because the government's always on the move, always got its eyes out.
It's the internet version of Foucault's panopticon: power all-visible yet always unverifyable.
... the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power. So to arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action; that the perfection of power should tend to render its actual exercise unnecessary; that this architectural apparatus should be a machine for creating and sustaining a power relation independent of the person who exercises it; in short, that the inmates should be caught up in a power situation of which they are themselves the bearers. To achieve this, it is at once too much and too little that the prisoner should be constantly observed by an inspector: too little, for what matters is that he knows himself to be observed; too much, because he has no need in fact of being so. In view of this, Bentham laid down the principle that power should be visible and unverifiable. Visible: the inmate will constantly have before his eyes the tall outline of the central tower from which he is spied upon. Unverifiable: the inmate must never know whether he is being looked at at any one moment; but he must be sure that he may always be so. In order to make the presence or absence of the inspector unverifiable, so that the prisoners, in their cells, cannot even see a shadow, Bentham envisaged not only venetian blinds on the windows of the central observation hall, but, on the inside, partitions that intersected the hall at right angles and, in order to pass from one quarter to the other, not doors but zig-zag openings; for the slightest noise, a gleam of light, a brightness in a half-opened door would betray the presence of the guardian. The Panopticon is a machine for dissociating the see/being seen dyad: in the peripheric ring, one is totally seen, without ever seeing; in the central tower, one sees everything without ever being seen.
(Also see Rebecca MacKinnon's good post on human rights and the Great Firewall.)
by Alex Pasternack
Important architects tend to look and sound as ostentatious as their designs, which is why you may not immediately recognize Ole Scheeren. The angular 35-year old German was sitting in a coffee shop in the Central Business District recently, wearing a shirt with an open collar, a pair of jeans, a day-old beard on his schoolboy face, and none of those self-consciously eccentric glasses by which architects are sometimes known. Discussing his latest project, his speech was unassuming, thoughtful, and curious; he even arrived early. He hardly seemed, in other words, like the lead designer behind the
“If you would preoccupy yourself with feeling so great about what you’re doing, there is an implicit loss of criticality vis a vis what you’re doing,” he says in his light, clean European accent about CCTV going to his head. “And in the case of this project it would be a fairly fatal to the momentum. It requires total attention at every point at time. There’s very little time to think about it.”
Nor does the project give Scheeren much use for the sort of rhetorical flourishes for which architects, like his famous Dutch mentor and co-architect on the project, Rem Koolhaas, are sometimes known. And when Scheeren does say things like “this may be the most complex building ever built,” he’s not kidding.
Since it was approved in an orgiastic moment of development in 2002, the 450,000 square-meter glass and steel China Central Television headquarters literally twists the conventional skyscraper into a gravity-defying three-dimensional trapezoid in the impossible style of M.C. Escher. Nearby sits a companion building, the public-oriented Television Cultural Center (TVCC), which resembles a cubist boot. They’re a feat of architectural gymnastics (and careful diplomacy) that has left many confused, worried, or downright disbelieving. One might just be just as incredulous about the architect’s age.
“Being 35, in a lot of professions, you’re a grandfather already, but in architecture you’re seen as being young,” he says. Raised by an architect-father, and harboring building aspirations early on, “in a way I have the feeling that I started quite early, so I don’t feel quite that young anymore.” But, how prepared could he be to manage a team that at one point exceeded 400 architects and engineers? When I marveled aloud that this project would be the biggest, in terms of scale, that he or OMA had even built (his last project was a triplet of Prada stores in
Scheeren isn't worried about his relative lack of experience. “First, you have to ask what type of experience is relevant to run a project like this. It’s a project that exceeds the scale of anything done so far, and so experience is not valid in the traditional sense,” he says, without a note of pretension. “And it takes an enormous energy that you can hardly generate in your 60s,” an age group that Koolhaas recently reached.
“The point is to say you don’t know how it works, and don’t know how the context works, and to develop a structure that allows change within the process.” It turns out that that sort of radical thinking informed the design all along, from its hastily-imagined loop to the lattice external steelwork that supports the building. But such uncertainty—and at such cost, with an initial reported budget of $700 million—didn’t sit well with either critics or the authorities. A year after a contract was signed, the government ordered a review of all new buildings, and (so rumor went) the television building was to be taken off the air. For one and a half years, the CCTV construction site sat untouched. When the cranes rose again, following a rigorous official review, the budget had reportedly grown to $1.2 billion. But Scheeren wasn't fazed.
“The thing is, we never stopped working on the project,” Scheeren says. Continuing work in
But Scheeren also acknowledges that such a daring design could not have been undertaken anywhere but in
To be sure, the CCTV project—with its radical shape, recreation areas named the “fun belt” and the “fun palace,” and a section specially designed for visitors—seems an unlikely undertaking for one of the world’s largest propaganda machines, and a government famous for concealment. This (disturbing) irony hasn’t gone lost on Scheeren. Indeed, he practically revels in it.
“[Building] CCTV was seen from the beginning as a tool for change from inside the company,” he says, alluding to a cadre of risk-taking “younger people leading CCTV, lying beneath the skin of the older generation,” who championed the design. When he talked about the building recently at an exhibition in its honor that he curated at the Courtyard Gallery and soon to move to New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Scheeren practically avoided discussing the design, focusing instead on what the building’s open layout might mean to the everyday Beijinger, and for a 21st century China. “It’s a change that exists beyond the realm of architecture. I’ve always been interested in that.”
Indeed, dramatic change and breadth have been the motif of Scheeren’s work as much as his life. It was an early introduction to the profession through his architect-father and his first commission at age 21 that initially burned him out. For a while, playing rock music seemed more appealing. “You’re so close to it, it’s uncomfortable,” he says of his architecture pedigree. Things changed when he heard a presentation by Rem Koolhaas, whose own interests beyond architecture (he had once been
After butting heads with teachers at the design academy in his home town, the south-west German city of
“In retrospect, it’s hard to figure out how it all happened,” he says as he stares at the table, slightly smiling. “Maybe I had the feeling that I had nothing else to lose.” Koolhaas threw Scheeren onto a project that seemed on the verge of failure, with two weeks until deadline. The 18-hour days paid off, he says proudly. “It was the only competition oma had won in a year and a half.”
But the restless Scheeren left OMA almost as quickly as he had arrived, taking a graphic design gig in
When OMA bid on the CCTV project in 2002 (declining an invitation to make a proposal for Ground Zero), Scheeren made his biggest shift yet, from designing clothing boutiques to constructing one of the largest buildings in the world.
Having relocated to
Aside from not having enough time to study Chinese (“it’s the biggest frustration of being here… My plan is that before the building is finished. I need to get a whole step ahead”), Scheeren is still adapting to the process of constructing buildings in
“I think part of the role of architects coming to build here is not only to bring a different sense of design but to try to step back and urge them,” planners, developers, clients and contractors, “to open up more lines of communication.” Scheeren says he aims for slower, careful consultations when proposing projects, like his successful bid for a new Beijing Books Building and a Prada “epicenter” store in Shanghai (When we met, Scheeren said OMA’s chances to renovate the stock exchange in Shenzhen were “promising.”)
“Many people still don’t believe it’s going to happen,” Scheeren says, with some exasperation, but also a bit of delight. The truth is, neither can he.
“You think it can’t happen. And then you finally see the piles being driven into the ground, and the steel rising,” he says, with a faint smile. “These are the only moments that you believe that it is really happening.”
this article was published in that's Beijing magazine (tbjHome), August 2006
Thursday, October 19, 2006
TEA AND CAKES
2/F 17 Yun Ping Road
This unmarked upstairs cafe, floating above a corner of Causeway, is cool for school. Kat took us there originally, and she had been taken by some local friends of hers, who had in turn been taken by their friends. It's that sort of place, off the map, but it's also unlike any sort of place at all--except for a homeroom you never had. And with tasty cakes and things. My favorite bathroom in the shopping mall city.
2/F 40 Lyndhurst Terr
Good used books, especially if you're headed to China for a year.
White Noise Records
1/F, 4 Canal Road East
Best record shop + place to sit and look at big glossy art magazines.
G/F. 9, Dragon Road, Tin Hau.
Tel: 254 99 2564
38-44 D'Aguilar St
Lan Kwai Fong
If I have to tell you... Better make sure you're a model, preferably from Ukraine or Finland, or tell the bouncer your name is Ilya or Austin.
No woman is an island.
Saturday, August 12, 2006
While in Hong Kong—which is just China's most recent (re)acquisition, but can feel like London or NY—I read of a red dragon that was changing, feeling the pressure that comes with 9 percent year on year economic growth, and the pressure that comes with thousands, millions of people who are losing their homes and farmlands to the factories and dams meant to sustain that growth. I heard and saw a bit of how
The hardest part of being here has not been the language or the culture shock, although those have been pretty hard; it's been the environment. I mean the pollution, to which I was quite rudely introduced on my first visit, back in April when the biggest sandstorm of the year struck
What I'm doing now, besides breathing in excessive amounts of carbon dioxide and all sorts of other junk, writing for magazines here, especially That's Beijing, a fine and substantial English-language monthly which is essentially Beijing's answer to New York magazine (plus light censorship—unlike foreign media, this magazine is overseen in part by the government). It's through that job that I've learned a lot about Beijing and met more than a few characters, like architects, swanky club owners, environmentalists and Dashan, westerner-in-chief (check the photo below--it's not me I promise). The gig was largely thanks to Jonathan (Hollywood Reporter bureau chief) and Alexa (AP reporter), who hooked me into the large journalism scene here. I'm also covering environmental stuff for treehugger.com, which is a nice green living website. I studied Chinese for a month, but after a big spate of writing and a trip to
One wonderful and horrible feature of this country is that you can do whatever you want—as long as it doesn't include voting, protesting, looking at the BBC News website (and sometimes, my god, Google), distributing materials related to the [REDACTED] or writing news articles about natural or environmental disasters without government approval (disasters? No idea what you mean. –Ed.). What do you mean, Alex? For instance, you can get hired as an English teacher, or a "foreign expert" or a consultant or a editor or the president of a company just by showing off your English language skills or diploma from a good American school. Actually, you needn't have gone to the school, but merely mention its brand name—and if you need a diploma from that school, you can always get one printed here. You can walk around, run, or dine with your t-shirt pulled up above your belly without drawing the least bit of attention (except inside banks apparently). You can, if you're a foreigner, receive high praise for your Chinese skills from locals after poorly venturing a phrase or two in Chinese. You can stare at anything or anyone you want, though you must be ready to be stared at as well. You can (and might as well) do a crazy dance whenever you want to (or take all your clothes off onstage, as I saw a friend do recently after his punk show), because you are already always treated like a circus monkey. You can choose to eat a delicious lunch for the price of one American dollar, or you can nosh on an Alaskan black cod with baby bok choy and a cigar for the price of a used Chinese car. If you don't opt for the cod, you can speed your used Chinese car through intersections at high speed paying little heed to pedestrians or bikers, or, assuming you have not already been hit by a car while riding your nifty folding bicycle (I purchased one for half the price you'd pay in the U.S., and it was stolen at double the speed), you can ride your bike anywhere you want without wearing a helmet. If you get hit, you can get high quality care for a pile of money, or, if you're like most people in
For instance: my new neighborhood—and my old neighborhood, if you count my first weeks in town when I lived with my cousins. Here we have a convenient portrait of this do-as-you-wish (but, to be fair, not laissez-faire) society. The road is Ya Bao Lu, and if you were to get knocked out somehow (and this is far from improbable on Ya Bao Lu) you might awake to think you've been kidnapped, stuffed into a shipping container and all the dust that involves, and left on some side street on the outskirts of
Here are shipping depots that are more than shipping depots, fur coat stores that are more than fur coat stores, night clubs that are more than night clubs, minivans that are more than minivans, banyas that are more than banyas, brothels that are more than brothels, and other more thans that aptly demonstrate the transformative power of capitalism. At night long-legged ladies slip in and out of the clubs and 24-hour shops and cabs, while legions of shirtless Chinese men, a good number from the country's (almost) Islamic western region, Xinjiang, emerge to pack, stuff, tape and load boxes of anonymous goods onto trucks piled dangerously to triple their height and bound for a train, new silk roads, a boat, wherever. By day, the amount of tinted glass on the cars and vans rivals that on the eyes of the many once-athletic, middle-aged Russian men and their gaudily-dressed big bleached-blonde brides, both looking like they've just come from a mafia funeral held at the gym.
The gym is probably not the one at the St. Regis hotel, located not ten minutes away by rickshaw, along with the nicest pool, in a club to which my cousins belong and to which they retire every chance they get. Next to the
Every night young Iraqi children play football in the alleys and playgrounds within the diplomatic compound in which I live. What is a diplomatic compound and why live in one? I would tell you but then I would have to bore you. To make it short, the place was an offer from Newsweek's bureau chief at a real bargain—1500 yuan down from 6000—but perhaps not when you consider it came unfurnished. However, there is, remarkably, an oven. There is also a real bathtub that says "American Standard" on it in the old cursive writing. Along with the "Norway, Land of the Vikings" mug, this place is pretty foreign—in terms of construction quality (it actually looks quite Soviet, but high Soviet), in terms of population of course, as well as in terms of what I've been used to. I last lived in a modest but still lovely apartment a few subway stops away with a great friend-of-a-friend named Claire, who's been in town off and on since high school. There we shared the traditional curiously-scented bathroom, with showerhead just above the toilet. Adorning the walls were a reprint of a soviet realism painting in which Mao is reposing in a wicker chair in the countryside and a monstrous, unironic and luminsicent photorealistic green and blue painting of a waterfall. A construction site was just across the street from us.
In fact, the whole city is under construction. The weekend I arrived, I accompanied a friend, Elizabeth, who was back in town after a three year stint here, tying up loose ends, to pick up a rug from her old house (it really tied the place together). Her old apartment happened to be inside the hutong, the traditional, low-slung, courtyard housing area that once made up the city as it spread out around the central
China's best intentions now involve building 200 cities of a million-plus people each by 2020, cooling rapid growth of 9 percent a year (but not by too much), and turning Beijing into the international cosmopole it aspires to be by the 2008 summer Olympics. That last word has of course become the mantra of possibility for everyone from officials to school children to construction workers to foreign inhabitants, some of whom, cousins included, also see the Games as a convenient moment to make the crucial "Clash" decision (should I stay or should I go?). Everything feels so provisional, so expectant, but also so uncertain. The word, looming over
Yeah, it's easy to get lost and disconnect yourself in
Some historians and urban planners can, especially the foreign ones (the same ones that are moving into the hutong perhaps). But hypocrisies aside (there are many), the urban planners have a good point to make: get rid of the past, but also discard the schizophrenia that might destroy the city. Already enormous in scale and population, already the world's dirtiest traffic jam with 1000 new cars added to its streets daily,
The bidding has stopped, the investement is slowing down (if the government can help it). But the building never seems to end. It so happened that the woman now living in
So not wanting to pay the price, and eager for the adventure, I got on a train in Genghis Khan's one-time capital and headed for the capital of his own country. It was after all the 600th anniversary of his empire, and it was a happy coincidence that three friends (Sarah, Abigail, and David, whose nom de voyage was s.a.d.) would be coming to
On the surface however, it is mostly a living relic not of the Mongols influence but the Russians. The most memorable building today is the gargantuan cultural center, located near the central
Of course, the Tatars and the Russians sought to undo not only that temptation but the very legacy of Khan with their own conquering in the past two centuries—the most bloody landmarks of which involved a rogue and insane Siberian baron and a deputy of Stalin who carried out an order no other Russian emissary could: to execute thousands of monks, along with their monasteries. The least populated country in the world got no help from its other neighbor, the most populous country in the world, which has been no less fierce, but perhaps more clever, with its own imperialism. The train to