Thursday, October 11, 2007

A Minor Place


I put recent magazine writing here. If you're really interested. I don't heavily recommend it.


Monday, June 11, 2007

In China, Protest by TXT

One million text messages. That's how residents of China's port city of Xiamen spread word to protest -- and eventually halt -- construction of a chemical plant on Thursday, according to local news reports. The $1.4 billion facility was meant to produce the petrochemical paraxylene, exposure to which can cause eye, nose or throat irritation, affect the central nervous system and may cause death. Though international standards dictate that such a plant should be 100 km from the nearest city, the short text messages that mobilized Xiamen's smart mob warned the factory would have been only 16 km away.

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.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Beijing Goes Underground

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.”