Tag Archives: urbanization

Yuxi begins experiment as one of China’s ‘Sponge Cities’

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The city of Yuxi in central Yunnan province. Image: Sina

The city of Yuxi (玉溪) in central Yunnan is one of several municipalities across China to implement a green infrastructure pilot program meant to alleviate urban flooding while also curbing future water shortages. The so-called “Sponge Cities” (海绵城市) initiative is a three-year undertaking studying how urban areas can most effectively be redesigned and retrofitted to capture and effectively reuse rainwater.

Yuxi was chosen in 2015 alongside much larger cities including Chongqing, Xiamen and Tianjin. A multidisciplinary panel formed by China’s ministries of Finance, Housing and Water Resources carried out the the selection process. Committee members stressed the need for variety in their choices of participating cities, choosing Yuxi because it features a unique set of circumstances. The prefectural level city of 2.4 million sits at a relatively high elevation — 1,600 meters above sea level — and over the past several years has built a series of urban reservoirs meant to stave off drought.

By merit of its selection, Yuxi stands to receive an estimated 1.2 billion yuan (US$180 million) inSponge City funding over the next three years. The money will be put toward the construction of what the Chinese press is fond of calling “a more ecological civilization”.

Such strategies acknowledge the need to make municipal areas far more adaptive in the face of climate change. In the words of Yu Kongjian, dean of Peking University’s College of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, “The rate of flooding is a national scandal. We have poured more than enough concrete. It’s time to invest in a new type of green infrastructure.” What that means specifically covers a huge range of endeavors.

In Yuxi and other pilot program cities, updating rainwater collection systems, and in some cases rebuilding them entirely, will play an enormous and costly role. Much of the water captured during rainstorms will then be funneled toward newly built or existing parks and wetlands. These areas are planned to serve the dual purpose of providing residents with more green space options during dry seasons, while serving as collection points during the summer monsoon months. The parks and wetlands will feature plants that can withstand sporadic flooding, as well as the ability to help filter impurities out of rainwater runoff.

At their most ideal, Sponge Cities can be thought of as a closed system, capturing nearly all rainwater and utilizing it in some manner. In certain instances — such as with the construction of permeable roads and sidewalks — this may simply include mild filtering before runoff soaks into the ground and replenish groundwater supplies. However, the collected water can also be channeled to underground cisterns, used to irrigate rooftop and vertical green spaces, or supplement nearby agriculture areas.

Over the next four years, according to Yuxi mayor Rao Nanhu, urban planners expect to equip 30 percent of the city with drainage upgrades and gray water systems, as well as build new and adaptable green spaces. This percentage is expected to grow to 80 percent by the end of 2030. In 2015, when the Sponge City initiative began to gain national momentum, Qiu Baoxing, former vice-minister of housing and urban-rural development told The GuardianA sponge city follows the philosophy of innovation — that a city can solve [its own] water problems instead of creating them. In the long run, sponge cities will reduce carbon emissions and help fight climate change.

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Filed under China, SLIDER, Sustainability and Resource Management, water, Yunnan Province

Kunming to invest in public electric car fleet

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The Kunming municipal government is moving toward the acquisition of all-electric cars that will be made publicly available by year’s end. Once delivered, the vehicles would become the centerpiece of a public transportation initiative designed to reduce general traffic congestion and cut down on overall tailpipe emissions in the Spring City.

Kunming deputy mayor Wang Chunyan (王春燕) traveled to Hangzhou on a fact-finding mission concerned with the scheme earlier this week. While there, he met with government counterparts and automotive industry leaders to discuss the city’s electric car-sharing fleet — a first in China when inaugurated in 2013.

Hangzhou officials have been lauded for the implementation of a public car rental system that relies on automation and cars using no gasoline. Wang wants Kunming to emulate this system. Following a meeting with Hangzhou deputy mayor Zhang Zheng (张耕), Wang told reporters he expects the Spring City to make an initial purchase of 2,000 electric cars by December 2015.

At its inception, Hangzhou’s ‘micro-transport’ (微公交) system made available two thousand electric cars built by Zhejiang-based Kandi Technologies, a subsidiary of manufacturer Geely. People who need to rent a car for a few hours or days can present their national identification cards and driver’s licenses, along with valid credit cards, at rental centers resembling outsized vending machines. Once registered, customers choose between two- or four-seat cars, both with top speeds of 80 kilometers per hour and a single charge range of roughly 90 kilometers.

Two years on, the Hangzhou fleet has quadrupled in size to 9,850 vehicles. They rent for between 20 and 25 yuan per hour, a fee that includes insurance. Long-term leases are also available — 9,000 yuan for year-long use of a two-passenger car and 14,400 yuan for a four-passenger version. The cars can be re-powered, or have their batteries replaced, at any rental facility or at an expanding network of quick-charge locations.

Deputy mayor Wang said Kunming would adopt the Hangzhou project and adapt it for implementation in the city. Kandi cars will be utilized, but a pricing scheme has yet to be announced. Kunming urban planners want to alleviate at least some of the traffic jams that stifle commuters on a daily basis. Wang’s proposal also targets the related problem of perpetual parking shortages — which once caused some garage spaces to fetch yearly prices of 180,000 yuan (US$29,000).

Kunming’s frenzy of car buying perhaps reached its zenith in 2010, when 1,000 new cars were being registered in the city each day. Costly infrastructure projects aimed at easing traffic congestion have been largely hit-or-miss. This newest solution of publicly sharing e-vehicles has become quite popular in China’s largest metropolises, as Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Chengdu and now Kunming have all followed Hangzhou’s lead.

This article written by Patrick Scally was originally published here on the GoKunming.com site on July 16, 2015.

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Filed under China, Current Events, SLIDER, Sustainability and Resource Management, Yunnan Province

Bright City Lights: Urban Trends and Futures in Southeast Asia

Traffic congestion in Bangkok

Traffic congestion in Bangkok

This year, Jakarta earned the unsavory title of “World’s Worst Gridlock.” The city of 23 million is now reputed for having to most congested streets in the world. Another Indonesian city, Surabaya, took the number four spot. If you continue down the rankings to number eight, you will find yet another Southeast Asian metropolis – Bangkok.

The tendency for gridlock in these cities is more than a daily inconvenience for residents. These levels of traffic congestion are indicators of a trend in the wider Southeast Asian region. In this part of the world, urban populations are growing faster than municipal and national governments can handle.  When managed sustainably, cities can be a valuable vehicle for economic development and socio-demographic transition. For example, cities can facilitate productive trans-border connections and slow birthrates, which enables more women to enter the workforce. Nevertheless, urbanization is a double-edged sword.

Rapid, unplanned growth results in unsustainable development that threatens social, economic, and environmental stability.  In a landmark report that analyzes 10 years of urbanization data from East Asia, the World Bank suggests that urbanization in East and Southeast Asia will have “long-lasting effects on the region’s social, economic, and environmental future.” Understanding the growth trends in Southeast Asia will boost the region’s ability to avoid the pitfalls associated with the rapid type of urbanization that has been observed over the past decade.  In other words, the region needs to pay attention to these changes if they don’t want to spend the rest of their down time stuck in traffic.

Dominant Urbanization Trends

Between 1990 and 2010, Southeast Asia increased its urban population by at least 12%, per United Nations estimates. The fact that Asian cities are growing is not a fresh realization, but few observers of these phenomena have questioned how these cities are growing, instead of just how big.

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For example, in the past 10 years, East Asia has experienced more urban growth in small- and mid-sized cities than in major metropolitan areas. This has several more nuanced implications for the region. Successful development in smaller metropolitan areas could relieve much of the pressure put on high-population areas. For example, a Thai development strategy used tax breaks to encourage people to take up residence in the regions outside of Bangkok . Unfortunately, the government failed to provide infrastructure and facilities to support business development in outlying regions. Bangkok remained the prime area for investment, and the program floundered.

Megacities like Bangkok often gain international reputations that afford them opportunities to advertise for foreign direct investment.Small and mid-sized cities, on the other hand, have to fight for attention and funding from national governments and lack the resources necessary to advertise to a wider range of investors. Take the case of Ho Chi Minh City and Da Nang, two metro areas in Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh City is the country’s largest city and Da Nang was only about an eighth of HCMC’s size in 2011. However, the rate of urban population change in Da Nang was 4.5% as of 2010 and HCMC was 3.9%. While this may appear to be a narrow margin between two cities, imagine the national impact when every mid-sized city in a country grows at this rate. The need for infrastructure would surely outpace the investment available to these smaller metropolitan areas.

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In addition to major growth in small- and mid-sized cities, the fastest growth of urban population was experienced in East Asia’s low- and middle-income countries, namely Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Japan, South Korea, and even Thailand place far behind these countries in their rates of urban land and urban population increase.

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The less developed countries in the region face administrative and financial challenges on a national level, which creates an environment where a single city in the country, often times the capital city, experiences the majority of the urbanization. The massive, resource-hogging cities that result are known as “primate cities” in the vernacular of urban studies scholars. Concentrating an entire country’s political, cultural, and economic capital in one area creates national vulnerability if there is a crisis in that single city.

Urban primacy is especially detrimental for a country when there is massive migration to the core and a development lag in the country’s periphery. This phenomenon plays out the same way in developing countries across the globe: Rural poor migrate to urban areas in search of better economic opportunities, but financially and administratively inept governments cannot provide migrants with adequate resources for finding jobs and homes. Densely populated and amenity-poor settlements result as migrants join the informal economy of the city.

Bangkok, Yangon, Phnom Penh, Vientiane, Jakarta, Manila, and Kuala Lumpur have all reached primacy within their respective countries. As previously mentioned, Bangkok is one city that has acknowledged its primate city status and attempted to reduce its dominance of Thailand’s geography. Countries such as Cambodia and Myanmar will also need to take steps to ensure that Phnom Penh and Yangon do not morph into unsustainable networks of unplanned settlements. The challenge lies in the fact that countries like Cambodia and Myanmar lack the administrative and financial capacity to shift rural to urban migration trends. However, it is promising that smaller cities in the region are doing most of the growth, even if they have a long way to go before they can compete with these metro areas.

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Finally, Southeast Asia’s urban populations are growing faster than the region’s urban land. At present, the main reason for dense urban growth in the region can be attributed to the lack infrastructure available on the periphery – a far cry from the smart growth policies that many cities implement to promote compact growth. Even so, high-density urban growth is associated with many positive outcomes when it is effectively provided for. Namely, high-density development tends to have fewer negative environmental consequences than urban sprawl. Kuala Lumpur is actually an exception to this trend in Southeast Asia, and has been criticized for failing to compact its urban growth. A heavy reliance on automobiles has been detrimental to the city, but other emerging urban areas in the region have the chance to get ahead of the car craze and promote smart growth that emphasizes efficient land use and practical transportation.

By and large, dense urban growth still has a number of caveats. As mentioned, the reason density in the region is high is due to a lack of amenities outside of core cities. If population growth outpaces the ability of the core to provide services, the quality of life in many cities will quickly degrade. Overcrowding is also a serious challenge that many cities in the developing world are faced with, and Southeast Asia is no exception. Comprehensive urban planning will be necessary to prevent overcrowding from becoming another major trend in the region.

Urban Planning and Governance: Missing Links

When you combine all of the formulas for urban growth in Southeast Asia, the results are two-sided: There is potential for inclusive, sustainable urban areas, but there is also a chance for the region to mushroom into a clutter of poorly planned development. When planning is neglected, poverty, environmental degradation, and land use conflicts ensure. For Southeast Asian cities to avoid falling victim to, say, the level of air quality degradation that many Chinese cities now face, spatial planning and good governance are crucial.

A 2009 assessment of urban governance prepared for UN Habitat is grim: the report asserts that the capacity of both local and national governments in the region is fragmented and weak, with a serious lack of simple management skills and adequate budgeting for necessary infrastructure. “Good” urban governance requires transparency, political will, and funding, but many Southeast Asian governments underperform in all three categories. There is always a propensity for countries to urbanize, regardless of political stability. With that being said, Southeast Asia’s urbanization trends alone illustrate that not all growth is good growth. A solid political environment at least ensures that there is a structure for discussing urban needs when they arise, although definitive actions need to be taken if there is going to be any change.

Administrative fragmentation is another burgeoning obstacle for Southeast Asian boomtowns. This term refers to the spillover of growth from one municipality into neighboring jurisdictions. One example is Manila’s urban area, which spans 85 municipalities and seven provinces. The World Bank predicts that many of the growing small- and medium-sized cities will soon experience this type of administrative challenge, if they are not experiencing it already.  Different jurisdictions often struggle to coordinate plans for infrastructure development and management, leaving many areas underserved.

The ecosystems impact of such trans-boundary urban areas is also notable because rivers, lakes, and forests require cooperative management.  Overcoming administrative fragmentation appears daunting in a region where political stability is scarce, but regional planning associations have proved to be an effective way to manage fragmented urban areas. The Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA) is one such organization tasked with monitoring urban development, but it struggles with a low budget and limited regulatory power. Even so, the future of many urban agglomerations in the region would look brighter if such organizations were widely utilized. Urban management organizations have the ability to pull multiple institutional actors together when questions arise about different stakeholders’ opinions.

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Urban Futures

Southeast Asia’s urban population has not yet reached 50% of total population, an indicator that more urban growth is still to come. The future of the region’s urban areas will in part be dictated by the trends that have been observed in the past decade, but also by events that remain to be seen. Climate change is one of the foremost worries in the region, but political stability and economic productivity will also play roles in the ability of the region’s cities to develop sustainably. Metropolitan areas in the region need to get ahead of urban growth and expansion in order to take some of the uncertainty out of the future.

Climatology experts maintain that no part of the world will remain unaffected by climate change, but Southeast Asia is actually a particularly high-risk area. A number of Southeast Asia’s urban centers falter in climate change scenarios that involve sea level rise, drought, saltwater intrusion, and severe weather events, and famine. As metropolitan areas in the region continue to develop, resilience is a topic that needs to be kept in mind. Cities like Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh need to have planes in place for flooding and typhoon events. Manila needs to ask itself how to feed a metropolitan area of 16 million if crop productivity plummets due to droughts or heat waves.

Besides the need for climate change adaptation measures, Southeast Asia also represents a large market for mitigation efforts. By reducing dependency on cars and carbon-based energy sources, the region can bypass being a part of the carbon problem. China and the West used coal to fuel their urban expansion, but Southeast Asia has the opportunity to exclude GHG heavy industries and develop using environmentally sound technologies. As new attempts at international climate treaties are rolled out, it will be interesting to see where many Southeast Asian nations fall on the spectrum of mitigation requirements.

Historically, developing countries have been held to lower emission reduction standards than countries in the developed world, but countries like Malaysia and Thailand have potentially reached a threshold where they will be counted among the world’s more developed countries, and thus required to reduced their emissions further. In any case, climate mitigation is good for Southeast Asia if it means that the impacts of climate change on the region will be softer than current predictions.

Political stability is also a recurring obstacle for a number of Southeast Asian countries. Years of stability and growth have been punctuated by sudden regime changes that have reduced the level of confidence both Southeast Asian nationals and outsiders have in the region’s governance. Urban planning is an intensely political process, so the status of a country’s national government directly effects urban development. If establishing effective national governments proves to be too much of a challenge for parts of the region, how can we expect urban management to get the attention that it requires?  Metropolitan development authorities and NGOs could potentially help cities weather the storm if political institutions fail, but finding consistent, effective governance is critical for the future of Southeast Asia’s cities.

Future economic development in Southeast Asia will also continue to shape urban areas in the region. Low-cost manufacturing has played a significant role in growing many of the region’s largest cities, but that may change as smaller urban areas take up lower-technology manufacturing as well. Some suggest that economic outcomes are better in regions where the largest cities take on service industries and high-tech manufacturing and the smaller cities concentrate low-tech industries. However, this is impossible if the infrastructure needs of smaller cities remain unmet. Investment in Southeast Asia’s small- and mid- sized cities is an important step that the region can take to move towards greater economic output.

Urbanization in Southeast Asia has reached a clear bottom line: In order to reap the benefits of healthy, innovative urban areas, the region needs to raise its expectations for planning and governance. If current regional urbanization trends continue to play out, there is potential for Southeast Asia to be the home of several highly productive urban areas. Investing in small and mid-sized cities will create robust national economies and capitalizing on dense growth will keep the environmental impact of cities to a minimum. However, if planning and coordination are left on the wayside, the region will be set on a course for vulnerability to any sort of crisis that should arise.

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Filed under ASEAN, Cambodia, China, Current Events, Economic development, Environment and sustainability, Governance, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar/Burma, Philippines, Sustainability and Resource Management, Thailand, Vietnam

Qiu He, top Yunnan official, ousted for corrupt land deals

Qiu He

Qiu He, Former Vice Party Secretary of Yunnan Province Photo: GoKunming

The Ides of March did not bode well for Yunnan province’s most controversial official.  Qiu He, Yunnan’s Vice Party Secretary  is being investigated for alleged corruption by the government’s corruption watchdog agency for “serious violations of discipline and law”, a common euphemism for graft.

State media reported the opening of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) investigation into Qiu on Sunday March, 15.

Qiu He was in Beijing at the time of the announcement, attending the yearly National People’s Congress there, along with the rest of the Party leadership from Yunnan.

He is the latest in a number of top Yunnan officials to have been nabbed for corruption in the past year. Following the investigation of former vice governor of the province, Shen Peiping, in March 2014, former Kunming Party Secretary Zhang Tianxin and former Yunnan Party Secretary Bai Enpei were all taken down for graft.

Before taking up the position of deputy Party secretary of Yunnan in 2011, Qiu He was the Party secretary of the provincial capital, Kunming, starting in late 2007.

A controversial city-builder 

Originally from Jiangsu province, Qiu was known as an anti-graft crusader and free market reformer. He began his meteoric rise in politics as the Party secretary of northern Jiangsu’s Suqian city, where he privatized local hospitals and schools and reformed the city’s infrastructure.

In Kunming, Qiu began his tenure by organizing a taskforce to ensure city officials arrived to work on time and limited their lunch breaks to thirty minutes.  Within a week of taking office in 2007 he instituted a policy linking local political futures of local officials to waste water pollution into the feeder rivers of Kunming’s Lake Dianchi, one of China’s most polluted bodies of water.   His passionate speeches on Yunnan’s development often highlighted the need to turn Yunnan from a backwater frontier province into a fast-developing regional hub.

He was the catalyst for a swath of controversial infrastructure projects in Kunming, including a new international airport finished in 2012 and an expansive subway system, still under construction and over budget.  The fog-stricken location of Kunming’s Changshui international airport, 40km outside of the city is a common source of frustration for Kunming’s citizens.  During the winter months, the airport will often close unexpectedly, stranding thousands of passengers and costing airlines millions.

Among Kunmingers, Qiu He is also known for demolishing a majority of Kunming’s 300-plus “urban villages” – poorly-constructed, low-income neighborhoods that dotted the city’s modern landscape. Many of these villages were replaced by housing developments built by businessmen from Jiangsu, Qiu He’s home province.  While Qiu He’s economic polices are often attributed to the skyrocketing rates of growth in Yunnan province (average 12% over last 5 years), now that China’s real estate market is cooling off, the Spring City’s blue skies are marred by dense and unsightly high-rise housing projects, many of which have completely stopped construction.  During Qiu He’s tenure, this pattern of unfettered real estate development was also copied in scenic and popular tourist regions such as Dali and Xishuangbanna, greatly decreasing their natural and cultural values.

 Attracting outside investment proves fatal 

While rumor and speculation are bound to follow the announcement of Qiu’s takedown, many cite deals made with his Jiangsu and Zhejiang business connections as reason for the investigation.

The New Luosiwan International Trade Center, with an area of more than 3 million square meters, is one of the world’s largest warehouse distribution centers and the final stop before Chinese-made goods are shipped onto destinations in Southeast Asia. It was built with an investment of more than 3 billion renminbi ($500 million) from Liu Weigao, a Jiangsu businessman most famous for establishing Yiwu’s China Commodity City, the world’s largest small commodities market, in Zhejiang province. Qiu He knows Liu, a National People’s Congress representative to Jiangsu’s Suqian city, from his time as Party secretary there. Once in Kunming, Qiu He recruited Liu to invest in New Luosiwan as part of his economic development policy. When the CCDI announced an investigation into Liu Weigao in February 2015, speculation circulated that Qiu He’s downfall was imminent.

According to one source at a local bank who wished to remain anonymous, Qiu’s demise was a popular topic of discussion at the office. Liu Weigao had millions in savings seized after he was investigated in February, along with a number of business loans associated with New Luosiwan that have yet to be paid back. The source and the source’s colleagues knew of Qiu He’s connection to Liu Weigao and openly speculated prior to Sunday whether Qiu would be investigated himself.

In fact, Qiu was scheduled to visit the bank’s local offices in downtown Kunming this week for an investigation of the bank’s performance. The source and colleagues spent the weekend at the office preparing for the Vice Party Secretary’s visit. However, the work appears to be all for naught, after Qiu did not come back from Beijing Sunday.

An even bigger target

Despite his controversial track record in Yunnan, Qiu He was known as an official who cared more about his promising political path rather than benefiting financially from his position. Qiu was an extremely cautious politician who is known only to have met with supplicants during office hours, and not in decadent KTV parlors or in exclusive social clubs.

Whereas 2014 saw a raft of top Yunnanese officials taken down for their connections to the disgraced Zhou Yongkang, Qiu He’s investigation appears unrelated. Instead it may mark a shift in focus from the Sichuan-based clique that formed under Zhou to an even bigger target.

Qiu He is associated with a political faction related to Li Yuanchao, current vice president of China. Li, the former Jiangsu Party Secretary from 2003 to 2007, is a major power broker in the province and likely oversaw Qiu He’s rise. Behind Li Yuanchao however, stands former President Jiang Zemin, who oversaw the country’s development in the 1990s. Jiang’s clique includes officials from Shanghai, Zhejiang and Jiangsu.

Qiu He could be the first top official from the Jiang clique to be taken down during Xi Jinping’s current anti-corruption campaign. Further fueling speculation of a crackdown on the Jiang clique, the Governor and Provincial Party Secretary of Jiangsu province were nowhere to be found at this year’s recently concluded “two sessions” (lianghui). Some analysts see current President Xi Jinping’s crackdown on corruption as serving the dual purpose of restoring the public’s confidence in the Party and eliminating Xi’s political rivals.

Many Kunmingers welcomed news of the downfall of former top Yunnanese officials Bai Enpai, Shen Peiping, and Zhang Tianxin with support and expressed satisfaction; however reactions to Qiu He’s ousting are mixed, particularly among investment groups from outside of Yunnan.  A source close to the situation remarked that many of Kunming’s Jiangsu businessmen left the city after hearing about Qiu’s investigation. His friends with connections to Qiu, many of whom are responsible for large chunks of Yunnan’s commerce, have all cancelled their cell phone subscriptions and are currently unreachable.  Their fears, understandably justified, lie in speculation that once Xi’s political rivals are eliminated, those businessmen connected to them will soon come under the gun.

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Filed under China, Current Events, Economic development, Governance, SLIDER, Yunnan Province

Zen & the Chinese Art of Motorcycle Driving

Photo courtesy of GoKunming.com

Photo courtesy of GoKunming.com

One cloudless August day in 1998, I rented a bicycle and rode straight through the heart of central Beijing. It was the kind of day China’s capital never sees anymore — expansive blue skies, crisp, clean morning air and virtually empty city roads.

I cruised alongside hundreds of other riders crowded into bike lanes nearly as wide as the adjacent avenues. Bicycles dominated the city, outnumbering vehicles ten to one, with most being one variation or another of the classic Flying Pigeon. The riders all moved together in improbable synchronicity, like a shimmering shoal of fish. The lanes were extremely crowded but it felt as if the shoal carried me along and I effortlessly kept pace with everyone else, propelled by the exhilaration of facing my first day in China.

Fast forward to now, after more than 16 years in the country, and I struggle to find ways to keep that exhilaration alive. These days I ride my off-road motorcycle through the streets of Kunming trying my hardest not to flip the bird at every driver that gets in my way. This year, after a decade and a half of self-control, I finally let it fly. I took my right hand off the throttle, thrust my upraised fist toward the offending driver and extended my middle finger to the sky.

I was full of rage and hoped to provoke the same rage in the driver. I wanted to ruin his drive as he had ruined mine. Instead, the driver lifted his index finger, pointed at me and smiled. I could see him mouth two words to his friend in the passenger seat. “Kan! Laowai!” — Look! Foreigner!

I bought my first motorcycle in 2002 when I lived in Dali. I had never even ridden one before, but I planned a solo road trip north along the borders of Myanmar and Tibet. I didn’t have any idea what to expect, even strapping a machete to the side of my saddle just in case a band of ruffians threatened trouble. I never needed the weapon.

The countryside roads weren’t without their dangers. Tractors tore out from side roads without warning. Dogs, chickens and even children seemed to appear out of nowhere. But obstacles aside, I fell in love with China’s countryside and my mind raced with ideas of where to ride to next. With one twist of the throttle I was off to new adventures, making up songs and singing them as loud as I could over the roar of the engine.

But now, after more than a decade of driving in Kunming, I have been transformed. In place of gleeful songs, only obscenities broadcast from my helmet. I tear through the city as if I’m the Road Warrior on the run from murderous bandits. I honk my horn at every intersection as a warning to anyone who dares cross my path. Traffic rules mean little and courtesy even less. At times I feel like the Hulk — usually I’m the mild-mannered Bruce Banner, but with a spark of the ignition, the beast is unleashed.

In the past, I always obeyed traffic rules. I never got a ticket, made sure to yield the right of way and rarely honked my horn. More importantly I never lost my cool. Why then am I now so tempted to throttle so many that cross my path on the city roads? Or perhaps a more intriguing question is: Why am I becoming more and more like the very drivers I detest?

With a traffic culture that favors the aggressive and impatient, it is easy to blame everyone else for turning me into this creature. It is actually more dangerous being a law-abiding driver than an aggressive and selfish one. If you go too slow or stop for a crossing pedestrian, you might end up getting rammed from behind. And on a motorcycle, the safest place to be is out in front of all the traffic. Speeding or running a red light is sometimes the best way to stay out of harm’s way. On China’s roads, it seems that only the strong survive. Unfortunately, this is an attitude that derails any prospect of efficient traffic.

There are very few parts of the world outside of China that have ever seen such an immediate growth in urban traffic. Over the last decade, the number of cars on the roads in cities like Kunming has increased more than tenfold. Urban planners and law enforcement have struggled to adjust. The roads have widened and the laws continually change, but cities need more than just the stroke of a pen to adapt. Efficient traffic systems can’t just be instituted. They are cultural and evolve over time.

The safety of everyone on the road is best guarded when cars yield to motorcycles, motorcycles to bicycles, and bicycles to pedestrians. But the pecking order has been lost and so too has any proper ‘right-of-way’ mentality. Instead, roads in China are often plagued by many who cling to a sense of entitlement. Motorists feel as if they have earned the right of way just by the very purchase of an automobile. And those who can afford even more expensive cars feel that much more entitled. They drive brand new black BMWs, flashing their brights and honking their horns warning everyone ahead – ‘VIP coming through!’

Every time I mount my motorcycle, I do so knowing exactly what to expect. I know that someone will cut me off. I know that an electric scooter will dangerously tear through a red light right as I cross an intersection. I know that some fancy car behind me will honk its horn, urging me to acknowledge his self-importance. So why should I let it surprise me or stir my fury when I know exactly what is likely to happen? Expecting the worst is the best way to avoid the worst. And it should be a lot harder to get angry when I know what is coming.

China has changed at a rate never seen before at any point in time anywhere else on the planet. Everyone is racing to find their place in society, making sure that they don’t get left behind. Traffic culture is only one manifestation of this, and it is constantly evolving. Today’s traffic might be closer to a frenzy of sharks than a shoal of fish, but I’ll be better off passively following the current than angrily fighting against it.

After the middle finger incident earlier this year, I decided that before expecting change from any of the others sharing the road with me, I needed to at least be more responsible for myself. I’ve stopped expecting everything to fix itself all at once, and I try my best to be a part of the evolution by incorporating a little more common courtesy into my daily drives. I am increasingly amazed by how much I receive in return.

This doesn’t mean that I don’t still curse motorists that cross me from time to time, and it certainly doesn’t mean that I am now a perfectly patient driver. But the next time I let the middle finger fly free, I’ll at least try to do it with a smile.

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Yunnan Province and Its City Circles and Border Economic Zones

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This is a map of Yunnan province, its city circles, and border economic zones.  Yunnan borders Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar.

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Filed under China, Economic development, GMS, VISUALS, Yunnan Province

The logic of China’s economic strategies in Southeast Asia

In so many ways, China’s strategies for its involvement in Southeast Asia are much more pragmatic, more predictable, and considerably less nefarious than any other rising global power that previous laid sight on region.  Moreover, those strategies, born in the 1990s, make even more economic sense now than at the time of their inception due to the current needs of its development trajectory.

Energy consumption and the speed of urbanization in China are rising at ever-increasing rates.  To keep pace, the central government must secure energy resources and safe, low-cost agricultural goods. Southeast Asian states, in a complementary fashion, have robust food export markets, as in the case of Thailand or Malaysia, or as in Laos and Myanmar, have abundant endowments of energy resources.  Chinese state owned enterprises and private business interests seek to access and integrate into these markets and new infrastructure linkages such as highways and high-speed railways are indicators of deeper market integration abroad. Continue reading

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