Urban Development on a Chinese Scale

We have all heard about the scale and speed of economic development in China. The high-speed train system, the highways that crisscross the country, the construction of subway lines at a rate found in no other country, and the development of commercial and residential areas. This posting is the story of such a development in Shanghai.

Shanghai is world renowned for its skyscrapers that easily match New York City. Often, people compare the two cities for their dynamism and their desire to eclipse each other. There is one area in which Shanghai surpasses New York; the speed of economic development.

Over the last 30 years, Shanghai has seen hundreds of high-rises go up. The skyline of Pudong is world famous. The second tallest building in the world is in Pudong. No building above 3 floors existed in Pudong in 1985. What a success!

UD 1Pudong skyline. Source: http://www.dronestagr.am/shanghai-pudong-skyline/

Now a new development is taking place further upstream the Huangpu River, within walking distance of the core of the city. It is called the Dong Financial City.

UD 2Dong Financial District is near downtown Shanghai, and the Pudong financial district. Source: Photo by author, illustration by Dong Financial City.

This development will include more than 25 high-rise buildings. It will be a mixed residential, commercial and office district. The area under construction is roughly 800 meters by 600 meters, which is an amazing surface area for a large city already well developed.

UD 3Map of development area in Shanghai. Source: Google Map and the author.

This development will replace dilapidated industrial, commercial and residential areas that have seen better days. It is reasonable to estimate that more than 5,000 people will have been displaced once this project is completed.

UD 4Neighborhood that will be demolished to make space for the Dong Financial City. Source: The author

Construction is already well under way with an army of more than 10,000 migrant workers that come from all over China. Having left their spouses and their kids behind, their life revolves around the construction site, having no money to enjoy the high quality of life Shanghai offers (monthly salary of 7,000 RMB (US$1,000)). These workers toil from 7 am to 6 pm, 6 days a week, often 7, returning home once a year. They live in 20-foot containers that are piled 3 high, 10 workers per container. Nearly 7,000 workers live in an area 130 meters by 70 meters. Showers are communal, as is the cafeteria. Entertainment consists of whatever they can get on their smart phones. When the work is completed, they need to find another construction site to work on or they will need to return to their town or village as not having their hukou (local residency permit).

UD 5Workers living accommodation. Source: The author.

Infrastructure for the site is already well on its way, including the construction of a wall along the river to cope with potential water surge due to a hurricane (called typhoon in Asia). An underground highway that completes the loop around the city core is almost finished.

UD 6Protection wall against water surge. Source: The author.

Construction is on-going on 15 or so buildings at difference stages of completion. Four identical office buildings are rising in unison across more than 300 meters. In a different part of the complex, it is 3 residential high-rises, 20-floor high where workers have just begun installing the windows. In another part, four foundations are being dug side by side with yellow cranes towering over the site. Trucks lift road dust as they take the soil away.

UD 7New high-rises near existing living areas. Source: Photo by author.

The first buildings will be completed by the middle of 2018. The demolition of the remaining residential areas will begin later in 2017. All residents will be relocated to the suburbs in apartments situated in newly built high-rises. Living in new areas, the people will not be able to benefit from the strong support of neighbours or the facilities that were found within walking distance. Friends will be dispersed all over the distant suburbs of Shanghai. Buses and subways will be available, but how useful will they be to individuals in their 70’s who used to walk 50 meters to see a dear friend in need of help. What will happen to the owner of a 2 square meter shop who mended shoes or watch straps, or a 5 square meter drycleaner? It is the fabric of a multi-generation society that evaporates as a city develops. No one can oppose the development as it is done for a greater cause; the modernization of the Chinese society.

UD 8New foundations and building skeletons near existing buildings. Source: The author.

The migrant workers who have built these high-rises, and the former residents of the neighbourhood will not be able to afford living in these newly completed apartments. At a cost of 50,000 RMB per square meter, a one-bedroom apartment of 70 square meters (760 square feet) will cost 3.5 million RMB (US$510,000).

UD 9Brand new modern district by the river. Source: Photo by author, illustration by Dong Financial City.

Shanghai will have a brand new district to show the world how advanced China is. No one will remember the work of the migrant workers who toiled for years, and the people who lived for generations in the same neighborhood.

Welcome to the high speed development of China.


The Burden of the Past

MMACredit: Shanghai Daily

I posted a comment on a recent article in the New York Times.

The article titled “M.M.A. Fighter’s Pummeling of Tai Chi Master Rattles China” was published on May 10, 2017. To read it, click on Article. 

The reaction to the recent contest between the past (wushu) and the present (MMA) can be felt in China almost every day. Does the past define us, or should we consider the realities of the world we live in? 

Confucius, who lived 2,500 years ago, is advocated in China as the source of inspiration for the present, even if he had no constructive role for women, a high respect for the status quo and a belief in a highly hierarchical society. His philosophy is used by the current leadership to justify their approach on how to run China. 

TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) squares off against Western medicine, with the government heavily promoting TCM. Western medicine is heavily influence by the scientific method, while TCM believes in energy flows in the body that have yet to be proven scientifically.  

The 5,000-year old history of China might be a burden to the society as it excuses practices that should be questioned and in need of a scientific validation. The Age of Enlightenment has yet to reach China.  

This kerfuffle proves again the challenges of China to accept a scientific experiment against historical beliefs.

A reflection on societal values

TFBoysFrom left, Wang Yuan, Wang Junkai and Yiyang Qianxi of the Chinese boy band TFBoys performing at an awards ceremony in Beijing last year. Credit Imagechina, via Associated Press

I posted a comment on a recent article in the New York Times.

The article titled “In China, It’s the Party That Keeps the Boy Band Going” was published on May 6, 2017. To read it, click on Article.

Here it is:

I recently gave an assignment to my students who are in their second year at a national university in Shanghai. It consisted of writing a critical analysis on an editorial found in a well-respected western newspaper. A comment often seen was that the editorial was too negative. It lacked “positiveness”.

The source of this approach is based on the formation people receive all along their schooling and in the society at large. People are molded in a positive attitude towards society. That approach is not new to China as it can be found in the philosophy that Confucius advocated 2,500 years ago.

The same attitude can also be seen when Kennedy said: “Ask not what your nation can do, but what you can do for your nation.”

What is of concern is not this “positiveness” but the lack of a critical discourse. Unfortunately, the Chinese society and my students do not have the mental framework to proceed along this path. Hopefully, as the Chinese society matures this trait will emerge, implementing a constructive framework to critical analysis that the West often lacks.


The value of time

Recently in a hotel, I asked an attendant at the front desk to call a taxi.

WalkingSource: Google Map

She asked where I was going. I told her the name of the temple I wanted to visit.

She replied that I did not need a taxi as it would be “only” a 40-minute walk.

Walking - Road Source: Unknown

It is amazing how different cultures measure distance and value time.

I ended up walking to the temple.