Book Review: “The End of Cheap China” by Shaun Rein

Sensationalist stories about China’s supposed looming economic collapse captivate international headlines. While these articles might be entertaining to read or talk about, they nevertheless perpetuate an inaccurate picture of an evolving Chinese economy. The really big China story is perhaps too mundane for editors looking for catchy headlines. That is, the emergence of the largest middle-class in the world- beginning with Deng Xiaoping’s reform and opening up in 1978 and still being written today.

Upon my own arrival to China nearly five years ago, it became clear fairly quick that the younger generations living in urban areas would not be content to continue working in low-wage factories and construction sites forever. Following a similar arc of modernization and urbanization that developed countries went through in the past, albeit at a much accelerated rate, China ambitiously aims to move up the value chain economically.

This development is not easily grasped for those who haven’t had the opportunity to invest significant time interacting with people on the ground in China. Luckily we have Shaun Rein and his book The End of Cheap China to tell us the story of China’s evolving trends. The book was released in 2012, but the predictions Rein makes are perhaps even more relevant today than when it originally came out two years ago.

Rein, a consultant to foreign businesses looking to succeed in the China market, is a polarizing figure among the “China Watcher” community. His critics (mostly other expatriates in China) see him as an opportunist, shamelessly networking with high-level government officials and business leaders, and presenting a naively optimistic view of China’s future. Yet it would be a mistake to suggest that Rein is in denial of the tremendous challenges facing the country. Rather, his position is based on rigorous observation and analysis of the changing values of China’s upwardly mobile population. The End of Cheap China is anything but naive, interweaving Rein’s anecdotes of personal interactions with statistics and case studies.

Rein has been in China long enough to see beyond the physical changes to observe social shifts and how they impact individuals. In a chapter titled “The Modern Chinese Woman” he tells the story of an acquaintance he made while living in the northern port city of Tianjin. “Amy”, who Rein originally met in 1997, was a bashful young waitress at a local cafe, working hard and keeping her head down.

When Rein returned to Tianjin more than a decade later and ran into Amy, he found a confident, stylish woman complete with a designer bag and trendy clothes. After catching up with her, he learned she had left her waitressing job and had been working for several multi-national companies doing business in the city. Her prospects turned out to be so good in fact, she expressed interest in becoming an entrepreneur and starting her own business. Opportunities like this abound for young and savvy Chinese urbanites. Competition is fierce in China’s cities, but compared with the chaos that ensnared the country during most of the 20th Century, there has never been a better time to be a young person in China.

Perhaps of most interest to readers of this blog is the book’s insight into China’s real estate sector, which has an entire chapter dedicated to discussing the subject. Near the beginning of the book, Rein demonstrates his deep understanding of how the real estate game works under a case study section titled “What To Do and What Not To Do in China”:

Real estate is intentionally ramshackle. Many Westerners say Chinese real estate companies exhibit poor urban planning. A common complaint by visiting Westerners is that malls are not built attractively, or that parking lots are built on prime building locations, like on a riverside, while shopping complexes and restaurant zones are built across the street without good river views.

Criticisms like this does not survive basic analysis. Rules force developers to start construction soon after buying land from the government. It is illegal to hold on to land as an investment, so real estate developers who think land values will continue to rise either will build something as cheaply as possible, in the hopes of knocking everything down and rebuilding when prices go up, or will put up parking lots to fulfill regulatory requirements and delay prime construction on the property until later.”

This sober explanation of China’s real estate industry is not something you’re likely to read in the pages of the New York Times or one of the countless alarmist articles about China’s “ghost cities”. Rein goes on to debunk the popular opinion by perennial China bears such as economist Nouriel Roubini and hedge fund manager James Chanos that the country has over-leveraged itself on infrastructure development.

Development of new highways and rail lines (both urban metro lines and inter-city high-speed rail) might seem superfluous to outsider observers, but these transportation networks are key to successful urban development, including the availability of affordable housing. As Rein writes: “The need for less-expensive housing and commercial space will require urban areas to spread out, and for all infrastructure spending to be used on railroads, subways and airports.

The book’s chapter on real estate does acknowledge some problems within the industry, including the lack of quality management in new commercial developments, which may cause some developers to fail. As a matter of fact, this is already happening in some cases, yet Rein points out that because commercial real estate only accounts for 20% of new construction, any serious problems in this sector are unlikely to have a catastrophic impact on the overall economy.

The underlying message throughout the book is a warning to foreign businesses to not assume that China will always just be a “cheap place to manufacture things”. On the contrary, it is important at this stage of economic development for savvy investors to seize the opportunity in selling to the rapidly growing Chinese consumer class. Granted, many foreign businesses have already seen this opportunity, but Rein warns of the competition from domestic Chinese firms such as Haier (in the home appliances market) and Tencent (in the social media space) who are developing strong brand awareness and consumer trust within the local market.

Perhaps it is fitting that this review end with a mention of successful home-grown Chinese brands as Rein recently announced a follow up book coming out in November of this year titled “The End of Copycat China“. Up until this point, Chinese companies have been seen by the international community as ‘copycat artists’ stifled by a controlling government and an inability to think creatively. Holding onto this view going forward is dangerous, not only for investors involved in China but for global brands competing for market share internationally.

Rein’s new book is bound to be insightful and timely. In the meantime, if you haven’t already, I highly recommend The End of Cheap China as an excellent guide to understanding the current state of economic development in The Middle Kingdom.

Vanke Jiugong Mixed-Use Development by SPARK Architects

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SPARK Architects have shared with us their award-winning design for a new mixed-use development in Beijing. Designed for Vanke in the city’s growing southern suburbs, the project is a mix of retail, leisure, entertainment and office programs.

Currently under construction, Vanke Jiugong is a continuation of SPARK’s investigations into the breaking up of the architectural mass of the shopping mall, and the forging of connections between ‘interiorized’ space and the city. The 127,000 sqm development will incorporate a mall, a cinema, three live-work towers, and a separate retail pavilion, with a pedestrian bridge connection to an adjacent train station.

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While shopping malls traditionally turn their backs on the city, in the context of China, where there is very little urban public space, SPARK director Jan Felix Clostermann says of their design approach, “we typically try to extend the city into the building.”

The scheme proposes a perforated and penetrable building mass of interlocking components of various scales. A base retail block (with traditional curvilinear ‘race-track’ circulation) is prised open with glazing and voids at its periphery and pierced internally by two large conical voids, which draw daylight downward into the center of the building mass and forge visual connections between levels. A sleek white palette contributes to a seamless and flowing retail environment.

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On levels four and five, these volumes terminate with a second ‘ground plane’ – a village of restaurants in an orthogonally planned zone expressed with an alternate material treatment of timber and traditional terazzo tiles. Above is a third ‘ground plane’ – an environment akin to a miniaturized business park, where small office pavilions and larger live-work towers rise from a roof garden. “Level six will be a bit like a hutong in the sky,” says Clostermann, with the fragmented open areas of the garden taking a character similar to courtyards and available for the enjoyment of office users and the wider public.

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The cinema, positioned at one end of level six, will be connected to an external 24-hour circulation route that traverses the façade to allow direct access to and from the entertainment zone after shopping hours. While preventing the disconcerting experience of circulating through a ‘dead’ mall after hours, the external circulatory route will also enliven the exterior of the building, bringing vitality to its principal street façade.

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Thanks to SPARK Architects for sharing their design for the Vanke Jiugong Mixed-Use development. To learn more about the firm and their other exciting work in China, check out their website: http://www.sparkarchitects.com

China In Africa: An Interview With Go West Project

African Union Building A local looks up at the new African Union Headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The complex was funded entirely by Chinese money. Photo Credit: Go West Proejct

In 2009, China surpassed the U.S. to become Africa’s single largest trading partner. Yet the burgeoning relationship between China and Africa is no ordinary trading arrangement. Rather than colonizing the continent as Western powers did in the past century, China is trading infrastructure development and urbanization expertise for access to Africa’s vast natural resources. This re-balancing of trade has yet to be studied in depth as it is probably too early to tell what the impact of China’s involvement in Africa will have on the broader world’s economy.

What we can observe is the immediate impact China is having on Africa’s urban development. Luckily we have Dutch researchers Michiel Hulshof and Daan Roggeveen of the emerging cities think-tank Go West Project to explain to us what is happening on the ground.

I first met Hulshof (a journalist) and Roggeveen (an architect) at the 2011 Chengdu Biennale where they presented their research on China’s developing western metropolises (hence the name of their think-tank). Their research culminated in the book How the City Moved to Mr. Sun – China’s New Megacities (2011), which looks beyond the so-called 1st Tier cities of Beijing and Shanghai to tell the story of urbanization in the country’s heartland.

Now Hulshof and Roggeveen are looking even further, beyond China’s borders, to study what the Chinese urbanization experiment means for Africa’s cities. They were kind enough to take the time to answer some questions for us about their initial research:

Adam Mayer (AM): Please give us a summary about your research in Africa and what interested you about studying China’s impacts on the continent.

Go West Project (GWP): In our book “How the City Moved to Mr Sun” we described the mechanisms behind the emergence of megacities in Central- and West-China. We are currently working on a new study into China’s involvement in African urbanization. Given the growing impact of China in the world, and the strong ties between China and Africa, one could think of the physical impact that China has in Africa.

It seems the Chinese are already exporting parts of their urban model to Africa: new “Special Economic Zones” in Zambia, Nigeria and Ethiopia, Chinese residential models in Angola or Kenya and Chinese roads, airports and railways all over Africa. There’s also a new approach of “soft power” with Chinese-led African newspapers and television stations, Chinese language schools, university grants for African students and professionals, and Chinese medical aid projects in Africa. We think this phenomenon deserves an unprejudiced look as to what this means for the development and the future of African cities.

AM: What are those impacts that China’s economic development has had on Africa? Are there certain regions or countries in Africa that have benefited more from China’s business interest in the continent?

GWP: These impacts are both tangible and non-tangible. On the tangible side, China constructs roads, railroads, ports, airports, but also telecommunications structures, fiber optic networks, dams and even satellites. It builds schools and offices and has even given the African Union their headquarters as a present. On the non-tangible side, there are grants for students, increased influence of the media – CCTV has already 80 journalists in their Nairobi office! – and Confucius institutes. Of course, the countries with resources are very attractive to go to for the Chinese – but not only them Royal Dutch Shell is already for decades involved in Nigeria.

AM: China is trading its development and urbanization know-how to certain countries in Africa in exchange for resources- What are some prominent examples of infrastructure or building projects built by the Chinese in Africa?

GWP: The most symbolic one is the structure of the African Union building: a 200 million dollar gift from China to Africa. The building was designed in China (by the Tongji Architecture Planning and Design Institute), built with Chinese materials, by a team of half Chinese and half local workers. In Nairobi, we came across the Great Wall apartments on Beijing road, a development by a Chinese real estate developer. The most amazing example is of course the new towns of Kilamba Kiaxi in Angola, where CITIC developed and built 750 highrise apartment blocks.

 Kilamba_KiaxiKilamba Kiaxi in Luanda, Angola

WorkersAfrican & Chinese Construction Workers. Photo Credit: Go West Project

AM: One criticism of China’s venture into Africa is their use of imported Chinese labor to construct new cities rather than using local labor which would help job creation in the region. In your research did you find this to be an issue?

GWP: This is only partly true, and differs strongly from country to country and from project to project. More and more, the Chinese are aware of the fact that hiring locals improves the engagement of a project. What you see very often is a construction site (or a factory for that matter) with Chinese site supervisors, and local laborers.

A way to have local people profit more is not to hire Chines companies, but local companies for construction jobs. However, local companies can often not compete with Chinese ones in speed, price and quality.

AM: Based on studying China’s influence in Africa, do you feel that China is setting a new standard for developing county’s around the world that aspire to urbanize and grow their economies?

GWP: Africa’s urbanization is staggering. Africa’s urban population, which was 395 million in 2010, will be no less than 1.2 billion in 2050. That means Africa’s cities will have to accommodate an extra 40,000 people every day for the coming 15 years. If there’s one country in the world that has experience with such an enormous rural to urban transformation, it is China.

However, implementation of Chinese strategies on African soil seems so far hardly possible due to differences in political and economical structures.

Therefore, we think that the impact of Chinese presence in Africa will depend very much on the local conditions, and will strongly differ from country to country and city to city.

Michiel Hulshof is partner at Tertium, an Amsterdam based office for strategic communication. Daan Roggeveen is the founder of MORE Architecture, Shanghai and Curator at the University of Hong Kong/Shanghai Study Centre.

Be on the lookout for further research on this topic as Go West Project is currently preparing a theme issue of the magazine Urban China, with contributions by Brechtje Spreeuwers (NL), Huang Zhengli (CN), Njeri Cerere (KE) and Paulo Moreira (PT).

Urban Creative Culture, Air Quality and the Tragedy of Beijing

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Like many foreign travelers and working expats who arrive to China, Beijing was my first port of entry into the country. Leaving Capital Airport I was struck by the massive scale of the city, overwhelmed by the repetitive concrete towers standing like regimented rows of soldiers in the skyline. Beijing’s urban form is undoubtedly inspired by the Soviet-era tendency towards grandiose urban planning schemes, but as I would come to learn the story on the ground painted a different, much more vibrant picture of urban life.

Beijing is not a city that one can fully appreciate in the matter of just a few days visiting the famous historical sites. In the space between gigantic attractions like The Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, and Summer Palace, a modern grassroots culture thrives. Underground rock clubs, artist studios and independent coffee shops coexist in what’s left of old hutong neighborhoods as well as reclaimed industrial spaces on the periphery of the city center.

The notion of a burgeoning arts scene would seem to run counter to what many outside China still think of the city: that is, the seat of an oppressive Communist government devoted to quashing all personal freedoms. Although Chairman Mao’s portrait still looks ominously over Tiananmen Square, the perception of Beijing as a cultural desert couldn’t be further from the truth.

Arts and culture are engrained in the city’s urban DNA. Beijingers are rightly proud of their city’s long history as a cultural center, and its young creative residents continue that tradition today. Just as the infinite looping ring roads that surround the city conjure up images of Ouroboros (the serpent eating its own tail), so is the city itself in constant cyclical reinvention mode. The tremendous social and economic changes provide a fertile ground for artistic inspiration and creative freedom.

Yet there is one factor that undermines Beijing’s aspirations as a global urban creative center, and it is not the threat of government oppression. Rather, it is the layer of hazardous grey smog that envelopes the city on a regular basis.

When I first visited Beijing 2006 air pollution was already a problem, but not at quite the level it is now. When I returned to Beijing in 2009, this time moving to China for work, I noticed the pollution had become markedly worse. Thousands more cars were added to the roads and urban development was pushing out past the city’s distant 6th Ring Road. Today, the pollution levels are worse than they’ve ever been, with the density of PM2.5 particles reaching as high as 671 micrograms (or 26 times the level considered safe by the World Health Organization).

As someone with the fortune of being born in a country that is already developed and has established emission standards, I’ve been hesitant to criticize China regarding their development aspirations. Throwing stones from afar would be nothing less than hypocritical, as most developed countries also went through a “dirty phase” during rapid industrial expansion. Thus, the general tone of this blog is supportive of China’s urban development and the economic benefits it has created for the Chinese people.

Yet China’s environmental crisis is a serious threat to that process- and Beijing is ground zero for the country’s challenges. Beijing’s air pollution is a health problem for everyone in the city, regardless of class or economic status. It is an economic problem as much as it is a social problem: if the city’s residents can’t breathe clean air then urban life cannot continue to thrive. Pollution is also a real threat to urbanization, as crisis levels could prompt people to revert back to rural living despite economic opportunities offered by the city.

Encouragingly, the Chinese government has fully acknowledged that pollution is a problem and is taking proactive steps to address the issue. This includes everything from limiting the amount of automobiles on the road at any given time to decommissioning coal-fire power plants near the city.

Yet this is not enough- there needs to be a paradigm shift in the way China and other developing countries urbanize and grow their economies. This includes embracing more ecologically sensitive technologies in power generation and transportation. To incentivize using these new technologies, China is testing out a pilot cap-and-trade program in 7 cities (including Beijing). If successful, China will roll out a nationwide cap-and-trade program by 2016.

In the meantime Beijing residents will have to do what they can to stay healthy in the current environmental conditions. Sadly, until the air is cleaned up, Beijing may have to put on hold its aspiration as a global center of arts and culture, despite the exciting activity happening at the grassroots level.

Chinese Developers on the Defensive After Accusations of Tax Evasion

Beijing Residential Tower

As China’s state media increases its accusations of tax evasion, real estate developers are going on the defensive.

Last week, property tycoon Ren Zhiqian, Chairman of Beijing-based developer Hua Yuan Real Estate Group, posted  a message on Weibo (China’s version of Twitter) calling China state broadcaster CCTV “the dumbest pig on earth“.  This was in response to a program recently aired by CCTV accusing Vanke, another very large property developer, of owing more than 4.4 billion yuan (~$727 million USD) in unpaid taxes. The unpaid tax in question is the ‘land appreciation tax’ (LAT).

As a tax levied on the gains from the transfer of land development rights of state-owned land to real estate developers, the idea of the LAT is simple enough in theory but more complicated in practice. As explained in this South China Morning Post article from November:

“Land appreciation tax is collected by local governments, who have much leeway on deciding the actual tax rate. When a developer gets a pre-sale licence, it needs to pay a certain amount of land appreciation tax based on the asking price of the project. When the project is sold out, the exact amount of the tax will be calculated, deducting the cost of land, construction, marketing and other expenditures from the sales revenues, and multiplying the result by progressive tax rates.”

What this essentially means is that as a property developer increases the value of land through improvements and subsequent sales of housing units or leasing of commercial space, they need to pay a percentage of their gains to the local government. This is money due on top of what they already pay to the local government to bid on the land-development rights. The amount of money earned by local municipal governments in China on land sales is huge, accounting for about 30% of revenues.

Needless to say, as China has been going through its decades-long urbanization boom, local governments have not had to worry about a steady stream of money coming in from land sales.

Yet now China is at a tipping point.

With half the country urbanized, local governments are going to have learn to wean themselves off the land sales teat. There is also growing concern that local governments will not be able to pay back debts from loans taken out from state-owned banks used to fund the building of infrastructure.

Given this reality, it makes sense that the issue of land appreciation taxes is just coming to light. Don’t be fooled though- the accusations by CCTV are very calculated and a poorly veiled threat by the Central Government directed at country’s big real estate developers to “pay up”. It also creates a false narrative using developers as a straw-man to direct negative public sentiment towards.

No wonder Ren Zhiqian is livid.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out, especially since for at least the past 10 years developers have been the go-to guys for local governments in meeting their GDP targets (set by the Central Government ironically enough). As urbanization inevitably slows, tax laws will have to be reformed (and enforced).

Unfortunately, there is perhaps no easy way to make this transition. Clearly broadcasting exposés on state-run media against the country’s developers is only adding fuel to a potentially bigger fire.