China Linking Southeast Asia with High-Speed Rail

Kunming, Yunnan Province:   China’s Gateway to Southeast Asia

China receives a lot of well-deserved recognition for its expanding high-speed passenger rail system. Now China’s rail ambitions are extending well beyond its borders into neighboring countries. This April, construction is to begin on a rail line linking southern Yunnan province with the country of Laos to the south.

With cash in hand and the ability to build such a rail line, China is paying for the majority of the construction cost while Laos will only be responsible for 30% of the cost. This is yet another example of China exercising its policy of ‘infrastructure diplomacy’- that is, helping other developing nations pay for and build new infrastructure to promote favorable relations and gain access to natural resources.

China can now be seen practicing this form of infrastructure diplomacy in everywhere from sub-Saharan Africa to Central Asia and even South America. Yet nowhere are the implications of this approach to foreign policy more manifest than in Southeast Asia. This is not only due to the close proximity of the region to China’s southern border, but because Southeast Asian nations are about to undergo their own development transformations and China is looking to establish a  key role in the process.

China’s ambitions are so high in Southeast Asia in fact that the country hopes to someday link via rail all the way from Beijing to Singapore. Plans are also underway to connect China to Cambodia and Thailand. Much to the dismay of human-rights activists, China also has very good relations with Myanmar despite that countries questionable leadership.

Vietnam is a unique case in that their sense of autonomy is especially strong in the region. In particular, Vietnam does not shy away from criticizing China over overextending its claim over the adjacent South China Sea. Territorial disputes could arise, but chances are likely that Vietnam and China will find a way to work together that will mutually benefit one another.

In China, Kunming, the provincial capital of Yunnan, stands to gain tremendously from the growing ties with Southeast Asia. A city of about 3 million people, Kunming is already China’s gateway to the region and boasts a diverse array of minority cultures with historical ties to countries to the south. Though long relegated to 3rd tier status, Kunming is on the rise to become what will be an important international business and transportation hub for China and all of Southeast Asia.

GoKunming: Trans-Laos Railway Construction to Start in April

Monsters & Critics: Construction on Laos’ High-Speed Rail Set to Start in April

Macau Housing Prices Rising Fast

Like the rest of China, Macau is witnessing an ascent in its housing prices. According to Bloomberg, “Macau home prices may rise as much as 20 percent this year as the city’s economy benefits from an expanding casino industry.”

Even though Macau has seen the construction of some high-profile new Casino/Hotels in recent years, the small Special Administrative Region and former Portuguese colony is saddled with an out-of-date housing stock. Yet with rising local incomes due to the booming casino industry and the immigration of workers from Mainland China and neighboring Asian countries, Macau needs to build more new housing units to keep pace with demand.

If demand is not met, housing prices risk skyrocketing to levels that would be unaffordable for local Macanese and immigrant hospitality workers.

Bloomberg: Macau Home Prices May Gain Up to 20% This Year on Casino Growth

(Mis)understanding China’s Suburbs

Beijing Suburbs. Photo by Manuel.A.69.

As China’s expanding cities inevitably swallow up surrounding countryside, the boundaries between urban, rural and suburban areas become progressively more blurred. What today might be farmland could tomorrow be the next central business district sprouting state-of-the-art skyscrapers. This fast-changing reality makes defining what constitutes urban vs suburban with developed-world standards insufficient. China needs its own definitions.

Dan Chinoy, a student at Beijing’s Tsinghua University, ponders this conundrum with a post for The Atlantic titled “Is this Beijing’s Suburban Future?“. As Chinoy gets further from Beijing’s center, he describes coming upon what seem to be the remnants of a village. He explains:

This suburban expansion has taken place so quickly that in some places, it has created what are known in Chinese as ??? or chengzhongcun, which translates roughly to village-in-a-city: older mud and brick houses and abandoned fields surrounded by brand new apartment complexes.  Often, residents of these villages choose to rent them out to migrant workers.  Some even build small apartment buildings of their own and become full-fledged landlords.  This creates something that’s not quite a slum, but not exactly a well-regulated residential complex either.”

The existence of this not quite slum, not quite well-regulated residential complex will probably be a short-lived phenomenon as soon as full-fledged urbanization reaches it. Rather than being a permanent condition, the suburban experience Chinoy describes is a perfect example of the transitory and sometimes flat-out contradictory condition of China’s urbanization process.

The Atlantic: Is this Beijing’s Suburban Future?

Preservation in Beijing: The Battle for Gulou

A frequently revisited topic in discussions about China’s development is the widespread loss of historic structures and neighborhoods throughout the country’s fast-changing metropolises. From the Western historical preservation perspective, much of what has taken place over the course of China’s three-decade long modernization is nothing short of an epic tragedy. No other narrative exemplifies this lament more than the destruction of the hutong neighborhoods in central Beijing.

Last July, the New York Times ran a story about this very topic, aptly titled ‘Bulldozers Meet Historic Chinese Neighborhood’. The neighborhood in question is Gulou (meaning ‘drum tower’, which is the neighborhood’s landmark, along with the adjacent Zhonglou, or ‘bell tower’). Located in central Beijing, just north of the Forbidden City, Gulou is one of the last remaining areas comprising hutongs (narrow alleys) lined by the accompanying siheyuan (traditional courtyard homes).

Being one of the few historic neighborhoods left in Beijing, Gulou has become a popular destination for both foreign and domestic tourists. Some spots around the Gulou area, such as Houhai (a tranquil lake surrounded by low-key bars) and Nanluoguxiang (a restored alley cutting through hutong neighborhoods), have been gentrified. That is, trendy boutiques and restaurants featuring international cuisine have popped up in the area, but this has not been at the expense of neighborhood character.

With development and prosperity, as well as a foreign influx to Beijing, it was inevitable that gentrification of the neighborhood would take place. Walking around Gulou today is a pleasant experience of old and new. The success of the natural evolution of the hutong to present time has led many locals and foreign expatriates to take up the cause of further preserving the area. As the NY Times article mentions, this process is threatened by a redevelopment scheme that seeks to raze and rebuild large parts of the Gulou neighborhood.

Thanks to efforts by preservation groups, these plans have been put on hold, at least for now. Redevelopment in the central area of Beijing is appealing to the  local government because it means more opportunity to create  tourist retail space that will generate huge revenue for the city. Not only that, but many long-time hutong residents are more than happy to take the huge paydays to relocate out of the center to the peripheral areas of the city.

Thus, preservation is left to those who care about preserving the organic atmosphere of the area. Though well-intentioned, the fact that expatriates have taken up the preservation cause means that the effort risks looking like a group of self-righteous foreigners imposing their own quaint and antiquated vision of China on local development, adding another  complicated dimension to the already sensitive issue.

New York Times: Bulldozers Meet Historic Chinese Neighborhood