With the ongoing spate of food safety scandals, Chinese consumers are rightly weary of the source and quality of their food. Unfortunately, food quality regulatory bodies in China remain unreliable and direct access to fresh food sources is limited for an increasingly urbanized populace. This is one of the great contradictions of China’s urban development: a country which for most of its history was majority agriculturally based is on the fast track to be one of the most urbanized nations in the world.
Status conscious Chinese urbanites would rather not associate with anything related to farming, as it evokes the recent memory of rural peasant life. For many upwardly mobile city dwellers, international restaurant chains like KFC, McDonalds and Pizza Hut are considered the best options for upper-class ‘healthy’ dining (that is, food with high caloric content).
The urban growth of China is a boon to these chains as more American consumers shun them in favor of a more organic, natural diet. The shift in American consumer preferences is reflected in the success of supermarket chain Whole Foods, local farmers markets, and the growing popularity of the Slow Food movement.
Given China’s new-found love affair with processed food and growing ambivalence about the role of agriculture, I was confident there was probably not much interest in organic farming. That was until I visited Anlong Village- a wholly organic, zero waste farm 50 km northwest of central Chengdu. With a full-time population of 3,000 residents, Anlong Village is sponsored by the Chengdu Urban Rivers Association (CURA), a local non-profit NGO.
Anlong Village is CURA’s flagship project, and unlike other purported ‘eco-cities’ under development in China, lives up to its claim of being 100% sustainable. The partnership was established in 2003 as an effort to help clean up the adjacent Funan River, which flows through central Chengdu, after it was discovered that most of the river pollutants come from agricultural runoff upstream.
Anlong helps abate this problem by avoiding the use of chemical pesticides and instead using natural methods to fight agricultural pests. These methods include surrounding plots with mint (a natural pesticide) and planting garden plots with a variety of different species (so if one crop succumbs to disease, it does not destroy the entire plot). This not only avoids dumping unnatural chemical waste into the river, but ensures that the farm’s soil is nurtured over the long-term.
The village also features a comprehensive composting system. Composting toilets turn waste into organic fertilizer and animal waste is recycled into concrete pits treated with anaerobic digestive microorganisms that convert it into methane gas used for heating and cooking. Plant waste is also re-used as organic fertilizer.
Throughout the village, greywater is treated in a series of specialized ponds that naturally remove pollutants. Treated greywater can then be re-used for agricultural irrigation. Constructed wetlands adjacent to the Funan River also treat greywater, assuring that potentially harmful waste water is filtered before entering the river.
Despite the initial apprehension of local government officials, Anlong Village is a tremendous success. Of the few plots available to non-Anlong residents (primarily health conscious families living in the city who tend to their crops on the weekend), demand outstrips supply.
Demand is also great for the organic produce grown in Anlong. This is in large part due to Chinese consumer mistrust of the validity of produce labeled ‘organic’ in large Chengdu supermarkets like Wal-Mart, Carrefour, or Isetan. Anlong, on the other hand, offers a trustworthy source.
Unfortunately, at this point there are very limited formal distribution channels for purchasing organic produce grown in the village. Farmers frequently venture to the city to sell their crops, but usually only those ‘in-the-know’ will know when and where exchange points are. To make it a bit easier for consumers, CURA is currently in the process of training Anlong farmers how to use microblogging sites to announce the time and location of exchange points.
In its relatively short history as a 100% organic farm, Anlong Village is already a benchmark for other aspiring sustainable farms around China. Yet like in the U.S., there is ongoing debate about the scalability of such a model. Considering the high markup on price compared to commercially farmed crops (produce grown in Anlong can be two to three times the cost of commercially farmed produce), many argue that this method of farming is not practical to feed a nation with such a huge population as China.
In spite of this debate, and given China’s struggle with pollution as it continues to develop, Anlong Village is a blessing and a valuable reminder that practical steps can be taken to protect its environment.
The following is a guest post by Daniel Garst, a Beijing-based American writer. This article originally appeared in the March 24, 2011 China Daily Metro edition.
Nothing concentrates the mind of economic planners quite like political instability in key overseas energy suppliers. China’s new Five Year Plan therefore not only mandates further reductions in the energy used in generating economic output, but also sets, for the first time, overall consumption goals.
Making buildings here more energy efficient will be one key element in achieving these goals. A January 7, 2011 National Geographic News story states that the building sector absorbs 30% of China’s energy, a threefold increase since 1980.
Beijing has recently made notable progress in reducing energy waste in this area. A thirty percent wholesale subsidy program encourages the purchase of efficient light bulbs, while local authorities have aggressively pushed a coal-to-electricity project in hutong neighborhoods.
This program both lowers sulfur emissions and energy use, as the electric heaters are more efficient and have adjustable thermostats; some models even have thermostats pre-programmed to use less electricity during peak day hours and store it up at night. Rooftop solar water heaters are also now a common sight in Beijing’s hutongs.
Moreover, a Ministry of Construction crackdown has raised the compliance rate with the construction code calling for new Beijing buildings to use 65% less energy than their 1980s predecessors to over 90%.
However, even with this success, Li Bingren, chief economist at the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development, notes in a September 21, 2010 China Daily story that heating energy consumption in buildings here will still substantially exceed those in the west.
Fortunately, lots of room still exists for further efficiency gains. For example, heat for most residential buildings is still supplied by coal-fired boilers pumping hot water into radiators, so dwellers cannot lower or turn off the heat when it warms up or they’re out of the house.
An October 2010 University of Nottingham China Policy Institute paper on energy consumption in Chinese buildings states that 7% of the heat here is wasted when people open their windows because they have no way of controlling it themselves.
As incomes continue rising in the capital, Beijingers will demand larger flats with more lighting and electrical gadgets. This makes it imperative for new buildings to allow residents—China’s 2008 Energy Conservation Law mandates that they be charged according to the amount of heat used—to control interior temperatures.
Subsidies could also be given to residents adopting thermal technology products that automatically allocate heat to rooms with different temperature demands.
Lastly, Beijing can be much more aggressive in retrofitting not just siheyuans, but other residential units as well. The National Geographic News article cited earlier notes that Harbin has spent 1.1 million RMB to improve wall insulation and roofing in 2 million square meters of residential buildings.
Many high-rise commercial buildings also waste energy. The University of Nottingham paper notes that while such structures take up just 4% of the floor space of Chinese construction, they account for 22% of the building sector’s energy use, thanks to poor design, especially badly insulated windows.
Unfortunately, as a leading Tsinghua University Professor quoted in an April 3, 2006 story on the Science Ministry headquarters, the granddaddy of Beijing’s “green” office buildings, puts it, “local governments just want fancy post-modern designs you can brag about.”
But the newly completed Parkview Green building on the Dongdaqiao Lu, which sports a slanting environmental shield resembling a giant greenhouse, shows that such structures can be very green. In 2010, it was the first Chinese building to win the prestigious MIPIM Asia “Green Building” award. And just down the Guanghua Lu stands the Prosper Center, Beijing’s first LEED Gold certified building awarded by the U.S. Green Building Council.
While both these buildings were expensive build and are costly to lease, Beijing’s first U.S. Natural Resources Defense Council certified green building, the Science Ministry headquarters, demonstrates that green construction can be less expensive in the short- as well long-run. According to the Christian Science Monitor article on this structure, by avoiding the use of expensive materials, like marble, it cost $700 per square meter to build vs. the $850-1000 per square meter for other government buildings.
Of course Beijing’s construction industry still lacks a green material supply chain and expertise. However, these things will develop as more of these buildings are constructed. And since most factories have already been moved from the capital, Beijing will have to go green in building to do its part in helping China conserve energy.
The following post is an adaptation of a comment I made on my good friend and Chengdu-based American writer Sascha Matuszak’s recent ChengduLiving article about the development of the Chengdu-Chongqing Economic Zone. The comment recalls my own experience of a business trip to one of the smaller cities in the zone: Jiangyou, Sichuan Province:
Thanks for the update on the Chengdu-Chongqing Economic Zone, Sascha. Having been to several of the 3rd and 4th tier cities in Sichuan you mentioned (Suining, Mianyang, Nanchong, etc..) I’ve often wondered how the prosperity in the region’s two dominant cities (Chengdu and Chongqing) would trickle into these other cities as well.
It seems as if most of the young ambitious Chinese people I meet from these cities who now live in Chengdu feel like there is nothing left for them in their hometowns. They also tell me that if they want to move ahead the best opportunities are found in Chengdu or Chongqing.
This isn’t to suggest that Chengdu and Chongqing will continue being the only cities absorbing all the region’s young, educated and ambitious talents. As is clear from what you wrote, the government is pushing for the prosperity to spread throughout the region. And given the enormous combined population of Sichuan Province/Chongqing Municipality at a whopping 110 million people, this is certainly a reasonable plan.
Unfortunately, observations on the ground often tell a different story. About a year and a half ago I was in a city called Jiangyou (famous as the hometown of the poet Li Bai and now actually considered a part of greater Mianyang) to meet with a housing developer for a potential new project. The developer had just finished building a series of faux Italian-style villas on the outskirts of town and reveled in showing us the finished product. No one had moved in yet, but the units were sold out.
Why anyone would buy these villas as anything other than a pure (risky) speculative investment is beyond me. Quality of life couldn’t possibly be a factor. Just outside the gates of the project, the developer drove us around in his brand new Mercedes-Benz to show us what is Jiangyou’s newly planned ‘center’. At this time, it was nothing more than block upon block of empty dirt lots, cleared away for new development. No people in sight except for a few construction workers taking a cigarette break. There were absolutely no amenities in the area and the air full of dust.
The developer then drove us to the real center of Jiangyou about 5km down the road. Finally, signs of life abounded as local residents went about their day in the downtown area. Though the downtown Jiangyou locals didn’t look like they suffered from abject poverty, a brand-new Mercedes with a young laowai passenger inside was enough to stop people in their tracks and turn a lot of heads.
We stepped out of the car and walked through the center of town, which was a series of 1-2 story ramshackle shacks that were destroyed in the 2008 Wenchuan Earthquake. The buildings were too damaged to be safely occupied, yet markets still flourished in the pedestrian street directly in between the collapsed buildings.
The juxtaposition of the physical damage with the bustling life on the street gave the place the feeling of a disaster zone frozen in time. Given the time since the earthquake struck, I wondered why there hadn’t been any progress on clearing out the damage.
I got my answer when the developer took us to Jiangyou’s planning department- a bland, 5-story grey building with peeling paint, typical of government of offices in China’s 3rd and 4th tier towns. Inside the building, there was not a soul in sight in the poorly lit hallways and stairwell until we got up to an office on the 3rd floor that reeked of stale cigarette smoke. A middle-aged man with a baijiu-belly offered us plastic cups of teas leaves with lukewarm water and introduced himself as one of the officials in charge of urban planning for the city. Maps of the city and region covering the walls of his office confirmed his position.
What we found out in that meeting is that despite an outward appearance that would suggest otherwise, the city of Jiangyou is rich. Or rather, the city government is sitting on top of piles of cash that was given to them by the central government as part of the Wenchuan Earthquake rebuilding effort. At that point, there was not much to show for the money they had received except for plans drawn up on paper. So far, our potential client, the developer of the luxury Italian villas had been one of the few in Jiangyou savvy enough to use his connections with the local government to gain favor and build the project, even though it was clear that the money might’ve been used for other, more pressing matters (e.g. clearing the rubble in downtown).
And while the planning official was soliciting master plans for redevelopment of the downtown area, most of the effort was still on developing the ‘new’ center with plans for new government offices and more luxury residential projects. I found it more than unfortunate that this took precedence over rebuilding the place where most of Jiangyou’s population lives.
Upon leaving Jiangyou, my Chinese colleague said something to me akin to “f*ck that guy”, in reference to the developer who showed us around. Apparently there was more going on than I could gather from my limited understanding of Chinese at the time. Yet despite these misunderstandings, the physical state of the city said enough about where the rebuilding money was going.
Ultimately, it is the countless smaller cities like Jiangyou that will determine the future success of China (it is also good to keep in mind that city size is relative, and although Jiangyou is ‘small’ by China standards, the population sits at almost 900,000 people). With the upcoming government leadership change and an economy that begs for an evolution in its level of transparency, the fate of the country lies within its urban areas, especially the ones not on the international or even national radar.
“Public policy, stripped to its basics, is a choice among value alternatives. What one person will vehemently contend is the correct policy and another will say is wrongheaded will not depend on empirical measurement, but on the person’s values, philosophy, and ideology.” – John Kasarda
While in the above quote Kasarda, business professor at UNC-Chapel Hill and co-author of the book Aerotropolis, refers to individual values, the same rule is also applicable to groups and institutions. This is certainly the case in the United States where the government is in the midst of tense negotiations over the so-called ‘debt ceiling’. America’s two main political factions, Republicans and Democrats, are currently at a loss of coming to a consensus due to ideological hangups.
Republicans, who favor severe austerity by cutting social programs yet oppose any sort of tax increases, are unwilling to compromise. The Republicans’ flawed ideological-based approach to solving America’s economic turmoil comes at perhaps one of the worst times in the country’s history with unemployment at an all-time high and millions losing social benefits. Even Vice President Joe Biden recently told Republican lawmakers that their “intransigence over taxes is a matter of ideology not economics“.
The Republicans’ approach to economic recovery is almost perfectly antithetical to what the Chinese government did in their response to the global downturn in 2008. It isn’t that the Chinese government ‘raised taxes’ or increased spending on ‘entitlements’- what they did do was stimulate their domestic economy through ordering banks to lend and beef up spending on national infrastructure and urban development. This ensured that the country kept on pace with modernization and kept its huge population busy and employed even while export manufacturing slowed.
China’s strategy in dealing with economic problems is inherently pragmatic and non-ideological. This may come as a shock to those in the west who still see China as representing a Marxist-based Communist ideology (also see “America’s Dangerously Out-of-Date View of China“). In fact it was Deng Xiaoping, China’s great reformer who famously said that “It doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white as long as it catches mice.”
It is important for those in western countries to understand that if it seems there is still residue of Maoist ideology lingering in China today it is merely rhetorical in nature- used by some in China’s leadership to appease dissatisfaction with class disparity and encourage a collective sense of meaning into its people. Don’t be fooled into thinking that China is in danger of reverting back to a time when intellectuals were forced to labor in the countryside or misinformed ideological-based policies resulted in famines.
Some commentators also predict that China has a ‘Sword of Damocles’ lingering over its head due to over-investment in fixed assets. Their predictions rest on the hope that once China’s economy crashes, it will once and for all prove the victory of the ‘free-market’ ideology over China’s ‘centrally planned’ model. Don’t bet on it.
Using ideology as a means to argue about which economic or political ‘system’ is superior is a relic of Cold-War mentality and completely irrelevant in today’s world. China knows this and other developing nations are starting to pick up on it. Unfortunately many in the west, and especially the United States, still feel they can justify moral superiority with their ‘system’. While in the past falling back on its narrative of ‘land of the free’ has worked for America, paying lip-service to a feigned moral superiority no longer holds as much weight.
Robert Herbold, former chief operating officer of Microsoft, picks up on this notion and writes a wake up call to the U.S. in a recent Wall Street Journal opinion piece titled “China vs. America: Which is the Developing Country?” Like many other executives and high-fliers who spend some time in China, Herbold is amazed by the country’s achievements and dismayed by America’s comparative lack of ambition . He concludes his piece by writing:
“Let’s face it—we are getting beaten because the U.S. government can’t seem to make big improvements. Issues quickly get polarized, and then further polarized by the media, which needs extreme viewpoints to draw attention and increase audience size. The autocratic Chinese leadership gets things done fast (currently the autocrats seem to be highly effective).“
Perhaps more discouraging than Herbold’s observations is the WSJ comments section, with most commenters overwhelmingly disagreeing with his assessment and some even resorting to ad hominem attacks. Despite what these anonymous commenters think, the facts are facts: China is moving ahead while the U.S. is falling behind. Herbold is spot on to call out the polarization of the U.S. government as being the primary reason this is the case.
Polarization within the U.S. government stems from the ideological preoccupation of both the dominant political parties. For instance, Republican lawmakers use the threatening rhetorical meme of ‘socialism‘ to argue their position for fiscal austerity. If taxes are raised and money is spent on public services (or even much-needed improvements to public infrastructure), the Republican theory goes, then the U.S. becomes a socialist state.
The Democrat side for its part has largely turned its back on small business and blue-collar workers: the party’s traditional backbone. Instead, the Democrats have succumbed to interests that work to stifle productive industry: namely the environmental lobby. While pandering to idealistic greens and the ‘knowledge-work will save us‘ cohort, the Democrats have more or less forgotten about the middle-class.
China and the rest of the developing world is not going to wait for America to get its house in order. It would be wise for leaders in both parties to acknowledge this cold hard reality and put aside ideological talking points during this moment of fiscal crisis in America. Unfortunately, that might be too much to ask in a culture which puts so much emphasis on election cycles and side-show campaigning.