Monthly Archives: July 2011

High-Speed Train Derails in Zhejiang Province

In a gigantic blow to the credibility and safety of China’s high-speed rail network, a train traveling from Zhejiang’s provincial capital of Hangzhou to the seaside city of Wenzhou derailed Saturday evening. Details at this point are still developing, but so far reports have said that the train was struck by lightning and then subsequently hit by another train, leading to two of the train’s cars falling from a bridge. So far, 16 passengers are reported dead and 89 injured.

Having ridden on several of China’s new high-speed trains myself makes seeing the wreckage of this accident all that much more surreal. Whether the accident is due to some sort of track or train defect is yet to be determined. If the train was in fact struck by lightning, this could turn out to be a freak accident. If not, then surely there will be further inquiry into the quality of the fly ash which acts as a critical component of the track foundation mixture.

Whatever the cause of the crash, this incident marks a turning point in China’s high-speed rail program. From now on, questions about safety compromises are bound to come to the forefront of the discussion.

I will keep you posted with updates as more information becomes available.

UPDATE:

The death toll is now up to 35, with 210 more injured. It turns out that lighting did strike the first train, D3115 en route from Hangzhou to Fuzhou, causing the train to lose power and come to a stop. Shortly after, D3115 was struck from behind by another train, D301 en route from Beijing to Fuzhou. The crashed caused the first four cars of D301 to derail and fall 20 meters off the viaduct.

Rescue efforts are encouraging, with bystanders and uninjured passengers having offered up immediate assistance before rescue crews arrived at the scene. Hundreds of Wenzhou residents have also donated blood to local hospitals ensuring that blood supply is sufficient for injured passengers.

Whenever tragic transportation accidents happen at this scale, people are quick to assign blame. Already many commentators are pointing to the alleged shoddy quality of the tracks as a reason for this accident. Some even go further suggesting that this is a result of a Chinese culture that doesn’t value quality or safety, pointing to the rampant corruption and food scandals.

At this point it seems that the accident was not a result of shoddy tracks but a miscommunication problem. As soon as train D3115 came to a stop, train D301 and all other trains on that line going in the same direction should’ve been alerted. It’s possible that the lighting strike, which caused D3115 to lose power, also caused it to fall off radar.

Whatever the ultimate cause of the crash, the incident is bound to add fire to the critical voices of high-speed rail development in China.

China Surges Ahead While Ideological Battles Hinder the U.S.

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.

World’s Longest Sea Bridge Opens in Qingdao

To mark the 90th Anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party two weeks ago, the seaside city of Qingdao in Shandong province opened its new Jiaozhou Bay bridge. At 42.4 km, it is the longest sea bridge in the world. The bridge links historic Qingdao with the city’s industrial zone Huangdao.

On the same day, a 9.47 km undersea tunnel also opened linking the two sides together. As Steve Dickinson of the China Law Blog points out: “The completion of the bridge and tunnel fulfills the long term dream of the Qingdao government to fully integrate the two shores of the Jiaozhou Bay.

Dickinson goes onto wonder about the possible redundancy of not one but two links across the bay given the high public expenditures of both these projects. At the end of his post, which is titled Qingdao’s New Bridge As Symbol of China Infrastructure‘, he says:

“Nobody is even sure why either the bridge and the tunnel were built, much less the two of them. The bridge seems to be mostly aimed at connection by highway for goods from the ports and airport and tradezones. The tunnel does not provide access to any of this. The high toll for the tunnel means that it will not be used for normal surface transport (private cars and taxis). So why was it built? No one has ever been able to provide me with an explanation. Why was the bridge built at the WIDEST part of the bay? Why was it built when it only provides a 10 minute improvement in travel time? Why was it built with no attention to access and exit? Why were the connecting highways not improved? Who knows.”

Dickinson touches upon what is potentially the most contentious issue about China’s infrastructure: the seldom examined cost/benefit analysis of these new projects. At this point the world knows that China can ‘get it done’ when it comes to building large-scale infrastructure projects. There is no lack of political will or labor to undertake such ambitious plans. Yet lost in the speed of getting these new projects built is a rigorous analysis of the ultimate benefits for what could turn out to be a series of boondoggles.

That is not to suggest that this is not to be expected, especially given that China is a still a developing country. Surely, many of the infrastructure projects will have tremendous benefit now and in the future. I also posit that to some extent China’s leaders are aware of potential labor shortages in the future. As China’s aspiring middle-class urban dwellers move up the value chain, and as the one-child policy begins to take a toll on the country’s youthful demographics, cheap labor will become more scarce.

Given this reality, China appears to be taking an approach that puts speed and ambition above all other considerations, waiting to deal with the details later on.  In a sense, this is a cultural phenomenon: creating an environment of rapid growth to ensure social stability and avoid the internal chaos that is still all too near in memory.

A Guide to China’s Rising Urban Areas

Source: Demographia World Urban Areas: Population & Projections: 6th Edition. http://demographia.com/db-worldua.pdf
 

I have a new piece up at NewGeography about China’s rising urban areas. Below is an excerpt from the introduction:

From a Rural to Urban Dispersion in the Middle Kingdom

China’s rise to economic prominence over the past 30 years has rested in large part to its rapid    urbanization. Prior to ‘reform and opening up’ that started in earnest during the 1970s, cities in China were viewed as pariahs by the party leadership. Millions of young urban dwellers were forced into the countryside to labor on farming communes during the Cultural Revolution. In stark contrast, today millions of rural migrants make their way to the city.

The scale at which this is happening is unprecedented. Currently, there are 85 metropolitan areas in China with more than 1 million people, compared to 51 in the US. By 2015, urban regions will account for half of China’s population and by 2025, the urban population’s share should reach about 75%.

To date, international attention has remained fixated on China’s largest cities of Beijing and Shanghai (and to a lesser extent, Guangzhou and Shenzhen). This is not without good reason, as Beijing and Shanghai are not only the respective government and financial centers of mainland China, but both were host to two of the most visible world events of the past decade: the 2008 Summer Olympics and the recently concluded World Expo.

Second and Third-Tier Cities Enter Onto the World Stage

Increasingly, however, the real trajectory of urban growth is shifting to China’s so-called ‘second-tier’ and ‘third-tier’ cities. To the outside observer, China’s lesser-known cities might seem all too similar to one another given the monotonous aesthetic of their newly constructed cityscapes. Indeed, the newfound appearance of Chinese cities is a point of contention among local urban development scholars who are concerned about the converging ‘identical faces’ of these urban areas.

Yet to Chinese locals and foreigners who have spent some time living here, it Chinese cities are defined more by their local cuisine, dialect, history, geography, culture and climate rather than their architectural character. These often-overlooked nuances of local culture are much more essential to the identity of these cities than buildings. In the future, these distinctions may prove more effective in attracting investment and talent than flashy new construction projects.

To continue reading about these cities please click here.

Torrential Rains and Flooding in Chengdu

It’s been a rough start to the summer season for provinces in central and southwest China. Torrential rain and floods have affected millions, destroying crops and forcing many to evacuate their homes. Chengdu was largely spared any flooding up until this past Sunday when a heavy storm dumped on the city.

The storm blew out power lines while the flooded streets created traffic chaos throughout the city. My colleague took some photos of the flooding near his apartment in the low-lying southern part of Chengdu.

Some drivers mistakenly judged water levels and got stuck in the middle of flooded streets.

The storm drainage system in this part of the city couldn’t handle the huge quantities of rain that came down in such a short time period – resulting in covers being pushed off the tops of manholes. The girl in the above picture had the misfortune of unknowingly stepping into one of those holes. Luckily a nearby man came and rescued her before anything more serious happened.

Even though Chengdu experienced some flooding, the real damage took place in the more rural parts of Sichuan province. In Yingxiu county, flooding brought down part of a bridge, stranding villagers. Video of the dramatic rescue can be seen here.