Q&A With Author of “The People’s Republic of Chemicals”

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Nothing threatens the stability of China’s economic miracle more than the hazardous levels of pollution generated by rapid development. The rise of the private automobile, unregulated toxic factories, and the widespread use of coal-burning as an energy source have all contributed to environmental degradation across China’s cities. While in the past, these issues were swept under the rug in favor of economic growth at all costs, the rise in living standards means that China’s leadership can no longer ignore the concerns of the people they serve.

China is now at a crucial turning point where economic goals must be balanced with considerations for the environment going forward. This is not an easy problem to tackle and the solution will require a global effort.

The new book The People’s Republic of Chemicals serves as an excellent starting point in understanding how China’s pollution problem got so out of hand in the first place and what can be done to stop it (or at least slow it down). The book’s co-authors, William Kelly and Chip Jacobs, are appropriate storytellers having together written the 2008 book Smogtown about the rise and fall of pollution in mid-century Los Angeles.

William took the time to answer some questions for us about their new book:

Adam Mayer (AM): As you observe in your previous book, Smogtown, Los Angeles has done a good job of cleaning up its air in a relatively short amount of time. Aside from the rise of use of catalytic converters for cars, how much does this have to do with the fact that L.A. is no longer a manufacturing powerhouse for the aerospace industry? Using L.A. as an example to learn from, how can China move away from manufacturing to services without sending shockwaves through its economy?

William Kelly (WK): In history, sixty years seems like a short time, but for those who lived it in Los Angeles it seemed like forever, especially for the roughly 10 percent of the population that suffers from asthma and other chronic respiratory diseases. And bear in mind the air in Los Angeles is still unhealthful, though much less so than even in the 1990s.

Aerospace really was a fairly minor source of air pollution in Los Angeles and its downsizing had more to do with the end of the Cold War, consolidation in the industry and the rise of Airbus and other competitors around the world. However, like virtually every other source of air pollution it was regulated and required to follow best practices and use the cleanest technology available. The fact is that around 1990, the LA area needed to cut emissions about 80 percent to meet health standards and to do that all sources had to be controlled. So the effort went far beyond the catalytic converter which was first required in the 1970s.

But without digressing, China can learn much from Los Angeles and California, but replacing manufacturing with services is not the answer. Instead, cleaning up the sources of energy in China is the key task that will bring the biggest environmental improvements, as well as much better control and treatment of waste byproducts from manufacturing that also pollute water, soil, and air.

The tragic thing we’re seeing now is that with the U.S. pushing the TransPacific Partnership trade agreement, we may replicate what happened environmentally in China in the 1990s in Vietnam, Malaysia, and other underdeveloped nations by helping to set up manufacturing that will be all coal powered. The coal plants in those nations already are being built in anticipation of the trade agreement.

AM: One of the more recent developments in China is the proliferation of citizen protests against new chemical factories. In your research, did you find this phenomenon to be widespread? How is the government (both local governments and the central government) reacting to these protests?

WK: The protests have been widespread, persistent, and often violent. The reason stems from fear of releases, particularly potentially catastrophic releases from chemical plants, but at the root is distrust of the public officials charged with regulating these plants.

Here’s a fact Americans might find hard to believe. In a nation with more than three times as many people as in the U.S., the Chinese equivalent to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has fewer people than work at the Natural Resources Defense Council, a few hundred. That’s in a nation that covers more land area than the U.S. too. Obviously that’s inadequate.

So as a result, the enforcement of standards largely falls on local and provincial government personnel, who are under the thumb of local and provincial Communist Party officials who are constantly wined and dined, if not controlled by industrialists. The common people know this, so they feel left to their own devices when these plants come to town.

The key to gaining trust here is for the national government to build up its capacity to enforce environmental laws and standards and for the national government to exert more control over provincial and local party officials by making their compensation and promotion contingent on environmental as well as economic performance.

AM: Perhaps most detrimental to China’s air quality is the widespread use of coal-burning as a power source. Given China’s growing demand for energy, and the cheap cost of coal as a resource, what are the necessary steps that the country needs to take to incentivize cleaner sources of energy? Is this already happening? If so, how?

WK: First, coal is the biggest cause of air pollution in China, particularly the terrible particle pollution we see in the pictures.

Solving the problem, therefore, is easy as ABC, anything but coal. Fortunately, China’s historic strength is in bringing technologies to scale, from the canals and roads of the dynastic days, to the great outpouring of digital devices we see today.

Now the nation is successfully turning to solar and wind power, where it’s become a leading nation both in manufacturing solar panels and wind turbines, and also deploying them in its grid. Indeed, China is the world’s biggest solar panel manufacturer.

Now, it’s beginning to do the same by turning to advanced batteries to store intermittent renewable power so it will be there at night and when the air is still. Coupled with the energy efficiency inherent in denser, urban living in small quarters we can hardly fathom in the U.S., China could be the next nation after Germany to get huge amounts of energy from renewable sources. In fact, it’s happening most energy analysts agree.

All that the Chinese have to do is follow Deng’s advice, to “be brave” and “walk with faster steps” when it comes to moving to renewable energy and to drop further development of coal.

AM: Looking ahead, do you think that urbanization will eventually lead to a better environment in China? In other words, once the new cities are built and the infrastructure is in place, will we look back on the last 3 decades as a small sacrifice paid for what could ultimately be a sustainable urban future with an intelligent grid, efficient public transit and green buildings? Or has the pace and scale of urbanization taken a toll on the environment that can never be rectified?

WK: When it comes to what China is doing with public transit, housing, and amenities for its people, one could argue it puts the U.S. to shame. In many ways, we have much to learn.

Clearly, even the casual visitor can see China is making a lot of the right moves on transportation and urbanization, moves that are setting it on a path when it’s fully developed toward much lower emissions per capita than in the U.S.

The danger is, however, that continuing to rely on coal to build out its cities will do irreparable harm to the world’s atmosphere by pushing up carbon levels to the point that triggers runaway global warming. The Chinese leadership ultimately is coming to grips with this, but needs to embark on a crash program to transition to clean energy.

Given their great communitarian tradition and amazing technical ingenuity—remember they had vastly superior technology to Europe even at the time of Marco Polo—the Chinese are fully capable of doing this, in fact leading the world on it. The ability is there, all they need to do is muster the resolve.

Many thanks to William Kelly for taking the time to answer these questions for us. Please be sure to read their new book The People’s Republic of Chemicals.

5 Questions for Shaun Rein, Author of “The End of Copycat China”

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More can happen in two years in a developing country like China than can happen in a decade or more in developed countries. And given this high speed of change, the information in business books about China’s economy can go out of date really fast.

That is why it is not surprising that although it has only been a little over two years since China analyst Shaun Rein released his first book, The End of Cheap China, he is back with another one. In that time span, China got a new leader in Xi Jinping, the one-child policy was significantly reformed, and Alibaba, the country’s biggest internet company, went public on the New York Stock Exchange.

The End of Copycat China is a natural follow up to End of Cheap China (which we featured a review of on this blog not long ago) and looks to build upon the research he’s been doing for the past decade on the ground in China.

I recently had a chance to chat with Rein about his new book and ask some questions about what he’s seen change in the past two years and, more importantly, the trends he sees influencing China’s development in the near future.

Adam Mayer (AM): Your previous book The End of Cheap China asserted that China is moving up the value chain from a land of cheap manufacturing to higher-end manufacturing and services. Since then, how have your initial observations been validated? Where is China today versus when you were doing research for your first book?

Shaun Rein (SR): When End of Cheap China first was released, many critics pounced on me and said that China would always be a low-cost manufacturing center. Over the last three years, however, my thesis has been proven right as labor and rents have gone up in double digits year on year in the manufacturing sector — China no longer is a cheap place to produce products. Companies like Nike have started sourcing more from even cheaper markets like Vietnam and Chinese footwear manufacturers like Huajian have opened factories in Africa.  When even the Chinese relocate to Africa in search of lower costs, that is when you know there is a tectonic shift in supply chains needed.

I also argued in End of Cheap China that China would not lose its manufacturing dominance because it has superior infrastructure and the necessary eco-system for manufacturing — I said that Chinese firms would move up the value chain which they have done. What might surprise people is just how fast many companies moved up the value chain. They are no longer transferring technology from western nations like Germany and the U.S. but actually focused on innovation which is where my new book begins.

AM: The title of your new book The End of Copycat China also suggests the ‘end’ of something China is known for (intellectual property transfer in this case) as a signal for its next phase of development. Is the perception of China as a land of copycats still a reality?

SR: Chinese firms were copycats for the most part of the last thirty years. The main reason was that there was so much low-hanging fruit to simply transfer technology from the West directly into China and to customize if needed for local markets. It was easy for well-connected (and corrupt) people to get land on the cheap and put up skyscrapers or secure long-term monopolies supplying various government agencies. But now that costs are so high and the public equity markets are giving high valuations to innovative Chinese firms like Alibaba and Tencent, Chinese companies are focusing on innovation more and more — it would be a mistake to discount their ability to innovate. This is a natural progression to what happening in South Korea and Japan.

Yesterday I was at Lotte World Amusement Park in Seoul. From the term ‘cast members’ to Indiana Jones look-alikes, even Lotte is seemingly knocking off Disney and the George Lucas/ Stephen Spielberg franchise.

Intellectual property was and remains a concern so it did not make sense for companies to invest millions of dollars in innovation because someone would likely steal it. When I interviewed top entrepreneurs in the book — and I interviewed the founders of JD.com, Qunar, Tudou for instance as well as the former CEO of Alibaba.com and an angel investor in Xiaomi — property rights and lack of enforced was an issue many brought up towards a barrier for innovation in China.  That said, the situation is getting better as the government is more likely to move to protect the interests of domestic Chinese firms hurt by copyright infringement than western players.

AM: Is there now a broad consensus among policymakers and business leaders in China that the country must innovate in order to continue on its path of economic reform? What are some examples of businesses or policies you’ve come across in your research that align with this goal?

SR: The Chinese government has definitely set the goal of innovative businesses taking up a larger part of the economy. Local governments are setting up innovation parks, like they did with the IT parks a business generation ago. Frankly, I am not sure that these initiatives will work as great innovation tends to occur in the private sector, often in small teams of entrepreneurs who think they can change the world. Chinese bureaucrats despite good intentions often do not understand and thus do not support new technologies which can hamper innovation.

That said, one sector that the government actively supports for innovation and which is seeing great growth is the bio-tech sector. Probably more than any sector I interviewed, except maybe mobile, biotech entrepreneurs were the most optimistic in China precisely because of the support the Chinese government is giving the sector from funding, equipment and opportunity to cooperate with academic institutions. Many said that the climate is better in China than in the US because of Obama administration funding cutbacks.

AM: Apple famously touts its products as “Designed in California, Assembled in China”.  This statement implies superior innovation power over Chinese counterparts. Yet with domestic Chinese businesses such as Tencent and Alibaba becoming more confident as innovators in their own right, what are the implications for Western businesses who have always felt safe in their role as the ‘innovators’ while using China as a factory?

SR: For years the ‘Made in China’ label had negative connotations as being cheap, dangerous. For much of the market that is true but can no longer work going forward. The first half of my book is focused on innovation — the second half is looking at consumer trends and how Chinese are moving away from copycatting the western dream of beauty and life as they define the new Chinese dream.

Importantly, there is a new found pride in Chinese-ness. Top Chinese firms like Xiaomi and Tencent are not hiding their Chinese heritage — Chinese consumers love it, support that move. For western companies, they need to understand that top Chinese firms are going to become global players competing on innovation and no longer the cheap but good enough positioning many Chinese companies competed with before.

AM: Your last book devoted an entire chapter to the real estate industry in China. To what extent does your new book discuss this topic and what are the implications for real estate as China’s economy shifts from one of manufacturing to services?

SR: Real estate plays a key theme in my book — including the high rents that are forcing retailers to think about e-commerce. The real estate sector in China obviously has some issues but they are not as serious as many analysts seem to fret. Prices might soften in the residential sector but there is little leverage in the marketplace. I am more concerned about some of the commercial developments that have gone up in the past few years because developers put too many Louis Vuitton stores as the anchors. The market can only sustain so many LV stores, especially with the anti-corruption crackdown.

But real estate is actually pushing forward a lot of innovation. I had an interview set up with Zhang Xin the CEO of Soho but it got cancelled last minute so I wasn’t able to include anything on Soho in the new book. But pollution has become such a problem in China that it is developers like Soho that are investing in the newest forms of technology for cleaning air, reducing carbon footprints. Chinese real estate developers are really at the clean technology forefront.

Thanks to Shaun Rein for taking the time to answer some questions for us. Please be sure to check out his new book The End of Copycat China.

Hong Kong Protests & The Role of the City

View over Victoria Harbor towards Central- the center of the pro-democracy protests

Hong Kong is an unlikely setting for massive political protests. The city, known for its open global trading culture, is a paragon of economic freedom. Yet many would argue that the economic freedom enjoyed by Hong Kong’s citizens has not kept pace with the level of political freedom.

Case in point: at the time of this writing, pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong have taken over the city; spilling over from the city’s central business district of Central into the neighborhoods of Causeway Bay and to Mong Kok across the harbor in Kowloon. Prompting this unprecedented massive protest was the Chinese Central Government’s decision last month to allow only committee-approved candidates to run for Chief Executive (Hong Kong’s highest political office) in what was supposed to be the city’s first public vote in 2017.

Beijing’s decision to vet Chief Executive candidates before they are permitted to run for office sent a signal to Hong Kong citizens that perhaps the Central Government is not fully comfortable embracing the idea of ‘One Country, Two Systems‘. That being said, while on the surface this appears to be primarily a political protest, underlying much of the frustration of protestors are economic issues resulting from a flood of Mainland wealth entering Hong Kong.

To understand why this may be the case, it is important to look at Hong Kong as a ‘city’ first rather than a former British Colony and current Special Administrative Region of China.

As anyone who has visited the city knows, Hong Kong is one of the most compelling urban places in the world. Spanning across Victoria Harbor, from Hong Kong Island to the Kowloon Peninsula and beyond to the New Territories, the city’s natural geographical setting is stunning. Add to that the forest of svelte skyscrapers against a backdrop of steep mountains and you get a visual dynamism that is unmatched by any other city.

Urbanistically, Hong Kong functions like a well-oiled machine. The always on-time metro system spans to the far reaches of the city and mixed-use developments everywhere promote lively street-level activity. The city’s airport is one of the most well-connected and efficient in the world. The tourism/hospitality industry is gold standard and booming.

Given all the assets possessed by the city, what then is Hong Kong’s problem?

Short answer: the cost of living is out of control.

In a sense, Hong Kong is a victim of its own success. Thanks to its open banking system, global capital flows into the city relentlessly. Investment in Hong Kong property, primarily from wealthy buyers from Mainland China, drives up the price of real estate to astronomical levels out of reach for most locals.

Exacerbating the housing affordability crisis in Hong Kong is the lack of land to build new real estate to meet the high demand. Demographer Wendell Cox’s research has even found Hong Kong to be the world’s most unaffordable housing market.

The protests in Hong Kong are directed at the Chinese Central Government, but they might as well be directed at China’s capital flows into the city. To put it into perspective, this is a semi-autonomous highly developed city of 7 million, adjacent to a developing country of 1.3 billion. Hong Kong is the closest safe harbor for wealthy Mainlanders to put their money. On top of that, millions of Chinese tourists come to Hong Kong each year to go on shopping sprees, buying luxury goods, sales-tax free, that would be more expensive to purchase in the Mainland.

Given the severity of the situation, it is no wonder that native Hong Kong citizens are taking to the streets in protest. Yet as Hong Kong is already a relatively free city, unfortunately I do not think that more ‘democracy’ will help the solve the problems that Hong Kong protestors are most concerned about (cost of living, loss of cultural identity, etc…).

On the contrary, the solution for the city’s woes would be for the rest of China to become more like Hong Kong. That is- more global, economically open and possessing a banking system that investors can trust. Mainland China is not there yet, but proposed initiatives such as merging the Pearl River Delta into an interconnected ‘mega-region’ and the Shangahi Free-Trade Zone are steps in the right direction.

Ultimately the point is to take the pressure off Hong Kong. This could be achieved by making other cities in China, such as Shenzhen or Shanghai, more open economically, so that capital flows more freely through the Mainland.

The Chinese government up until now has hesitated in doing this. Perhaps the protests in Hong Kong will be a wake-up call to speed up reform. My feeling is that this will happen eventually and hopefully sooner than later.

China Regional Urbanization Trends: 2014 Edition

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) shared with us their new study on “China’s Urban Dreams 2014” – an update on the country’s urbanization program. With all the uncertainty about China’s property sector in the news recently, this in depth analysis gives some clarity to the often murky topic of Chinese development.

While Western media tends to paint China with one large brushstroke when discussing the country’s property sector, the reality is that real estate markets vary greatly from region to region. China, like the U.S., is a large, diverse country with many different cities and regions with varying strengths and weaknesses. If there is one takeaway from the EIU study, it’s that not all regions are created equally, and going forward, there are bound to be winners and losers.

Before we delve into the details of regional urbanization trends, let’s take a look at where China as a nation stands today. The country’s urbanization ratio is right around 50%, pretty much on target with the Chinese government’s projections. China’s per capita GDP is still relatively low- above India and Nigeria but below Brazil, Russia, and South Africa. Of course, China’s enormous population is a contributing factor to this being the case.

By 2020, the Chinese Government wants to bump up urbanization to 60%.  This will require another 100 million people in cities. It is important to keep in mind though, that this will not only be a result of migrants explicitly “moving” to the city, but urban boundaries continuing to expand into the surrounding countryside. As cities grow in China they annex the land around them, transforming once rural land into urban real estate.

Another key factor in meeting urbanization targets is household registration (hukou) reform, which would help afford migrants a form of permanent residence status in a given city.

Where will these 100 million new urban residents live in 2020 and beyond? According to the EIU study, Guangdong Province will pick up the lion’s share of new urban development. This is not surprising given that the Pearl River Delta region is already the most urbanized in the entire world and is further developing in a manner to help better integrate the region as a whole.

Central province Henan is also urbanizing rapidly, as is the Beijing-adjacent province of Hebei. Yet both of these provinces won’t reach the urban populations projected for coastal provinces Shandong and Jiangsu.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is projected that the direct-controlled municipalities of Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin will have the highest rates of urbanization by 2030. The Central Government has made it a priority to integrate Beijing, Tianjin and the adjacent province of Hebei into one large mega-region of 100 million people called “Jing-Jin-Ji“. The aim here is to take pressure off of Beijing, which suffers from traffic gridlock, pollution and astronomical housing prices.

Along with the announcement of the formation of the Jing-Jin-Ji mega-region was a move by Hebei Provincial officials announcing that some of Beijing’s Central Government functions will move to the city of Baoding, 150 km southeast Beijing. Although specifics have yet to be articulated, this is a clear indication that the China plans to decentralize its government functions.

WEB - Victoria Lai - Access China - Demographics.inddOverall it looks as if the coastal areas of China will continue to urbanize at high rates while inland regions lag a bit behind. Although there is a wave of manufacturing moving from coastal areas to inland provinces, there still appears to be a logistical advantage being on the coast. To see where China is heading, perhaps it is best to look at the Pearl River Delta, which has led the way since initial economic reform and continues to lead the way today.

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.

Interview With Ole Bouman, Curator of the 2013 Shenzhen Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism/Architecture

Value Factory 161The “Value Factory”: Site of the 2013 Bi-City Biennale of Urbansim/Architecture

The 2013 Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism/Architecture is now underway in Shenzhen and Hong Kong. Open until the end of February 2014, the event is the world’s only biennale exhibition based exclusively on the themes of urbanism and urbanization. Now in it’s 5th edition, the Bi-City Biennale takes place across one of the world’s most dynamic economic regions, exploring not only the dichotomy between Hong Kong and Shenzhen, but the larger issues facing urbanization in China (something this blog is always very excited about discussing).

The Creative Director for this year’s Bi-City Biennale is Dutch Curator Ole Bouman. Mr. Bouman answered a few questions about the Biennale for the CUD Blog discussing some of the relevant issues surrounding this year’s event:

Adam Mayer (AM): Hong Kong, Shenzhen and the greater Pearl River Delta is arguably the world’s most dynamic urban region at the moment. What does it meant to curate a Biennale in a place that is very much “of the now” in terms of economic might versus a city like Venice which, while it lingers in our collective cultural imagination, is long past its primacy as a mercantile power center?

Ole Bouman (OB): To work in Shekou, at the heart of the Pearl River Delta conundrum, gives a chance to position this biennale as a real urban laboratory, with real implications for Shenzhen, but perhaps also with effects on the practice of urbanism in China. We have been given a chance to work on the scale of the city, with real investors, real owners, real users. This is only possible when the city is still a battlefield, not a museum. In Venice, history is the background of an event. In Shenzhen, you can make urban history.

AM: The main site for the Biennale is the “Value Factory” – a repurposed space in what used to be the Guangdong Float Glass Factory in the Shekou area of Shenzhen, which operated from 1987 to 2009. Considering that little more than 30 years ago Shenzhen was nothing more than an ambitious economic experiment on paper, how does the city come to terms with such a rapid progression from industrial development to post-industrial metropolis?

OB: In many different ways, of course. And to some extent it doesn’t come to terms at all, because the terms are changing themselves so rapidly. Under the current dynamic conditions, city development happens by stealth almost by definition. Nevertheless, I have been working with people with a growing awareness of the historical opportunities; they increasingly work with a helicopter view which enables them to set up urban relations that matter. That’s also why I am very happy we could realize a panorama deck on top of the factory which reveals all the frictions and storylines at a glance.

AM: Shenzhen is often derided within China as a cultural desert especially when compared with the more traditional cultural centers of the country such as Beijing, Xi’an and Chengdu. How does Shenzhen combat this reputation?

OB: I know this reputation. It can be related to the first stage of an arrival city. And in that sense, time will tell how it matures. But Shenzhen even now is certainly no cultural desert, unless you think that culture is a matter of consuming cultural products. For me essential to Shenzhen is its pioneering mentality. It is about the culture of creating new things, rather than the celebration of creations of the past. What is the meaning of monuments, when you are actually able to make them? What is the meaning of art, when you are able to create it? What is the meaning of theater, when you actually a protagonist yourself everyday?

Ole Bouman, directeur NAI, Rotterdam, 9.3.2012Ole Bouman, Curator and Creative Director of the Biennale

AM: The Biennale takes place across the Mainland China/Hong Kong border. As a Bi-City event, how does the Biennale reflect the sometimes contentious yet symbiotic relationship between the two very different cities of Hong Kong and Shenzhen?

OB: This year I find this relationship different from previous years. Shenzhen got back to using the Biennale as an urban catalyst. It is enormously ambitious but not as a goal in itself. In Hong Kong the biennale also “performs” in a certain way, but more as filter of urban dynamics than as an agent, as far as I can see. On the other hand, in Hong Kong already this filter is enough for serious protests against it.

AM: In Shenzhen’s aspiration to become a global metropolis, several prominent Western architects such as Steven Holl, Rem Koolhaas and BIG have had an opportunity to leave their mark on the city. Moving into the future, do you see Shenzhen continuing to invite architects from the West to design its marquee buildings or will we see more homegrown, Shenzhen-based architects contributing to the urban fabric of the city?

OB: I don’t believe the architects you refer to “leave their mark on the city”. Maybe they do “on the skyline” of a specific neighborhood. But Shenzhen is already way too developed to be reduced to architecture. The urban dynamics are excruciating. The city is exactly doing what a city should be doing in the first place: to work as an emancipation machine, to help people make a living. I am convinced that architects can play a very important role in facilitating this process and I also think that local architects are very able to do so as well.

Many thanks to Mr. Bouman for taking time out of his busy schedule to answer some questions for us. For more information about the 2013 Bi-City Biennale of Urbansim/Architecture please visit the following link: http://en.szhkbiennale.org/

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The State of Seismic Safety in China

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The 7.0-earthquake in Ya’an, Sichuan Province this past April once again brought up the topic of construction quality in China. Images of crumbled buildings also reminded the world of the devastation that overcame the very same region 5 years ago when more than 70,000 people perished in the 2008 Wenchuan Earthquake.

Amazingly, the loss of life in the Ya’an quake was markedly smaller at only 200 (granted, so was the severity of the quake, but 7.0 is magnitude still a very significant tremor). Ideally, the goal of seismic building safety is to minimize casualties, thus April’s earthquake proved that China is stepping it up in the right direction.

I have a unique perspective on the issue having spent 2 years living and working in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan. And given my position working on the inside of China’s construction boom, industry colleagues and acquaintances outside China frequently inquired about the country’s building safety standards.

The reality is that the discussion of building safety in China is complex. Back in architecture school, our structural engineering professor liked to remind us that “earthquakes don’t kill people, structurally deficient buildings do”. This tends to true, both in Sichuan and other seismically active regions around the world. And while China is generally known for questionable regulations and safety standards, Chinese building codes definitely do not allow any sort of leeway with structural safety.

That being said, it is important to note that an architect and structural engineer can design a building to be structurally sound but the final product will only be as good as the quality of construction, which is ultimately the responsibility of the general contractor. Provided the contractor follows architectural and structural drawings as designed, there should be no concern over seismic safety. Yet the process is never that simple.

By Western standards, construction administration in China is a rather opaque process for a designer. Final decisions during construction are made by owner and contractor without much input from the architect. This can cause issues with oversight, especially with the more unscrupulous contractors and owners who “skim off the top” by switching out building materials for inferior product at the last moment and pocket the difference in price.

While this is an unfortunate practice, the consequences are much less severe when applied to finish materials versus structural materials. Virtually all of the buildings that collapsed in both Sichuan earthquakes were a result of unreinforced masonry construction, meaning that builders stacked bricks or concrete blocks without using sufficient (or any) steel reinforcing bar (rebar). Furthermore, most of these buildings were located in rural towns where they were probably built by individuals not formally trained in construction techniques. This isn’t an excuse, but rather a reflection of a country that is still developing.

Further highlighting the urban/rural gap in China is the fact that in both Sichuan earthquakes, Chengdu proper suffered minimal damage comparatively to its surrounding countryside. And with the mad frenzy of construction going on in the city, never once did I see a cause for concern with the structural reliability of city’s new buildings. In fact, the new high-rise buildings rising in Chengdu’s core fared well in April’s earthquake.

So while there is still improvement to be made in construction processes and techniques, especially in the more rural areas of China, my feeling is that safety standards are only getting better. The architecture and engineering professions in China, as well as government authorities, take seismic safety very seriously and do not lack the know-how in designing and building safe buildings.

The 2008 Wenchuan Earthquake was a wake up call, but given how far China has come in terms of development, there is a very good chance that this will have been the last catastrophic seismic event in country.

INFOGRAPHIC: China’s $250 Billion Education Budget

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Why is Zaha Hadid Being Copied in China?

Zaha_copied in ChinaZaha Hadid’s Wangjing SOHO design (left). Chongqing Meiquan 22nd Century design (right). Image from AFP.

Earlier this year, the architecture world was in shock after a story made the rounds that a Zaha Hadid designed project in Beijing is being pirated by a developer in Chongqing. What’s surprising about this story is not the actual copying of Hadid’s design but the reaction from the design media, as if this is the first incidence of architectural piracy in China.

Of course this is not the case as building designs are routinely copied in China. However, what makes this instance unique is that while Hadid’s design (Wangjing SOHO) is still under construction, the copied version (Chongqing Meiquan 22nd Century) is set to complete first. Pan Shiyi, Board Chairman of SOHO China, Hadid’s client, has not kept quiet about his disapproval, and is now taking legal action against the developers in Chongqing.

This situation brings up the reoccurring discussion about authenticity (or lack thereof) in China. It is no secret that China ‘learns by imitation’ in everything from product design to software development. In the realm of architecture, it is not uncommon to come across functioning replicas of famous buildings from history (like the Chrysler Building, Sydney Opera House, or the entire Austrian Village of Hallstatt) in China’s cities.

Hadid’s office speculates that perhaps someone got hold of their plans for Wangjing SOHO to produce the copy. Yet having seen Chinese architects in action, it would not be far-fetched to speculate that the designers of Chongqing Meiquan 22nd Century saw nothing more than a computer rendering of Hadid’s project on the internet to generate something of similar likeness.

Architects around the world learn from other architects. Websites like ArchDaily are a great resource for architects to promote their work and for other architects to get inspired. Like professional writers, there is an unspoken ethical code among architects about borrowing from other designers: re-using certain ideas or building elements is ok, even flattering at times, but outright plagiarism is never ok.

This code of design ethics doesn’t exist (yet) in China. As is often the case, copying a famous design from another architect can be a good strategy in getting approval from a Chinese client or local government official. In response to the accusation of copying, developer Chongqing Meiquan even said “never meant to copy, only want to surpass.”

This response is very telling of where the value of architectural design lies today in China. While it could be argued that China is still in its “learning phase” of development, it is starting to become clear that the country’s ambitions lie much further beyond not only being the ‘biggest’ but the ‘best’ – even if that means using dishonorable means to get there.

Interview with Bianca Bosker, Author of New Book “Original Copies: Architectural Mimicry in Contemporary China”

BBoskerBook

The widespread pirating of architectural motifs in China’s developing urban landscape is a well-documented phenomenon. From Alpine Villages to starchitect-designed superstructures, Chinese builders often seem to have no shame in copy and pasting designs originating from far away places.

This perplexing and culturally intriguing topic is the subject of a new book by Bianca Bosker, Executive Tech Editor for The Huffington Post. Original Copies: Architectural Mimicry in Contemporary China (University of Hawaii, 2013) examines the trend of “duplitecture” in China – the construction of monumental, themed communities that replicate the cities and towns of the West, frequently drawing on historical European archetypes.

Bianca was nice enough to answer some questions to help give us a better idea of what her book is about:

Adam Mayer (AM): What prompted you to write a book about architectural mimicry in China and how did you become interested in this topic? What message are you trying to convey by writing this book beyond showcasing the fact that China likes to copy buildings?

Bianca Bosker (BB): My interest in this architectural movement started during a research trip to China when I first discovered Shanghai’s “One City, Nine Towns” plan, an urban planning initiative devised by local officials that called for ringing the metropolis with ten satellite communities each built as a full-scale replica of a foreign city and designed to house hundreds of thousands of inhabitants. German architects were commissioned to build the German-themed town; British architects were tapped to design ye olde, English-style “Thames Town,” and so forth for the Italian, Scandinavian, Dutch and other European-style towns. The experience of visiting these communities is, to quote the slogan of one of the residential communities, “Out of expectation with common sense.”

I was intrigued by how at odds these developments were with the futuristic, hyper-modern skyscrapers being built – and touted—in China’s metropolises; how dramatically these communities split with China’s own rich architectural traditions; and the gulf between the excitement among developers, residents and officials for these themescapes on the one hand, and the disdain with which they were regarded by many critics and architects on the other. My quest to understand why these were being built – and what they could tell us about the makeup of the 21st century “Chinese dream” – is what led me to my book.

The goal of Original Copies, which takes readers inside the homes in these communities and into the minds of the officials and architects that built them, is to explain what factors have given rise to China’s en-masse importation of Western landscapes, right down to statues of Winston Churchill and Venice’s Saint Mark’s square, and what it means. The message is also that these buildings speak to an important inflection point in contemporary China from closed-off, top-down society to one where individuals are increasingly able to exercise small levers of power and individual choice. And that this architectural movement, which on the surface appears to many observers a sign of China’s infatuation with the West, are actually are monuments to China’s achievements and progress, not to the West’s.

“The hardware may be all Western,” explained a resident of Shanghai’s Thames Town, “but the software is all Chinese.”

AM: Is it fair to criticize China for being a copycat when the U.S. does the same thing (e.g. Las Vegas) with architectural styles from around the world? Is co-opting European stylistic motifs simply just a universal desire for the aspiring global nouveau riche class?

BB: You’re absolutely right to highlight the U.S.’s own lengthy tradition of copying European architectural prototypes, from Italian palazzos to English Gothic designs. The campuses of Princeton and Yale were knockoffs of Oxford and Cambridge in their own way. And before we try to criticize China for building a “Beverly Hills” development or “Venice Water Town” (in Chongqing and Hangzhou, respectively) we might consider New York state is home to towns like Ithaca, Athens and Troy. (The book, I would also note, isn’t focused on casting a value judgment on China’s copycat architecture, but rather explaining why it exists).

However, there are a few important differences between Las Vegas and the “duplitecture” in China. For one thing, Las Vegas is a tourist destination that offers temporary admission into a fantasy experience, while China’s themed communities are homes. Developments such as Stratford or Rancho Santa Fe are living, breathing neighborhoods where Chinese families raise children and live out their lives. What’s surprising about China’s architectural imitation is also the scrupulousness with which communities have been copied and the foreign origins of the originals, like Versailles and Orange County, that are being imitated. The architectural “copycats” in the United States draw from on the architectural styles of peoples who share the same geocultural genealogy. China is pulling from a geopolitically, temporally, and culturally alien and remote civilization.

Certainly we’ve seen the “aspiring global nouveau riche class” embrace these themed developments in countries from the United Arab Emirates to the United States, and I write in Original Copies that many newly minted middle- and upper-class Chinese have embraced Baroque townhouses or Tudor-style homes as a way of showcasing their success and identify themselves as belonging to a certain class. To many, a French villa is as much a symbol of luxury as the Chanel “C’s” on a designer handbag. But to suggest that these copycat-communities are “just something the nouveau riche does” oversimplifies the situation and misses important nuances that illuminate a uniquely Chinese attitude toward replication and a kind of crisis point in the development of China’s own contemporary architectural styles.

AM: Property developers in China often tell me that traditional Chinese architecture is “too difficult and expensive to build”. In your research did you also find this to be an excuse for not continuing with a Chinese vernacular architectural language? 

BB: Yes, though the excuse I encountered was also that traditional Chinese housing styles didn’t allow for high-density construction. The developers I spoke with argued that the Western townhouses and “villas”, though hardly exemplars of “green” building practices, were more efficient in the sense that they could squeeze more properties on a single lot than if they were building, say, traditional Chinese siheyuan courtyard homes (Anyone who’s visited these developments can tell you that even the ones with enormous McMansions  packed the homes extremely close together).  As I note in my book, according to one Hangzhou architect, the “European style is better equipped to increase land use than traditional Chinese architecture of the past.” However, if there’s demand for that particular style, developers can – and have—found a way to make it work (see below).

AM: What is the future for Chinese architecture? When Chinese middle class reaches a point of stability, having met its most basic needs, will more people desire ‘authenticity’ in their buildings? If so, how do you see this manifesting?

BB: Lots and lots of experimentation, with constant reinvention. As we’ve seen from projects like the “One City, Nine Towns” plan or CCTV Headquarters, China has the luxury of being able to execute bold experiments in architecture and urban planning – sometimes for better, sometimes worse – thanks to the government’s power and pocketbook, as well as the sheer speed of urbanization and construction. And these projects sometimes disappear as quickly as they appeared: Shenyang’s New Amsterdam themescape, an incredible, sprawling landscape with a copy of Amsterdam’s train station and a replica of the Peace Palace in The Hague, was demolished not long after it was built. One Chinese developer’s hypothesis has stuck with me: while the U.S. builds buildings meant to last lifetimes, he argued, China is more likely to see buildings as temporary and disposable, due in part to China’s more conservative land-ownership laws.

I don’t think “authenticity” for Chinese architecture necessarily means building siheyuan courtyard homes or shikumen lanehouses. Still, it’s worth noting that some developers are already building themed communities that embrace traditional Chinese architecture as their template, rather than, say, Palm Beach. Developments like Cathay View in Beijing or Fifth Garden in Hangzhou replicate more indigenous architectural styles – and are just one more way for developers to distinguish their offerings in an increasingly crowded real estate market. These communities aren’t exact replicas of traditional Chinese homes, however, and oftentimes have floor plans very similar to the Western residences, only with more “Chinese” exteriors. I envision China developing its own unique style, though what it will look like exactly remains to be seen. Perhaps in another generation Versailles will seem as much Chinese as French.

Many thanks to Bianca for taking the time to answer our questions. Please check out her new book “Original Copies Architectural Mimicry in Contemporary China“, out now, which can be ordered here at Amazon.com

Illuminating Hong Kong’s Bank of China Tower

BankOfChina_LightingHong Kong’s Bank of China building with its original nighttime lighting scheme (left) compared to its current one (right)

The following post was written by John Yuan, a Chinese-American architect who worked on the design of the Bank of China building in Hong Kong during his tenure as an employee of I.M. Pei’s architectural practice:

Since first returning to visit Hong Kong around the time of the handover to China in 1997, I noticed that Bank of China Tower appeared strikingly different at night during subsequent visits over the next decade. I never imagined that the exterior lighting scheme for the tower would ever be altered from the original design done by Fisher Marantz, the lighting consultant to I.M. Pei’s office on the project.

Even from the beginning of the design process, illuminating the tower at night posed great challenges. The tower stands over 300 meters tall and has an exterior covered mostly in reflective glass- characteristics which both posed difficulties for the nighttime lighting design.

By carefully aiming spotlights from the ground up at the tower, Marantz managed to evenly illuminate the soaring tower from top to bottom. The vast area of the dark window panes, sprinkled with lights from the interior spaces and bounded by the illuminated aluminum panels at the corners, created a compelling image. The tower seemed almost transparent outlined by the illuminated borders– a proud structural skeleton standing in the Hong Kong skyline.

I first grasped the death of the original exterior lighting design during a visit in 2006. Arriving in the evening and riding in a cab on my way to a Mid-Levels hotel, I passed by the tower but I couldn’t see it, except for its pencil-thin but brightly lit outline. Strips of LED had been inserted into the originally unlit feature line dark grey aluminum panels. The LED, set at such high intensity, rendered the interior office lighting feeble by comparison.

In my very last visit, the tower illumination further deteriorated from what Bank of China, a Class A office tower, deserves. The LED remain but are now programmed to light up in sequence as if the building is being sketched out in the night sky. The tower might as well be an animated pillar in an amusement park.

Despite the changing illumination schemes, the nighttime view of Bank of China never conveyed what the tower does during the day. Pei referred to the structural cross bracing as ‘diamonds’ (after the client reacted negatively to the ‘X’ shape of the bracing), but the real diamond quality actually comes from the refraction of natural light on the tower’s geometrically accentuated massing during the day.

Lighting the tower at night, even with the original illumination scheme, did not do justice to the unique form of the building. The outlined LED lighting exacerbated the problem further by making the well proportioned edge panels disappear. Unfortunately, the result is a tower lacking presence with the building volume flattened into the night.