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Beijing_Pollution

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. View full post »

  • Matthias (Beijing) - There is another aspect that undermines Beijing’s aspirations as a global creative centre: sky-high costs of real estate. As we know, artists rely on affordable spaces to run their studios and exhibitions. In Beijing’s 798 art district – re-developed from disused factories – rents are allegedly now almost as high as in Beijing’s CBD. Hence the tendency for artists to congegrate in small ‘artist villages’ at the edge (or far outside) the city, because they can’t afford to reside in the city itself anymore.ReplyCancel

    • Adam Nathaniel Mayer - Yes I know of this to be an issue as well. But artists being pushed towards city peripheral boundaries is a phenomenon that happens around the world, not just in Beijing. As the urban theorist Richard Florida points out in his book “The Rise of the Creative Class”, artists are usually the first to arrive in derelict parts of cities where rents are cheap, only to be followed by waves of gentrifiers and real estate developers- which then in turn drives the cost up.

      This seems to be what has happened in 798 in Beijing. In a way, 798 is a victim of its own success in that there probably wasn’t the expectation that it would become as popular as it now is.

      What the solution is to this issue, I’m not sure. There are still a lot of decommissioned industrial zones in Chinese cities that could be inhabited by artists.

      Housing costs in China, especially in 1st Tier Cities, warrants its own blog post, but to keep it short I think we will have to at some point see the introduction of property taxes to cool down speculation. There are still a lot of unknowns regarding the fate of the Chinese housing market.ReplyCancel

  • Anonymous - And Beijing’s aspiration to be global center of art and culture is also being put off by its crazy costliness. Artists can no longer afford to live here.ReplyCancel

  • Charlie - Great post, Adam.

    I personally have heard from a lot of friends in Beijing and Chengdu who are leaving the country this year due to the pollution. In many cases these people are long-term residents who have made significant contributions to their culture of their respective host cities. And I’m certain that this exodus of people who want to breathe clean air will have cultural implications for both cities. I single these two out since between all of China’s urban metropolises these two cities seem to be getting it worst at the moment.

    The feeling on the ground is that this situation will not be improving anytime soon due to China’s economy underpinning every other facet of society. I now regularly receive correspondence from friends overseas who show concern over my health due to pollution here. Pollution has always been bad in Chengdu, but that has never happened to me before.ReplyCancel

    • Adam Nathaniel Mayer - In many ways, Chengdu is a lot like Beijing both in it’s geography (mostly flat, surrounded by mountains) and its history as a cultural mecca within China. The geography of both cities certainly don’t help in terms of air quality, as pollution gets trapped in their respective topographical basins (unlike Shanghai or a place like Xiamen which have the advantage of ocean breezes).

      Much of what was said in the post can definitely apply to Chengdu. Initially I did not anticipate that Chengdu would develop the same problems as Beijing simply due to it being a provincial capital and smaller city. But what has transpired in the past couple years in terms of deteriorating air quality is troubling. Of course, it all comes back to development as the city expands outward and more people purchase private automobiles. I believe Chengdu is something like 3rd (after Beijing and Shanghai) in China now in the number of registered automobiles.

      It will be interesting to see what measures Chengdu’s local government takes to improve the environment in the near future. I’m pretty hopeful that air quality will soon become an issue that takes precedence over economic growth just for the sake of growth, if it is not already.ReplyCancel

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.” View full post »

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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: View full post »

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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. View full post »

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