first look at the belt and road

Its difficult when looking at a map of the proposed Belt and Road and not associate the maritime road with British colonialism, albeit in reverse and more than a century after the fact. But that’s what’s so distressing. When the British parliament dissolved the East India Company (EIC), it did not dismantle the systems of unjust and unjustifiable extraction that EIC had put in place over roughly four centuries of occupation, exploitation, and forced participation in the system. Instead, independence movements saw the rise of local elites who were determined to benefit from the system, justifying their profits with respect to local values and structures of oppression. In other words, it was never just the Brits, but also the Brits and their local running dogs (to use Mao Zedong’s felicitous phrase) and even after Independence, the dogs kept yapping, securing military support from the US and elsewhere (for the distressing tale of the fate of the Third World as a revolutionary ideal, check out The Darker Nations by Vijay Prashad).

The problem, of course, was that the profitability of the British system depended on opium; where would surplus profits (to fund industrialization, for example) come from without monopoly, forced labor, and addiction? Certainly, once India regained control of the Bihar plantations and China retook its ports, both countries were faced with the problem of “surpassing England and catching up with the United States” in the absence of captive markets and a drug monopoly to finance their industrial revolutions. And this may be why Europeans and US Americans fear the Belt and Road: if you’re not a running dog with Chinese characteristics, just what are your options in the new world dis/order (and yes, I’m looking at you, midwestern farmer)?


Map from an early analysis of Belt and Road, eurasia review.

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For those who doubt that once upon a time Bao’an County was coastal, I offer images from Baguang, one of the more beautiful sections of Dapeng New District. The majority of Baguang villagers have been relocated, while land and coastline have been red-lined for environmental protection, green living and research. At the moment, Baguang shimmers at the cusp of redevelopment–not yet remade, but yet already under erasure. Boom!

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on china’s maritime consciousness

The recently published Exploring China’s “Maritime Consciousness” offers quantitative insights into public opinion on the South and East China Sea disputes. The survey was conducted in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chengdu, and Changsha. The survey summarizes responses to give a sense of what “urban Chinese” think about a variety of issues. Of the five cities, only Shanghai is actually a coastal city, while only Guangzhou functions within South China seas cultural formations. Beijing is, of course the national capital, while both Chengdu and Changsha are inland provincial capitals.

blooming contradictions

Unfortunately, more often than not modernization leaves us with street names instead of actual landscape features.

Shenzhen public landscaping, for example, has been defined by its enthusiasm for inaccessible green space that adorn its roads. Throughout the city, there are lovely swathes of topiary and grass that pedestrians (and even birds) can’t actually access except in passing. In part to rectify this problem, but also in response to the city’s white collar residents, a vast network of bike trails have been installed throughout the city. Moreover, these trails have been mapped and the public encouraged to walk and ride through the cities green belts.

Here’s the moment of ecological dissonance: at the same time that functionaries are being encouraged to bike on the weekend, plans have been announced to reclaim 39.7 sq kilometers of Dapeng Bay. The corporate culprit is China Oil, which intends to use the reclaimed land for extracting South China Sea oil reserves. And yes, these plans are moving forward despite the fact that Dapeng New District is an environmental conservation district.

So pictures of the Nanhai (literally “South Ocean”) Road, below and a link to an article about the land reclamation project, here.

What’s in a name, indeed.

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lugang: of pirates and south china seas

鹿港 (Lugang) is one of the oldest port cities in Taiwan. The winding network of alleys, streets, and boulevards knits together Ming and Qing Dynasty pirates, southern Chinese merchant families, and the influx of Nationalist troops and their families. Over 200 shrines and temples punctuate these pathways, and two of the oldest temples on the island — Matzu (1725) and Longshan (1786) — are in wonderful condition because well cared for. With industrialization and GMT rule, the importance of Lugang to the island economy has lessened, with inland Taichung gaining importance as Taipei shifted cosmographic ordering on Taiwan. Consequently, the city’s layout gives an impressive sense of the urban form of South Chinese port cities during the roughly 500 years that piracy threatened trade ships, their crews and cargo. Just recently, however, Lugang has been reintroduced to world as one of Taiwan’s top tourist destinations and the site of many traditional festivals, including Double 5th (dragon boats) and Mid-autumn (mooncakes). Worth a visit. Impressions, below:

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winners of the “dare to upset” china prize

Today, I received a list of 10 winners for the “dares to upset China (敢动中国)” Awards. The Awards are a snarky spoof on the Annual “Touches China’s Heart Awards (感动中国奖)”, punning the words “dares to upset” and “touches the heart”. Heart awards are presented at the Spring Festival and given to persons whose heroic actions inspire us to be more than we think we are. A pervasive and not unimportant bit of contemporary propaganda, heart award presentations are highly stylized performances and broadcast nationally. To get a sense of the ideological packaging, view the tribute and award presentation to Liu Jinguo for his courage during a fire.

The dares to upset awards point to the emergence of China as a global player and public reception of that process in vaguely hawkish terms. Notably, the dare to upset awards have been presented Asian countries that involved in maritime disputes with China, especially in the mineral rich South China Sea. Of note, the word “dares” points to the point that the winners are “small’ countries that should not be giving China problems. The fact that so many little nations dare to upset China is consequently interpreted as a sign of national weakness and the snarky commentary on the list states, “China has used habitual responses: the enemy invades, I endure; the enemy retreats, I endure; the enemy is exhausted, I endure; the enemy occupies, I endure… this is called pretending to use Sun Tze’s Art of War (敌进我忍,敌退我忍,敌疲我忍,敌驻我忍。。。装孙子兵法).”

According to the latest text message, the 10 winners for the 2012 Dares to Upset China Awards are:

1. Japan (for the Senkaku or Diaoyu Islands Dispute);

2. The Philippines (for the Huangyan Island or Panatag Shoal dispute);

3. North Korea (for holding Chinese fishermen in a dispute over fishing rights, although there is no dispute over North Korean refugees in China because the PRC regularly repatriates them);

4. South Korea (for demanding that Beijing release a South Korean activist who has been detained in the PRC without legal representation. The activist works for democracy in North Korea);

5. Thailand (is the new coordinating country for ASEAN – China relations, inheriting the three-year term from the Philippines)

6. Palau (the location of another disputed island, Okinotorishima);

7. Indonesia (has persecuted Overseas Chinese, but in April signed a cooperation agreement with China);

8. Myanmar (is opening its economy and China and the US are rushing in, however, last year the Myanmar government halted Chinese construction of a dam because locals felt that Chinese petroleum interests were too hardnosed);

9. Nigeria (is host to one of the largest Chinese presence in Africa. More than 200 Chinese companies operate in Nigeria, more than 40,000 Chinese nationals live in Nigeria, and total Chinese investment in Nigeria is close to $US 8 billion);

10. Somalia pirates (have been targeting Chinese vessels since 2008 and there have been calls for Chinese military intervention);

as yet shenzhen has no capital h history…

The experience of walking Shenzhen is significantly different from visiting, Beijing or Shanghai, Xi’an or Guangzhou, where the meaning of the past has already been codified, renovated, and can be consumed on a nostalgic tour. In school we learn that Beijing’s history is Ming-Qing imperial, Shanghai’s history is East-West colonial hybrid, Xi’an’s history is ancient, while Guangzhou’s history is South China sea commerce and migration. We then go to the respective tourist destination to have our knowledge confirmed and perhaps enriched by and through an appropriate activity. We walk Beijing’s hutong and the Forbidden City, drink coffee or cocktails in a stylish restaurant in Shanghai’s shikumen and the Bund, admire Xi’an’s beilin and terracotta soldiers, and wander the small shops of Guangzhou’s West Gate. Indeed, each of these tourist destinations succeeds as such precisely because the site metonymically represents the respective city’s place in China’s “5,000 years” of civilization. We leave thinking we have a deeper understanding of where we have been. Maybe we do. Most likely we don’t. But there is something reassuring in having our stereotypes confirmed, and those stereotypes are what I mean by capital h history.

Now, there are historically significant sites in Shenzhen — Old NantouDapeng Fortress, the Chiwan Tianhou TempleDongmen, and Yumin Village. However, municipal efforts to promote Old Nantou and Dongmen, notwithstanding, none of these historical sites has captured the imagination of either residents or visitors. I suspect this is in part because each of these places represents a portion of Chinese history that is already preserved elsewhere. Old Nantou and the Chiwan Tianhou Temple, for example, represent ancient efforts to develop the Chinese salt trade and settle the Pearl River Delta, but there are finer examples of that era to be imagined and seen in Guangzhou, while ancient Chinese history is more elegantly preserved in Xi’an and Jiangnan. Even the Tianhou sea cult is more closely identified with Tianjin and Xiamen than it is with South China temples and shrines. Likewise, Dapeng Fortress is an outpost of Ming-Qing military imperialism, but of a failed variety, rather than successful garrisons to be explored throughout the north.

Dongmen and Yumin Village are perhaps more representative of Shenzhen’s importance as the epicenter of early reform. However, both are historically compromised. Although Dongmin is identified with so-called Shen Kong commerce, for example, there really are more upscale malls throughout both Shenzhen and Hong Kong where one might purchase global products. And what about Yumin Village? Deng Xiaoping visited Yumin Village in 1984, inspecting one of the three-story private homes that local villagers had just built. He declared that Shenzhen speed was a good thing and that the rest of the country should follow. The 1995 exhibition to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the establishment of the Shenzhen SEZ included an installation that reproduced the interior of one of those homes, which at the time, was more luxurious than the homes of urban cadres in Beijing and Shanghai. Here’s the rub: although Yumin Village has been integrated into the Shenzhen municipal apparatus as a Luohu neighborhood, nevertheless the actual buildings that Deng saw and even the home he inspected were razed over ten years ago. There is a history board there, but nothing from 1984 remains and Yumin Village continues to function as a border urban village, with low rents for migrants who work nearby, spas and massage parlors for visiting Hong Kong people, and places where villagers play mah jong and gather to drink tea and gossip.

The absence of an agreed upon master narrative means that walking Shenzhen allows individuals to judge what does and does not represent capital h history in the SEZ. Now Shenzhen does boast upscale skyscrapers that represent achievements within this process — Guomao, Diwang, and the Civic Center all come to mind and are worth a visit. Those wanting to see the “real” capital h historic Shenzhen, I suggest visiting either an industrial park or an urban village. Early 80s work unit housing in Luohu and Shekou are also great examples of how industrial urbanization transformed the area. Personally, however, I believe that if Shenzhen has a place in China’s 5,000 years narrative it is as an epicenter of rural urbanization, including transformation of the local environment, proletarianization of rural migrants to SEZ factories, and the forms of urbanization that returned workers have promoted or their remittances enabled. However, even after over 30 years of reforming and opening Baoan villages, the city is only just starting to come to terms with this legacy and most villages, even the most famous such as Baishizhou are scheduled to be razed. All this to say that as yet, the meaning of Shenzhen’s cultural and historical inheritance is still up for grabs because we are only just starting to come to terms with the urban legacy of Reform and Opening. This means that as yet the city has no capital h history and no corresponding historical sites that one can visit and say, “Yes, I’ve been to Shenzhen and I know where I’ve been.”

Walk anyway. The Shenzhen you experience will be only loosely tethered to stereotypes about China and you might make something else of it. Below, impressions of a recent walk in Fuyong.

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