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Stereotypes of China Are Best Left at Home

We all do it, don’t we? It may be as human as breathing, eating and sleeping - our habitual practice of taking bits and pieces of information about a country (or state or person, for that matter) from secondary sources and assuming we really know something about that place or person. As an adoptive Californian, I cringe when I hear friends or family members utter one of the dozens of California stereotypes, knowing that the diversity of the people and places that make up this state defy such observations.

But before I traveled to China in late June with a small delegation of city officials from three states to learn more about Chinese local government’s sustainable development and historic preservation efforts, I did it too. The trip was sponsored by the National Committee on United States-China Relations and led by its Vice President Jan Berris, who has made 90 trips to China in the past 30 years. Participants included representatives of both the National League of Cities and the League of California Cities.

Jim Madaffer, League first vice president and San Diego council member, was co-leader of our delegation. Heather Fargo, second vice president and mayor of Sacramento, and Ron Loveridge, immediate past president and mayor of Riverside, were our other co-leaders. I was pleased to be part of the delegation along with my wife, Manuela Albu querque, a city attorney (who traveled at her own expense). It was an experience none of us will forget because it expanded our understanding of the incredible challenges facing China ’s leaders, the effectiveness with which they are addressing them, and the enormous opportunities that could flow from enriching our relationships with the people of this rapidly changing country of 1.3 billion.

I went to China with the arrogance and trepidation of a first-timer who did not expect to see the level of sophistication and development we encountered. I came home with a great appreciation for the Chinese people’s competence and initia tive, the complexity and ambiguity of their political and governance system, and the unbridled commitment of China’s com munist leadership to a type of capitalism I thought could thrive only in a completely democratic environment.

Environmental Protection in a Country of Rapid Change

We began our trip in the nation’s capital, Beijing, where massive preparations are under way for the 2008 Olympics. We met with the deputy mayor of the municipality (actually a metropolitan government), who gave us a taste of the challenge of transforming their economy and physical city to host the Olympics and house an influx of new residents from rural areas. When he told us that what would help them the most was examples about how U.S. city leaders dealt with development challenges in the 1920s and ’30s, we wondered what era we had really entered. In hindsight, we understood that he was trying to communicate the rapid pace of economic growth the country was undergoing and provide a framework for comparing it to our own country. (We later saw examples that suggested China is surpassing us in some respects in address ing key problems.)

In meetings with Chinese State Environ mental Protection Administration (SEPA) officials, we were reminded that as con cerned as we are about China’s greenhouse gas contributions (while we were there it was reported China has now surpassed the United States in total emissions), the per capita emissions in China were much less than here. We also learned that the struggle to balance economic growth and environmental protection required not just strong national environmental laws - which China has - but effective local enforcement, which it lacks. In a country of 1.3 billion people, SEPA attempts to carry out its mission with just 250 staff. Imagine even a regional office of the U.S. EPA with that few staff members and you begin to get a feeling for the enormity of the challenge facing environmental protection advocates in China.

Unlike the United States, which has a federal system of national, state and local govern ments with separate laws and enforcement mechanisms (in most cases), the laws of the Chinese national government are enforced by local governments in China. Over the past two decades, the national government (and Communist Party) has rewarded local leaders for their faithful support in growing the economy. However, there are signs that national leaders are also beginning to recognize and reward environmental stewardship as international forces and business interests urge the Chinese leadership to strike a better balance between the two goals.

In a country where the average worker earns less than $2,000 a year, it’s not surprising that this dynamic is hard to change. We all know from Maslow’s hierarchy of needs that it is hard to talk to a hungry person about the problems caused by the litter he just dropped; it just doesn’t compute.

Government’s Changing Role

From every municipal and national official we met we learned that the role of government in people’s lives is changing radically and quickly. Individuals were no longer living in government-supplied housing but securing loans and buying new homes. Personal ownership of cars is on the rise, but city officials in Shanghai are experi menting with congestion pricing, and they already have the impressive maglev train, which travels more than 200 mph to the Pudong International Airport .

We also learned of the overwhelming challenges facing governments when the pace of economic growth is fueled by 25 per- cent of the nation’s population who are classified as "migrants" because they come from other cities. China’s old system of registration in the city of birth still deter mines where citizens receive (and the level of) government benefits to which they are entitled. The Chinese economy funda mentally depends on the labor of migrant workers, but they have fewer rights and benefits than citizens who work in their home city. In visits with a Beijing lawyer, Tong Lihua, founder of the Legal Aid Sta tion for Migrant Workers, we learned of the rapid growth in both national legislation and litigation to protect the rights of these workers.

One City’s Sustainable Efforts

Our trip took us to the impressive City of Qingdao, where we met with a dele gation of city officials who have transformed an old industrial section of the city’s coast into a hub of striking build ings, marinas and spaces that will house the 2008 Olympic sailing events. The new center is heated and cooled with innovative renewable sources (solar and seawater/heat pump technology), and the exterior areas are lit with street lights powered by individual wind turbines.

Qingdao ’s commitment to sound urban planning is impressive. The delegation proudly told us how they are expanding the use of these heating and cooling technologies into developing areas of the city, in addition to performing a carbon footprint baseline analysis of a new neighborhood before allowing new development. This study is being done in partnership with a faculty member at the University of California, Berkeley.

I have only begun to process some of the incredible experiences and learning opportunities we had during our trip, and I hope to devote some future columns to telling more of the story. Each of us has commented on how our understanding of China has continued to unfold as we synthesize what we learned and continue to read about the country and its people. I have been thrilled to read others’ accounts of their travels that were similar to ours and about a successful public protest of a polluting chemical plant. Likewise, I have been saddened by continued disclosures of government failure to ensure quality food and other product exports as well as its intolerance of freedom of the press in some cases.

What I really learned about China is that my understanding of it will always be a work in progress. Like California, it is a land of great contrasts, strengths, exceptions and ambiguity. Comprehending this is a good place to start. Let the journey continue!