What Makes a Great Chinese City?

There seems to be an intense amount of recent media interest in ranking and assessing what makes for a great city. Foreign Policy’s terrific Global Cities Issue (with Christina Larson’s fine profile of Chongqing, Chicago on the Yangtze) is the first to come to mind, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t include Newsweek’s desperate (and pathetic) but still very much related The World’s Best Countries list. Of course, for my American readers, the “best places” phenomenon isn’t new: Best American Cities issues are a veritable cottage industry in American magazine publishing (for example … for Artists! for Working Mothers! for Living). In any case, who doesn’t take an interest in where their city ranks in the eyes of others?

And, if you live in China, this is doubly the case. As anyone who has spent any time in China learns quite quickly, the opinions of foreigners, especially in regard to the development of the country and its cities, is important – and often more important – than the opinion of Chinese folks. To my way of thinking, this isn’t always a good thing: many Chinese, and many Chinese cities, are often too quick to develop in a manner that they think will impress foreigners, rather than in a manner that will impress much less increase the happiness of their own citizens (thus the destruction of old neighborhoods in favor of high-rise downtowns … meant to impress foreigners). So I was more than a little interested when, late last week, I received an invitation to attend the launch press conference for the first “Chinese Cities’ International Image Survey,” held this afternoon (and not yet posted to the web).

Sponsored and conducted by the Gallup Organization, in collaboration with Fudan University, the Chinese Mayors Association, and Oriental Outlook Weekly (which will publish it on September 2) the survey seeks to assess not what Chinese people think of their cities, but rather what foreigners think of their cities. Specifically, 7,980 foreigners on six continents in one-hundred countries (not including Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau), who have spent at least one month in China, were asked to give a 1 – 10 ranking on twelve criteria as applied to thirty short-listed Chinese cities (whittled down from an original list of 260). Not an easy task: Wu Tao, the Chief Consultant for Gallup in China, pointed out that – in the case of some cities – only thirty foreign respondents out of 7,980 had heard of, much less had enough information on, some of the cities in question. Continue reading

Those Expo 2010 Lines? Blame the Foreigners.

I realize that Expo 2010 (Shanghai World’s Fair) is getting a bit long in the tooth, but … I’d like to share with my Expo readers an interesting note that I received from someone involved in the design of an Expo 2010 pavilion. The topic is Expo lines (or queues, my British friends), and who should be blamed for the fact that visitors are waiting as many as eight hours to enter some of the most popular pavilions. Generally, it seems, the lines are treated as the inevitable consequence of China’s large population. And, in the Chinese media and blogsphere, at least, lines/queues are sited as stamps of quality: ie, the only reason people spend eight hours outside of the Saudi pavilion is that it’s so terrific inside (believe me, it’s not).

And this perverse state of affairs (queues = quality) has led to accusations from some pavilions (Turkey, most notably) that other pavilions (Saudi, most notably), actually manipulate their traffic so that they can enjoy the prestige of lone lines. The email below responds to that suggestion. I’ve edited out any information that could identify this person (and also some of his language – Shanghai Scrap is, ahem, a family blog). Beyond that, this is the unexpurgated opinion of someone who knows what he’s talking about:

The longer queues are being sited as a sign of quality by a lot of the Chinese media – it’s crazy and (as a designer) f****** insulting. Continue reading

Bus Station No More? A Quick Traveler’s Note on Delhi Airport’s New Terminal 3

I spent much of the last two weeks in India, and the one that I’m going to share with my readers is a sign that I found in the brand spanking new, much vaunted, Terminal 3, at Indira Gandhi International Airport (the rest of that trip shall remain shrouded in secrecy, occasionally broken on twitpic). Opened in mid-July, the new DEL is – on the surface, at least – a significant upgrade on the old DEL, which – famously – was often compared to a bus station. The place was a dump.

The new DEL is big, clean, filled with technology and efficiency (I beg to differ on the latter point), and the subject of fawning coverage in the international media (here, here, and here), which not only praises the airport itself, but also the symbolic meaning of the airport for an India desperately in need of new infrastructure. So, I’ll admit it: as a travel geek, I was excited to see this new temple of flying. And now that I’ve seen it, I’d like to share with Shanghai Scrap’s readers something that I’ve never seen, anywhere, in any airport, on the planet:

That’s right: a sign prohibiting foreigners from exchanging money in the airport. Or, more specifically, a sign prohibiting foreigners from exchanging money past security. So, in other words, if you’ve cleared security and you still have a wallet full of rupees, you either are going to have to exchange them wherever you’re going, or dump them in the very small handful of concessions operating in Terminal 3. What makes it more irritating, if not offensive, is that Indian passport holders – they can exchange money.

I’m guessing that there’s a commercial motive behind this “rule,” and if so, I’d like to go on record as saying that refusing foreign exchange so that visitors feel compelled to unload their rupees in crappy airport shops is, to put a fine point on it, very bus station-like. But perhaps I’m off on this? Are there other major international airports out there which preserve the right of foreign exchange only for native passport holders? Is there a perfectly good, perfectly reasonable, explanation for this rule that I’m missing? Comments are open.

How to commit fraud, save money, and benefit the environment – all at once (in Shanghai).

[With a special end note for my friends and colleagues in the foreign media and environmental activist community.]

China is the world’s second largest market for PCs and other electronic devices. This is a good thing if you’re a manufacturer, but – potentially – a very, very bad thing if you’re an environmentalist concerned about what happens to all of that electronic equipment when it breaks down and/or its owners don’t want it, anymore. Indeed, for years, journalists and activists have documented the devastating environmental and human toll inflicted by the low-tech extraction of recyclable metals in small workshops in south China (and, to a much lesser extent, in Africa). But, for reasons that have always eluded me, the focus of those documentaries has been on the ever-decreasing volume of electronic waste imported from developed countries, and not on the growing tidal wave of electronic waste being generated – right now! – in places like China and India.

The problem is this: recycling electronics in a manner that damages the environment and human health is highly profitable. So, even if a company wants to do it in a way that’s minimally damaging, there’s no way that compete can compete to buy old electronics from companies who use environmentally ruinous methods to recycle. So what to do?

In June, after years of discussion and argument, several Chinese ministries issued a regulation creating one of the world’s biggest and best-funded e-waste recycling programs (regulation here; additional info, here). Among other measures, it offers direct subsidies for the purchase of old electronics and appliances – computers, monitors/TVs, a/c units, washing machines, and refrigerators – that would otherwise be purchased by the environmentally destructive informal recycling sector. Specifically, it offers vouchers to appliance owners that equal to 10% of the purchase price of new electronics. So, for example, if you want to recycle a computer in Shanghai, you call up the local authorized recycling center, and they’ll give you a voucher for as much as RMB 400 (US$58) toward the purchase of a new computer at the time they pick up your old one (and, for that matter, an additional RMB 400 voucher for your old monitor). From there, the devices are sent to an environmentally secure recycling center (more on that soon).

How successful has this program proven to be in its first two months? Successful enough that canny Shanghai businessmen have already figured out a way to make money by defrauding – indirectly – the program. And that’s a good thing (for the environment)!

Here’s how it works. Continue reading

Traveling – Offline Until August 25.

I’m on the road in a place where the broadband just isn’t as broad as I’d like. That, and I’m a little busy. So we’re going offline until the 25th. You can reach me via the contact form, though I might be a little slow in getting back to you. See you in a week.

Expo 2010 Counterfeits: The Walls Have Been Breached!

The superlatives attached to Expo 2010 – the Shanghai World’s Fair – are various and numerous: it is the biggest Expo site, with the most countries participating, and – guaranteed – the best attendance, in the history of the Expo movement. Less discussed, but just as notable, is the fact that Expo 2010 is the most secure Expo in history, as well. Or, at a minimum, it sure looks secure: fences and soldiers surround the site, attendees are required to subject themselves to metal detectors and their bags to x-rays. The situation is often so heavy-handed that staff at several pavilions have taken to calling this Expo, the Gulag Expo (riffing, of course, on Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago).

So it came as no small surprise to me when, last night, while I was strolling through the busiest part of the Expo (in front of the Spanish pavilion), I came across a tout selling counterfeit Expo 2010 key chains and other knick-knacks to enthusiastic Expo attendees.

Allow me to put this in perspective: three touts selling counterfeit Expo goods at Expo is akin to  three touts selling counterfeit Mickey Mouse key-chains in the heart of Disney World – a Disney World rung by fences and guarded by thousands of national guard members, police, and private security guards. And I’m not the only blogger to notice this phenomenon: DeluxZilla, apparently, had it ten days ago. He suggests that the touts are getting the goods into the park by having accomplices toss them over fences. I suppose that’s a possibility. But I think the more likely explanation is that somebody – I don’t know who – has good reason (I’m putting this delicately) to ignore the situation.

In any case, let this serve as a new datapoint in the ongoing discussion of whether China can, or even wants to, enforce intellectual property laws. After all, if not at Expo, where?

Disappearing Shanghai: The Roots of an Urban Tragedy, Pt. II

Today, part II of my emailed interview with Amy L. Sommers (part I, here). Ms. Sommers is an American lawyer with Squire, Sanders & Dempsey, and the co-author – along with Kara L. Philips of the Seattle University Law Library – of a 2009 Penn State International Law Review article examining the historic and legal background for the decline and disappearance of Shanghai’s classic residences and neighborhoods. Her thoughts are particularly relevant at a time that Shanghai – home to East Asia’s last abundant stock of pre-World War II neighborhoods – is holding a World’s Fair devoted to examining what makes a better city. In today’s segment, she touches on her background, some interactions with individuals who were still occupying properties seized during the Cultural Revolution, and her outlook for Shanghai’s historic neighborhoods.

Shanghai Scrap: Could you walk me through how you became interested in historic preservation, and the legal and historical issues surrounding it in Shanghai?

Sommers: My interest was piqued probably over a decade ago when I came across a piece in the Far Eastern Economic Review (remember how great a news source it was on China in the 90’s?) about how some Shanghainese and returned Shanghainese were recouping houses lost in the Cultural Revolution. The descriptions of the residences sounded marvelous and incongruous with the massive new buildings I was seeing whenever I was in the Mainland (at that point, I was still based in Seattle and visiting China on business).

Fast forward to 2003 when I worked in Shanghai on a two month assignment for a client facing a nasty criminal Customs investigation and my younger son was attending a nursery school in a converted large lane house in the former French Concession. Walking down the lane and seeing all the other houses, which had such great bones, despite their dilapidation and the fact that they had been rigged into multi-family residences, caught my attention. Continue reading