The story appears on

Page A6

December 17, 2012

GET this page in PDF

Free for subscribers

View shopping cart

Related News

Home » Opinion » Opinion Columns

There are still a few cities left unravaged by concrete and greed

ONE of my colleagues had just returned from a visit to Hanoi, Vietnam, and spoke glowingly of what he saw there.

The photos he showed me suggest a city of spreading banyan trees along the streets, dilapidated government buildings, and vendors who do not have to run at rumors of the approach of chengguan ("urban management") officials.

I feel enchanted by the pictures, though some modern Chinese would immediately pronounce such a place "backward," shabby, definitely unsuitable as a tourist destination.

Strangely, when our landscape becomes dominated by high-rises, boulevards, expansive squares, landmarks, manicured lawns and neon lights, we become a bit nostalgic for the unpretentious old city where children could safely mingle in the neighborhood, vendors could hawk their wares loud and clear in the side lanes, and streets were shaded by the canopy of plane trees.

Today our city consists more of theatricals, props, steady "improvements" better admired by out-of-town tourists, best admired from an air-conditioned limousine.

Over-sanitized landscape

We have attained nearly all the attributes expected of an international metropolis, but many find something lacking in the over-sanitized landscape.

It has been reported that the Ji'nan City government is housed in a 4 billion yuan (US$640 million) edifice, where the main corridor extends for one kilometer. The government complex, completed in 2007, is the biggest of its kind in China and globally second only to the Pentagon. It is served by 48 elevators.

We are close to another world record, but how many of our readers would prefer to work there?

We now live in a country where constant pursuit of superlatives seldom allows a tree to mature to old age.

Don't worry, we still have some "underdeveloped" regions that are more than willing to export their huge trees for a sum of money.

The sun and the alignment of constellations used to instill fear in us, so nearly all historic annals kept meticulous records of solar and lunar eclipses and other unusual celestial phenomena as a warning of misrule in the Middle Kingdom, or portents of imminent calamity.

Today we are more or less fearless, though we still get alarmed by the unusual levels of GDP, PPI, or PMI, as spun by the economists, the new age priests. As we know, these figures, subject to the whims of our economists, can trigger feelings of happiness or depression.

We have to resort to these external indices to confirm our inner feelings. And the predictability of our inner feeling is very important for the smooth operation of the social machine.

CCTV recently sponsored a program on "happiness," by randomly asking people on the street, "Are you happy?"

An amusing scene occurred late last month in Wuhu, Anhui Province.

Before they had time to ask the question, a pedestrian - knowing what they wanted to ask - blurted out: "I am very happy, very happy indeed."

At a recent forum in Stockholm, newly anointed Nobel Prize laureate in literature Mo Yan was also asked, "Are you happy?" by a young Chinese man, and Mo's response: "Are you from CCTV?"

Globalized metrics

In a sense, Mo's happiness has been firmly confirmed by a panel of overseas art arbitrators. Globalized metrics or awards can immensely flatter our perception of our inner bliss.

Even thoughtful people have to decide about their feelings in reference to standard metrics.

For instance, last Tuesday's ranking of most clicked articles on was: (1) "China's urban jobless rate is 8.05 percent, for the first six months." (2) "Survey finds the income gap in China for 2010 well in excess of global average," and (3) "China's inflation will spike over 5 percent by the end of next year: Nomura Securities."

Here our personal feelings are delicately constrained by the global average in employment rate, income, and price level.

Under the despotic sway of statistics, individual human fate become something of secondary importance.

The plight of migrants who have to shiver for the night under a highway overpass is pitiable; the tens of millions of kids who have to trudge to cram courses after school hours are deserving of our compassion.

But all pale into insignificance beside the mandate for faster growth, for only growth will iron out social differences; of course, sustaining growth requires us to show higher tolerance for social and economic disparities.

As the pace of growth picks up, we have lost our capacity to appreciate life in its native rhythms, so that the fallen leaves no longer move us, and very few can see the sunrise and sunset in a big city.

Our faculties become super-adapted as conduits for information upload.

Our hands become deft at working the buttons on a mobile panel, our eyes are accustomed to flickering screens, our ears to earplugs.

One of my colleagues recently sent me a copy of the Chinese edition of "The Kappa Peeped India," by Kappa Senoh, and I was fascinated by how this Japanese artist is capable of perceiving the world in his gossipy, narrative style, set off by a profusion of masterfully wrought sketches.

He shows how our obsession with speed has compromised our ability to see the people and the nature.

If our economists and policymakers could view the people and the environs as this Japanese gentleman, probably we need not grieve so much for what man has made of man, or nature.


Copyright © 1999- Shanghai Daily. All rights reserved.Preferably viewed with Internet Explorer 8 or newer browsers.

沪公网安备 31010602000204号

Email this to your friend