Archive for the 'China 2009' Category

Cheng Du to Hong Kong

Five and a half restless hours of Bollywood chick flicks and hindi pop. I’m headed back to Delhi with Air India. Not the best of airlines, in fact the worst, but there is the novelty value of being the only non-Indian on the plane. A little disquiet about leaving China and Hong Kong. I could so easily have cancelled my flights and stayed in HK to pursue something new. But that would have been too easy. I have an Indian adventure to resume.

So a quick update on our exploits since Cheng Du. We arrived in Chongqing in the early hours of Monday morning. A few hours sleep before breakfast. After breakfast we were met by a representative of Omei Media Group, the leading billboard advertising agent in Chongqing. She drove us to the company office where we met with the chairman and discussed her company, what sustainability means to her, and Chinese innovation. In the afternoon the company took us to lunch at a nearby restaurant and we were treated to riverside views over the municipality. The place is an incredible feat of human development. 32 million people… and I thought Beijing was impressive (17 million). I’d been trying to figure out the population count all day. The lady that met us in the morning uttered various numbers in her non-native English; 3,200… 32,000… I came to rest on 3.2 million. But 32 million? Herein lies the most significant of drivers underpinning China’s economic growth, urbanization on a monumental scale.

Monday evening we were back on the sleeper train to Changsha, the capital of Hunan province. Our local co-ordinator and driver picked us up at the station around 9. We spent a fascinating day at Broard Town, a huge industrial campus for the greentech air conditioning company, Broad Air Conditioning. We were taken on a tour of their facilities, from factory to offices to residences and guest houses. The place really is a town of its own and most of the employees live in the same complex. It was quite a sight sitting in the company canteen when hundreds of manufacturing workers wearing blue jumpsuits started pouring into the hall for lunch.

Broad are doing some great things for clean air conditioning technology. We were shown a variety of domesticated units, but most significantly these huge industrial “chillers” that recycle heat for power and consume only a small amount of electricity with minimal CO2 emissions. The technology is brilliant and it makes absolute commercial sense for any business. They are serving major companies such as DLF, an Indian real estate company that I am very familiar with considering that they own the part of Gurgaon I live and work in (“DLF Cybercity”). This is the model I advocate for getting ourselves out of the mess of climate change. Market-driven, profit maximising innovation that simply makes good common business sense.

Tuesday evening we had dinner with the local coordinator and her parents. The restaurant was good and we were given a private room with views over the city. The table ornament, a bird carved out of a piece of carrot, caused much amusement. We went out in the town after dinner. Wednesday morning we were taken to the Hunan Provincial Museum which exhibits the excavated remains of an ancient tomb, including a corpse that is circa 2,000 years old and extraordinarily well preserved due to the way it was buried. In the afternoon we visited the historic Yuelu Academy situated on the scenic Yuelu Mountain. Some interesting tourist spots. Time for a late afternoon tea in a teahouse, dinner and onto our final sleeper train to Shenzhen.

We arrived in Shenzhen Thursday morning, only to find that the tour company had forgotten to book the hotel. Some time wasted sorting out the issue and we moved hotels. I hadn’t realised how big Shenzhen really is. We didn’t have time to see a great deal but I got a good feel for the kind of commercial hub it has become, the most successful of China’s Special Economic Zones (SEZs), a legacy of the great Deng Xiaoping and his economic reforms.

After a light lunch we met with a professor working with the Shenzhen Institute of Advanced Technology. He and his colleague showed us around the campus. The institute was setup as a R&D centre with the aim of developing new technologies, creating IPR for emerging industries in China and commercialising the technology. In it’s short life it has already had some success stories. The campus was huge, equivalent to walking around a small university. There were numerous teams of people undertaking experiments and scientific research. It was startling to learn that the building had only become inhabitable a mere five months before. This is a subject that has been discussed a lot recently amongst the expeditioners, how China appears to be incredibly good at reproducing technology and making it cheaper, but incredibly weak at innovating its own technology. Here, if anywhere, is a signal that China is beginning to think seriously about innovation and how to translate academic research into commercial enterprise.

Late afternoon we met the chairman of Motong Capital, a private equity firm channeling investment into green technology and initiatives. Some interesting conversation ensued, much of it lost in translation but a valuable insight all the same. He took us to a Japanese restaurant for dinner where the conversation continued. Topics included the remodeling of China’s education system, British politics and the contrasting concerns for businesses in Britain and China. He is interested in opening up an office in London to access the European capital market. After dinner we got a lift to the hotel and retired to bed soon after. Friday morning we packed up and checked out of the hotel. Chester and Charlie stayed the day exploring the infamous markets for cheap electronics and fake clothes. I jumped on the metro with Leon to cross the border into Hong Kong.

Arriving in Hong Kong was like returning home. Seven months since I was last there, it felt no more than a fortnight. It’s something quite special to have such affinity with a place that you feel comfortable enough to call it a home. I may only have stopped by for four days, but it was like catching up with an old acquaintance.

Friday night I met a friend in Festival Walk, the shopping centre in Kowloon Tong that I often frequented. Dinner and a stroll in Tsim Sha Tsui, catching up in a late night coffee shop. Saturday was conference day and we rolled up at the Jockey Club just in time for registration in the morning. A very successful event, with an audience of a hundred. A good quality audience too, many professionals from various fields. We had enough high quality speakers to fill the morning so I saved the audience from my CSR dribble and focused instead on conversations that ensued in the intervals. Saturday evening kicked off with drinks with the guys in Causeway Bay, followed by another evening in TST with a friend before meeting the guys in Lan Kwai Fong to rediscover my favorite watering holes.

Sunday morning I met a friend in Central and we got a bus to Stanley on the south side of the island. Nothing much there but a small market for tourists, the only major attraction I could think of that I haven’t yet seen so it seemed an appropriate way to spend the afternoon. Back to Causeway Bay for dinner and a film in TST, just like the old days. Met the guys again in a bar back in CWB to finish the night.

This morning I was up early again to meet another friend for breakfast in Festival Walk. Great to catch up with old acquaintances and a lemon tea in the University canteen was just like old times. I took advantage of a haircut in the salon (in dire need, and I’m dreading the backstreet barbers of Gurgaon) and met another couple of friends for lunch. Back to the hotel to pick up my bags and a cab to the bus stop to take me to the airport.

Such a brief stopover, but long enough to say hello to old friends and remind the city that I’m still alive. A great way to complete the expedition. I’ve come full circle; Beijing two years ago and Hong Kong last year. Now I can say I’ve done everything (well, some) in between; Xi’an, Chengdu, Chongqing, Changsha and Shenzhen. Fun times, lasting memories, comedy moments. I will take a lot from this trip, even if it wasn’t quite what was expected. A chance to meet new people, listen to new ideas and rethink my own. China, sustainability; they are becoming common themes. I have a feeling it won’t be the last time I find myself engaging with these topics.


Cheng Du

A dark, stuffy coach on the way from Cheng Du to Chongqing. The coach itself is of reasonable comfort, there is even a Chinese film playing. But the AC is non-existent and the last couple of hours have just crawled by. We left Cheng Du at 8:20 and I was under the impression it would be a two hour journey, but since we just made a services stop I guess I was wrong. It’s too hot to sleep.

After arriving in Cheng Du on Friday morning we found our transfer to the hotel and grabbed a quick shower before departing for a rehabilitation centre in Hanwang for victims of the Great Sichuan Earthquake in May last year. It was a bit of a ride out of town and the drivers had to stop to check their maps because the landscape has changed so much that the sat navs don’t correspond to the roads. While the drivers were checking their maps we parked up in the middle of a barren highway that was being reconstructed. When you look, signs of the devastation left from the earthquake are everywhere. It took me a while to see them at first, I guess because the effort at rebuilding the damaged parts of Sichuan has been so great that much of the area has been or is being rebuilt. I can’t imagine what the place would have looked like a year ago. But when you look, you start seeing derelict houses and shops around every corner, great big cracks in walls, unused land from collapsed buildings.

The rehabilitation centre was fascinating. Setup by the NGO Disaster Preparedness Centre, it was this huge expanse of land with long corrugated buildings split into small rooms for displaced victims of the earthquake. Leon volunteered here last year, when it was merely a city of tents. Now there are local shops along the main road, evidently very recent constructions. There appeared to be a good deal of spare capacity, I imagine because most people have relocated back to their homes or have found alternative accommodation. It’s certainly not the kind of place you would want to live for very long. But what the NGO has achieved here is a great example of a very effective initiative.

We had a chat with one of the guys manning the site office. He explained that they lend money to inhabitants for anything that is productive and has investment value, such as animals and pig stys. The NGO make loans for anything from 4,000 RMB up to 20,000, which are interest free and are not payable until the investment has made sufficient return. Much research goes into each case before the money is lent, and thus far they have had no failed businesses and people are already beginning to make repayments. They also provide free lessons on entrepreneurship and how to start small businesses. There are many other microfinance institutions as well, with interest rates between 5 and 10 percent.

We then had a conversation with some of the people living in the temporary accommodation. A Mr Yang had a PC setup in his room and was making a living from PC maintenance. He has to live there for fear of landslides back home and has a loan for 30k RMB from a national bank to rebuild his damaged house, although he needs 100k which he will try to raise from family and friends. It will take another year at least before he can move back. He does not feel comforted by anything the government is doing and feels lost. I can imagine, whilst the project seems to have been very successful at getting people back on their feet, I would hate to be trapped here in temporary accommodation for any length of time.

Before dusk we went a little further down the road to visit an abandoned area of Hanwang. It was literally a ghost town. All the buildings were standing in perilous ruin, old shop signs indicated what a busy little hub it must have recently been. There was a clock tower standing on one side of the road, in relatively good condition compared to the rest of the buildings. The clock was frozen at 14:28, the exact time that the earthquake hit. It’s also the time that school children were returning to their classrooms, and 700 students were buried at a school close by. The official death toll is 70,000.

Saturday was tourist day. A visit to the post-earthquake Wolong Panda Reserve, an essential stop on the tourist circuit. Then a few hours drive out of the city to see the still-functioning water irrigation system in Du Jiang Yan, the foundations of which were built 1,000 years ago. No mean feat, and some great views of the river and countryside, but I couldn’t help but feel ushered around yet another tourist trap. Still, a good way to fill the day.

The evening provided an additional source of entertainment as we went for dinner with Leon’s dad, his stepbrother and girlfriend, and a couple of guys from the conference team. I was the only person present with no Mandarin, so the lively conversation wasn’t especially meaningful to me. However, I learned more in that hour spending time with people and enjoying their company than I had the entire day trawling around on the tourist trail. We were treated to a massage after dinner. No complaints there.

Today was conference day, similar format to the other two. We arrived at the hotel a couple of hours before and the conference team had everything organised. It was a similar audience to Xi’an, mainly students. Again, the speeches were all mandarin so I kept myself busy taking photos and reading at the back. I repeated my talk on CSR, I hope that at least some people made sense of my English. Alas, Tony our TED guy from Guangdong helped out by interjecting with some translations and I actually got a few well-thought questions at the end. Nice to know I wasn’t preaching to myself. It’s such a difficult subject to broach in China, they just don’t really do CSR here. When I started my talk I asked for a show of hands who has heard of CSR, and not a single person put their hand up. Maybe some have heard of it and are just shy, that’s typical of the Chinese way, but I get the feeling this is an entirely new concept for most people. All the more reason for talking about it and supporting the SUCHEN cause.

We gained an expeditioner this afternoon. Charlie has flown in from the UK to join us on the remainder of the journey, and he will backtrack to do the bits he missed after Hong Kong. We also lost one this morning, she had to fly back to Shanghai, so we are still five. Having left Brad in Xi’an for his field work, it will be interesting to see how the group dynamic changes. Chongqing here we come.

Xi’an to Cheng Du

Good morning China! I awoke an hour ago. We are on the sleeper train to Cheng Du passing through Sichuan province. The views outside frame a different picture of China. This is a China I haven’t seen before; rural settlements perched in between sweeping hills, the vast majority of land use is agriculture.

Wednesday was conference day in Xi’an. We checked out of our hotel and met the team at the University. They seemed a very competent team, made up of students from different Universities in Xi’an. The venue was a lecture theatre, perhaps a little too large and formal for the kind of discussions we might hope to have hosted, but it suited the audience who were student oriented, many of whom did not have fluent English. It was disappointing for the non-Chinese expeditioners to learn that the majority of speakers would be speaking in Mandarin, but an experience just to be there all the same.

Ten minutes before the start and it was learned that the expeditioners were listed on the conference schedule as keynote speakers, so we were asked if it was possible for us to each give a short presentation. With nothing prepared but a few graphics from past presentations, I sat at the back for the fist half of the conference copying and pasting slides and trying to pull together some form of coherent presentation themed around Corporate Social Responsibility.

With the slides prepared, I took a short walk around the campus to get some air and think about what I would say. I passed a huge outdoor sports complex with hundreds of students playing badminton, basketball, tennis and table tennis. For a small university there was a surprising number of students participating in some form of sport. The other notable thing was how they organised themselves as a collective. There were numerous teams training together and I passed one large group who were stretching to music, perhaps some form of Tai Chi. I think it just illustrated very well how different the mindset of mainland Chinese is from western individualistic society. Born out of China’s socialist heritage, it’s about participation and being a part of the whole, as opposed to the Western conception of individualism and differentiation from the whole.

I had the last speaking slot of the conference, and by then I think we were down to half of the original number of delegates. I’m not sure how much of my English was properly digested, but the conversations that ensued at the dinner table afterwards were insightful of the young thinkers of China. An entrepreneur spoke of the company he is launching and his social business model, another chap who is establishing an NGO discussed China’s biggest challenges; education gaps, income disparity, the dual rural-urban economy and the large number of failing entrepreneurs who might otherwise be seeking employment in the formal sector if only there were jobs.

We stayed another night in a different hotel as the conference times clashed with the original plan to get a sleeper train to Cheng Du on Wednesday. Yesterday was a slow start, some of the guys and their friends took us out after the conference. We were aiming for the 13:20 train and arrived at the station in good time, waiting amidst the mass of people pilling up in the departure hall. Mass transit takes on a different meaning in China. To our great displeasure, it was announced that the train “was not functioning properly” and would be delayed until 16:30. So we setup base with the bags in a nearby food place and talked away the afternoon. The train must have left about 17:00. This is our stop, Cheng Du. Here we go again!

Loess Plateau

This evening I am taking it easy at the hotel. Last night we went out with the conference team to sample the Xi’an nightlife. A lively scene but not so different from the drinking districts of Beijing. Tonight people are just chilling or working. Earlier I explored the streets a little way after dinner. Not a great deal to see but a good opportunity to observe Xi’an life and the people that live here. I love distinguishing the soul and aura of different cities. Xi’an is distinctively more traditional than Beijing, less developed with fewer skyscrapers, it is half the size of the capital but still a significant dot on the map at 8 million people. The history of the city is more eminent than in Beijing, with the great city walls marking out the historic boundary of the old part of town and notably more traditional oriented architecture in parts.

Today was our trip to the Loess Plateau, several hours south of the city. It took some extra navigation on the driver’s part to find a route up into the terraced hills, but we managed to get close enough to the rolling landscape to gauge the effect of the Loess Plateau Watershed Rehabilitation Project. This $500 million project, funded by the Chinese government and the World Bank, transformed a once barren and over-farmed terrain into lush green landscape host to a promising array of recovering vegetation and developing ecosystems.

In 1995, when the project started, a vicious cycle of degradation from cutting down trees on the hillsides and free-ranging sheep until all vegetation disappeared had left the environment barren and devastated. A cycle of poverty and environmental degradation diminished the productivity of the land until it was completely barren and the rain water washed away the soils into the river. This caused several problems. First, the rain water was not retained in the land and severe droughts worsened the economic circumstances for the local farmers. Second, the rain washed earth from the hillside into the Yellow River and the sedimentation caused major difficulties for everyone downstream, especially towards the more industrial regions where the river became unnavigable. Heavy sediment loads were followed by drought followed by famine, and so the cycle continued.

So the government finally took notice and decided to do something. They undertook econometric valuations and divided the land up into ecological and economic land, recognising the fact that some land may have greater ecological value than its productivity. The result was a mass-scale transformation of the land over ten years, using local farmers, their equipment and their own practiced methods. The hills were terraced to prevent further erosion of the soil and sedimentation of the river. More rain water was retained in the land and vegetation was allowed to recover naturally. In some parts, grazing was prohibited and crops were specially selected to grow all year round.

The sheer scale of the project is most apparent. The plateau itself is the size of France, and the degradation was so widespread that to make a difference the project had to be on a “landscape scale.” So the active project area was 35,000 km, roughly the size of Belgium. You have to be there and experience the sheer size of the terraced landscape to really gauge the scale of the project, and to see the before and after pictures to really appreciate just how big a transformation that has occurred there.

The wise words of John Lui who spoke of the project at the Beijing conference hung in my head, and the thought that if such a large scale project requiring the rehabilitation of entire ecosystems can be achieved with what was a relatively small capital outlay and time horizon, there can be no limit to what the world can achieve with global challenges such as climate change, if only we can work together and with equal veracity.

Beijing to Xi’an

Ah I do love hotel life. My dark, dingy room in the hazy suburb of Delhi seems a million miles away from here. Sorry Kapoors, if you’re reading this it’s not that I don’t like our cosy place in Gurgaon, I had just forgotten what it was like to have a freshly made bed, AC, running water and electricity. Reality check; we have just arrived at the New Henderson Hotel in Xi’an after a day of sightseeing in the city. I could get used to this.

It’s not all luxury. Last night we caught the hard sleeper from Beijing to Xi’an, trying to obtain some form of sleep with blaring Chinese pop music in the background. I shouldn’t complain, I got some good hours in once the music stopped and it was luxury compared to the sleeper train I got in India a few weekends ago.

There are drawbacks too. We were too busy sitting around in hotels organising conferences to see much of Beijing. We could have been in any city in the world. But I am grateful for the opportunity to meet such thought-provoking people and have genuine conversations about topics that are rarely discussed at home and among peers.

So after an evening in Beijing on Thursday, I took my last opportunity to explore on Friday morning by getting up early and revisiting Tian’anmen Square, a half hour walk from the hostel. A very misty, wet and miserable day, but I enjoyed being back in the centre on familiar ground. Then I rushed back to the hostel to check-out and made my way to meet Leon and Michael, SUCHEN’s backer. Friday afternoon was spent meeting the Beijing conference team and the other expeditioners. Saturday was the day of the conference so we were up early and making the necessary preparations at the conference hotel. We stayed in place a little out of town so it was good to see a bit of the city as we drove through.

The conference went smoothly, about 100 people showed up. A good lineup of speakers too. As a surprise last minute thing the organisers managed to persuade Maurice Strong to give a short speech, a key figure in climate change circles and known as the father of the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, when world leaders first started taking notice of the issue. Other notable speakers included John Liu, an expert on the Loess Plateau Rehabilitation project, nobel laureate Sir John Houghton the former co-chair of the IPCC, Andrew Jones director of the sustainability institute and Michael Nayler, SUCHEN’s principal sponsor and advisor to the Prince’s Rainforest Trust. Interspersed between the talks were ten minute intervals during which the delegates mingled and exchanged ideas. A very interesting collection of people from all over and a fair representation of expatriates working in sustainable business fields in Beijing.

Sunday was our sightseeing day in Beijing, although we didn’t manage to see much due to time restrictions and the Great Wall being closed. Nevertheless, we had a productive morning in the hotel talking to a guy who founded a carbon credit trading company in Beijing. Some interesting insights. Then to the Temple of Heaven, a popular tourist magnet. And finally, after reorganising our things and condensing the conference equipment, to the station to catch our sleeper train to Xi’an.

This morning we rocked up in Xi’an and found our driver to take us on a whirl wind tour of the city. First stop, a large temple in the city centre. Second stop, the Terra-cotta Army, a fair drive out of the city. Its an impressive sight, some estimated 8,000 model warriors standing in situ across three pits. I hadn’t realised just how much excavation work is still going on, although some parts of the pits are being filled back in again for preservation. Tonight we meet the Xi’an conference team to discuss arrangements for the conference on Wednesday. Tomorrow we visit the Loess Plateau to study the ecosystem rehabilitation project that John Liu spoke about in Beijing. I will update again at the next opportunity.

Memory Trips in Beijing

It’s been two years and one month since I was last in Beijing and it feels like a homecoming. I’d forgotten how many memories I have here. Suddenly, two years doesn’t seem like such a long time. I have been animated all evening, ever since the journey from the airport into the city centre, passing familiar restaurants and parks in which I can recount many a happy night’s entertainment. I don’t know why I am so surprised.

I touched down about 3:30 this afternoon and found my way to the hostel using directions I’d scribbled down last night whilst waiting for a cab. Its buried away right in the heart of Beijing immediately behind the Forbidden City, aptly named “Sitting on the City Walls.” You have to really look to find it as its hidden down a narrow HuTong that doesn’t look overly inviting to non-natives. But once you find it it’s a neat little hideout.

The progrmame officially starts tomorrow so I am making the most of a night to myself in the city before things get rolling in the morning. After a quick shower I was keen to get out and explore. A brief look at the map to get my bearings and the destination decided; Houhai, a favorite hangout of my last visit and a ten minute walk down the road. Its a lively bar district centered around a huge lake that really comes to life when it gets dark and all the bars light up their doors with neon lights. They also compete for the best live music, and you can spend the night bar hopping from one place to the next picking out the spots with the best music. So that’s what I did, just as I have before. Nothing’s much changed. I’m falling in love with Beijing all over again.

China, again

So I’m on the move again, sitting in Kuala Lumpar Airport awaiting my connecting flight to Beijing. It’s only been a month in India but a last minute opportunity has cropped up and I’ve taken two weeks leave from work. I’m not done with India yet, honest! I will be traveling the length of China with the NGO, SUCHEN (Sustainable Chinese Enterprise) who have partnered up with the academic institution, TED to organise conferences in China themed around sustainability. Along with a handful of other expeditioners sponsored by SUCHEN, I will attend four conferences in Beijing, Xi’an, Chengdu and Hong Kong, stopping off at various points along the way and documenting our progress.

How apt it is that I should be returning to China. The place seems to be some sort of magnet for me, and I’m curious because I don’t know why. Perhaps its telling of the extent to which China has placed itself at the centre of foreign affairs the world over. I was first in China two years ago on a summer school programme in Beijing. Then an exchange programme in Hong Kong for a semester. And I’ve never been entirely disengaged from Chinese affairs whenever I’ve been elsewhere. On this trip I’m particularly interested in the corporate side of sustainability in China. Such a rapidly growing economy but with great disparity and so many questions about how such development can be sustained. My flight is boarding. I will endeavor to keep you informed, as long as the Great Firewall of China permits…

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