Generation 40s – 四十世代

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Beijing’s cruel eviction of its migrant workers is a stain on China’s urbanisation drive

CommentInsight & Opinion

Audrey Jiajia Li says the rural masses who go to the cities in search of a better life do not deserve to be treated as disposable labour, particularly given their contribution to China’s development


The popular Chinese comedian Guo Degang tells this joke: a millionaire once claimed that while he couldn’t care for all the poor in the world, he would never turn a blind eye to people suffering from poverty in his neighbourhood. Later, he evicted them all from his neighbourhood and, sure enough, there have been no poor people there ever since.

In her 2012 science fiction story Folding Beijing, Chinese writer Hao Jingfang imagined a future Beijing divided into three spaces, where residents of different social classes share the same area in a 48-hour cycle: at the top, the ruling class of 5 million people occupy the space for 24 hours, after which the Earth’s surface would turn, moving residents of the second, then the third class up, and those 25 million middle-class people and 50 million low-class people would have the city for 16 and 8 hours respectively.

It’s hard for those of us who are comedy and science fiction lovers to believe that these stories would one day come close to reality.

Recently in Beijing, a fire broke out in a building crammed full of migrant workers, killing 19. The municipal authorities soon ordered citywide safety checks, in the process of which apartments identified as not meeting certain standards were targeted for immediate demolition. Tenants were given just a few days’ – in some cases, just hours’ – notice to pack up and vacate their home, or their water and electricity would be cut off. Many were chased away in the freezing Beijing winter.

A new expression – “low-end population” – went viral on social media. It was initially thought to be some kind of satire made up by internet users. That was before some seemingly official documents calling for action to “avoid the massive influx of the low-end population” and demanding “tight control of the low-end population” were revealed.

After four decades of development, China is well along the path of urbanisation. In 1978, at the beginning of Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms, the number of urban residents accounted for only 16 per cent of the nation’s total population. In 2012, for the first time in history, people living in Chinese cities outnumbered those in the countryside, with the urbanisation ratio surpassing 50 per cent. This grew to 57.3 per cent in 2016.

The number of urban dwellers has grown from 170 million to 793 million over the past 40 years.

Urbanisation remains the most durable engine driving the economy, providing the biggest potential for the country to expand its domestic consumption. It boosts demand, from concrete and steel to daily goods such as food, household items and automobiles, and has led to a surge in public services and infrastructure projects.

Rural residents leave for the cities to seek a better life, given the widening income gap between the cities and the countryside. Income inequality is high in China. For over a decade, the Gini coefficient that measures such inequality has remained at a high 0.46, despite the rapid economic growth and the rise of average living standards.

Thanks to the country’s hukou residential permit system, those born in the rural areas are disadvantaged when compared with those born in cities. When a farmer’s yearly income can’t buy him a fancy iPhone, while Wang Sicong, the son of China’s richest man, could buy eight iPhone7s for his dog, going to the urban areas appears to be the best option.

Most of the country’s second-generation migrant workers were born in the 1980s and 1990s. Without farming experience and eager to be part of the city, they strive not only to make a living, but also to be accepted by the society they live in. They want a fairer, more decent and more respectful lifestyle than that of their countryside parents.

At the same time, migrant workers have contributed significantly to cities’ development, especially in the past 10 years as the e-commerce industry flourished. The on-demand service industry, like food delivery, ride-hailing and online shopping, hire a sizeable number of migrant workers because they are hardworking and poorly compensated. Sadly, as a workforce, they are not only treated as cheap but are apparently also disposable.

This is not the first time the capital city has driven away migrant workers and “low end” small businesses in the name of eliminating safety hazards. There have been waves of such evictions. In the 1990s, the target was the Wenzhou vendors and small business owners; around 2010, it was the “ant tribes” – low-income young workers sharing tiny living spaces in dark and humid basements.

It is winter time in the northern hemisphere. While life for those at the bottom is harsh all over the world, their treatment at this time of year varies. In the UK, survivors of a recent deadly blaze in London were rehoused, regardless of whether they were locals. In France, from November to March each year, landlords are prohibited from evicting tenants and the government must compensate them for any possible losses. In North America, there are shelters to help the homeless cope with the severe weather.

A couple leave with their belongings after they were required to move out due to a citywide crackdown on unsafe buildings, in Xinjiancun, Daxing district, in Beijing, on November 25. We can only hope that such tactics will not be used in Beijing’s implementation of an earlier plan to cut 15 per cent of the downtown population in two years. Photo: Reuters

We can only hope that Beijing’s action last week was not an indication of the tactics authorities will employ to implement an earlier plan to cut 15 per cent of the downtown population in two years, which would amount to a reduction of about two million people.

As a society urbanises, its “hardware” and “software” should both improve. Manual workers should be respected and cherished, not repaid with arrogance, discrimination and humiliation. The cruellest urbanisation is one coloured by social Darwinism: driving people out when, in the eyes of policymakers, they are no longer needed and have become a burden.

Audrey Jiajia Li is the 2017 Elizabeth Neuffer fellow with the International Women’s Media Foundation. She is currently in residence at the MIT Centre for International Studies


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The countless tragedies of China’s one-child policy

‘I could hear the baby cry. They killed my baby … yet I couldn’t do a thing’: The countless tragedies of China’s one-child policy
News›China›Policies & Politics

Verna Yu

Millions of families paid a huge personal price for a 35-year-old state programme that failed to deliver its promised social and economic dividends. The women who were forced to have abortions still live with the trauma and society must still grapple with an ageing population

It was 25 years ago, but Mao Hengfeng still vividly remembers the piercing cries of her baby.

Yet instead of being able to hold her newborn child, she watched helplessly while her baby was drowned in a bucket.

She had been seven-and-a-half months pregnant with her fourth child. Under China’s one-child policy, she was carrying the baby “illegally” so she was dragged onto an operating table to have it aborted.

“The baby was alive, I could hear the baby cry,” she said, fighting back tears. “They killed my baby … yet I couldn’t do a thing.”


But that was not the end of Mao’s ordeal. While she was still suffering from severe haemorrhaging after the abortion, officials tried to force her to have a hysterectomy. She was fired from her job at a state-run factory in Shanghai. Her husband lost his business licence. When she tried to fight her job dismissal and the court threw out her case, she damaged the national emblem inside the courtroom and was taken into a mental asylum.

That was not the first time officials had tried to get rid of her baby, she said. During her second pregnancy in 1989, she was sent to a mental asylum where she given injections, but the baby survived.

Even today, the shadow of the one-child policy still lingers over her family. Her three older daughters, who were barred from getting education beyond primary school, can survive only on odd jobs. Mao and her husband, once successful business owners, are now each living on government handouts of 790 yuan (HK$960) a month.

Mao was just one of millions of Chinese women who have suffered traumatising experiences because of the one-child policy, launched 35 years ago to achieve the national goal of controlling the population to boost per capita economic performance.

China’s announcement late last month that it would allow all couples to have two children is widely welcomed, but has also led to reflection on whether the decades-long policy, which has forced tens of millions of families to make sacrifices and led to countless rights abuses, has been worth it.

The one-child policy has come at huge social and human cost to Chinese society: forced abortions, sterilisations, and the insertion of intrauterine contraceptive devices have left physical and emotional scars among millions of women.

Talk to any woman on the mainland, and most will have a gruelling personal story to tell from intrusive and coercive medical procedures that they had to endure. Brutal slogans such as “Abort it, induce it, just stop it from being born!” have translated into countless human tragedies over the past 35 years.


Feng Jianmei was tearful and almost speechless for two years after local officials in Shaanxi province induced labour seven months into her second pregnancy in 2012. The picture of Feng on a hospital bed next to her bloody aborted baby placed in a plastic bag shocked the nation.

Today, the couple still think about their dead baby. “Our baby would have been three by now if she had lived,” her husband Deng Jiyuan said ruefully.

Xia Nenying, 38, is still suffering from nightmares. At the crack of dawn one morning three years ago, more than 20 family planning officers came to her village home in Jiangxi province and bundled her into a van.

She was taken to a village family planning service station where she was forced to undergo a sterilisation operation. Xia, a rural resident, had had two girls already. While rural residents are allowed to have a second child when the first one is a girl, local cadres wanted to ensure she would not get pregnant again.

“I was totally unprepared,” Xia said. “When they took me away, my one-year-old screamed and cried. Since then, I haven’t had a good night’s sleep. I often wake up in a sweat from bad dreams of people coming to take me away.”

Those unable to pay exorbitant fines for violating the birth-control policy often had their homes ransacked or even demolished, and their belongings, including livestock and farming equipment, seized.

It is not only the victims who are haunted by nightmares. A former worker at a rural family planning service station said she was haunted by screams of women and babies in her dreams after years of hauling pregnant women to rural clinics and inducing abortions. Feeling that she had blood on her hands, she eventually resigned.

The traumatising impact of the one-child policy is still felt by many families decades later.

Children born outside the birth quota have no legal status as citizens: no identity documents, no rights to education, medical care and other social services.

Even in their adulthood, these so-called “black” citizens, are living on the margins of society – deprived of an education, they are forced to do odd jobs for a living. Even if they have the money, they are unable to travel abroad.

On the national level, the policy has led to a disproportionately high number of male births because of sex-selective abortions, a rapidly ageing population without adequate government support and labour shortages. Parents who have lost their only child face an uncertain old age.


With such drastic social consequences and human cost, many people now question why the one-child policy was ever introduced and how it could have remained in place for 35 years, exceeding even the government’s original plan of 25 to 30 years.

After the Communist Party came to power in 1949, anticipating war, leader Mao Zedong encouraged people to have large families. After a 1950s baby boom, fearing a population explosion, the leadership first introduced campaigns to encourage fewer children and then, in 1980, officially enforced a nationwide one-child policy – limiting most urban couples to one child and some rural families to two. The policy was launched at a time when the Chinese leadership needed to rebuild its political legitimacy with the country reeling from the tumultuous Cultural Revolution (1966-76).

The post-Mao Zedong leadership made economic development the basis of its legitimacy. With the aim of boosting the living standards of its population, controlling population growth was seen as essential for increasing its per capita gross domestic product growth, said demographers Wang Feng, Cai Yong and Gu Baochang in a 2013 paper.

“This per capita metric, using population size simply as part of the political calculation for achieving political goals, has been a constant driving force to justify the continuation of the one-child policy,” the paper, Population, Policy, and Politics: How Will History Judge China’s One-Child Policy? said.

China has long defended the one-child policy as being a vital step in preventing a rapid expansion of population that could have led to food and resource shortages. It claimed that the policy had prevented 400 million births, but this has been disputed by demographers, who say that the number of averted births has been grossly exaggerated.

“The claim that China’s one-child policy has had a major role in controlling China’s population growth and in propelling China’s economic boom is one of the major myths associated with the policy, and is fundamentally a false claim,” said Wang, a demographer at the University of California, Irvine.

Wang said nearly 75 per cent of China’s fertility decline occurred before the one-child policy was launched in 1980, and the recent low fertility was closely associated with economic and social changes after the beginning of the 1990s.

China’s total fertility rate – the average number of children a woman can expect to have in her lifetime – dropped by more than half, from 5.8 in 1970 to 2.8 in 1979.

Cai, a demographer at the University of North Carolina, noted that while an estimated 15 to 25 per cent of China’s rapid economic growth between 1982 and 2000 could be attributed to the demographic dividend, because the fertility decline already happened before the policy, “the direct contribution from the one-child policy to China’s economic growth is relatively small”.

Wang, Cai and Gu looked at what China’s fertility would have been if there were no one-child policy, using the fertility trend in China before the one-child policy and trends in other countries. They projected that by 2010, fertility would have fallen to its currently observed level of around 1.5 children per woman anyway.

While the demographic effect of the one-child policy in reducing population growth is very small, the policy’s social cost in depriving most families of a second child was enormous, having forcefully altered family and kinship for Chinese society, scholars say.

Ai Xiaoming, a retired professor of women’s studies, said many women initially supported the policy. It was then seen as a modern and progressive measure and believed they should put national interests ahead of their personal needs. They willingly abandoned the traditional mindset of relying on children for their old age, and believed in the government slogan: “It’s good to have one child, the state will take care of your old age.”

Yet 35 years on, China’s pension system is under severe strain. Longer lifespans and decades of one-child policy mean the proportion of China’s elderly population is climbing rapidly. By 2050, 39 per cent of the population will be over the age of 60, compared with 15 per cent now, according to official data.

Although China provides pensions for most senior citizens, many say the coverage is inadequate. “The sense of crisis is very strong,” Ai said. “To many, the slogan, ‘The state will look after you in your old age’, has become an empty promise.”

For Liu Meilian, 52, a widow who lost her only child in a car crash six years ago, the prospect of old age is a particularly challenging one. Liu, a teacher, said the monthly pension she would receive as a civil servant when she retired in three years’ time, now at a rate of about 4,000 yuan, would not cover additional costs if she became ill and had no children to care for her.

“If I knew things would turn out like this, I would have risked anything – even a prison term – to have another child,” she said.

But, even now it is too late to alter the situation for many individuals. Many, like Liu, are too old to have another child and many others do not want more than one child because of the rising costs of raising children.

After the government loosened the one-child policy in late 2013 – allowing families in which one parent was an only child to have two children – only one million couples, or about 10 per cent of those who were eligible, applied to have a second child last year, according to official figures.

Some estimates suggest that raising a child from birth to the age of 18 costs about 20,000 yuan a year, the equivalent of more than 40 per cent of the average mainland household income.


Even from a demographic point of view, experts say the two-child policy is too late to make any noticeable difference.

The National Health and Family Planning Commission said with about 90 million couples in the country eligible for the new two-child policy, the peak number of births in a year was expected to rise to 20 million – up from 16.87 million births in 2014. But experts say that even with three million additional births, it is only a few percentage points of the total number of births.

“The long-term demographic effect is going to be negligible,” Wang said. “The new policy is more political and humanistic than demographic.”

Demographers say the projected increase in population will not be enough to reverse the ageing trend for the Chinese population and the shrinking workforce. In fact, the government will need to encourage couples to have more children, further expand the pension scheme and defer the retirement age to avert a looming crisis, they say.

During the past decade, the number of workers aged between 20 and 29 on the mainland has fallen by 15 per cent and it will shrink by another 20 per cent in the next 20 years. Meanwhile, the number of people over the age of 60 was forecast to double from the current 200 million to 400 million by 2033, Wang said.

The impact of the new policy would be slow, taking about 20 years to show, Cai said.

Wang warned: “The government should recognise this could be one of its greatest challenges. If it cannot deliver adequate support – given that people have made a huge sacrifice by having just one child – it would challenge their political legitimacy.”

Cai said although the projected total figure of 20 million births would raise the total fertility rate to 1.8 from the current 1.55, this was still way below the level of 2.1 that would allow the population to replace itself.


Scholars have campaigned to scrap the one-child policy for more than a decade, arguing that the low fertility rate was worryingly below the replacement rate. In 1970, the fertility rate was 5.8, but in the past two decades, the mainland’s fertility has dropped to one of the lowest levels in the world. The total fertility rate has dropped from 1.82 in 2000 to 1.55 in 2014.

Despite the warnings, the policy remained in place. Analysts said the bureaucracy of the ubiquitous birth planning departments had become resistant to policy change, having grown to rely on the fines from punishments for over-quota births for local government income.

Experts said the resilience of the policy also showed how policy-making processes in a political system that lacked transparency and accountability could result in disastrous outcomes, and how an authoritarian regime could treat individuals as mere numbers and subjects of the state to be sacrificed for national goals.

Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, said the one-child policy showed that policy-making in China was “impervious to the extraordinary human cost of its choices and riddled with impunity for past and ongoing abuses.”

Wang, Cai and Gu said in their 2013 paper that history would remember the policy as “the most extreme example of state intervention in human reproduction in the modern era” and “a very costly blunder, born of the legacy of a political system that planned population numbers in the same way that it planned the production of goods.”

They said that in many ways the one-child policy’s damage surpassed even the impact of other historical calamities such as the Great Famine in 1959-61 and the Cultural Revolution.

“The one-child policy will surpass them in impact by its role in creating a society with a seriously undermined family and kin structure, and a whole generation of future elderly and their children whose well-being will be seriously jeopardised,” they said.

A tragic consequence of the one-child policy was the widespread disrespect for life in Chinese society, Ai said. Society’s attitude towards abortion is so casual that women in the early stage of pregnancies are often asked: “Are you keeping it?”

Ai herself is one of many victims of botched birth-control operations. Like millions of women, she had to have an IUD fitted after her first child, but 20 years later, a serious infection caused her to have a hysterectomy.

“Reproductive rights have never been respected,” Ai said. “And life has been reduced to just a number.”

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An ageing China needs to grasp the immigration nettle now

South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion

Winston Mok

Winston Mok says the new two-child policy is a welcome step in addressing demographic problems, but more needs to be done to attract foreigners and the Chinese diaspora bringing their skills and entrepreneurial vision

Although China’s new two-child policy will stimulate consumer demand, its impact to replenish the ageing workforce will not be felt until two decades from now. China’s working population peaked already, and its decline will accelerate.

While China is expected to overtake the US as the largest economy in the next decade, it is unclear how long it will keep that position. In contrast to China’s ageing work force, the US will keep on adding young people, including some of the best and brightest from China. For China’s economy to keep pace with the US, it has to pour in a lot more investments, which is unsustainable, or innovate faster , which is difficult.

For all the wrongs (and rights) of the US economic system, it has the unassailable advantage of population growth. From now to the middle of this century, the US population is expected to grow by a third, to 440 million. Most of that growth will be driven by immigration, which has contributed great dynamism to the US economy.

From more than four times the US population today, China’s population may fall to about three times the US level by the middle of the century. Such an adverse trend will be slightly moderated by China’s latest two-child policy. But to arrest its ageing population, China would need the twin engines of pro-birth and immigration.

Many may be drawn by China’s economic opportunities – if not disheartened by the difficulties of learning the language. And they will grapple with issues such as internet censorship. The late Lee Kuan Yew saw China’s difficulties in attracting international talents as a key challenge to its rise. In this context, ethnic Chinese may be a good place to start.

First, Beijing may start with its former citizens. Of the 3.5 million mainland students who went abroad since 1978, half have remained overseas. Some have acquired foreign citizenships and residencies. They are arguably the most natural targets: armed with foreign education and experience, yet more ready to be reintegrated to their country of birth. If they are granted long-term visas in China, with similar access to education and health care as locals, more may return.

Second, China could be an attractive destination among the 50 million overseas Chinese. A good proportion of foreign students in China come from Southeast Asia, where 60 per cent of overseas Chinese live. Ways should be developed to facilitate their assimilation.

Third, Hong Kong may be another source of “migrants”. Hong Kong is where it is today thanks to the influx of talent and capital from the mainland since the middle of the last century. Now with greater economic opportunities in the mainland, there is no reason why migration cannot happen the other way. Hongkongers may live in the mainland – but as foreigners in their own country without access to local social services. Shanghai has recently started offering resident benefits such as health care and education to workers and investors from Taiwan. Similar schemes may be devised for Hongkongers.

In parallel to attracting immigrants, stemming China’s emigration outflow is perhaps just as important. A high proportion of China’s rich and many middle class families plan to emigrate. Behind this trend are many factors, including education, lifestyle, pollution and the rule of law. To keep its most capable people from voting with their feet, Beijing must work harder to make China a more attractive place to work, to do business, to live and to raise families.

Millennia before the US, China has been a multinational state. More than conquests, it grew through immigration and assimilation. In the Tang dynasty, seen as the apex of Chinese civilisation, its capital Changan (today’s Xian) was filled with long-term foreign residents. Foreign talents wielded influence in Chinese society in ways unimaginable today. Beyond trade and investments, attracting global talents can be an important component in China’s new Silk Road initiatives.

Winston Mok is a private investor, a former private equity investor and McKinsey consultant. An MIT alumnus, he studied under three Nobel laureates in economics

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Why do Chinese students think it’s OK to cheat?

South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion

Kelly Yang

Kelly Yang says criminalising cheating in the gaokao university entrance exam is a good start to fixing the problem. But parents must also teach their children the right attitude to learning

Cheating is now officially a criminal offence in China. Students found guilty of cheating in the notoriously difficult university entranceexam will now face up to seven years in prison. Many are calling the punishment overly harsh. Even so, I think it’s exactly what China needs, if it is enforced fairly.

In recent years, cheating has got so out of control that, three years ago, in the small town of Zhongxiang, Hubei (湖北), a group of gaokao invigilators found themselves under siege as enraged parents and students trapped them in their office and threw rocks at the windows, shouting, “We want fairness! Let us cheat!”

It’s not just the gaokao – it’s the SAT, the GRE, and a whole host of other exams. An estimated 90 per cent of all recommendation letters for Chinese applicants to United States universities are fake. Some 70 per cent of application essays are not written by students, and 50 per cent of grades transcripts are falsified.

Once the students arrive on campus, more cheating services are available. Last month, Reuters published a devastating report on cheating by Chinese students in the US, finding a thriving black market which includes services to write essays, do the students’ homework, and take their exams. It seems you can now get a degree from an Ivy League school without ever leaving your house!

With so much evidence of cheating, the question is: why do Chinese kids cheat? Well, because they want to and because they can. Most Chinese parents tell their kids from a very early age that their goal in life is to get into a good school. That’s it, not learn the right skills or to find inspiration in school to seek meaningful work. Just “get into a good school”.
Education gets reduced to a product, one which, like all other products, can be bought and sold

By emphasising the destination rather than the journey, education gets reduced to a product, one which, like all other products, can be bought and sold, and, if need be, snatched. That’s what we’re seeing here: kids who fundamentally do not accept that cheating is wrong. And why should they when they do not view education for what it is, a chance to broaden one’s mind and learn new ways of thinking? Rather, they see it as a status label, something akin to a handbag.

The second reason that Chinese students cheat is because they can. Here, the cheating services are as much to blame as the testing services, organisations like College Board, which owns and administers the SAT and for years has been recycling old material from previous tests to save a little money.

In March, Reuters reported that, since 2013, there have been at least eight occasions in which test materials were compromised, but the SAT went ahead and administered them anyway.

When the testing authorities knowingly administer compromised tests, they’re as guilty as the cheating services and the parents who condone or, worse, encourage their children to game the system. They are all enablers, helping to fuel a global cheating epidemic that robs us all.

As dire as the situation is, I still hold out hope. The fact that China is introducing more severe consequences for cheating on the gaokao is a good first step. I hope the punishments are doled out consistently and fairly. And I hope the College Board follows in China’s footsteps, stops being penny wise and pound foolish, and restores much needed integrity in the SAT.

Finally, I hope Chinese parents stop telling their children to just “get into a good school”. This may have been good advice in the old days but not in today’s innovation-driven, entrepreneurial times.

Kelly Yang teaches writing at the Kelly Yang Project, an after-school centre for writing and debate in Hong Kong. She is a graduate of UC Berkeley and Harvard Law School.

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Sustainable solutions enable China’s rapid urbanisation without disastrous environmental side effects

South China Morning Post


Sustainable solutions can enable rapid urbanisation without disastrous environmental side effects

Back in 2013, a Chinese communist leader quietly toured the urban environs of Chicago and New York, an experience that transformed his thinking about city design.

Zhang Jifu, then party secretary for the district of Pinggu, was impressed by Chicago’s lakefront, with its winding bike paths and general hustle and bustle. He was also struck by how a dense urban environment like New York still had parks, gardens and outdoor cafes scattered throughout the city.

Zhang had attended a two-week course in the United States arranged by former US Treasury secretary Henry Paulson’s brainchild, Paulson Institute. On returning to Pinggu, about 90 minutes’ drive from Beijing, Zhang ripped up the basic government-sanctioned blueprint for the way China builds cities.

“In the past we were after bigger and faster stuff and we built wide roads and large communities and these were actually contrary to the urban sustainability concept,” said Zhang, who has been made mayor of the larger city of Datong in Shanxi province, according to an August 5 statement. “After my training in Chicago and New York, I learned the importance of developing compact cities.”

Influencing the way China’s leaders think was among key goals Paulson wanted to achieve in 2011, when he set up his non-profit institute, focused on economic and environmental challenges in China and the US. With 100 million people set to move into China’s cities by 2020 and the nation adding 2 billion square metres of floor space in new buildings each year, efficiency of urbanisation is central to averting environmental catastrophe.

Urban Sprawl

China’s Soviet-influenced city planning has emphasised vast boulevards and cars over people and liveability. Zoning frequently separates residential areas from industrial and commercial ones, forcing long commutes by car.

Local governments’ need for revenue from land sales has caused urban sprawl as cities expand out instead of up. The result: Gridlocked streets and choking air pollution.

“The stakes are high for China as it urbanises,” said Paulson, a former chairman and CEO of Goldman Sachs Group.

“If China manages to urbanise in a way that improves people’s livelihoods and limits environmental damage, the positive impact will be enormous for the Chinese people and the rest of the planet.”

Changing the status quo will be a serious challenge. About 90 per cent of China’s cities are built according to the Soviet model, according to the San Francisco-based Energy Foundation, a non-profit organisation that promotes clean energy. Local governments remain dependent on land sales for about a fifth of their total revenue, giving them an incentive to continue selling land instead of increasing density.

“As long as local governments in China are evaluated by GDP growth, and they continue generating revenue through land sales, I do not see any sign of changes in the Chinese way of urbanisation,” said Fang Yiping, assistant professor at the PSU-China Innovations in Urbanisation Programme at Portland State University in Portland, Oregon.

Over the years, Paulson has cultivated his ties with upper echelons of the Communist Party and business. He helped many of China’s biggest enterprises list on the stock market before becoming US Treasury Secretary from 2006-09. In that post, he founded the Strategic & Economic Dialogue summits between the nations to foster closer economic ties. Premier Li Keqiang wrote the Chinese calligraphy for the “Uniting Knowledge and Action” logo that adorns the Paulson Institute website.

Growth Challenge

Paulson believes the massive urbanisation in China poses the greatest challenge and potentially biggest opportunity for shifting to a more sustainable development model, said Fred Hu, chairman of Beijing-based Primavera Capital Group and former China chairman of Goldman Sachs.

“More often than not, conservation takes a back seat if it is perceived in conflict with economic growth,” said Hu, who worked for Paulson at Goldman Sachs and is chairman of the Nature Conservatory’s China Board. “The GDP growth-centric mindset in China is hard to shake off but Hank has the status, credibility and passion to make a difference.”

Building compact cities around mass transit systems that balance commercial and residential areas, as Zhang plans, would slash reliance on cars, preventing as much as 700 million tonnes of carbon dioxide in total from spewing into the atmosphere by 2030. That’s more than was emitted by Australia and Italy combined in 2013.

Zhang has already started a programme to use electric vehicles as taxis. Other plans include priority for non-motorised vehicles, bicycles and pedestrians over cars, as well as networks of small streets instead of the vast multi-lane boulevards so common in Chinese cities.

Zhang was a “visionary” and more of his kind were likely to pop up in China in coming years, said Zhou Nan, deputy group leader of the China Energy Group of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, who is a co-author of a Paulson Institute report commissioned by the Pinggu government for its urbanisation plan.

Still, challenges to broader change in the way China urbanises abound, including limits on financial and human resources to carry out plans, she said. Some of China’s plans for eco-cities proved unsuccessful because of such problems, she said.

Green City

“If there is a change in leadership then everything will fall apart,” she said. “That’s why in the US and other countries many of the action plans are stipulated in legislation, regulation and being enforced well.”

One such green city project was to have been the Dongtan eco-city on Chongming Island near Shanghai, unveiled with great fanfare in 2005. It never got off the ground after its main backer, former Shanghai Party Chief Chen Liangyu , was sentenced to 18 years in jail in 2008 for corruption.

“The fact that there is no rush to revive Dongtan eco-city shows that the initial political back-up was so important,” according to a February research paper published in the Journal of Management and Sustainability. “Without it the project will only remain a white elephant.”

It’s also easier for Pinggu, with a small population of about 423,000 people, to remodel its urban planning than for megacities like Beijing and Shanghai or China’s other large cities.

Paulson’s hope is that annual training programmes like the one Zhang attended will lead to places such as Pinggu emerging as models for change, said Leigh Wedell, Washington-based Chief Sustainability Officer at the Paulson Institute.

“We have seen a lot of case studies like that where a successful pilot project led to national impact,” said Zhou.

Another such project is the Shenzhen International Low- Carbon City, which last year won the second annual prize for China’s “Cities of the Future”, which is co-sponsored by the Paulson Institute.

The Shenzhen project, in the Pingdi district about an hour’s drive from Hong Kong, was redeveloped without tearing buildings down and contributed to cleaning up the local river.

Paulson is also trying to spark change in the nation’s building codes. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that buildings account for almost 40 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Energy consumption from buildings and commercial floor space are projected to double in China through 2050, adding about 2 billion square metres a year to its 50 billion square metres of floor space. Buildings in China have the potential to improve energy efficiency by 30 per cent or more, estimates Zhou.

“By retrofitting buildings with existing technologies – even something as simple as insulation – you can start to have a major impact on the energy efficiency of a building,” said Deborah Lehr, senior fellow at the Paulson Institute.

How China went about cleaning up its environment and whether it could shift to a more efficient urbanisation pattern was crucial for global climate change, Hu said.

Zhang provided a glimmer of hope. After reading the Paulson Institute’s 65-page report on how he should revamp Pinggu’s urban design, which broadly recommends adopting leading international practices, Zhang said he wanted more.

“It’s a very good report,” he said. “But I want to see more specific recommendations, something that would really enlighten us.”