China’s shrinking cities

Hegang, China in 2012

Hegang, China in 2012

China has almost 1,000 cities that are losing people:

The perception that China’s urbanisation is still in full swing is untrue for nearly one-third of Chinese cities, whose populations are shrinking, according to new findings by a Chinese university.

A research team from Tsinghua University used satellite imagery to monitor the intensity of night lights in more than 3,300 cities and towns between 2013 and 2016. In 28 per cent of cases, the lights had dimmed.

China now has 938 shrinking cities, according to Long Ying, an urban planning expert at China’s Tsinghua University, who founded and led the research group, Beijing City Lab. This is more than any other nation on Earth.

The urban shrinkage is related to China’s declining population.

The Chinese cities under the greatest pressure of shrinking include those heavily dependent on natural resources, such as the coal mining town of Hegang in Heilongjiang province.

Also diminishing are cities “in the process of transformation”, such as Yiwu in Zhejiang province, once christened the “largest small commodity wholesale market in the world” and famous for its sprawling networks of stalls selling counterfeit goods.

More about Yiwu here.

Most Chinese city planning is detached from the reality of today, Long said after his team reviewed ambitious urban development plans for more than 60 cities. The plans usually include key infrastructure projects, as well as industrial, commercial and residential developments that may diverge significantly from the demographic trends.

The best-laid plans of mice and men. Anything is possible in China, but Herculean development plans (such as the Greater Bay Area “blueprint”) need to be taken with a grain of salt.

Huge apartment buildings dominate the skylines in most Chinese urban areas. These buildings would be much more costly to tear down should they be vacant than the standard smaller houses in shrinking cities in the US, for example.

These large buildings may also be sparsely occupied – it could be difficult to survey how many homes are empty, Long said. Furthermore, no official wants to face a decision over whether to tear down a building that might just have a few occupants.

Chinese academic Gan Li calculates that some 22% of the nation’s housing stock is vacant, or more than 50 million homes.

However, the desolation that haunts many of America’s decaying post-industrial towns could be replicated in China, if the situation is not managed properly, Long said.

“Although shrinking cities in the US and China are different on many levels, many landscapes in the US rust belt could be the future of some of China’s shrinking cities,” he warned.

A bit of a stroll

Karl Bushby walk

Karl Bushby’s route (Source)

I’ve always been interested in the idea of long walks… really long walks. Two of my favorite travel books are Korea: A Walk Through the Land of Miracles by Simon Winchester and The Great Walk of China: Travels on Foot from Shanghai to Tibet by Graham Earnshaw, both written by Englishmen who took the trouble to perambulate across an entire country.

But another Englishman (I’m sensing a trend), Karl Bushby, puts those two authors to shame by attempting to walk an unbroken path around the globe, from the tip of South America to Hull, England. Bushby started his pedestrian odyssey in Pantas Arenas, Chile in 1998, and in 2006 he crossed the Bering Strait on foot. Yes, you can actually get from North America to Asia by scrambling across drifting ice floes, if you’re feeling adventurous. Some swimming may also be required.

Bushby was detained by Russian authorities for illegal entry and deported back to the US, but he didn’t stop walking. After a few detours and setbacks, he is back on the road and now appears to be somewhere in Central Asia (last spotted in Mongolia).

If he completes his journey – and there is no reason to think that he won’t at this point – it will rank as one of the more impressive feats of travel in modern history.

Boeing disaster and American decline

The twin tragedies involving Boeing’s flagship new 737 Max jets highlight the increasingly obvious corruption and incompetence pervading US industry and government. From Asia Times:

By now the whole world knows what pilots and aerospace engineers have known all along: Boeing stuck big modern engines on a 1950s airframe design, which made the 737 Max inherently unstable, with a tendency to go nose up and stall. It used a software kluge to compensate but didn’t retrain pilots in the new aircraft in order to speed sales. […]

The 737 Max scandal is a disaster for the United States, and it couldn’t have happened at a more delicate moment. China’s aircraft manufacturer COMAC already has nearly 1,000 orders for its C919 twin-engine passenger jet, designed to compete with the 737 Max as well as the Airbus 320. Not only has the prestige of American industry been tarnished, but the credibility of its air safety regulators, the Federal Aviation Authority and the National Transportation Safety Board, is compromised.

China was the first major nation to ground the new Boeing jets, followed by pretty much everyone else (except for Canada). Notably, the world was not impressed by the FAA’s assurances that the plane is safe to fly. The curious result is that China is emerging as a global leader in aviation safety.

The main reason that America’s military position has deteriorated relative to strategic competitors is corruption, pure and simple. The incestuous alliance of the defense industry duopoly (Boeing and Lockheed-Martin) and the Pentagon brass has saddled the military with backward-looking strategies and enormous costs.

The Pentagon’s budget was boosted by a horrendous $82 billion this fiscal year.

But America’s biggest problem is the erosion of its industrial capability. It appears that Boeing cut corners and eschewed a long-needed redesign of its most profitable product because the additional capital expenditures and longer lead times would not have been viewed benevolently by the stock market.

This is why we can’t have nice things.

Censorship protection racket

People.cn

There’s a lot of money to be made by offering censorship services, at least if you’re China’s main state-owned newspaper:

While most global news companies are struggling to survive in the internet world, China’s official media is having a golden era.

One of the bright spots on the A-share market these days is People.cn, the online version of the People’s Daily, whose shares surged 243% in the past month to a four-year high.

In 12 of the last 15 trading sessions, the shares of the Communist Party mouthpiece surged to a daily limit of 10%. The Shanghai-listed company now has a market capitalization of 34.74 billion yuan (US$5.18 billion), or an incredible 380 times historic earnings. […]

People.cn is tasked with censoring the content of the online media from the major platforms operated by internet giants such as Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent.

This was virtually a licensed insurance business for online media in the age of increasingly tighter control from Beijing.

Apparently, People.cn charges service fees to the internet giants to help them scrub their platforms of content that might be offensive to the Party. Of course, this is a bit circular since People.cn is an organ of said Party. Nice website you got there… be a shame if anything happened to it.

Shanghai repair guy

Hengshan Lu apartment buildingWhen I was living on Hengshan Road in Shanghai, my apartment building had a repair guy. He lived in the dumpster room, which was a nondescript concrete structure that adjoined the building. By and large, you didn’t notice him, and I think that suited him fine. There was also a slovenly middle-aged dude who lived in the building and always seemed to show up and collect a small amount of money whenever anything happened, such as a tenant moving in. You might call him the building manager, except he didn’t really manage anything. He was more of an agent or middleman.

There was, for a long while, a broken toilet that sat next to the elevator on my floor. Nobody seemed to mind this. I don’t remember if it was ever removed. When I first moved in to the building, the sink didn’t work and there was a leak from the ceiling above the shower. We got the sink fixed somehow, but the leak persisted. It turned out there was a crazy old guy living directly upstairs (he was a government official who had been injured in a car accident and literally went crazy) and there was something wrong with his pipes and that was the source of the leak.

Together with my landlord (a cretin), the repair guy and the “building manager,” we visited the crazy old guy upstairs and identified the problem, which promptly failed to be solved. There was a big argument between the three parties who were supposed to be helping me fix the leak and somehow they just couldn’t reach an agreement about how or whether to fix it.

Finally, after a long and exhausting struggle, I figured out that the problem was that the repair guy wanted a small sum of money, like 40 yuan (about $6), and either the landlord or the “building manager,” or both, refused to pay him. So I shrugged and paid the man. And you know what? He fixed the leak. He fixed it but good.

What has changed

The Simpsons

Tweet by Paul Musgrave, assistant professor of political science at UMass Amherst:

The Simpsons used to be viewed as a portrait of a lower-middle class family. They had a house, car, job security, and a single wage-earner who didn’t graduate college. These days, that’s beyond unattainable.

The Simpsons premiered in December 1989. What has changed in the intervening 30 years is the destruction of the middle class and Middle America. The US is not wisely led.

PS:

1989: mr. burns is a dick. 2019: i would literally weep with relief if my boss offered me this kind of job security.

Mr Burns The Simpsons

CIA raid on North Korean embassy in Spain?

Story from El Pais, the second most-read daily newspaper in Spain, presented without comment (well, okay, just one comment – WTF?):

Investigators from the Spanish police and National Intelligence Center (CNI) have linked an attack on the North Korean embassy in Madrid on February 22 to the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

Sources believe the goal of the attack embassy was to get information on the former North Korean ambassador to Spain

At least two of the 10 assailants who broke into the embassy and interrogated diplomatic staff have been identified and have connections to the US intelligence agency. The CIA has denied any involvement but government sources say their response was “unconvincing.”

If it is proven that the CIA was behind the attack, it could lead to a diplomatic spat between Madrid and Washington. Government sources say that it would be “unacceptable” for an ally to take such action. Not only would it mean that the US agency had operated on Spanish soil without asking for authorization or informing the authorities, it would also be a violation of the international conventions that protect diplomatic delegations.

What’s more, unlike other intelligence activities – such as cyberattacks, which are characterized by their discretion, the attack on the North Korean embassy was especially violent. On February 22 at 3pm, 10 masked men carrying alleged imitation weapons broke into the embassy, located north of the capital in the residential area of Aravaca. They tied up the eight people inside and put bags on their heads. The victims were beaten and interrogated. A woman managed to escape from a window on the second floor and her screams for help were heard by a neighbor, who contacted the police.

A new bloc on the block

Sergey Karaganov

Sergey Karaganov

The day (in 2000) when Putin suggested that Russia would be willing to join NATO if it was treated as an equal partner seems like a very long time ago. Of course, the offer was never made, and NATO proceeded to expand eastward to within 100 miles of St Petersburg.

In retrospect, shutting Russia out of the Western alliance was a colossal mistake, possibly one of the great strategic blunders in all of history. Because now Russia is hellbent on forging an alliance with China:

Russia’s view of China has shifted significantly over the past five years. Moscow has abandoned any hope that the Chinese economy is an example it might emulate. Instead, foreign policy experts now talk of how Russia can use China to further its geopolitical goals.

There was no doubt at Valdai that China knows how to do economic growth, and that Russia does not. Russia’s elite — always so ready to resist any sign of Western hegemony — have no problem admitting China’s economic superiority. Their acceptance reminded me of the way Britain gave way to the United States as the world’s dominant economic power.

Seen from Moscow, there is no resistance left to a new alliance led by China. And now that Washington has imposed tariffs on Chinese exports, Russia hopes China will finally understand that its problem is Washington, not Moscow.

In the past, the possibility of an alliance between the two countries had been hampered by China’s reluctance to jeopardize its relations with the U.S. But now that it has already become a target, perhaps it will grow bolder. Every speaker at Valdai tried to push China in that direction.

Both Russia and China have obvious shortcomings, but the fact is that the US, Russia and China are the world’s foremost military powers; and an alliance of two of those powers against the third could prove to be a geopolitical game-changer.

This alliance, if it becomes concrete, would overturn how we do global politics. Imagine an international crisis in which Russia and China suddenly emerge as a single bloc. The impact would be considerable, and to some extent unpredictable: Psychologically, in the mind of the West, it would combine the fear associated with Russia with the apparent invulnerability of China. Washington would feel under attack; Europe, intimidated and unsettled.

The old Continent would also face the threat of a split between Western Europe and the nations of Central and Eastern Europe, which could turn their focus east under the influence of a cash-happy China ready to invest in the region.

The author, a former Europe minister for Portugal, describes a scary meeting between former Putin adviser Sergey Karaganov and some Chinese officials and think tank people:

There, a number of Chinese participants said they doubted Russia’s assertions that the world is in the midst of a new Cold War.

Karaganov dedicated himself to convincing them otherwise, arguing with increasing passion that China is deluding itself if it thinks issues between Beijing and Washington can be conveniently resolved to the benefit of both sides.

If Beijing places its bets on peace and cooperation, the great Chinese adventure will come to an end, and China will have to live in the shadow of the U.S. for another generation — perhaps forever, Karaganov said. Chinese authorities, he argued, have no more than five years to make a decision.

The clock is ticking.

The end of tourism?

International tourism arrivals grew by nearly 6% last year to 1.4 billion, according to figures from the United Nations World Tourism Organization.

Experts at the UNWTO predict that by 2100, the entire planet will be like a giant international airport, with a permanent floating population of billions of backpackers camping out in every Brazilian beach, Thai village and Mongolian yurt, turning the world into an extension of Instagram.

Backpackers

That is, of course, if current trends continue. But what if they don’t? We take it for granted, but the ease and safety of global travel today is really unbelievable, relying as it does not only on technology, but also the low cost of fuel, geopolitical stability, the openness of many countries to tourism, and a global middle class that can afford to vacation abroad. The problem is, none of the above conditions are set in stone. A large-scale war, economic depression, or energy shock, among other possible disruptions, could trigger a collapse in international travel, perhaps marking the end of the era of mass global tourism.

Consider this item from last week:

Americans traveling to Europe will soon have to add a new item to their packing lists.

Starting in 2021, the European Union will require US visitors to get a pre-approved, visa-like travel pass issued by the European Travel Information and Authorization System.

The permit will cost about $7.90 and will have to be requested at least four days before the journey—making romantic last-minute jaunts to Paris impossible.

The new requirement is described as a “security check.” It may be just a minor hassle for travelers, but a continued tightening of visa rules in Europe and elsewhere could put a serious damper on tourist flows. And as one blogger comments: “This throws a wrench into international travel, but the bigger wrench will come when the EU collapses.”

Nationalism is on the rise, and it’s possible that many countries will develop a sudden allergy to foreign backpackers, especially as concerns grow about “overtourism.” In this context it’s interesting to note that Thailand has closed Maya Bay, made famous by the Leonardo DiCaprio movie movie The Beach, indefinitely, while the Philippines shut down the popular island of Boracay for a six-month cleanup last year – it reopened with strict limits on tourist numbers.

Another factor is the state of the “rules-based international order,” which looks increasingly wobbly at the moment. The US State Department warns its citizens to “Exercise Increased Caution” when traveling to China owing to the latter’s coercive “exit ban” policy – thus international travel between the world’s two largest economies is officially fraught with risk. The situation could get far worse if geopolitical tensions continue to escalate, and it goes without saying that a world war would pretty much destroy the tourism industry. And global conflict is on the rise.

The takeaway? Enjoy Boracay while you still can!