Villagizing the city


Danjiang, Guizhou (T. Oakes photo, 2012)

I recently published an article about the town of Danjiang, in Guizhou Province, which, beginning in 2008, underwent a massive face-lift project to transform itself from an aspiring and urbanizing town into a village.  The article focuses on a theoretical question about how the transformation of urban space into a kind of heritage theme park might be viewed as a project of governing the behavior of the town’s residents.  But here I’ll discuss how Danjiang’s transformation can be viewed as part of a broader campaign throughout China to produce ‘civilized cities’ by creating new kinds of urban public spaces and new built environments.  Danjiang offers an interesting twist on this broader trend since its approach was not to produce a slick and shiny new urban landscape, but a deliberately rural-looking, and ethnic, urban environment instead.

Typically, the vision of a ‘civilized city’ for most municipal leaders in China is a vision of sleek and shiny skyscrapers, vast public squares with tidy shrubberies, trendy shopping malls, and plenty of room for everyone’s new cars to drive around in.  The city of Guangzhou’s new CBD, the ‘Pearl River New Town’ would be a good example of this vision:


Pearl River New Town, Guangzhou (T. Oakes photo, 2013)

The sleek and shiny civilized city is often contrasted with the rural village, which for some city leaders represents backwardness, poverty, and even chaos.  Indeed, Pearl River New Town is an interesting example here, since it was built on land requisitioned from local villages.  As the city has spread outward, and these villages have lost their land, villagers have taken to earning their money through real estate instead of farming, building tenement flats where their houses used to stand, and renting these to the armies of migrant workers flooding into the city from other parts of China.  For municipal leaders, however, such ‘urban villages’, like Xiancun (below), are an eyesore and a blotch on their efforts to build a shiny new civilized city.  So they’re being demolished, though not without villagers in some cases putting up a fight.  Xiancun villagers have famously fought its demolition for years.


Xiancun tenements, mostly abandoned now, awaiting demolition in Guangzhou’s Pearl River New Town (T. Oakes photo, 2016)

Danjiang is a small city – just a county town – in Southeast Guizhou.  Most of the population in the surrounding countryside is Miao (one of China’s 55 recognized minority groups) as is much of the town population as well.  While the town’s facelift project was in part an effort to lure tourists who travel from all over the world to experience Guizhou’s ethnic villages, it was also a recognition that Guizhou’s rural ethnic culture – as a tourist attraction and as a provincial ‘brand’ – is perhaps the region’s most viable route to achieving development and modernization.  Seen in this light, Danjiang’s villagizing project should not be that surprising.

Still, the rhetoric of ‘civilizing the city’ by villagizing it marks an important shift in the role of cities as symbolic landscapes in China.  As the anthropologist Uradyn Bulag once wrote in an article about the ‘municipalization’ of Inner Mongolia and the increasing Han Chinese presence there through urbanization, “cities [in China] are not supposed to be ethnic.”  Indeed, Danjiang was founded in the 18th century as a military garrison, one of several built to contain the ‘uncivilized’ Miao in the borderlands of Guizhou.  During the Socialist era under Mao’s leadership, towns like Danjiang were meant to symbolize the advancements of socialist modernity to the ‘less advanced’ minorities.  Their buildings were functionalist concrete blocks which contrasted sharply with the wooden and ornamented village houses of the Miao.  That the village has now become the model of a new route to ‘becoming civilized’ is thus somewhat ironic.

In our research, conducted with Colorado PhD student Yang Yang and the Guizhou sociologist Wu Xiaoping, we found that most of the residents in the town (the majority of whom were themselves Miao) were pretty indifferent about the villagizing project.  Some felt it a waste of money.  Some felt it to be a step backward, away from their idea of what a modern urban space should look like (i.e. sleek and shiny buildings).  Some genuinely liked it since it celebrated the Miao cultural heritage.  But for most, it was simply a government project that had little to do with them.  They had their own ideas about what being ‘civilized’ meant.  Here are some more images of the project:

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Privatizing clean air, part II

In an earlier post, I commented on the privatization of clean air as a business model that in effect commodifies what should be a basic right.  Clean air has become the bottled water of China’s 21st century; a once-ubiquitous resource (clean air) is becoming a mark of class privilege in places – large industrial cities, for example – it is increasingly hard to come by.

Apparently, an Australian company has recently gotten into the game.  Two Sydney-based entrepreneurs have been selling canned Australian air in China.  The canned air was originally sold to Chinese tourists as a kind of whimsical souvenir, but the company soon realized that Chinese consumers were seriously interested in their product for reasons beyond a silly touristic representation of Australia.  They really just wanted the air!  As one of the founders put it:

They are all becoming very health conscious, they are all exercising, they are all taking supplements, but the reality is: they can’t change the air they breathe. That is really one of the reasons we were interested in that market because of that real awareness of health and well-being, and it is fair to say that whatever products that they can get their hands on that they associate with health and well-being they are quite receptive to.

UntitledMeanwhile, not to be outdone by entrepreneurs in Australia or Canada, villagers in northern Guangdong Province have also been selling clean air to tourists.  Theirs is a more low-tech approach; they just sell it by the bag.  But it’s much cheaper than Australian air!


Villagers in Qingyuan, Guangdong, selling bags of air to tourists

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Privatizing clean air


Canned air from Chen Guangbiao (from

As living with toxic air becomes part of people’s mundane daily lives during the winter in northern and central China’s cities, it’s inevitable that the entrepreneurial exuberance of many urban residents will find ways to commodify the right of breathing clean air, turning it into a privilege.  The privatization of clean air has followed an initial spate of creative efforts to draw attention to the absurdities of air pollution in China.  First there was celebrity philanthropist Chen Guangbiao selling cans of ‘fresh air’ in Beijing in 2013 for 5 yuan each.  The brightly colored cans came in several ‘flavors’:  Taiwan, Tibet, Yan’an (thus suggesting a link, perhaps, between the right of the Chinese people to breath clean air and the rightness of China’s claims of territorial sovereignty, with the Yan’an flavor linking that right to China’s revolutionary heritage).


Fresh air from Guizhou! (from

Then tourism officials in places like Fujian and Guizhou started offering canned fresh air as a marketing gimmick.  Guizhou’s effort was apparently inspired by Xi Jinping himself.  When meeting with a Guizhou delegation in March of 2014, Xi marveled at Guizhou’s healthy air (where the average PM2.5 count seldom exceeds 50), and commented that “air quality is now a deciding factor in people’s perception of happiness.”  And then there’s Beijing artist Liang Kegang who, upon returning from France, auctioned off a jar of air he collected in Provence for $860.  More recently, ‘Brother Nut’ entertained us with his 100-day “Project Dust” in which he vacuumed up and condensed into a single brick Beijing’s putrid air.


Liang Kegang with fresh air from Provence (from

None of these cases can be called entrepreneurial though.  They were either marketing and branding gimmicks or clever ways of bringing attention to the absurd levels of air pollution that have become a normal part of daily urban life.  Residents of Beijing talk about the ups and downs of air pollution the way we might discuss the stock market, or interest rates.  That PM2.5 has become part of the mundane language of daily life in much or urban China is, indeed, absurd.

But a line was seemingly crossed – between creatively generating public awareness and plain-old privatization – when a Jiangsu restaurant was recently found to be adding a 1 yuan ‘clean air fee’ to diners’ bills.  The local government, claiming that clean air was a basic right and not a privilege, requested that the restaurant retract the fee, which it has apparently done.  As reported in the New York Times, a debate ensued on social media in which commentators were “divided between those contending that clean air is a basic right, not a commodity, and those who countered that the restaurant incurred costs to install purifiers to clean the air and is thus entitled to charge for that service.”


Banff air, CA$19

Meanwhile, canning fresh air has moved from social statement to lucrative business model.  Vitality Air, a Canadian company founded in 2014 by Moses Lam and Troy Paquette, is blithely selling “the best and the freshest necessity of life” with absolutely no sense of irony or shame.  The company sells “fresh air” from Banff or Lake Louise, with 3 liter cans starting at CA$19.  Vitality Air is available in China via Taobao, and the cans, which cost up to 400 yuan each, are selling out as soon as they’re posted online.


Pond’s PM2.5-fighting skin care products.

While residents of Beijing have for years expressed resentment regarding the inequalities in air purification – noting, for example, that China’s leaders breath filtered air in their Zhongnanhai residences and offices – it is increasingly clear that a market does exist for clean air, and that air filtration (or  purchasing canned air from Canada) is becoming a mark of class privilege in China.  Being able to avoid the negative effects of PM2.5 has become a sign of status.  Pond’s, for example, has developed a line of PM2.5-fighting beauty products.    A study by Samuel Kay et al published earlier this year in The Professional Geographer emphasized that air pollution is still viewed in China as a scientific, rather than a political, problem.  China’s ‘atmospheric governance,’ they maintain, is meant to maintain the political status quo. It does this by making local leaders responsible (“devolving responsibility for pollution reduction to governors, mayors, and state-owned enterprises”) encouraging local leaders to bend the rules, falsify reports, conceal major pollution sources.


The wealthy live a clean and healthy PM2.5-free life indoors (note the airpocalyptic scene outside the apartment window) (from Kay et al 2015).

But Kay et al also point out that the insertion of PM2.5 awareness into people’s everyday lives has created a new privatized space to be filled with the commodification of clean air.  This space thrives on the internet:

“Companies that sell air filters and real estate developers who sell buildings with filtered air are obvious candidates for posting air pollution advertisements in the microblogosphere, but they are hardly alone in the rush to profit from pollution.”

They argue that the commercialization of air quality  dampens the ‘democratizing’ qualities of the internet, whereby social media is used – as was the case during the US Embassy’s PM2.5 monitoring dustup of 2013 – to pressure the government for increased transparency and accountability regarding air pollution.  The internet, they point out is dominated not by the civic-minded seeking to hold government and industry accountable, but rather by businesses seeking to capitalize on the privatization of clean air.

Posted in Consumption, Environment, Guizhou, Tourism, Urban China | 1 Comment

As goes China’s coal, so goes the world


Coal resources in China, 2001.  From Wikipedia

The global climate agreement recently reached in Paris establishes a framework for international cooperation on CO2 emission reductions.  It’s an historic step, politically.  Whether or not countries, like the US and China (which together account for the vast majority of global greenhouse gas emissions), follow through with their pledges is another matter entirely.  Much of the outcome will depend on China’s ability to reduce its reliance on coal.

Currently we’re cheered by some good news on that front, as slower economic growth has, over the past year, brought about a sustained reduction in coal-based emissions in China.  While perhaps only temporary, it’s still good news.  China’s declining coal consumption has, in turn, driven a worldwide downward trend in emissions for 2015.


From Future Earth

Of course, many of China’s cities – particularly in the north – continue to choke on a toxic smog that is largely produced by coal.  For the first time ever, Beijing issued a red alert last week, shutting down schools, factories, construction sites, and taking half the cars in the city off the roads.  That was good news too, for those of us who were wondering whether the ‘red alert’ level would actually ever be used by the government or whether it was just there for show.  The smog was no worse than it has been over the past few weeks, so the announcement may have been deliberately tied to the Paris climate talks, to show how seriously the government is taking the issues.  But still, good news.

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One third of China’s population will be over 65 by 2050

CSR535It has been a few months since China’s announcement that it was shifting its family planning policy to a limit of 2 children per couple.  Beijing University’s Guo Zhiguang claims that it will take China much longer to recover from the demographic imbalance that has resulted from over three decades of adherence to the one child policy.  Guo argued in an October interview with Duowei News that the government has overestimated China’s birth rate and that by his calculations it could take another century before China can develop a balanced demographic profile.  By 2050, Guo claims, China will have over 500 million people over the age of 65.  Because of this, the government should be trying to raise the birth rate; even a 2-child policy is thus misguided.

Whatever the true numbers, Guo’s argument is indicative of the fact that reliable birth reporting is the major casualty of China’s strict family planning policy.  As Wang Feng has argued, limiting most families to 1 child resulted in the collapse of China’s birth reporting system, since the numbers became the measure of a political campaign, and of one’s career advancement prospects.

It’s also worth noting that, overblown Western media accounts notwithstanding, China has not abandoned its family planning policy.  The huge family planning bureaucracy, which employees over 500,000 nationwide, is not going away.  How much the shift in policy will affect the size of this bureaucracy is unclear, but lay-offs are doubtful.  And whether the change will significantly dent the enormous revenues that local governments collect – $3.18 billion in 2012 alone- in excess birth fines is also hard to say.  As the lawyer Wu Youshui has been arguing, family planning in China is not just a state policy but a lucrative business.

It seems that growth is slowing down for China in general.  No longer can it count on double-digit economic growth to stave-off the problems of unemployment and overproduction.  And apparently it can’t even count on higher birth rates to stave-off the effects of a rapidly aging population.  The days of cheap labor continually entering the workforce, keeping wages low and China’s factories pumping, are nearing an end.  In 2012, for the first time, the size of the working-age population declined. In 2014, it declined by 3.7 million from 2013’s figure of 916 million.  Meanwhile, social and economic changes in China have proven far more effective at birth-rate reductions than family planning policies ever were, with an online Sina News survey indicating that 43% of over 164,000 respondents saying they wouldn’t even be having two children.  The cost of raising a child was the most commonly cited reason.

SinaSurveyUPDATE: 12/10/15 – In a report released on CCTV yesterday, the government will provide household (hukou) registration to some 13 million unregistered citizens.  As noted in the report:

China has around 13 million unregistered people, one percent of the entire population. They include orphans and “black children” (second children born illegally during the period of strict enforcement of the one-child policy), the homeless and those who have yet to apply for one or who have simply lost theirs. Those parents who violated family planning policy often refrained from getting hukou for their children in order to avoid fines.

The acknowledgement that 1% of China’s population does not have a hukou is just one indicator of the chaos in China’s birth reporting system generated by strict family planning policies.


“I want a hukou”

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Photo Essay: choaking on coal


Here’s a remarkable photo essay by Bai Shi and Zhou Yi of a Northeastern coal mining community.  Similarly to The Guardian‘s site featured in my last post, this project reminds us of those who sacrifice the most in maintaining China’s coal-dependent energy boom.

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The Coal Boom Choaking China

The Guardian has a great website on China’s coal dependence and its consequences.  Check it out here.  Relatedly, the NPC recently passed an amendment to China’s air quality law.  Two somewhat contrasting news reports offer an interesting picture of the law’s strengths and failures.  See reports by Xinhua and Reuters.  Notably, the amendment has not set any specific caps on future coal consumption, but does establish standards for the burning of cleaner coal.

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