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Re-reading a few pieces (like this one and especially this for a more nuanced take) on China’s “ghost cities” called to mind some things I’ve read over the last number of years and, consequently, a few questions. It’s no secret that there are concerns about bubbles in China’s commercial, residential, and state infrastructure sectors. Google “ghost cities,” “China hard landing,” “China economic crisis,” or any of a hundred other similar terms and you’ll find unlimited prognosticators (both informed and not) predicting ten of the last two crashes of the Chinese economy. The general concerns are valid, of course, but I’ve long wondered to what extent the visual spectacle (see photos below or click here) of urban construction affects everyday observers ability to predict the future prospects of current developments (new neighborhoods, districts, railway stations), not to mention analysts’ ability to objectively read the underlying indicators.

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In my own experience of radical (re)construction and urbanization in Shijiazhuang (Hebei), what appears ghostly often becomes corporeal in short order. And to clarify that terrible metaphor, what were empty housing projects one year are sometimes filled to the brim the next. Of course my take on this is also tainted by another form of spectacle, so I’m not sure the fact of rapid occupation of neighborhoods I happen to come across indicates good anymore than the countries most famous ghost towns prove bad. If you have the time, Hessler’s Driving China is a compelling if impressionistic take on reading the spectacle of an earlier infrastructure boom.

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Whatever the truth (and I will be sure to let you know what it is many years after it has become obvious), it will be interesting to see what consequences China’s bubble – should it prove to be real and eventually burst – has in terms of capital growth, accumulation, and distribution. I’m particularly interested in the fate of the rural population as it is dispossessed of a long cherished birth-rite – that small piece of land that has served as a place of refuge over the past thirty years as these people have slowly made their way into the new urban China. To be sure many are purchasing (i.e., leasing long term) a new, though much more limited birth-rite in the form of a much more limited and likely better appointed apartment in the city. But where will they go in the event that a burst bubble takes even that away?

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Recently I was re-reading my uncle’s post(s) about a brief visit to China last year and it got me thinking about how laowai learn about China while in China. This has been a topic of some interest to me over the past twelve or so years, both in terms of self-analysis and observation of other people like me. Of course the blogosphere is full of the writings of people engaged in precisely this kind of reflection. Some are thoughtful and informative; others are rife with misunderstanding and plain old bigotry/racism. Few display the depth of experience and insight of this piece (en francais).

At any rate, no promises here of deep pronouncements on this topic, but I will state the obvious and leave you to think about it for yourself. What is clear from Harold’s posts is that no one arrives as a blank slate on new territory. I would suggest that the more strange the new place, the more reliant we are on past experience, cognitive frames, and habits of mind. Whether or not we are ever able to shed these inheritances of our earliest development and experience is an open question. I would hope so, but I have a vested interest in believing what may be a convenient fiction. After all, what good is it to be an authority in the field of education if much of what one claims to know turns out to be so much poppycock?

Lorin Yochim, Ph.D.:

Good post by Mark developing a theme I’ve not paid careful attention to, although I’ve long been interested in Bourdieu’s conception of reflexivity. Have a read. There is a part 2 to go along with this post. Also, if you have time, watch all of the linked documentary.

Originally posted on Mark Carrigan:

The thing I like most about Bourdieu is his conception of public sociology. It seems clear to me that Bourdieu was a public sociologist, though others are less certain about this and I suspect it’s not a term he would have chosen to use himself. For a whole host of reasons, I’ve never been massively interested in much of Bourdieu’s work, though am far from antipathetic towards it. However his talks on public sociology had a great impact on me when I read them during the first year of my PhD and I’m rereading them for the public sociology book proposal I’m writing. It might also be a good prompt for me to delve slightly deeper into Bourdieu’s body of work than I ever have in the past (Weight of the World has been sitting unfinished on my shelf for years).

There are a few key themes in these talks pertaining to…

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If so, please don’t move it to Shijiazhuang, a city that tops the list of most polluted cities in China, if not the world. Don’t be deceived by rankings that show the city anywhere but at the top. Usually cities near or above it on the list are either part of its hinterland or downwind.

The air isn’t always bad in Shijiazhuang, but you’ll be lucky to find a day when it’s not…unless you’re my uncle and aunt, who found three miraculously clear days on their visit. Fortunately the terrible air is balanced by the welcoming and generous attitude of the great people of this city.

See this story for a discussion of the problem of pollution, a proposed solution, and some obvious objections to the idea (here is another)

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Top polluted cities in China at the moment I captured this image. Shijiazhuang is 4th, but most of the other cities on the list are either part of the SJZ’s hinterland or “downwind.”

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A rare blue sky day allowed us to capture this shot at sunset. Yes, those are apartment buildings right in the shadow of those cooling towers. If we could pan to the left we would see apartment blocks in even closer proximity to plants like this one.

Have a look at this piece by an old hockey friend in Beijing. The object of his attention is not “education” in the common sense of the term, but taken as a pedagogy of everyday life or diffuse education in Bourdieu & Passeron’s sense, a number of interesting points are made.

Gervais has lived in China for a good long time, as becomes clear from the article itself, and has a “foreign” perspective — based on diverse experiences and roles — second to none. To be frank, Gervais is not a great hockey player, but his writing on China seems as effortless as his on-ice work is not.

If you don’t read french, Google Translate does a pretty good job of things.

Chine: objet de désir : article – Revue Argument.

via Chine: objet de désir : article – Revue Argument.

Who says the Chinese danwei is dead? Eggs and toilet paper (FREE!!) beside my desk today!

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The affective core of Chinese life is the family home, an understanding of which helps to explain1 the central role of residential construction in Shijiazhuang’s urban renovation. The desire to improve the domestic living conditions of one’s family and to provide a better future to subsequent generations drives family members to seek a hao yi xie de shenghuo (好一些的生活 — literally, a slightly better life).20130617-131602.jpgChina’s policy makers are highly sensitive to the economic potential of this desire to improve living conditions. At times they work to incite and exploit the desire for familial improvement as an engine of economic growth, at others to restrain it in order to protect the economy from bubble formation. Beyond direct economic implications, they are highly sensitive to the negative effects of an overheated real estate market on the daily lives of the less well off and poor, and the potential of inflation in the housing market to stymie their familial aspirations. A population with an excessively large group of impoverished, “homeless,” and stymied citizens is a potentially unstable one, and there are no principles more central to the governing philosophy of post-Mao China than those of stability and harmony.20130617-131439.jpg

Understanding the hand and glove relationship of familial aspiration and broader economic policy and practice is crucial to decoding the ways in which Shijiazhuang’s urban renovation has unfolded. As discussed here, san nian da bian yang kicked off an explosion of new housing, much of it infill/densification units. The spectacle of this massive, city-wide residential renovation overwhelms the eye, but it is the construction and promotion of entirely new neighborhoods on the clean slate of demolished chengzhongcun that provides the most compelling object of analysis for my purposes. Such projects are enormous in scale and totalizing in terms of their capacity to create and will to promote themselves as deliverers of entirely new and, of course, superior ways of life.20130617-131536.jpg

One such “clean slate” neighborhood is the 500,000m2 linyin dayuan(林荫大院/Park County) only now rising from the rubble of Beijiao Cun (北焦村). The project has only recently started construction, but its sales centre and the walls surrounding the demolition-construction site have been in place for more than two years. Objectively, the development will represent a massive increase in population density on this piece of land and a correspondingly large profit for its developer, Guangsha Real Estate Development Co. Ltd.

The overarching slogan for the project, fengjing yuanluo de gushi, appeals to familial aspirations to live the kind of good life imagined to be the norm in foreign countries. These understandings of the good life are cited and incited by ads papering the walls that surround the site, and in promotional images featured in the sales centre and circulated on the internet. In one ad, an image depicting a child bathed in filtered sunlight is coupled with the project tag line to promise the opportunity of a “life story” composed in the “scenic courtyards” of this “500,000 square meter shady forest kingdom.” In another, a similarly bucolic image works in tandem with a slogan that alludes to the poetry of Laozi to link the emergence of an improved Shijiazhuang and the re-emergence on the world scene of China as whole.

Buying a home in Park County, these ads promise, is not only the first step toward a happy and prosperous life for one’s family, but also a concrete contribution to the rise of the nation.

____

Notes

1. Concepts like capital over-accumulation, spatio-temporal fixing, and accumulation by dispossession are also crucial — see David Harvey’s The New Imperialism or A Brief History of Neoliberalism for a concise discussion of these terms.

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