Burning through Money?: Tomb-Sweeping Day in China Goes Green

April 8, 2011 § 1 Comment

You’re dead, but according to traditional beliefs, you’ll rest more content in the spirit world if you are outfitted with some of the comforts you had in life.  This is where your descendants come in: every year on tomb-sweeping day they converge on your burial site to spruce up the site, to celebrate with family who have gathered from far and near, and to replenish your needs for the following year.

Tomb-sweeping day, or the Qingming festival, falls every year as it has now for thousands of years, just after the Spring equinox (April 5 this year).  It’s a day for the living to reunite with family members, to pay their respects to the dead, and to enjoy the warming spring air.  But you too are looking forward to it, because you need stuff, just as generations of ancestors before you have.  You’re keeping your fingers crossed that your descendants will have given careful thought to what provisions will get you through another year.

Of course they will bring oranges, cigarettes, watermelon seeds, shoes, and maotai liquor, because they’ve done that routinely for the past ten years or so, knowing full well how much you enjoyed those things in life.  You’re less confident that this year they’ll bring the cash you need to cover normal expenses, mahjong bets, and occasional bribe to gain preferential treatment in the spirit world.  They’re naturally aware that you, like ancestors in all the neighboring graves, are expecting money (a mainstay of the holiday for centuries), but this year the living have expressed a new concern about the economic and environmental effects of provisioning ancestors with money (see Xinhua).

It turns out that in 2010 people spent 1.5 billion dollars on money and other gifts for ancestors.  That’s paper money, of no use in the living world.  The money, joss paper as it is called, is burnt at gravesites, its essence then transmitted to ancestors for use in the spirit world.

The 1.5 billion dollar cost alone wouldn’t stand in the way of Chinese descendants caring for ancestors.  But people are now calculating the toll on the environment as well. There’s the deforestation that results from the manufacture of the money: more than 1000 tons of papers bills were burnt on last year’s tomb-sweeping day.  The environmental costs continue: 1000 tons of burning paper spews a lot of particulate matter and ash into the air.  Living people have become worried about the pollution and the health effects on the descendants of burning money.  One of them told Xinhua News: “At this time of year, people burning thick wads of yellow-colored paper cash can be seen on the streets. The ashes make the streets dirty and the air sometimes would become suffocating.”

And then there’s the concern with fires.   Last year, burning paper money and other paper goods set off 1651 fires, leaving 17 people dead.  This year, the Ministry of Security has urged fire control bureaus to be more vigilant and “to identify fire risks and prevent major fires during the festival.”  Police departments are expected to increase patrols at sites where fires are most likely to be lit (see People’s Daily). You’re hoping that your cemetery isn’t one of high interest to the local police department.

It’s not just the paper money that’s on your wish list.  There’s the Mercedes Benz that you had always coveted in the world of the living.  Your eldest son was aware of just how much you wanted to own a luxury car.  You’re hoping, almost beyond hope, that he remembers your disappointment and buys a paper Mercedes to transmit for use in your spirit world.  Some of the Mercedes even come with their own drivers!

And it would be wonderful, of course, to get an iPad 2.

But this expectation is pretty unrealistic—you know there’s been a run on them, and paper shops throughout the country simply can’t keep them on their shelves (see Reuters; PC Mag.com).

And there’s always the danger you won’t get anything but the routine oranges and a bit of maotai.  You’ve heard of families that have gone totally low carbon and environmentally friendly on tomb-sweeping day.  Mr. Zhang, who above complained about the suffocating air of burnt paper money, stopped the practice of burning gifts to his ancestors altogether.  He remarked, “In the past we would burn fake paper money for our ancestors on this special occasion. But presenting flowers or silk ones began gaining popularity in Hohhot last year and we have decided to shift to the new way of doing things…It is more environment-friendly.”

Road Rage in Beijing: An Update on the Car Craze

March 28, 2011 § 5 Comments

You’ve heard of road rage.  But Beijing, with its attempt to cut back on car ownership and ease the congestion that frustrates the millions of drivers in the capital city, may be generating a new strain of anti-social disorder, “off-the-road rage.”

As you may remember, Beijingers bought cars in record numbers last year, more than 800,000 units, increasing the total number on the roads there to nearly 5 million and making Beijing, together with Mexico City, the top city in the world for “commuter pain” (IBM commuter pain survey).

By December of 2010, Beijing officials concluded that the car-buying frenzy, though good for China’s economy, had to be reined in; the city’s traffic and congestion were out of control, as was the dirty exhaust being spewed into the Beijing air—by idling cars especially.  With the efficiency a one-party state can muster, Beijing declared that in 2011 car sales would be limited to 20,000/month (17,600 for individual car buyers, the rest reserved for commercial or government use) or 240,000 for the year.  And to ensure fairness, the government would institute a lottery system.  During the first week of each month, individuals could enter their name in lottery; at the end of the month, 17,600 lucky entries would be drawn—with the winners winning the right to purchase a car. (On the late December day that Beijing officials announced its plans for 2011 more than 30,000 residents of Beijing rushed out to auto dealerships to buy a car before the lottery system kicked in.)

In January of 2011, 210,000 people entered their names in the lottery; 17,600 of them won licenses.  That left a lot of disappointed entrants (192,400).  Their names were automatically rolled over into the February lottery, along with the 137,045 new applicants.  So while January’s lottery was competitive, February’s was still more so: 17,600 out of more than 300,000.  The odds of winning had worsened significantly: January’s 1 in 11 had fallen to 1 in 17.  Now, this month, there’s March Madness: including the rollovers from the January and February contests, there are about 400,000 total applications, putting the odds of winning at something like 1 in 23.

It also means that by the end of March you’ll have 380,000 disappointed Beijingers waiting hopefully each month for their name to be drawn.  And, of course, this number will only grow larger with each passing month.

I’m not sure that traffic congestion in Beijing has noticeably improved.  But I am pretty sure that as the odds of winning the car lottery plummet, the frustration among some of the repeatedly unsuccessful entrants will mount.  Give them a few more disappointing months and their rage—as a consequence of being unable to take to the roads—may be no less than the rage experienced by some drivers caught in snarling traffic and unable to escape the roads.T

Think of it as the yang of “on-the-road rage” giving birth to the yin of “off-the-road rage.”

High on China’s Radar: Economy, Environment, and Social Well-Being

March 9, 2011 § 1 Comment

Premier Wen bows to the National People's Congress before delivering his "Report on the Work of the Government"


This past Saturday, Premier Wen Jiabao delivered his 2011 “Report on the Work of the Government” to the 3000 delegates gathered in Beijing for the National People’s Congress.  The report, delivered annually, is comparable to U.S. President’s State of the Union Address, laying out the successes of the past year and the direction the government plans to take in the next year.  But, as this is a year that the Congress will issue the next Five-Year Plan (the 12th), Wen’s report looks beyond 2011, down the road as far as 2015.

Parsing the “Report on the Work of the Government” is no easier than parsing the State of the Union address.  It is long on ideals, goals, and aspirations, and short on details, short on plans for implementation.  It reflects, we can assume, the concerns of the leadership; and it reflects, no doubt too, what the leadership perceives the people may expect from the government in the coming years. Yet there is one important difference with the State of the Union Address: the SUA presents the views of one person, the President, and perhaps those of his party’s leaders—but not those of the opposition party; the “Report on the Work of the Government” presents the collaborative views of the entire CCP leadership.  What this means simply is that while the goals put forward in the “Report” might never be realized, it won’t be because an opposition party stands in the way.

Bulleted below are points from the “Report” that strike me as significant or interesting, followed by a brief comment or two.

GDP is to grow by 7% annually over the next five years.

This has caught most China watchers by surprise, as the 7% target is down from the 7.5% figure of the previous 11th Five-Year Plan (and down from the 8% figure for 2010).  The day after Wen delivered the report, Xinhua News led with the headline:  “China Prepares to End GDP Obsession.”  That’s probably going too far, but the question remains, why the reduction? « Read the rest of this entry »

China’s Drought: It’s Our Problem Too

February 15, 2011 § 4 Comments

China’s drought is bad, the worst in at least 60 years. Roughly 12.5 million acres of winter wheat crop have been damaged. And a United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) alert reported last week that 2.57 million people and 2.79 million livestock are suffering from shortage of drinking water.





The mood in China is not upbeat, as forecasters are predicting that the drought may well continue into the late spring-early summer months–threatening the summer wheat crop. And though the Chinese might have a reasonable amount of wheat stockpiled, no analyst I’ve read pretends to know with certainty how deep the stock goes or how long, in the face of unyielding drought, it can sustain the needs of the population. What we do know is that the prospect of a China running low on water and wheat is not pretty–for anyone.

China is the largest wheat-producing (and wheat-consuming) country in the world. Wheat shortage there means not only that prices in China will rise, but also that prices on the international market will go up.

Some pundits have already argued that the recent unrest in Tunisia and Egypt was prompted in part by surging food costs. Global wheat prices jumped 77% in 2010 (a spike that continues unabated into 2011). If China is forced to turn to the international wheat market, how steep will global prices rise? Will China’s demand resulting shortages elsewhere? And will shortages and steeper prices, in turn, lead to social and political unrest in other spots of the world?

Other pundits remind us that if the current Chinese wheat harvest is a bust, China will likely look to the U.S. market for imports. How will Chinese import demand affect wheat supply and prices here? And will this demand contribute to growing inflation in the U.S.?

Inflationary pressures in China are already high. The present drought only exacerbates these pressures. The anxiety of the Beijing government is palpable. President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao have made personal visits to the stricken areas calling for “all-out efforts to combat drought” and committing $1billion to fight the devastation. They’ve made television appearances assuring the people that the government has abundant stockpiled wheat and is taking all possible measures to maintain the balance between supply and demand of the grain. What Hu and Wen, of course, know is that droughts and famines have made for restive populations in China’s past–they’ve even toppled governments (the Taiping and Boxer rebellions of the 19th and earlier 20th century are still fresh in their minds and Huang Chao’s rebellion at the end of the Tang dynasty (618-907) has a place in their high school history texts).

So, the Beijing government continues to fire the cloud-seeding chemical silver iodide into the atmosphere to encourage more snowfall (to little effect, however, according to reports in the China Daily and the Global Times).

It’s begun digging 1350 emergency wells, constructing irrigation facilities, and planning water-diversion projects in the major wheat-growing provinces affected by the drought.





And it’s handing out $334 million in emergency relief aid to farmers.

Such measures by the Chinese government are intended principally to ease the burden on the Chinese people and to ensure social and political stability. But, given the global repercussions of a severe wheat shortage in China (or, indeed, anywhere in the world, as events in Tunisia and Egypt have suggested), Beijing’s aggressive efforts to deal with the crisis should be welcome by all.

Low on Water, Short of Crop Land, Beijingers Turn to Golf

February 2, 2011 § 4 Comments

This post appears in today’s Huffington Post:

In 2004, there were 38 golf courses in the Beijing area.  Worried about land grabs by developers, the Chinese government that year issued a moratorium on the development of new courses.  Just two weeks ago, however, the Southern Weekend (Nanfang zhoumo) reported that China’s Department of Homeland, after a city-wide inspection, found the number of Beijing courses to have nearly doubled since 2004, from 38 to 73 (a number that excludes 42 driving ranges).

With the average 18-hole course occupying 248 acres, roughly 18,100 acres of Beijing land (approximately 25% more acreage than the whole of Manhattan) are given over to the elite sport of golfing.  The Southern Weekend remarks that many courses are located on flat, arable land—land especially suitable for corn production. And, of course, golf grasses require intensive turf management—meaning heavy watering and heavy application of pesticides and other chemicals, which leach into the soil and the city’s groundwater.

The government, it seems, can issue all the prohibitions and moratoriums in the world, but they mean little without enforcement.  And though you’d think that enforcement of the 2004 moratorium would be a relatively simple matter, course developers don’t necessarily register the land that comes into their possession for “golf course” use.   Instead they might register it as land for a recreational center, a high-end tourist site, a hotel, or a resort—and then incorporate a course into the project.

Still, the construction of a golf course can hardly be kept a secret.  Spotting one going up shouldn’t be much of a challenge.  This then raises a number of questions: 1) Did the 2004 moratorium lay out a clear set of punishments for its violation (I’ve found nothing)?  2) Were local land officials given the responsibility and the means for enforcement of the moratorium?  3) If so, did local land officials not follow through on their responsibilities? 4) Were local officials working hand-in-hand with the land developers?  5) And did local officials, when uncovering violations, ignore them because the courses represented an economic boon to their jurisdictions?  These questions need to be sorted out.

The Beijing Grand Canal Golf Club

But, there is little question that, environmentally, Beijing’s golf craze– considering the sizeable amount of land taken out of production in a country short of arable land, the water and the pesticides needed to maintain the 18,100 acres, and the harmful effects of intensive turf management on the city’s water supply—makes little sense.

And if the environmental irrationality of promoting the sport of golf in China needs to be underscored, just read yesterday’s People’s Daily (Jan. 31), which reports:

As of January 28, 77.4 million mu (5.16 million acres) of crops had been harmed by the ongoing drought, and 2.57 million people were faced with drinking water shortages in China….Local governments of the affected regions must make efforts to monitor drought conditions, speed up the building of water projects, increase drought-fighting material reserves and grant subsidies to the drought-stricken population.

An accompanying article, “China to Invest $608b in Water Projects,” writes:

Efforts will be intensified to promote water conservation as well as the sustainable use of the precious resource, and the task will be a multi-trillion yuan national priority, a central policy document said.

In a country like ours, where, in the minds of many, driving the right car and belonging to an exclusive golf club mark elite socio-economic status, we should be slow to criticize Chinese for aspiring to similar status symbols.  (We can ask, however, why Chinese routinely look to Western symbols–like the game of golf–for affirmation of status.) In any event, let’s just hope that they are quicker to appreciate the injury their pursuit of these symbols will have on their environmental present and future.

A kindergarten class honing their putting skills

Beijing Floods Even in Midst of Drought

January 31, 2011 § 1 Comment

On his blog, artist Fan Jianping sketches a flooding Beijing–even as the capital city is experiencing its worst drought in 40 years.  It’s a clever cartoon.

The ‘Sputnik Moment’ Epidemic: Is China Our New Russia?

January 27, 2011 § 2 Comments

I published the following post in the Huffington Post on January 18, prior to President Obama’s State of the Union address.  But since the “sputnik moment” epidemic seems to be spreading–and spreading furiously–I’m reproducing the post here at ChinaMusings.com.


The ‘Sputnik Moment’ Epidemic: Is China Our New Russia?

It’s an epidemic.  Everyday you wake up and read about someone else who’s had a “sputnik moment.”  Thomas Friedman, the op-ed guy, may have been the first (September 2009); an incubatory year later and the number of its victims mounts.  In December of 2010 alone, Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, Senator John Kerry, former Assistant Secretary of Education Chester Finn, and the President himself all experienced a “sputnik moment.”  I haven’t had one, nor likely have you.  Influential and powerful people are most susceptible.

Chester Finn describes his moment:

Fifty-three years after Sputnik caused an earthquake in American education by giving us reason to believe that the Soviet Union had surpassed us, China has delivered another shock. On math, reading and science tests given to 15-year-olds in 65 countries last year, Shanghai’s teenagers topped every other jurisdiction in all three subjects.

Secretary Chu, asking whether the energy race is our “new sputnik moment,” answers yes it is:

From wind power to nuclear reactors to high speed rail, China and other countries are moving aggressively to capture the lead.  Given that challenge, and given the enormous economic opportunities in clean energy, it’s time for America to do what we do best: innovate.  As President Obama has said, ‘we should not, cannot, and will not play for second place.’”  Chu goes on to enumerate the areas where we are now playing catch-up with China: high voltage transmission, high speed rail, advanced coal technologies, nuclear power, alternative energy vehicles, renewable energy, and supercomputing.

I’m no doctor, but as I look at the sputnik moment for Finn and Chu and the others, its onset seems to be something brought on principally by fear.  Finn feels “shock” when he discovers in early December that students in Shanghai outscored students the world over in every subject tested by the highly respected Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).  He ominously predicts, “If China can produce top PISA scorers in one city in 2009—Shanghai’s population of 20 million is larger than that of many whole countries—it can do this in 10 cities in 2019 and 50 in 2029. Or maybe faster.”  Holy smokes Batman, we’re in trouble.  Will American students ever be able to compete with their Chinese counterparts?

And for Energy Secretary Chu, his sputnik moment coincides with the realization that China, through deliberate effort, is racing ahead in the development of cleaner energy technology.  He’d likely be less anxious if our Congress wasn’t deliberately running in the opposite direction, away from any consideration of the energy issues we now face.

Fear then is the one common trigger of the recent sputnik moment outbreak–fear of being bettered educationally, fear of being bettered economically, fear of being bettered technologically, fear of being out-greened.  The range of fears is varied.  But the source of these fears is not.  It’s always traceable to China.

In 1957 when Russia launched the sputnik satellite, the US response was swift.  We committed national resources to the development of science and math programs in our schools and to the invigoration of our space program.  We also committed ourselves to a still more frigid cold war with Russia.

Today’s sputnik moment epidemic runs a risk.  Yes, it can be motivation to engage in serious—and to me necessary–debate about how and what students in our schools should learn; about the measures we must take to wean ourselves off non-renewable and polluting energy sources; and about whether and how to reconfigure our infrastructure priorities.   When Chu, Obama, and Friedman target China, they, I suspect, intend to move Americans to action by appealing to their competitive spirit; thus Chu prods, “When it comes to innovation, Americans don’t take a back seat to anyone – and we certainly won’t start now.”

But, in this scenario, the distinction between China as convenient and beneficial goad and China as enemy becomes easily blurred.  Our economy falters because China is a “currency manipulator”; our renewable energy technology can’t compete because the Chinese government is pouring heavy—even illicit—subsidies into China’s renewable energy industries; and the wide trade imbalance is because Chinese traditionally have a lower rate of consumption—for fairness’ sake they need to consume more, the way we do.

The 1957 sputnik launching kick-started American progress in education and technology, but it also deepened an enmity between the world’s two super powers.  Today’s sputnik moment epidemic can serve to redouble our efforts in the teaching of math and science (though I’d hope not at the expense of history, literature, art, music, and the classics) and in the pursuit of new sources of energy.  But let it not make China our 21st century Russia. Let us not fall into the simple mindset that we’re playing a zero-sum game, where there is a clear winner and a clear loser.

The world has changed since 1957.  Economies are intertwined and mutually dependent; technological and medical advances in one part of the globe bring advances to other parts; and climate change knows no national boundaries.  Let this be a “sputnik moment” that prompts a genuine, fruitful cooperation with China, a cooperation where the entire world benefits.

When Hu Jintao visits next week, our message to him should be clear:  we aren’t in a race where either you win and we lose or you lose and we win.  In this race, we either both win or both lose.

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