Sustainability: China's path to ecotopia

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Xuemei Bai critiques a critique of the country's eco-city initiative.

China's Urban Revolution: Understanding Chinese Eco-Cities

Austin Williams Bloomsbury Academic: 2017. ISBN: 978-1350003248

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It's easy to get a sense of China's rapid urbanization: overwhelming numbers and breathtaking images abound. In 40 years, the country's urban population has quadrupled to about 800 million, and its cities have tripled in number, to 657. To seek urban development with better economic, environmental and social outcomes, China has introduced many branding and accrediting schemes.

One is the eco-city. By 2016, at least 220 cities, towns, prefectures and districts had received the national accreditation for their socio-economically beneficial and ecologically 'clean' features such as renewable energy and water recycling. There is so much information on China's urban mosaic that it's hard to make sense of it.

In China's Urban Revolution, architect and writer Austin Williams attempts to do so, probing the country's eco-city experiment against the background of its socio-economic realities. The speed of change in China makes it extremely challenging to grasp what is happening and why: the social and political context can lose relevance rapidly, and so become risky to reference in as little as a decade. Williams should be commended for trying. He promises a nuanced view that is neither sinocentric nor biased towards the West — enticing for those who seek insights beyond blind criticism or blind optimism.

Unfortunately, the book falls short of this promise. Williams asserts that it is a “political assessment” of China's eco-urban initiatives, and that his exploration may “give rise to a number of contradictory viewpoints”. His perspectives are indeed often contradictory, sometimes drastically.

Williams declares that the concept of the eco-city is ill-defined. That is fair. He then says that this vagueness allows China to misrepresent itself as the eco-city capital of the world. Some of his criticisms are just, and are reflected in China. Several high-profile planned eco-cities, such as Dongtan near Shanghai, are still unbuilt; projects can end up as box-ticking; development may take priority over sustainability. However, Williams often interprets local malpractices or failures as pertaining to China as a whole, and links them to perceived underlying politics. What I miss is a serious critique on why projects fail, and what can be learnt. The book bolts anecdotes and fragmented (but valuable) facts into sweeping political or ideological conclusions, often without in-depth analysis.

Williams looks at Chinese eco-cities and their contexts through the lens of Western environmental thinking. He compares progressive Western scholarship on sustainability (such as biologist Rachel Carson's work in the 1960s) with mainstream practice in China at the time, and frames it as the West vs China. In truth, disparities between theory and practice are seen in many countries. It seems, too, that whatever China is doing, there is a Western thought leader whom Williams indicates must be an influence. This is fatiguing. It is not difficult to find as many arguments in China claiming that most of today's progressive environmental ideas are rooted in ancient Chinese philosophy.

At one point, Williams misinterprets the technical and cultural practices in Chinese calligraphy and poetry to make the shaky assertion that China has no concept of copyright. Further, he claims that China has been “nicking ideas from the West to fuel its own awakening” for the past four decades, although he adds that this is “no bad thing”. By contrast, he depicts Western nations as authentic, confident and with “a generally accepted narrative about their own societies over time”.

“Eco-cities are about recognizing process and effort.

If Williams's criticisms are based on innocent misinterpretation, there are two likely reasons alongside the dizzying pace of change. First, the fine print around China's eco-cities can be lost in translation. The country's accrediting team clearly states that it includes cities, towns, districts and development zones, often all translated as eco-cities. Second, demonstration projects are common, to allow others to learn from front runners. Thus, eco-cities are more about recognizing process and effort than the end stage.

Williams concludes with a discussion of China's efforts in renewable-energy development, innovation and other relevant areas, and lists the country's top eco-cities — which are mentioned rarely, if at all, in earlier chapters. He even warns against Western bias when interpreting Chinese issues. I was left wondering whether the book's shifts in tone and perspective were the result of Williams's views evolving.

China's Urban Revolution is ultimately — as a collection of “contradictory viewpoints” — unsatisfying. But many of the facts presented are fascinating.

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