Tag: china

China And Social Policy Cover Image

Social Policies During the Pandemic: the Chinese Approach

As the pandemic became a global threat, each country reacted to it with its own approach. I wrote about the responses enacted by Western states such as Germany, Italy, New Zealand and the United Kingdom in the first part of this article. The desire to understand the situation better brought me to search for further answers by looking at China; the Chinese government has in fact stated that their Covid-19 containment policy should be taken as a lesson by Western societies. To learn more about it, I spoke with Yue Hu, a 25-year-old Chinese woman currently living in Shanghai.

Yue Hu couldn’t recall the date of the first confirmed Covid-19 case in the country but she remembers the government’s efforts to comfort people, while, on the other hand, the government took actions to silence Li Wenliang, a Chinese ophthalmologist who was the first person who spoke out on the new type of coronavirus. “There was no data or information about Covid-19 [initially]”, Yue stated “However, the government took action promptly, imposing a lock down to the whole country”.


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Photo by Yue Hu, 2020. All Rights Reserved.


The Chinese government immediately adopted policies with regards to the compulsory use of masks, the need for permission cards for outside movement, the cancellation of public transport, the closure of all public spaces and enforced price fixing of daily necessities to keep them affordable. Chinese healthcare authorities promptly divided each medical facility into a quarantine site and a normal site. They also accomplished the feat of building a new hospital in only six days.

Regarding the impact of Chinese social policy on her daily life, Yue said that all her activities had been constrained during the lockdown. “Covid-19 makes job hunting more and more difficult, especially in the art industry,” she stated “so I have had to direct my interest to another field in order to make a living.” Despite the changes this created in her life, Yue thinks that the policies adopted were efficient in protecting people from new infections, even if they could be perceived as “merciless”. Yue doesn’t know the details of the Chinese government’s future Covid-19 agenda, but she trusts they have a plan.

It’s still hard to predict future infection trends, particularly as the virus mutates quickly as it moves from a host group to another. Because of this, Yue thinks that Chinese social policy will be improved and strengthened in the area of personal hygiene. In addition, she hopes for a change toward a society with a better work-life balance, with an increased number of public holidays and flexible working hours. This pandemic demonstrated that flexible working solutions could be used to improve the well-being of those working in office-based jobs.

Mei Banfa is the pseudonym chosen by the second person I interviewed for this article. He is a 28-year-old European man living in Beijing. Like Yue, he named the case of Li Wenliang, the Chinese ophthalmologist who worked at Wuhan Central Hospital. On 30th December 2019, Li Wenliang issued an emergency warning to local hospitals regarding a number of mysterious pneumonia cases, while the Chinese government attempted to cover up the outbreak of a “SARS-like coronavirus” in the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan. However, it wasn’t until the beginning of January that the local government decided to close the market to limit the spread of infections.

The policy most specific to China”, Mei stated “was to extend the Chinese New Year holidays. They are often referred to as the largest annual human migration in the world, with figures amounting to around 3 billion trips back and forth between villages and cities.” When the outbreak spread out of proportion, many were already in their holiday locations. As a result, the government managed to effectively slow down and contain the infections, avoiding a scenario in which people would be exposed to the virus in crowded train stations, airports and highways.

As a European from one of the countries worst hit by the virus, Mei often received unannounced visits by local authorities both to his home and workplace in Beijing. These were to check on his travel status, whether he was still in China, if he had been interacting with returning Europeans and so on. “As a result [of the checks], a widespread mistrust towards foreigners began to develop, ultimately targeting those already suffering discrimination, such as people of colour, and affecting the reliability of housing rentals, as well as job stability and personal safety”, Mei stated.


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Photo by Yue Hu, 2020. All Rights Reserved.


Throughout this crisis, Mei perceived the country’s leadership to be under a previously unseen level of stress and he began to worry about the “stability” of the Chinese government. Ultimately, measures such as a strict control of information, highly restrictive social measures and a heavy propaganda were successful at maintaining the status quo.

Despite Mei’s efforts to integrate into local society, he noted that “the time for full integration in China’s society is not yet mature.” On the other hand, “no man is an island” is Yue’s way of describing her own unusual situation. “We have to overcome many barriers together”, she stated “The pandemic is just an alert for the public [about the need to pay] attention to healthcare. The situation taught us an important lesson: all human beings are vulnerable when facing a virus that comes from nature.”


Cover image and Photos by Yue Hu, 2020. All Rights Reserved.

China: heavy polluter or climate change activist?

China, the biggest emitter of carbon dioxide in the world, is often regarded as a heavy polluter with unbreathable air, gray skies and no interest in environmental sustainability whatsoever. This opinion is certainly endorsed by the American President Donald Trump, who, during his announcement of the US withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, claimed that “under the agreement, China will be able to increase these emissions by a staggering number of years — 13” and “will be allowed to build hundreds of additional coal plants”. However, China says it is seriously committed to reducing carbon emissions. Is Beijing’s commitment to curb emissions nothing else than an empty promise? What policies and actions is the government carrying out in response to climate change?

Beijing on a smoggy day, spring 2010 (photo by Claudio Penzo, All Right Reserved)

To reply to those questions, we must first consider how China’s conception of climate change has changed along the years. China’s emissions have been growing exponentially since the 90s, so much that by 2007 it had overtaken the United States as the biggest emitter of carbon dioxide in the world. The increase went hand in hand with the staggering growth of its economy, which relies heavily on coal, a fossil fuel that produces much more emissions than oil or gas and that is also one of the main causes of the infamous air pollution that plagues many Chinese cities. However, while reducing air pollution has been at the centre of Beijing’s environmental policy for decades, climate change has been long ignored by the government, as it was regarded mostly as a foreign policy matter, not an internal one. It wasn’t until 2007 that climate change has been deemed a matter of national importance with the issue of the first National Climate Change Programme. The document analyzes in details the risks that climate change poses to China, from severe drought in the North, to flooding in the South and on the coast, and provides a general guideline to curb emissions. Since then, Beijing has doubled its efforts to fight climate change, including huge investments on renewable energies and changes to industrial and energy systems, aimed at improving energy efficiency. Thanks to those policies, coal demand has cooled since 2012 and in 2015 PM2.5 concentrations decreased by 21.5% compared to their level in 2013.

China’s huge efforts in fighting climate change in the last decade have been undeniable and the results are indeed remarkable. However, it is true that during international conferences on climate change Beijing has always been reluctant to make bold promises and to agree to a firm cap on emissions. China has always argued that, as a developing country, it shouldn’t shoulder the same strict caps on its greenhouse gas emissions that rich countries should accept. Its position, based on the environmental law principle of “Common but Differentiated Responsibilities”, hasn’t changed even after 2007, despite China becoming the biggest emitter in the world. The pledges that China made in the Paris agreement in 2015 still reflect that principle. Instead of agreeing to a firm emissions cap, China said that it would cut carbon intensity, which is the amount of carbon dioxide pollution released to create each dollar of economic activity. That means China’s emissions can keep increasing as the economy grows – hence Trump’s oversimplifying claim – but they must do so at a slower rate than the growth in gross domestic product. According to the Paris agreement, China will cut its carbon intensity by 60-65% by 2030, compared to its level in 2005. In addition, Beijing government also pledged that its carbon dioxide emissions would reach their peak by around 2030.

Solar energy plant near Hong Kong (photo by WiNG, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Given the current trend of emissions curb, China will probably reach the latter objective much earlier than 2030 and many environmental scientists think Beijing could have made much bolder pledges at the conference.

Nevertheless, China seems to be on its way to a cleaner future, even if some worry that Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris agreement could slow the process down, by reinforcing the position of those who oppose faster emission cuts, such as high-carbon industries. At the same time, the US retreat from the climate accord offers China the opportunity to promote itself as a responsible player in global environmental policy and to mitigate the negative reputation it has gained in the last 30 years.

China is not a climate change activist, nor it will become one any time soon, but it is on its way to a cleaner and more responsible future. Trump’s America cannot claim the same.

Cover picture: record levels of smog in Shanghai on 6th November 2013 (photo by Lucia Ghezzi, All Right Reserved).

Ode ai treni cinesi

Durante i miei studi universitari, ho trascorso in Cina diversi mesi, a Pechino e a Shanghai, tra il 2010 e il 2013. Nel corso dei miei soggiorni, ho avuto modo di compiere numerosi viaggi in varie aree del Paese, tutte molto diverse e distanti tra loro. Quando mi chiedono che cosa mi ha più colpito dei miei viaggi, ho l’imbarazzo della scelta: il cibo delizioso? I panorami incredibili? Gli sguardi curiosi e cordiali dei cinesi che ti accompagnano ovunque? Sicuramente tutto questo e anche di più, ma se dovessi scegliere un elemento distintivo e peculiare di ogni mio viaggio, opterei per i treni cinesi.

In Cina, a meno che non si abbia una patente cinese, non è possibile affittare una macchina e circolare autonomamente; per i lunghi tragitti bisogna affidarsi ad altri mezzi di trasporto e il migliore, secondo me, è il treno. Parlate con chiunque abbia viaggiato in Cina e sicuramente avrà almeno un aneddoto divertente e interessante da raccontarvi riguardo le sue esperienze sui treni del Dragone, unici nel loro genere.

Una carrozza di sedili duri sul treno Pechino-Xi’an, 2011. [Fonte: Lucia Ghezzi-Tutti i diritti riservati].

Innanzitutto, acquistando un biglietto del treno in Cina, non vi sentirete chiedere se preferite viaggiare in prima o seconda classe, ma se volete sedili morbidi, sedili duri o posti in piedi. Se un tempo i sedili duri erano, fedeli al loro nome, esattamente delle panche di legno, adesso in molti casi non è più così. Sebbene siano tuttora molto meno confortevoli rispetto ai sedili morbidi, la differenza principale tra i due è che le carrozze dei sedili duri ospitano anche i posti in piedi, quelli morbidi sono invece in carrozze separate.

Ciò significa che, acquistando un biglietto nei sedili morbidi, non dovrete trascorrere il vostro viaggio in carrozze affollate all’inverosimile con decine di persone accampate nei corridoi, tutte con borse piene di merci varie e, in alcuni casi, anche galline o piccoli animali al seguito. Chiaramente, per lo stesso motivo i sedili duri e i posti in piedi sono anche quelli più interessanti, dove non potrete fare a meno di entrare in contatto, in tutti i sensi, con i vostri “vicini”, i quali, che parliate cinese o meno, proveranno sicuramente a chiacchierare con voi e vi offriranno dei semi di girasole, lo snack da viaggio cinese per eccellenza.

Ho fatto diversi viaggi in treno sui sedili duri e in alcuni casi anche nei posti in piedi, in genere per tratte medie di sette o otto ore, e sono state tutte esperienze speciali.

Foto di gruppo: Lucia con una famiglia della provincia del Guizhou in una carrozza di cuccette dure sul treno Hangzhou-Huaihua. [Fonte: Lucia Ghezzi – Tutti i diritti riservati].

Per le tratte più lunghe, invece, nel mio caso in media tra le 20-25 ore, ho optato per le cuccette, divise a loro volta in morbide e dure. Anche qui la differenza sta nella comodità e nello spazio a disposizione: le cuccette dure sono sei per ogni scompartimento, disposte come due letti a castello con tre piani l’uno; mentre le cuccette morbide sono solo quattro per scompartimento e molto più confortevoli.

A parte questa prima differenza, però, anche le cuccette dure non sono tutte uguali tra loro. Le più basse, per cui non si ha bisogno di usare la scaletta, sono più costose, in quanto più comode per spostarsi e alzarsi e provviste di un piccolo tavolino su cui appoggiarsi e mangiare durante il giorno. Tuttavia, sono anche quelle con meno privacy, dato che gli occupanti delle cuccette superiori spesso le usano come sedili durante le ore diurne. Ammetto di essere una grande fan delle cuccette dure, a cui sono legati molti dei miei ricordi dei treni cinesi.

Un altro aspetto tipico, e da me molto apprezzato, dei viaggi sui treni cinesi è il cibo. Nelle carrozze con le cuccette, infatti, negli orari dei pasti gli inservienti passano con dei carrelli su ruote da cui si possono scegliere diverse pietanze di carne, verdure, uova, ecc., tutte regolarmente accompagnate dal riso bianco. Certo, se non parlate cinese sceglierete probabilmente un po’ a caso in base all’aspetto, ma in genere non verrete delusi, credetemi!

In alternativa, se proprio non vi fidate del cibo sul treno, potete acquistare delle vettovaglie nelle stazioni prima di partire. In particolare, i fangbianmian, gli spaghetti istantanei, sono una costante dei viaggi in treno. Ogni carrozza, infatti, che sia di sedili o cuccette morbidi o duri, è provvista di un distributore di acqua calda, essenziale sia per riempire i thermos del té che ogni cinese si porta sempre appresso, sia per far rinvenire gli spaghetti istantanei da mangiare in brodo.

Uno scompartimento di cuccette dure sul treno Pechino-Mosca. [Fonte: jcb2u/Flickr. Licenza CC BY-ND 2.0]

I treni cinesi di questo tipo, purtroppo, sono una specie in via d’estinzione, e sempre più spesso vengono rimpiazzati da linee moderne e ad alta velocità, che permettono di attraversare le enormi distanze del Paese in poche ore. Non nego che andare da Pechino a Shanghai (circa 1200 km) in meno di cinque ore, comodamente seduti in uno scompartimento moderno e pulito, rappresenti un notevole risparmio di tempo e fatica, ma così quello in treno non è più un viaggio, solo uno spostamento.

Chinese investments in Africa in the 2000s: a new colonialism?

During the last Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), held in 2015 in Johannesburg, the Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged to provide a $60 billion funding for development projects in Africa over the following three years. The announcement was not unexpected. Since the FOCAC process began in 2000, with a summit held every three years, Chinese leaders have been constantly increasing the amount of loans and financial aid offered to African countries. According to figures cited at the Wharton Africa Business Forum held in autumn 2015, China’s investment in the continent has skyrocketed in recent years, increasing from $7 billion in 2008 to $26 billion in 2013. Xi claims that China aims to build a win-win relationship with Africa, by developing infrastructure, improving agriculture and reducing poverty in the continent.

The relationship is, however, fraught with controversy. Some accuse China of behaving like a neo-colonialist power, financing African infrastructure projects only to extract natural resources such as oil, iron, copper and zinc from the continent. If access to natural resources is undoubtedly a significant advantage for Chinese companies, which have been in some cases as exploitative as Western powers before them, this is far from being the whole story. According to a 2015 paper written by Chen Wenjie, an economist in the African Department of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), in collaboration with other researchers, the top 20 African nations China does business with include not only those notoriously rich in raw materials – such as Nigeria and South Africa – but also Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda, all commodity-poor nations. Despite constituting only a small part of Chinese investments in Africa, the deals that do involve infrastructure projects and natural resources tend to be large and widely publicised, hitting the headlines and creating fertile ground for accusations of exploitative behaviour. Contrary to common perceptions, most Chinese projects in the continent are centred on services in the areas of business, import-export, retail, restaurants and hotels. Aside from the government-led, natural-resources-based big investments, most Chinese endeavours in Africa are more modest, and carried out by small or medium-sized private firms whose activities have nothing to do with commodities. For example, in the case of Ethiopia, the relationship between countries has been built on trade, investments in infrastructure and manufacturing.

Factory workers producing shirts for overseas clients, in Accra, Ghana (World Bank Photo Collection, Flickr) / License CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In many cases, Chinese companies have contributed to local development in Africa. If it’s true that in the early 2000s firms employed a high number of Chinese nationals, now the vast majority of their employees are local inhabitants. One of the main reasons Chinese companies invest in Africa is in fact that, with rising labour costs in China, African labour markets are more affordable for investors. Besides, most contracts currently require a minimum number of African workers to be employed in each project. Some companies have also made very large investments in employee-training: the most notorious example is that of the Chinese telecommunication firm Huawei, which in the early 2000s established a training school in Nigeria which helped develop the skills of a great number of local engineers.

There are therefore many myths surrounding Chinese engagement in Africa that both the Western press and politicians are playing a big role into spreading. This, however, doesn’t mean that the relationship between Africa and China is a bed of roses. Many experts point out that, although China’s involvement with Africa has largely been beneficial to the continent, the economies of some of its countries have become too dependent on the Asian power. Instead of taking advantage of the situation by attempting to set up their own industry and move to an early industrial phase, they keep relying on the extraction of raw materials to be exported to China: this is for example the case with copper in Zambia. This dependency makes African economies extremely vulnerable, in particular now that China’s growth has remarkably slowed down. Conversely, other countries, such as Ethiopia, Ghana and Rwanda, have set off in the right direction and made big efforts to build an industrial base.

Construction workers. South Africa. (Trevor Samson, World Bank Photo Collection, Flickr) / License CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

What’s more, African countries aren’t the only ones struggling in the relationship: there is in fact growing evidence that some of the Chinese firms leaping into Africa have had to deal with the same problems previously faced by Western investors. Chinese firms often expect that business in Africa will work in the same way it does in their own country: a company makes arrangements with the local government and the government delivers. Once they get to their target country, however, they realise that governmental promises to build infrastructure, provide power or supply land are not as reliable as they thought. The land may turn out to be used by local people who have farmed it for generations and local politicians do not always feel bound to respect deals struck by national authorities.

This is part of the reason why many of the much advertised big Chinese governmental projects in Africa have never become a reality: this was the case of the Lake Victoria Free Trade Zone Eco-city project. In 2008, a Beijing-backed partnership between a large Chinese firm and Ugandan investors announced the building of a 500 square kilometres eco-city in one of the poorest areas of Uganda. The project, which involved a solar-powered airport, was never built (which is incidentally a frequent outcome for most eco-city projects in China too).

Chinese involvement in Africa is much more complex than a resource-exploiting colonialist-like behaviour and in most cases has made a real difference in the development of African countries. Yet, there are still many problems to be solved and the slowing pace of China’s growth raises doubts on the future of the relationship. It’s up to both African countries and China to dissipate these doubts and enable their cooperation to evolve for their mutual benefit.

Cover Image: President Jacob Zuma, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe cut the ribbon to mark the opening of the Johannesburg Summit of the Forum on China -Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), 4 Dec 2015. (GovernmenZA, Flickr). / License CC BY-ND 2.0

Banned things around the world

The subject of Prohibitionism in the United States has a retro flavour, it reminds us of wooden counters, thick velvet curtains and moonshine. It is hard to imagine living in such a situation today, but even if the atmosphere in the US has since changed, there is still a great number of officially banned items around the world, some of which are at first glance less threatening than alcohol…


Blue Jeans

North Korea has a long tradition of prohibition. It comes as no surprise that Kim Jong-un’s government has banned blue jeans from the country. Black jeans are fine, but blue denim is seen as a symbol of Western culture and American imperialism and is thus forbidden.



Lonely Planet

How can something as innocent as a guidebook represent a threat to the world’s second largest economy? Lonely planet guides are apparently a big deal for the Chinese government, which banned them in the country over objectionable content. Surprisingly, the reason for the ban is not the way the Chinese guide treats controversial historical events like the Cultural Revolution or the Tiananmen Square protests, but Lonely Planet’s representation of Tibet and China as two separate countries.



Chewing Gum

Back in the eighties Singaporean authorities started to consider a ban on importing chewing gum in the country, as spent gum stuck on pavements and stairways, elevator buttons and public bus seats and was difficult to remove. The official ban came in 1992, after vandals had begun sticking gum on the door sensors of public transportation, causing problems to train services. Forget about buying chewing gum during your stay in Singapore…but if you take some from home officers may let you go as long as you are a tourist – and you don’t chew too hard!



Kinder Eggs

Children love them for the sweet milk chocolate and for the little surprises they contain, but in the United States they can’t experience the thrill of unwrapping the chocolate egg and discover its present: the tiny parts that compose the surprise can easily be swallowed and are thus considered dangerous in the country. Some people have even been caught trying to smuggle Kinder Eggs from Canada to the US and were arrested.




What could be more innocent than adding some Ovaltine to your milk for breakfast? According to the Danish government, products enriched with vitamins, including Ovaltine, are not necessary if you eat properly. It is probably to encourage a healthier lifestyle and a balanced diet that Denmark banned these products over ten years ago.


Foie Gras

Fancy is no longer fancy, at least in India. After the London protests of an animal rights groups against the cruelty entailed in its production, India became the first country to ban the import of  foie gras. Countries like Germany, England and Israel have prohibited its production, but it is currently only in India that this fancy delicacy is banned.



Video game consoles

Wiis, PlayStations and Xboxes are produced in China, which is also the country where  their selling and use has been banned since 2000. Ironic, isn’t it? The government thought that this prohibition would prevent Chinese youth from wasting their time. The fun thing is that soon after the ban was announced, computer gaming became very popular and people started to spend a lot of time in front of their screens nonetheless.




Cover Photo by Russell Lee [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Shanghai, la città più popolosa del mondo

Da anni al centro delle attenzioni internazionali, come modello delle possibilità d’intervento sull’incremento demografico, soprattutto per via delle numerose politiche di controllo nascite, la Cina continua a vantare il primato di stato più popoloso al mondo, con oltre 1,385 miliardi di abitanti. Distribuita sul vastissimo territorio nazionale, la densità degli abitanti non sfiorerebbe nemmeno quella di gran parte dei paesi europei; ma la maggior parte della popolazione cinese si concentra in 21 aree urbane.

Come si abita un mondo così densamente popolato? Come si vive in una megalopoli? Pequod ha incontrato Francesca Gotti, architetto bergamasco che ha trascorso undici mesi a Shanghai, la municipalità più estesa e popolosa del mondo.

«Mi sono trasferita in Cina per scrivere la mia tesi di laurea in architettura e ho vissuto sempre a Shanghai, in un quartiere tradizionale, costruito secondo un modello tipico cinese degli anni 50: quartieri con piccole stecche residenziali a quattro o cinque piani, abbastanza piccole se confrontate con i modelli costruiti oggigiorno. La metratura minima per persona è davvero scarsa: dividevamo una ventina di metri quadrati in due persone. Anche le case più moderne, costruite negli ultimi dieci anni, hanno comunque degli standard molto bassi rispetto a quelli europei, dovuti alla necessità di recuperare spazio: la scelta logistica del governo cinese di stipare la popolazione sulla costa e di non far progredire la vita delle campagne ha fatto sì che nascessero pochi centri urbanizzati densamente abitati.

La mia tesi prendeva in analisi i luoghi della collettività tradizionale che sopravvivono all’interno della megalopoli, attraverso lo studio di tre casi: un quartiere Lilong, una baraccopoli e una fabbrica dismessa sul tetto della quale era stato costruito un villaggio. In tutti i contesti, si ricreavano le dinamiche sociali ed economiche tipiche della vecchia Shanghai, ma in modi molto diversificati; li accomuna una prospettiva di abbattimento e di sostituzione: dagli inizi degli anni 90 ai primi del 2000, estesi quartieri di Shanghai sono stati rasi al suolo per fare spazio a blocchi di centri commerciali e grattacieli, al fine di densificare e cambiare la scala urbana. Si è creata nel tempo una bolla edilizia, perché Shanghai non smette di crescere e non interessano le peculiarità culturali: non ha la potenzialità turistica di Pechino e attrae stranieri per confusione, grattacieli e modernità. A essere rase al suolo sono le vie più vecchie, dove ancora esiste vita comunitaria; talvolta si vedono quartieri abbattuti solo per metà: le ditte recintano e demoliscono ciò che riescono ad acquisire, ma ci sono proprietari che non vogliono lasciare la loro vecchia casa, che si trova così circondata da attività edilizie. Spesso i motivi dei residenti sono di natura affettiva, ma più frequentemente pensano di non essere pagati abbastanza; di fatto il progresso oggigiorno attrae chiunque e spesso anche questi proprietari vorrebbero spostarsi nei grattacieli.

Si tratta di un cambiamento economico, sociale e culturale, quello che sta interessando l’odierna Cina, abbagliata dal progresso e affascinata dalla promessa di miglioramento sociale. Lo stesso fenomeno è avvenuto in Italia, nella Napoli degli anni ’50: risanamenti urbanistici a scapito delle antiche vie cittadine; erano tutti abbastanza contenti, in pochi si rendevano conto che stavano distruggendo anche uno stile economico e un modo di vivere».

Yongan Li, Shanghai

«Cosa significa, nella dimensione quotidiana, vivere in una megalopoli come Shanghai?»

«Quando sei dentro la città non ti rendi conto delle sue dimensioni effettive; ognuno dei luoghi frequentati rappresenta una realtà a sé stante, una sorta di bolla che ricrea una città in microscala e compatta.

Il mio soggiorno, ad esempio, mi ha dato una prospettiva su tre punti di vista. Il quartiere di residenza, con i negozietti sotto casa specializzati in un solo prodotto (uno che vende solo granchi, uno che vende solo verdure), direttamente collegati con la casa del proprietario, permette il conservarsi di una spiccata socialità tra le generazioni più vecchie. Nel condominio dove abitavo, gli anziani vicini di casa ci regalavano gamberi fritti. Offrivano cibo, chiedevano se avevamo bisogno di qualcosa, facevano domande. Shanghai è una città molto internazionale; il fatto che fossimo giovani e stranieri incuriosiva molto i vicini, ma nessuno ha mai avuto timore di noi.

Molto più basso è il livello di socialità dei giovani universitari; gli studenti escono raramente dall’ambiente universitario e ignorano la realtà circostante. Atenei, case, supermarket e ristorantini sono tra loro connessi, ma separati dalla città. Lo studio dove lavoravo, infine, si trovava in una concessione francese, una situazione totalmente europeizzata: case e negozi che imitano il modello europeo; città dentro la città costruite sul modello di quartieri esteri. Facilissimo socializzare tra stranieri; molto più difficile rapportarsi ai cinesi.

Socialità, sovrappopolazione e urbanizzazione hanno creato a Shanghai due dimensioni contrastanti: case piccole, in cui le giovani generazioni si rintanano, nelle poche pause dal lavoro; oppure case ugualmente minuscole, ma i cui abitanti, perlopiù anziani, vivono più nel cortile e nella strada».


«Dovranno pure spostarsi da una parte all’altra della città, no?»

«La metropolitana è il mezzo più utilizzato, ma è anche la realtà più alienante, in cui ti rendi conto di essere assorbito dalla densità di popolazione. Nessuno parla; i più sono immersi in realtà virtuali, concentrati a guardare film o videogiochi. Le nuove tecnologie e i nuovi modelli urbanistici stanno purtroppo isolando le giovani generazioni che non vivono più la vicinanza ad altre persone in maniera sociale.

I maggiori luoghi di aggregazione sono i centri commerciali, che si dividono tra popolari e di lusso, con gallerie d’arte e boutique. Attività aperte tutto il giorno, ritmi inesistenti; si mangia a ogni ora e c’é sempre qualcosa in moto, dalla persona che gioca a carte a quella che frigge un serpente, giorno e notte. La dimensione umana è molto ristretta: si ha tempo solo per lavorare e mangiare. Anche dal punto di vista urbanistico, c’è sempre qualcosa in costruzione e nessuno spazio è lasciato libero.

E’ un ritmo che stanca, ma al contempo carica. Non hai mai un momento di riposo e sei nel mezzo di una dimensione pazzesca».

«Il tuo viaggio in una parola?»

«Un’esperienza intensa».

Sina Weibo: better than Twitter? Not yet

Over the past few months a number of news outlets have claimed that the social network Twitter is dead, mainly due to the platform’s struggle to gain new members and make profits. Whether this is true or not – commentators have declared Twitter deceased pretty much every year since 2009 – what is certain is that another Twitter-like social media is definitely on the rise in China: Sina Weibo. With 222 million monthly active users in 2015 – 33% more compared to the same period the previous year – Weibo, as it’s commonly known, is one of the most successful and influential microblogging services in the Middle Kingdom.

Often referred to as “the Chinese Twitter”, the platform combines the functions of Facebook and Twitter, but it’s ultimately unique. Like Twitter, Weibo has a 140 character limit per post and the relationship between followers and followees is unidirectional: one can follow other users and read their weibo (posts), without being followed back.


Similarly to Facebook users, however, those on Weibo tend to disclose more personal information about themselves than most people do on Twitter. This is probably due to the fact that Weibo is much more user-friendly and offers a wider variety of features than its Western counterpart. For example, not only it is possible for users to upload rich media such as videos, images and gifs, but these can be viewed directly from one’s home timeline without the necessity of clicking on a link.

Another great feature of Weibo is threaded comment. While on Twitter users need to browse the @mentions to see what other people think about their tweets, Weibo’s threaded comments allow one to see all the comments made to their posts with just one click.

Weibo’s Board of Fame, where the hottest trends are sorted by categories

In addition to these Facebook-like features, Weibo also offers its users the possibility to check out the hottest trends on the platform. Unlike Twitter, however, the Chinese social network sorts these by several categories (sport, entertainment, finance, gaming, travelling, etc.), so that users can easily find what interests them most. Not only one can view the first 10 hottest trends by category at the moment, but these can also be tracked back by setting a specific date or timeframe for the search.

Finally, Weibo has introduced a medal reward system that encourages users to spend more time on the site. Medals can be won for interacting with people and brands or for meeting milestones, and each user has a page where they can see their (and other people’s) medals. While this may seem unnecessary at first glance, the system is actually part of Weibo’s business strategy. Brands such as Nike and Transformers actually partnered with Weibo to market their products by offering medals as rewards, which can be acquired by performing certain actions, like retweeting about their events.


Weibo appears to offer much more features than Twitter and it does so in a much more user-friendly way. So, what’s not to like?

Well, as usual all that glitters isn’t gold. Following the Chinese authorities’ ban of Twitter and Facebook after the Urumqi riots in 2009, Sina Weibo was introduced the same year as a new social media platform that would keep posts under control by tracking and blocking sensitive content. Basically, the platform automatically removes posts with specific words or covering sensitive topics.

As a result, in the past few years Chinese activists have come up with coded phrases to share information and criticise the state. For example, when a user account is deleted, Chinese activists say that the account has been “river-crabbed”. This word in Mandarin sounds like “harmonise”, so it aims at making fun of the government’s stated reason for censorship – to keep society “harmonious”. As the expression “Grass-mud horse” in Mandarin sounds similar to the phrase “f*** your mother”, you can deduce what the following post may mean: “Someone’s account has been river-crabbed. These people can grass-mud horse”.

The problem is that these phrases can remain undetected only as long as they don’t go viral. Once a phrase becomes popular, the censors crack down on it everywhere making it completely disappear from the platform and even deleting users accounts caught using it. For this reason, people now tend to use WeChat (an instant messaging app similar to American Whatsapp) for private conversations on human rights and political issues, even though some activists have recently claimed that their WeChat accounts have been deleted too.

Despite these issues, Weibo is known in China to allow more criticism of the government than other sites. Most of the Chinese users I’ve spoken to said that censorship on Weibo is limited to “false news” and that only accounts that actively contribute to spread them get deleted. It would make sense, I suppose, if one didn’t know that most of non-government-approved news are marked as “false”.

Censored or not, Sina Weibo is the first public social media platform in China and the country’s most dominant source of news content, where netizens come to acquire, share and comment news. Twitter could definitely learn a thing or two from it, but we do hope it maintains the censor-free spirit that has always characterised it.


Cover photo by webstershows (CCA-SA 4.0 Commons Wikimedia)

Chinese Tourism Renaissance: From organised mass tours to free independent travel

Hop off the bus, take pictures, hop back on the bus, sleep in a hotel – repeat. That’s how millions of Chinese tourists spend their holidays every year. We’re all aware of the (quite accurate, in fact) stereotype of Chinese groups getting off a bus, cameras in their hands as they visit famous tourist destinations across Europe ready to shoot. However, this cliché may be about to end.

I discussed the current situation and future tendencies of the Chinese tourism market with Chao Nan Zhang, Operations Manager for the Chinese area at Ignas Tour Spa, a tour operator based in the Italian Trentino Alto-Adige region that specialises in incoming fluxes of travel to Europe.

Immagine 1 (3)

Chao Nan explains that, although big group tours of 30/40 people are still the Chinese favourite way of travelling around Europe, mass tourism is in decline. “About ten years ago, when outbound tourism started flourishing in China, average Chinese people still had little to no knowledge of the English language and European culture, so mass group tours were basically their only option. Nowadays, tourists from the Middle Kingdom, who are often at their second European travelling experience, are not satisfied with the standard Central Europe mass group tour and they often opt for more customised solutions.” Asked about these new trends, Chao Nan says that single group travels are more and more popular among Chinese tourists. “Single group are smaller groups of travellers that usually request upper-level customised tours catering to their specific needs. For example, we once arranged a football-themed tour in Spain for a group of Chinese football fans. They visited all the major stadiums and even attended Barcelona’s team practice, where they could meet their idol Lionel Messi – and take a picture with him of course.”

The Economist/Rex Features
The Economist/Rex Features

Talking of the most popular European destinations, France, Italy and Switzerland still attract a large share of Chinese tourists, even if in 2016 they suffered a steep decline in visitors, partly due to the introduction of new visa requirements for the Schengen area at the end of 2015. Conversely, this year Chao Nan saw a boom of requests for tours to the UK, which is not part of the Schengen agreement, probably thanks to the extension of standard visitor visas and to a simplified application process. Moreover, as Chinese people become more knowledgeable about European countries and the cultural differences among them, more and more tourists are attracted to less renowned areas, such as Eastern Europe or the Balkans.

Chao Nan has no doubts concerning the future of the market: “Even if group tours still account for the majority of incoming Chinese tourism revenues, the future tendency is clear: in the coming years, the segment of FIT (free independent travelling) will become more and more important for the incoming tourism industry.”


Chao Nan’s opinion is supported by recent data. The trend for independent travel is sharply on the rise, especially among the younger Chinese, who are open-minded, well educated and more adventurous than their elders. They are also hugely dependent on online search and are used to booking hotels, flights and attraction tickets via online travel sites.

So, what does this mean for the market? Are tour operators and tourist agencies doomed? Not necessarily. “Mass group tours are low-cost solutions, where price plays a big role and competition is fierce. As a result, margins in this segment are wafer-thin. Catering to FIT can be more profitable, although it entails much more effort”. Agencies and tour operators should therefore focus on providing customers with unique experiences that cannot so easily be booked online.

“We at Ignas Tour are already working on this by offering special packages of a single day or even of just a few hours that cater specifically to FIT. For example, young internet-savvy Chinese tourists may book a hotel room in Venice online, but they would like someone to guide them through the narrow and maze-like Venetian calli and to show them the best attractions the city has to offer. That’s why we propose short Chinese guide tours in Venice and in other main tourist destinations in Europe. Besides cities guided tours, we also arrange visits to Italian wineries, where tourists can learn about wine production and have a wine-tasting experience, or to pizzerie in Naples, where they can even make (and eat!) their own pizza under the supervision of pizza chefs.”

Chinese tourists may be getting tired of the jam-packed mass group tour experience and look for more unique and personal experiences, but there is one thing that won’t change: “They’ll never stop taking billions of pictures to show to their friends and families at home” says Chao Nan with a little laugh. After all, old habits die hard.

When Sport Doesn’t Rhyme With Soccer

As we Italians are well aware of, soccer is one of the most popular sports in the world. Europe, the Americas, Africa, Asia, you name it: each continent has plenty of countries that go crazy for this game. No wonder every 4 years the World Cup competition becomes an international affair that almost nobody can resist. However, not every country is so fond of it or, even when they are, some are equally passionate about other traditional sports. That’s why, right in the middle of the European championship that gets huge international coverage, we decided to go against the tide and pick the most fascinating non-soccer related sports in the world. Here’s our list!


Cathal Noonan/Inpho/Irish Time
Cathal Noonan/Inpho/Irish Time

Imagine a sport that allows you to kick the ball or punch it. A sport where you can score 3 points by sending the ball into the other team’s goal, but you can still score 1 point even if you kick or punch the ball between two upright posts above the goals, over a crossbar 2.5 metres above the ground. That’s Gaelic football and Irish people are crazy about it! In fact, it’s Ireland’s most popular sport with 34% of the population following it. Boring feet-only traditional football has less than half the followers.


Getty Images Sport
Getty Images Sport

Looking for a little of sport rivalry? Your first guess may be football, but what many of you don’t know is that cricket animates rivalries so fierce that would make the most passionate soccer fans turn pale in comparison. The first registered international cricket match was played in 1877 and saw Australia beat England, shaping a long term antagonism between the two national teams. After Australia defeated England on English soil in 1882, a young London journalist even wrote a mock obituary to ‘English cricket’, suggesting that its ashes would now been taken to Australia. For this reason series between the two countries are known as ‘The Ashes’ to this day.

Cricket rivalry is not just limited to England though! The sport is also extremely popular in former British colonies, with the most notable rivalry known to this sport being that between India and Pakistan. The antagonism is so fierce that The Observer has even included it among the ten greatest rivalries in the history of sport.


Although Europe is definitely the most soccer-oriented continent, there are five European countries that surprisingly don’t care that much about soccer. Many of you probably don’t know that people in Latvia and Lithuania are fond of basketball, while the northernmost Baltic state, Estonia, holds skiing as its favourite. The last exception is Finland, where most people play ice-hockey, the reason presumably being that even if they tried playing football, they wouldn’t be able to get rid of the ice!


Getty Images Sport
Getty Images Sport

Although Chinese people are huge soccer fans and the sport is gaining more and more popularity every day, not that many Chinese practice it yet. Could that have to do with the fact that China’s national team has qualified for the World Cup only once in his entire history (and even then lost all the matches it played)? Maybe, but jokes aside, besides western games such as soccer and basketball, traditional martial arts are also very popular in China. The most common of them is probably taijiquan – known among westerners as tai chi – a kind of boxing made of slow movements, that combines control of breath, mind and body and is also regarded as form of meditation. Taijiquan’s popularity is so widespread in China, that if you went for a morning stroll in the parks of any Chinese city you would probably stumble across a group immersed in daily practice.


Richard Dunwoody/The Adventurists
Richard Dunwoody/The Adventurists

Squeezed between taijiquan-devoted China and football-addicted Russia, Mongolia’s sport choice makes the country stand apart. Football doesn’t even figure among the most diffused sport, as Mongolians prefer archery, Mongolian wrestling and horse racing. Clearly, this has to do with their glorious past as warriors, that seems still alive among the population (don’t forget that Gengis Khan was nominated “Man of the Millennium” not many years ago).



While football is definitely the most popular sport in South America, Chileans are really fond of another game too – the rodeo chileno. Reasons for its popularity abound. The game has a long tradition- it was born about 400 years ago during the colonial period – and it’s just insanely cool. It consists of two riders (huasos) riding big horses around a middle-moon-shaped arena trying to stop a bullock by pinning it against large cushions. It’s basically a much less gruesome version of the Spanish corrida but with cowboys instead! No wonders in 2004 rodeo matches in Chile got even a wider audience than football ones.

The rodeo might be the most popular sport in Chile, but the title for the most ancient one goes to palín –  a game similar to hockey which dates back to over a thousand years ago. Palín originated in Southern Chile among Mapuche people, the biggest ethnic group of the area. Palín is not just a sport, but also a ritual celebration that aims at strengthening relationships between individuals and communities. Despite its pacific intents, in an attempt to undermine Mapuche culture and traditions, palín was declared illegal in 1626, with the pretext that it promoted sexual promiscuity as both men and women could play it. Nevertheless palín survived until today and it has even been recognised as national sport in 2004.

Lucia Ghezzi, Sara Gvero, Emilia Marzullo, Margherita Ravelli

China and the West: a love-hate relationship

Almost one million people have already visited Shanghai Disneyland – quite an impressive number considering that the park isn’t even technically open yet. Since the Shanghai Disney metro station opened its doors on April 26th, thousands of tourists have rushed to it just to stand outside the gates of the unopened park and buy souvenirs.

This episode is the last of a long series of examples of China’s obsession with Western symbols and products. Since the XIX century, China’s conception of the West has in fact been characterised by a constant tension between attraction and antagonism, admiration and criticism. After the years of China’s isolation under Mao’s rule, when Westerners were depicted as yang guizi (foreign devils) and nearly no visitors were allowed in the country, in 1978 Deng Xiaoping launched the “open door policy”, making China accessible to foreign businesses that wanted to invest in the country. This policy set into motion the unprecedented economic growth of modern China, resulting in immense changes in Chinese society.

1981, a youth brandishes a bottle of Coca-Cola in the Forbidden City (China Daily)
1981, a youth brandishes a bottle of Coca-Cola in the Forbidden City (China Daily)

One of those changes was the increasing fascination with everything “Western”. In the 90s, when the reforms deepened and accelerated, it was not unusual to hear salesmen in city markets across China describe pretty much all of their merchandise as “made in America”.

The tremendous potential of the Chinese market caught the attention of Western restaurants and commercial chains, which started opening branches in the country. One of the first to tap into this potential was McDonald’s, which in April 1992 inaugurated a store in the heart of Beijing, just two blocks away from Tiananmen Square. With 28,000 square feet, 700 seats and 850 total employees, it was the chain’s largest store in the world, clearly testifying to the company’s determination to invest in the Chinese market.

One of McDonald’s stores in Shanghai (Wall Street Journal)
One of McDonald’s stores in Shanghai (Wall Street Journal)

Although at that time a 10 yuan Big Mac was not affordable for most of the population – the average monthly salary of urban residents of Beijing amounting to 120-130 yuan (around 17-18 dollars) – many Chinese still flocked to the store. Thanks to its Western appeal, its cleanliness and quick service –  in sharp contrast to the poor standard of service long endured by customers at local restaurants – McDonald’s soon became a common family hangout spot, as well as a popular place for first dates.

Thanks to the increasing knowledge of Western culture made possible by the widespread of Internet across China, Chinese people nowadays aren’t as blindly in love with the West as they were during the Reform era, but they aren’t immune to its allure either.

Just consider that in 2015 over 520.000 Chinese students moved abroad to study, with Western countries such as the US, the UK and Australia being the most popular destinations, followed by South Korea and Japan.

Chinese poster of popular American tv Shows “House Of Cards” (zxhsd.com)
Chinese poster of popular American tv Shows “House Of Cards” (zxhsd.com)

Even Western TV shows, in particular American ones, have become increasingly popular in China in the last few years. One example is the Netflix drama “House of Cards”, which is so in vogue that it has inspired many fan-made parodies, including this version of the credits sequence featuring Beijing rather than Washington.

But what does the Chinese government think of its people’s long-lasting fascination with the West? The answer is not straightforward. Despite continuing to support the open door policy, after the violent repression of Tiananmen protests in 1989, Deng Xiaoping’s administration launched the Patriotic Education Campaign with the slogan  “Never Forget the National Humiliation”.

Since then, student textbooks as well as radio programs, TV shows and movies  have been nurturing anti-Western nationalism among Chinese people, by depicting the country as a victim of foreign powers that exerted control over China for a hundred years, until the Communist revolution in 1949. This rhetoric champions the Communist Party as the guardian of the country’s safety and aims at justifying its one-party rule.

As a result, China is extremely sensitive about any kind of Western interference in its internal affairs, as demonstrated by people’s angered reactions to Western criticism of China’s human right abuses in Tibet.

Moreover, in the last few years anti-Western sentiments have intensified. In 2012, following the episode of a Chinese woman harassed by a British expat, top Chinese search engine Baidu and the Twitter-like microblogging site Sina Weibo both called on netizens “to expose bad behavior by foreigners in China” leading many users to express xenophobic views, such as “foreign scumbags should go back to their countries”, as microblogger Yuxiaolei stated, or “cut off the foreign snake heads”, as popular television host Yang Rui wrote.

In 2015 Chinese education officials intensified a campaign against so-called Western values and professors at Chinese universities complained that they were being pressured to remove foreign material from their syllabus.

The “Dangerous Love” cartoon poster features state worker “Xiao Li” being courted by foreigner “David” and eventually handing over official secrets (The Guardian/Ng Han Guan/AP)
The “Dangerous Love” cartoon poster features state worker “Xiao Li” being courted by foreigner “David” and eventually handing over official secrets (The Guardian/Ng Han Guan/AP)

Finally, just last month cartoon posters in Beijing entitled “Dangerous Love” warned young female government workers against dating Western men, as they may turn out to be foreign spies.

Given the backlash against foreigners of the last few years, it is difficult to predict how China’s love-hate relationship with the West will unfold in the future. Let’s just hope that burgers and tv shows won’t be the only reasons left to Chinese people to admire the West.


Cover Photo: Castel of Shanghai Disneyland by Fayhoo (CCA-SA 3.0/Wikimedia Commons)

What’s behind a victory parade?

More than seventy years after the end of World War II people and nations are still remembering the day the conflict ended. It is indeed an important moment of reflection for each citizen, who on the anniversary of his country’s liberation can appreciate the liberty he has more than during the rest of the year. On this day, which varies according to the country – it is April 25 in Italy, August 25 in France, May 5 in the Netherlands, for example – public demonstrations and parades are organized in several cities to pay homage to the victims of the war, to celebrate the resolution of the conflict, with the hope that something that terrible wouldn’t happen again.

Speaking of parades, an interesting case is the one of the two communist states which won the war, Russia and China. The meaning of memorial parades in the two states is of particular interest.

Russian May 9th

May 9th, devjatogo maja as they refer to in Russian, is also called “Victory Day” (Russian Den’ Pobedy). The name speaks for itself – Soviets chose to underline the fact that they had won the conflict. The entire eastern block of countries celebrates Victory Day on May 9, but Russia definitely does it bigger. Den’ Pobedy is usually celebrated with a solemn parade in Red Square in Moscow and all the departments of Russian Army join it. Interestingly May 9th parade had become a modest celebration in the 90s, but Putin brought it back to its majesty. The most glorious parade took place last year, in occasion of the 70th anniversary of the victory. It was joined by 16,000 Russian soldiers and 1,300 foreign troopers from 10 different countries, plus 200 tanks and 150 planes and helicopters.

Not only Moscow is interested by Victory Day parade though. Every Russian city celebrates May 9th with parades, fireworks, concerts and events, involving men and women, children and seniors. Nevertheless, the real protagonists of Den’ Pobedy, from Moscow to Vladivostok, are the veterans. They walk fiercely with their golden medals and their old uniforms, with a nostalgic gaze, and they are the real heroes of the day. One of them has recently become a case, when Russian photographer Aleksey Petrosian published on his Instagram profile a picture of a veteran crying during the 9th May parade in St. Petersburg in 2007, hoping to find his identity and reconstruct his story.

Picture by Aleksey Petrosian
Picture by Aleksey Petrosian

Chinese September 3rd

Despite Chinese people’s love for parades and political celebrations, for decades the anniversary of the end of the World War II in China – September 3rd – has been largely ignored by both the public and the government. This may seem apparently incredible, given the enormous death toll of the conflict in China – 20 million victims only among the civilians – and all the suffering inflicted by Japanese occupation (first and foremost the Rape of Nanjing).

Point is that it was Communist Party’s bitter foes – the Nationalists – who did most of the fighting and dying in WWII. For most of the war, the Communist Party had to operate in secrecy and was much less equipped than the Kuomintang, the ruling Chinese Nationalist Party supported by the United States. Beijing had therefore no interest in celebrating the victory of their enemies.

Foot Formation parade-Xinhua

However, on September 3rd 2015, a sumptuous parade was held in Beijing to commemorate the “70th Anniversary of Victories in the Chinese People’s War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression and the World Against Fascism”. The parade was not only memorable for its grandeur, but also because it was the first time that the anniversary was properly commemorated in 70 years. To mark the occasion, the government even set a National Holiday of three days to allow citizens “to participate in memorial activities”, as the announcement read.

Gun salute-Xinhua

Why to start now? The reason is, of course, political. After Japan in 2012 nationalized the disputed Senkaku Islands (Diaoyu in Chinese), the relationship between the two countries have deteriorated considerably. The parade is therefore the last Chinese political move to underline Japan’s past (and present) aggressions and also to showcase China’s military force.

That’s how the anniversary went from being almost completely ignored to be widely promoted, but only for mere propaganda – probably not the best of reason.

Lucia Ghezzi, Margherita Ravelli

A New Chinese Baby Boom? Not any time soon

In the last 37 years, two topics were bound to come up in any discussion about China: its huge population and the consequent one-child policy created to limit it. Not anymore. At the end of October 2015, the official Chinese news agency Xinhua announced that from that moment all Chinese couples would be allowed to have two children, putting an end to the controversial one-child policy that in the past has led to forced abortions and infanticides across the country.

The announcement has been a long time coming. Demographers have long warned that, because of the one child’s policy, China was heading towards a demographic crisis characterised by an ageing population, shrinking labour force and gender imbalance. China’s fertility rate, estimated by the World Bank to be 1.7 births per woman in 2013, is below the replacement rate of 2.1, while one Chinese out of ten is now over the age of sixty-five, a number likely to double by mid-century. Those figures would be extremely worrisome for any country, but they are even more so for China, which, despite its communist badge, does not provide any safety net for the elderly.

Although the two-child policy is considered a major move, many experts think it is however “too little, too late”, as extremely low fertility rates and the excessive ageing of the population are not reversible in the near future.

The new policy has to overcome many obstacles to succeed, one of the main issues being the way it is currently implemented. While the policy itself was passed by a national body – the National People’s Congress’ Standing Committee – its implementation has been left entirely to the provinces. Without clear guidelines from the central government, only twelve provinces took some hesitant steps to boost birthrate, mainly by changing maternal and marital leave regulations. For example, the once encouraged “late marriage” (after the age of 25 for women and after 27 for men) will no longer be rewarded with extra holiday entitlements, while in some provinces marriage and maternity leaves have been increased, in order to encourage people to marry and have children earlier.

However, these measures are scattered and far from being enough. What is missing are targets for birth quotas that each province should be aiming for, as there were with the one-child policy. The problem is that data necessary to provide these quotas are not available, as there is currently no real scientific understanding of the exact degree to which the population is decreasing and thus no precise indications as to how many additional births are needed. The lack of accurate population statistic is partly due to the so-called “black children” phenomenon. Back in the darkest days of the one-child policy implementation, many families that were unable to pay the fines and unwilling to resort to abortion chose to have children in secret. These children remain undocumented and thus are not reflected in current population statistics. To complicate matters even further, China has a “floating population” of nearly 170 million migrant workers from rural to urban areas that have no local household registration status and thus are not included in the available data. As a result, defining quotas without an accurate picture of the demographic conditions will prove tricky.

China Daily / Wang Nina
China Daily / Wang Nina

Implementation is only a small part of the problem though. Even if the government managed to launch an effective and coherent program to increase birth rate, its success would not be guaranteed. In almost every country in the world economic development has led to fewer babies. As incomes increase, so do parents’ expectations for their children. Families often prefer to focus their efforts and resources on one child, in order to ensure he or she gets the best opportunities to succeed. That is all the more true with regards to China. As good education and healthcare are increasingly pricey in the middle kingdom, families worry about the financial toll of having babies. Besides, due to the fierce competition in Chinese society, families want their child not only to get a good education, but also to gain an edge in the global job market. Hence most parents spend nearly 15% of their annual income on additional classes for their child, including weekly English lessons.

In 2013, when the government last relaxed the one-child policy by allowing more categories of people to have a second child, the response of the eligible couples was tepid at best. Two million couples were expected to try for a second child under the new rules within the first year. By the end of 2014 fewer than 1.1m had applied.

Given the absence of defined government guidelines and the little enthusiasm shown by parents so far, the successful outcome of the two child-policy looks far from certain. What seems reasonably sure is that a new Chinese baby boom isn’t bound to happen any time soon.

Beijing, 2011
Beijing, 2011



Chinese Eco-Cities: viable environmental solutions or bold projects with no real future?


The term “eco-city” seems like the combination of two words that couldn’t be more unrelated to each other. Cities as we know them are far from being ecological: grey sky, polluted water and rare green spaces definitely do not match “ecological” definition on the dictionary. Add to the equation the word “Chinese” too and you get what sounds like a plain and simple oxymoron. The air in nearly all of China’s cities is harmful to breathe, half the drinking water is below international standards, and 20 to 40 percent of the arable soil is contaminated with toxins. However, Chinese eco-cities are a thing – at least on paper.

According to a 2009 World Bank report, China has launched over 100 eco-city projects in the last decade, more than any other country worldwide. These initiatives are part of Beijing efforts to tackle two of the most prominent of Chinese environmental issues – heavy pollution and uncontrolled urbanization. Once completed, the eco-cities should run on renewable energy, recycle their water and waste, have resource-efficient buildings and extensive public transportation networks.

Yale University/Arup. Didascalia: Rendering of Dongtan eco-city
Rendering of Dongtan eco-city (Yale University/Arup)

Unfortunately, most of these projects will probably never see the light of day. The most (in)famous cases are Dongtan and Huangbaiyu projects. The former should have transformed an uninhabited grassy island near Shanghai into a visionary and futuristic city, housing up to half a million people. According to the original timetable, the first phase of construction was to be completed by the Shanghai Expo in 2010, thus allowing the municipality to show its commitment to a green future. Today, almost nothing has been built and the only construction that stands out is a visitor centre that is now shut.

Another failure was the Huangbaiyu project, which aimed at transforming a small village in North East province of Liaoning into a energy-efficient community. Although it managed to complete 42 homes by 2006, only a handful of these were built with the highly touted “ecological bricks”, made in special hay and pressed-earth. Besides, most of the houses remained empty, as cost overruns made the homes unaffordable to many villagers. In other instances, the farmers refused to live in them because the yards weren’t large enough to raise animals. On the plus side, the houses were built with a garage, although most of the villagers don’t own a car.

Both the eco cities were designed by internationally renowned foreign architectural firms and the launch of the projects had been widely covered by international media. So why did these plans not come to fruition? In the case of Dongtan, firstly it wasn’t clear whether the project was to be funded by Chinese government or by the foreign firms who designed it, so the construction came to a standstill. Secondly, the political leaders who championed the plan were ousted in a corruption scandal and the project definitely stalled. In the case of Huangbaiyu, on one hand there was a lack of oversight: no one ensured the plans on paper could be effectively translated into projects on the ground; on the other hand, the eco-city didn’t adapt to local circumstances and needs, resulting unappealing to the village community.

Immagine 2 600x359
Rendering of Tianjin eco-city (http://www.tianjinecocity.gov.sg/)

Despite the failure of these first attempts, not all of Chinese eco-cities seemed to be destined to encounter the same fate. Standing out among the multitude of eco-city proposals is the Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-city project, which seems to have learned some lessons from the mistakes of its predecessors. The plan, resulting from a partnership between the Singapore government and Tianjin local government, looks promising for different reasons. On one hand, the position is highly strategical: located within the fast growing economic hub of Tianjin Binhai New Area, some 40 km away from Tianjin city center and 170 km from Beijing, it is more likely to attract further investments. On the other hand, the project is funded by both sources and is expected to have significant economic returns, making a greater level of supervision and follow-through more likely. In order to encourage people to move there, government and investors’ incentives made rents and other services, such as school tuition costs,  much cheaper than in central Tianjin. On paper, the plan seems overall to be proving successful so far: the first goal set by the developers – to cover 3 sqm by 2013 – has been met and the buildings comply with the world’s most stringent green architectural standards. Unfortunately, despite all the efforts, they stand mostly empty and unused. The problem probably lies in the project of building a whole new city from scratch rather than letting it develop organically: it may work on the drawing board, but it’s harder to actually implement it. At present, Tianjin eco-city doesn’t have any hospitals, many storefronts on its main shopping plaza stand empty and most viable employers are at least half an hour away by car. Construction is everywhere, but the people are scarce.

If Tianjin eco-city doesn’t manage to attract more inhabitants in the next few years, its fate may be the same as Dongtan’s and Huangbaiyu’s: a bold futuristic vision that couldn’t translate into reality. There is still hope – the project didn’t stall and it’s still building after all – but chances are that “Chinese eco-city” may just remain a fascinating oxymoron and nothing more.

The Guardian/Allison Jackson/AFP/Getty Images. Didascalia: Model of Tianjin eco-city
Model of Tianjin eco-city (The Guardian/Allison Jackson/AFP/Getty Images)
Special thanks to Elena Bigardi, author of the thesis “Sviluppo urbano nelle economie emergenti in Cina e in Brasile. Il caso delle eco-cities”.
Cover photo: “Dongtan Eco-City urban concept”, Lafarge Holcim Foundation

APErasmus – PEQUOD meets AEGEE Bergamo

Do you know AEGEE? Probably, those of you who have been Erasmus students know it pretty well, as in the 1980s AEGEE promoted the placement of the Erasmus project – so THANK YOU GUYS! Since then, AEGEE, whose name is related to the Aegean Sea, the birthplace of democracy – how cool is that?! – has been promoting European events creating a huge network of young people all over Europe and beyond.

As you can imagine, AEGEE Bergamo is one of the local branches of AEGEE. Born in the nineties, for all these years it has helped young people cheap-travelling all over Europe, learning foreign languages, making international friends, taking part to international events and parties and becoming real European citizens.

Last night Pequod met the incredibile staff of AEGEE Bergamo at the first APErasmus of the year. What is that? Well, take two of the smartest inventions ever (aperitivo and Erasmus), and put them together: what you get is APErasmus, an event where you can have some appetizers, have a drink and meet new people. The coolest thing is that every week the party is dedicated to a different countrylast night was German night – this means that the food, the cocktails and the decorations are related to that country, so that you get to know it better by having loads of fun!

German appetizers from last night

We collected some comments of the people there, both Erasmus students and Italians.

Claire and Juliette from France seem to be having fun. They are in Italy to learn Italian and for them Erasmus is “party” and “fun”.
Alice and Anna are Chinese and study in Italy. Alice told us that she wanted to go to America in the first place, but it was too expensive. However, she says Italy is beautiful, so she doesn’t seem too disappointed. Anna is more enthusiastic – for her “Italy is the most beautiful country” – she laughs – and she’s passionate about Italian culture and films.
We spot two Italian boys by the wall, observing the situation. We imagine they’re here because they like foreign girls. Actually, they think Italian girls are usually more attractive, but still, they enjoy speaking English.
As everyone looks happy and has a glass in his hands, we go to the bar, also known as the place where the magic happens, and steal a minute from the busy bartender. He says Erasmus events are fun, and according to his esperience, Erasmus students all share bad taste in drinking!

While inside the atmosphere is burning, thanks to the deejays and the barmen, outside it’s snowing a lot, but people don’t mind it at all and stand in the street. Everybody’s busy chatting – English, Italian, German, Spanish and French languages are the soundtrack of this cold white night.

While Pequod is freezing, Conrad seems comfortable even without a coat. He’s from Sheffield (UK) and speaks some Italian because he was studying it in England. He’s been in Italy for a couple of weeks, though he already thinks a lot of good things about Erasmus – good trips (he’s been in Venice and somewhere in the mountains), helpful and very nice people.

The streets are completely white and Pequod needs to get home. But don’t worry: every week we’ll be at APErasmus to meet new people from all over Europe. Read our International interview each Tuesday!


For further information about AEGEE Europe, AEGEE Bergamo and APErasmus, visit the following pages:




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