Scary Chinese

Jeffrey Wasserstrom conducts a tour of Western dreams and nightmares of China. Whilst the span of the oscillation is remarkable, he finds the bipolar syndrome itself to be notably stable across time. The upswing — Wasserstrom suggests — is associated with hopes that ‘they’ are becoming more like ‘us’, but on the downswing:

… when the Western China Nightmare is dominant, the risk is that observers and the general public lose sight of how varied the Chinese populace is and instead grow accustomed to demonised images of China … filled not with flesh-and-blood Chinese individuals but a horde of soulless mannequins. […] Stories that dehumanise China’s population tout court are also periodically published, though only rarely do they do so as overtly as a 1999 Weekly Standard article which described the Chinese people as prone to ‘Borg-like’ group-think conformity.

When calmly dissected and investigated, durable stereotypes usually have something significant to say, about both their subjects and their objects. Western sinophobia is an especially rich hunting ground for cultural explorers, and the importance of understanding it is only going to grow. Urban Future will be bringing sustained attention to this same topic in the months ahead.

Cultural Restoration and Mou Zongsan

After a difficult half millennium, China’s place in the world is adjusting back towards its longer term norm, at a speed that continues to disconcert even the most diligent observers. With this positive correction comes an inevitable ‘spirit’ of revival, extending from the level of unreflective mood, through partially articulate attitudes, to the loftiest peaks of systematic cultural restoration. As this wave of revitalization intensifies, and refines itself, it becomes increasingly involved in a re-thinking of Confucianism and its historical meaning.

The philosopher most indispensable to this process is Mou Zongsan (1909-1995), the most brilliant of China’s New Confucians, setting the standards of intellectual rigor and audacity for the country’s third-wave of Confucian inspiration, following those of the Pre-Qin and Song-Ming periods. Describing the Confucian tradition as the “main artery” of Chinese culture, responsible not only for its own perpetuation and renewal, but also for the safe-keeping of the country’s Daoist and Buddhist traditions, Mou considered its renaissance a “necessity”. It not only should, but would return, assuming only that Chinese culture has a future. It is due to this indestructible confidence that Mou’s own name is inextricably bound to the wider prospects of Chinese national recovery.

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City Limits

There’s undoubtedly a Quixotic character to the ‘China should do X’ mode of outside commentary, but Yukon Huang’s short Bloomberg article advising revision of the country’s urbanization policies represents the genre at its best. Noting the agglomeration effects that yield disproportionate returns to urban scale, Huang recommends a turn away from the proliferation of new minor cities, and towards megacity growth.

China is already in a class by itself in accounting for 30 of the 50 largest cities in east Asia. It boasts half a dozen megacities with populations of more than 10 million and 25 “large” cities exceeding 4 million. In fact, though, the only way China will achieve its desired productivity gains is if its leaders allow cities to evolve more organically in response to market forces. They need to let cities like Beijing get bigger.

Urban concentration creates real problems, but these are indistinguishable from the challenges any genuine process of socio-economic advance has to confront. The solutions to these problems will be the same steps that carry the country forward into unexplored territory — beyond ‘catch up’ and into the open horizons of the future. Everything learned from concrete economic history suggests that technological and business opportunity will be ratcheted upwards by exactly those forces which promote megacity agglomeration — and better still urban concentration or intensity — to historically unprecedented levels. That is how — and where — deep social innovation takes place.

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Zoned Liberty

Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post reports:

The central government sees Shanghai’s free-trade zone, to be launched this month, as the pioneer on the mainland of wider convertibility of the yuan and freer, market-oriented interest rates. [… ] Beijing has in principle agreed to let the zone, the mainland’s first, take the lead in its long-awaited reform of foreign exchange and interest rates, an internal government document about the zone’s launch shows. [… ] It is understood that Premier Li Keqiang endorsed the plan to launch the free-trade zone in Shanghai rather than in Tianjin or Guangdong, which had also lobbied for the central government’s approval. […] Last month, Beijing gave approval for Shanghai’s free-trade zone, which will span almost 29 square kilometres in the Pudong New Area, including the Waigaoqiao duty-free zone and Yangshan port. [… ] The Post reported yesterday the zone might eventually be expanded to cover the entire 1,210 square kilometre Pudong district if it proves to be a success.

Zone-based experimentation in economic liberalization has been decisive in ratcheting the country forward, so this initiative is highly encouraging. For partisans of Shanghai, the news is doubly welcome. Letting things play out in different places at different speeds is the obvious way to prevent large country inertia bring everything to a halt, and for China this is a uniquely important consideration. It’s dynamic geography for cautious Confucians (and there’s nothing wrong with that).

More from the SCMP on the SFT-zone and ‘Likonomics’ here.

The Shape of Time (Part 2a)

When describing the thinking of John Michael Greer as ‘druidic’ – as this series has cheerfully done – the adjective has been primarily philosophical in direction. It has been used only to indicate that an identifiable, and remarkably coherent, presupposition about the governing nature of time anchors Greer’s particular analyses, which draw out the implications of an unsurpassable cosmic cyclicity, and apply them deftly to a wide variety of concrete problems. ‘Druid’ and ‘radical cycle theorist’ have been treated as roughly equivalent terms.

It is worth noting at this point, however, that Greer is not only conceptually druidic. He is a public proponent of Druidism in a far richer, culturally-elaborate sense, which includes service “as presiding officer — Grand Archdruid is the official title — of the Ancient Order of Druids in America (AODA), a Druid order founded in 1912.” This vocation slants his perspective in important (and productive) ways. Our concerns here, tightly focused on the question of time, are able to extract considerable intellectual nourishment from a digression into this thick druidism.

Like other forms of occult Occidental religion, Druidry has an attachment to the deep past that is not tacit and traditional, but overt, modern, and creative. Greer admits readily – even gleefully – that his ‘Ancient Order’ is not in fact ancient at all, but instead belongs to a project of restoration – and actually reconstruction – that dates back no further than the mid-17th century. From its inception, it was bound to a lost past and to inextinguishable doubts about its own authenticity. Greer only very rarely uses his Archdruid Report platform to discuss druidism explicitly. On the first occasion when he does so, his reflections are triggered by the question of a young boy: Are you a real Druid?

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Inhabited Heritage

At The China Story, Ken Taylor discusses ‘Cultural Heritage and Urbanisation in China’ — with Hangzhou and the Shanghai periphery illustrating successful models of deep conservation. Taylor takes the opportunity to promote the UNESCO-approved Historic Urban Landscape principles (HUL), which emphasize the sociological dimension of heritage protection, rather than limiting consideration to the “purely physical architectural fabric.” Shanghai’s restored Zhujiajiao is presented as an example of HUL conservation working well.

Familiar gentrification processes, whilst strongly aligned with heritage protection and restoration, are also associated with local population displacement, which compromises their value from the HUL perspective. Community continuity is therefore introduced as a supplementary criterion, extending the sense of heritage in a concrete ethnographic direction. Dynamic metropolitan development, which — in Shanghai at least —  is increasingly comfortable with architectural heritage protection (and even stimulated by it), is likely to find the full-spectrum HUL agenda awkwardly ‘precious’ and growth-retardant. With the global quangocracy firmly supportive of HUL, any such objection will have to remain discreetly muted, although a critique of these ideas, from the side of high-speed urbanomic flows, can be expected at some point (perhaps here). For urban areas of lower intensity, however, where real estate markets play a less radically catalytic role, HUL ideas will no doubt find a more unambivalently welcoming home.

Shanghai is not only a test-bed for HUL-sensitive development, but also a center for intellectual refinement of the model, following “the move of Dr Ron Van Oers from UNESCO Paris to the World Heritage Institute for Training & Research (WHITRAP), Tongji University, Shanghai in the role of Vice Director with the particular brief to work on the HUL Paradigm in China and Asia.”