Flag-raising ceremony in Beijing
Ma Junjie

-OpEd-

KALAMAZOO People from China who travel abroad are struck by the stark differences between their countries. In the U.S. and Europe, they probably envy how people live in comfort and are rich enough to engage in arts and public service. These countries in general have more honest and transparent governments, as well as an active and efficient civil society. In Africa and poorer parts of Latin America, they feel thankful for China's economic take-off. They remember how important it is to have an effective market and a promising government.

The Chinese think like this because of their inherent prejudices. Many Latin American countries have a per capita income that's higher than China. Even Greece, a ‘failed country" in our eyes, has more affluent people on average than China. Yet, many Chinese people believe that China's rich are buying up the whole world because of the way the country is portrayed in the media. Some even imagine that China is the world's leader. This is a misunderstanding.

Last August, Financial Times newspaper published an article entitled ‘Redrawing the World Map." The writer said that "emerging nations' that have reached the $10 trillion investment scale now make up an important part of the world economy. In terms of total debt, share of the global GDP and foreign exchange reserves, emerging markets are performing better than advanced ones. So, the writer pointed out, the world's economic map should be redrawn. Just like the 16th century Italian priests who placed China in the middle of a map of the world, our maps today should emphasize the importance of emerging economies. China would love this idea.

It's difficult to classify the Chinese economy because it's already the world's largest economy in terms of purchasing power parity, as the Financial Times article noted. Yet, in terms of per capita GDP, China is lagging far behind.

China's $8 trillion stock market is the world's second largest after the Unites States, while its bond market is the world's third biggest after the U.S. and Japan. But Morgan Stanley International Capital Index has a point when it rejected, for a third time, the inclusion of China's A-share stock market in the index citing governance concerns. The Chinese stock market does have some issues.

China is dwarfed by developed countries in per capita income and on the human development index too. Not many Chinese people are aware of this gap. It's not even fully reflected in the development of foreign and domestic policy.

Does China possess the strength of a global economic power and is it capable of leading international affairs? Compared with advanced countries, there exists some gap at present. For certain hot-blooded people, this is perhaps a cold shower. For the massive middle class that pursues economic and political rights in China and falls short of obtaining this goal, achieving this parity remains a common aspiration.

Shopping in Shanghai — Photo: Mitch Altman

There are other markers that reflect China's living standards. Every 1,000 Americans owned 2670 vehicles in 2009. Every 1,000 Chinese owned only 114 in 2014, ranking it 99 among the 191 countries surveyed.

Another index reflects the gap more subtly. A while ago, I visited the Gilmore Car Museum in Kalamazoo, a small town in Michigan, along with businessmen and young leaders from 20 countries. Not only was the museum the first of its kind in the Midwest, we also happened to be there on the occasion of the town's annual vintage car trade show. Owners of old cars gathered from states that surround Michigan. The luscious automobile culture, the meticulous display of its development history and the well-preserved cars of all brands and all eras made me sigh and wonder when China would come up with a similar scene.

Sure, we can look down at cars as just a means of transport. But the technology, resource investment and market development involved reflects a country's hard power.

In the small farmer's market in Kalamazoo, farmers stood behind their stalls and gave a friendly greeting to everybody who walked by. The scene is very different from China's rural markets that I'm familiar with, and even distinct from Istanbul's big bazaar and Cairo's downtown grocery market. There were no dirty broken wood trailers or carts behind these farmers. There were only small vans and pick-ups trucks. The difference between American and Chinese farmers goes beyond this. Farmers in the U.S. enjoy a better income, a better quality of life, a better education and cultural upbringing.

Perhaps China's first-tier city residents have reached the same living standards as these American farmers. But those in lower-tier cities, let alone China's 48 % rural population, still lag far behind them.

If one takes into account the UN Human Development Index, the take-home pay of OECD members, the Gallup median household and per-capita income, and other global evaluation indices, one can see the gap between China and other countries.

Recognizing this development gap is the first step towards bridging it. Over the past 40 years, China's economic performance has attracted worldwide attention. But this gap should stimulate us to run faster still.


*The author is a research fellow at the Unirule Institute of Economics and France's Centre International de Formation Européenne.

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Society

Why Chinese Cities Waste Millions On Vanity Building Projects

The so-called "White Elephants," or massive building projects that go unused, keep going up across China as local officials mix vanity and a misdirected attempt to attract business and tourists. A perfect example the 58-meter, $230 million statue of Guan Yu, a beloved military figure from the Third Century, that nobody seems interested in visiting.

Statue of Guan Yu in Jingzhou Park, China

Chen Zhe


BEIJING — The Chinese Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development recently ordered the relocation of a giant statue in Jingzhou, in the central province of Hubei. The 58-meter, 1,200-ton statue depicts Guan Yu, a widely worshipped military figure from the Eastern Han Dynasty in the Third century A.D.

The government said it ordered the removal because the towering presence "ruins the character and culture of Jingzhou as a historic city," and is "vain and wasteful." The relocation project wound up costing the taxpayers approximately ¥300 million ($46 million).

Huge monuments as "intellectual property" for a city

In recent years local authorities in China have often raced to create what is euphemistically dubbed IP (intellectual property), in the form of a signature building in their city. But by now, we have often seen negative consequences of such projects, which evolved from luxurious government offices to skyscrapers for businesses and residences. And now, it is the construction of cultural landmarks. Some of these "white elephant" projects, even if they reach the scale of the Guan Yu statue, or do not necessarily violate any regulations, are a real problem for society.

It doesn't take much to be able to differentiate between a project constructed to score political points and a project destined for the people's benefit. You can see right away when construction projects neglect the physical conditions of their location. The over the top government buildings, which for numerous years mushroomed in many corners of China, even in the poorest regional cities, are the most obvious examples.

Homebuyers looking at models of apartment buildings in Shanghai, China — Photo: Imaginechina/ZUMA

Guan Yu transformed into White Elephant

A project truly catering to people's benefit would address their most urgent needs and would be systematically conceived of and designed to play a practical role. Unfortunately, due to a dearth of true creativity, too many cities' expression of their rich cultural heritage is reduced to just building peculiar cultural landmarks. The statue of Guan Yu in Jingzhou is a perfect example.

Long ago Jinzhou was a strategic hub linking the North and the South of China. But its development has lagged behind coastal cities since the launch of economic reform a generation ago.

This is why the city's policymakers came up with the idea of using the place's most popular and glorified personality, Guan Yu (who some refer to as Guan Gong). He is portrayed in the 14th-century Chinese classic "The Romance of the Three Kingdoms" as a righteous and loyal warrior. With the aim of luring tourists, the city leaders decided to use him to create the city's core attraction, their own IP.

Opened in June 2016, the park hosting the statue comprises a surface of 228 acres. In total it cost ¥1.5 billion ($232 million) to build; the statue alone was ¥173 million ($27 million). Alas, since the park opened its doors more than four years ago, the revenue to date is a mere ¥13 million ($2 million). This was definitely not a cost-effective investment and obviously functions neither as a city icon nor a cultural tourism brand as the city authorities had hoped.

China's blind pursuit of skyscrapers

Some may point out the many landmarks hyped on social media precisely because they are peculiar, big or even ugly. However, this kind of attention will not last and is definitely not a responsible or sustainable concept. There is surely no lack of local politicians who will contend for attention by coming up with huge, strange constructions. For those who can't find a representative figure, why not build a 40-meter tall potato in Dingxi, Gansu Province, a 50-meter peony in Luoyang, Shanxi Province, and maybe a 60-meter green onion in Zhangqiu, Shandong Province?

It is to stop this blind pursuit of skyscrapers and useless buildings that, early this month, the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development issued a new regulation to avoid local authorities' deviation from people's real necessities, ridiculous wasted costs and over-consumption of energy.

I hope those responsible for the creation of a city's attractiveness will not simply go for visual impact, but instead create something that inspires people's intelligence, sustains admiration and keeps them coming back for more.

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