An Israeli Architect, Feng Shui And China's Green Growth Dream

After building Beijing's Olympic Park for the 2008 Games, a Chinese-American urban planner and Israeli architect continue to help develop green cities in a largely polluted China.

Israeli architect Benny Shadmy and one of his Chinese projects
Israeli architect Benny Shadmy and one of his Chinese projects
Rachel Beit Arie

BEIJING — When Israeli architect Benny Shadmy arrived in China from Jerusalem nine years ago, he saw the opportunities in a country where legend holds that a new city pops up from scratch twice a week. For Professor Hu Jie, a China native and well-known urban planner in the United States, coming back to his homeland after 20 years was a unique chance to participate in the planning of Beijing’s Olympic Park.

Both of them stayed and became partners in an enormous challenge for the world’s most populated country: how to achieve sustainable urban planning. *Shadmy and Hu, it turns out, do it largely by mixing the most modern techniques with ancient Chinese principles.

The process of urbanization is happening in China at unprecedented scale and speed. According to the Research and Development Center of Beijing, the Chinese urban population will double over the next 30 years, which means that an additional 500 million people will be added to Chinese cities. That alone is about equal to the current combined population of the United States and Russia.

In the face of such growth, it would seem virtually impossible to design low-pollution, energy-efficient cities while ensuring a good quality of life for so many people. But Shadmy and Hu are part of a growing team of urban planners who are trying to make it happen.

Feng Shui and modern values

The design of the city of Beijing was planned from the start based on principles of Feng Shui, the ancient Chinese system that harmonizes humans with their surroundings. It is built on a central axis that the Chinese believed to be the center of the world, and that crosses in a perfectly symmetrical way the Forbidden City and the old city of Beijing. The structures were built around it in harmony and perfect balance.

This urban planning survived nearly 600 years, and was even adopted by the communist regime of Mao Zedong, whose portrait in Tiananmen Square sits exactly on top of the central axis.

What finally disturbed the ancient harmony was the runaway capitalism that invaded the Chinese capital when economic reforms were unleashed two decades ago. The accelerated economic development was accompanied by a notable lack of modern planning, unstoppable entrepreneurs and greedy government officials, who turned an imperial city full of trees and lakes into a dense and polluted urban jungle.

When in 2001 Beijing won the right to host the 2008 Olympics, the government committed to try to improve the city’s planning and development. Indeed, the plan was to go back to the city’s glorious past, and to restore axis and logic to the city’s urban design. The Olympic stadium, “The Bird’s Nest,” and the Olympic swimming pool were placed on both sides of the axis. The area to the north of them was for the Olympic Forest Park.

The projects had already begun when Shadmy arrived in Beijing and was immediately thrilled by the idea of mixing old values with modern architecture. “I think that Forest Park symbolizes in China a certain switch from the copy-paste culture to a smarter planning rooted in the country’s past,” the Israeli architect explains. “It was philosophically important for me to study the traditional planning of ancient Chinese parks and bring our traditions into the design. There had to be elements from the Chinese culture as well as from its history.”

Shadmy says the most important element was to be sure the project was environmentally sustainable. Therefore, the park was designed to keep water consumption low since northern China suffers from a serious lack of clean water. The ponds in the park aren’t just a home for the ducks but also are part of a filter mechanism that purifies the water from a polluted river nearby and allows the clean water to flow into the park’s lake.

But for Shadmy, Forest Park was only the beginning, as he is applying the concepts on a much bigger scale — to entire cities in China. Shadmy and Hu, together and alone, are trying to implement these concepts in a long list of projects across the country.

One of them is the Tieling project, a new city a few hours away from Beijing and one of a growing number of new urban centers considered to be “ecological.” Though most Chinese people have still never heard of it, Tieling now boasts a population of three million people, and features the central axis concept that Shadmy and Hu have used in Beijing.

The primary urban essentials — housing, commerce, entertainment and government buildings — are placed on different sides of the axis, while a lake that had been dried out due to over-pumping was restored at the center. Tieling is now a city on a lake, which is also used for the city’s sewage treatment.

“The idea to draw from traditions, and not necessarily with religious distinctions, is something that can be done here in Israel,” notes Shadmy. “We have an enormous historical and cultural background that we can use in good ways.”

Eventually, back in China, these new cities will help reinvent urbanism on a scale that has never been seen before. The question remains, though, whether they will turn greener, or grayer.

*Note: This article was translated by Worldcrunch contributor Daniel Shadmy, who is the son of Benny Shadmy. Neither Daniel Shadmy nor Worldcrunch was involved in the commissioning or production of the original Calcalist article.

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Chinese Students Now Required To Learn To Think Like Xi Jinping

'Xi Jinping Thought' ideas on socialism have been spreading across the country since 2017. But now, Beijing is going one step further by making them part of the curriculum, from the elementary level all the way up to university.

Children from Congtai Elementary School, Handan City, Hebei Province

Maximilian Kalkhof

BEIJING — It's important to strengthen the "determination to listen to and follow the party." Also, teaching materials should "cultivate patriotic feelings." So say the new guidelines issued by the Chinese Ministry of Education.

The goal is to help Chinese students develop more "Marxist beliefs," and for that, the government wants its national curriculum to include "Xi Jinping Thought," the ideas, namely, of China's current leader.

Xi Jinping has been the head of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) for almost 10 years. In 2017, at a party convention, he presented a doctrine in the most riveting of party prose: "Xi Jinping's ideas of socialism with Chinese characteristics in the new age."

Behind this word jam is a plan to consolidate the power of the nation, the party and Xi himself. In other words, to make China great again!

Communist curriculum replaces global subjects

This doctrine has sent shockwaves through China since 2017. It's been echoed in newspapers, on TV, and screamed from posters and banners hung in many cities. But now, the People's Republic is going one step further: It's bringing "Xi Jinping Thought" into the schools.

Starting in September, the country's 300 million students have had to study the doctrine, from elementary school into university. And in some cities, even that doesn't seem to be enough. Shanghai announced that its students from third to fifth grade would only take final exams in mathematics and Chinese, de facto deleting English as an examination subject. Beijing, in the meantime, announced that it would ban the use of unauthorized foreign textbooks in elementary and middle schools.

But how does a country that enchants its youth with socialist ideology and personality cults rise to become a world power? Isn't giving up English as a global language the quickest way into isolation?

The educational reform comes at a time when Beijing is brutally disciplining many areas of public life, from tech giants to the entertainment industry. It has made it difficult for Chinese technology companies to go public abroad, and some media have reported that a blanket ban on IPOs in the United States is on the cards in the next few years.

photo of books on a book shelf

Books about Xi-Jinping at the 2021 Hong Kong Book Fair

Alex Chan Tsz Yuk/SOPA Images/ZUMA

— Photo:

Targeting pop culture

The regime is also taking massive action against the entertainment industry. Popstar Kris Wu was arrested on charges of rape. Movies and TV series starring actor Zhao Wei have started to disappear from Chinese streaming platforms. The reason is unclear.

What the developments do show is that China is attempting to decouple from the West with increasing insistence. Beijing wants to protect its youth from Western excesses, from celebrity worship, super wealth and moral decline.

A nationalist blogger recently called for a "profound change in the economy, finance, culture and politics," a "revolution" and a "return from the capitalists to the masses." Party media shared the text on their websites. It appears the analysis caused more than a few nods in the party headquarters.

Dictatorships are always afraid of pluralism.

Caspar Welbergen, managing director of the Education Network China, an initiative that aims to intensify school exchanges between Germany and China, says that against this background, the curriculum reform is not surprising.

"The emphasis on 'Xi Jinping Thought' is being used in all areas of society," he says. "It is almost logical that China is now also using it in the education system."

Needless to say, the doctrine doesn't make student exchanges with China any easier.

Dictatorships are always afraid of color, pluralism and independent thinking citizens. And yet, Kristin Kupfer, a Sinology professor at the University of Trier, suggests that ideologically charged school lessons should not be interpreted necessarily as a sign of weakness of the CCP.

From the point of view of a totalitarian regime, she explains, this can also be interpreted as a signal of strength. "It remains to be seen whether the Chinese leadership can implement this so thoroughly," Kupfer adds. "Initial reactions from teachers and parents on social media show that such a widespread attempt to control opinion has raised fears and discontent in the population."

Die Welt
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