A blind person walks on the newly renovated "blind sidewalk" in Chongqing, China
Yan Yong

-Analysis-

BEIJING — How many disabled people are there in China? The number is 85 million, or 6% of China's total population, according to the statistics of the Chinese Disabled Persons' Federation. Yet rarely do we see any of them in China's major cities. So where are they?

Recently, a video from the southwestern city of Chongqing triggered a huge wave of public outrage: it showed the city's law enforcement removing a disabled man from the street for performing the Erhu, a traditional bowed two-stringed musical instrument. The law enforcement agents reported that his presence "affects the street's image" because it's a popular zone for both public officials and foreign tourists.

This is not exactly a mistake. What the agent on the scene reported were words that reflect that the government's mindset and its definition of beauty for China's municipalities. Broad and neat streets, magnificent and orderly shop fronts and smartly dressed citizens are what a "presentable" city looks like, and what ought to be shown to governmental officials and foreigners.

The rough-around-the-edges street scenes and not-exactly presentable people are to be hidden at least, if not to be made disappeared, so they are never to be seen again. As such, certain cities come up with ideas such as hiding out of sight an entire block of imperfect street shops by building a long gray wall to block the view. Never mind that what matters most for these shops to thrive is the visibility that attracts passersby.

And, now the same logic is applied to disabled and disadvantaged people. Those performing on the streets damage the "face" of a city, and are forbidden in the most prosperous part of town — and should be pushed to an unnoticed corner.

Let's encourage them to appear on the streets and to be included in the society.

Not only is such urban governance philosophy hostile to disabled persons making a living as a street artist, it also means the bad design, if not totally lack at all, of barrier-free accessibility for these people. As shown by a 2017 study conducted by the China Consumers Association and China Disabled Persons' Federation, China's overall penetration rate of barrier-free facilities exceeded only over 40%. On top of the insufficiency, very often the barrier-free access is shuttered, occupied, rundown or badly designed.

Take the path destined for the visually impaired as an example. Though they are common in cities now, many are virtually useless because they are all blocked by bicycles. Moreover, in order to make it more aesthetically pleasing and to avoid juxtaposing with the road signs paved with colored tiles, these paths turn and twist, or are often one to two meters away from the zebra crossing. In other words, the consideration of so-called urban beauty is beyond the interests of the blind.

gentrification_city_CHINA_EO_inside_

A survivor of the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake is helped by his mother in China's Sichuan Province Photo: Zhang Fan

Again, neither Braille display nor audio guidance exist at bus stops. And rare is the accessible low-steps for getting on a bus. All this hinders people with disabilities from traveling.

Last year, Wen Jun, who is paraplegic and active in charity work, lost his life due to inaccessibility. When visiting Dali City, in the southwestern province of Yunnan, Wen was blocked at the barrier-free access which has been occupied. As he tried to turn his wheelchair around and look for another way, he fell into the roof of a parking lot from a height of more than two meters. He died at the age of 47.

"Better city, better life..." – this was a slogan when Shanghai held the World Expo in 2010, and since shared by so many other Chinese cities. This we should assume applies to everybody, including the poorest of society, and also disabled people. To see their existence, to stretch out one's hands to their struggle, to try our best in providing the conditions to encourage them to appear on the streets and to be included in the society, ought to be more rooted in people's hearts. Or put another way: A city that can see the weak will never lose its value.

Support Worldcrunch
We are grateful for reader support to continue our unique mission of delivering in English the best international journalism, regardless of language or geography. Click here to contribute whatever you can. Merci!
Economy

European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


-Analysis-

BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

Support Worldcrunch
We are grateful for reader support to continue our unique mission of delivering in English the best international journalism, regardless of language or geography. Click here to contribute whatever you can. Merci!
THE LATEST
FOCUS
TRENDING TOPICS
MOST READ