The Economic Observer is a weekly Chinese-language newspaper founded in April 2001. It is one of the top business publications in China. The main editorial office is based in Beijing, China. Inspired by the Financial Times of Britain, the newspaper is printed on peach-colored paper.
Chen Zhe

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.

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.

Economic Observer Editorial

China: The Public's Right To Speak Up On Family Planning Policy

The CCP is not used to sharing the decision-making role with the public, but that may be exactly what all sides need to try to encourage more Chinese people to have babies.


BEIJING — On May 31st, China announced its new so-called "three-child policy" that allows couples to have three children. The policy was announced just 20 days after the release of the results of the Seventh National Population Census. They show the country's trend of an aging population is worsening, with only 12 million new births recorded in 2020, the lowest since 1960. This isn't a coincidence.

As the meeting minutes of the Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) state, the policy is to further optimize the relevant supporting measures of family planning guidelines, to improve the population structure, and to implement a national strategy by actively respond to the demographic aging, so as to maintain the advantages of the country's human resource endowment.

Even though this still is far from responding to the public's expectation of a full easing of a couples' birth limit, the three-child policy represents nonetheless a major readjustment of China's birth control principle.

It's worth pointing out that not only are couples now allowed to have three children instead of two, the National Health Commission which is in charge of family planning, pointed out that complaints over policy issues such as marriage, child-raising and education should also be addressed. This includes providing young people with guidance on family and marriage values, advocacy to correct bad wedding customs such as the expectation of a very high dowry, a universal childcare system, promotion of educational equity, supply of high-quality educational resources and reduction of education costs.

We believe the public should have a full say.

Indeed, the above-mentioned issues are all well-noted "pain points' that affect young people's willingness to have babies. Therefore, the adjustment in tackling these problems can be regarded as a comprehensive reflection on parenting policies.

The Politburo meeting proposed that by improving maternity leave and the insurance system, by strengthening supporting measures in taxation and housing, and by protecting the legal rights and interests of women in employment, the aim of establishing a more complete maternity protection network can be achieved. And the beneficiaries should include all families from one child to two or three children.

The relevant policy details have not yet been announced, but we believe that the public should have a full say in this. These policies concern all those who are going to be parents and those who will be parents in the future, and will ultimately concern every family. Hence, the government's decision-making agencies ought to listen to the public's expression of their interests. This involves a process of open discussion and full interaction. Unless there exists a positive response and participation from the public, the effectiveness of the policy may be greatly compromised.

Meanwhile, tackling the above issues should be cohesively and organically combined, rather than being advanced individually by each relevant department. The family planning policy's complexity implies taking into consideration the various social and economic aspects, including human resources, social security, finance and taxation, education, and housing.

Only 12 million new births were recorded in 2020, the lowest since 1960 — Photo: Sheldon Cooper/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Any link in the chain which fails to keep up with changes and demand may create loopholes in this birth protection network. In the past, perhaps because family planning is a sensitive and complicated issue, the related governmental departments had not been enthusiastic to hear the public's opinions. Yet, going from allowing couples to have two children if one of the couple is a single child him or herself, to then allowing two children, and then the currently three children, the policy has always provoked lively debates between the authorities and the people. Objectively, it is these discussions that accelerated the announcement of the government's policies.

This is all the more reason that the supporting measures of the three-child policy should absorb past experience, and respond to the public's demands in a realistic manner based on accurate research. This will make up for shortcomings in all these areas linked to reproduction to child-raising, and thus help reduce parenting anxiety. There has been no shortage of experts and scholars with suggestions and policy advice. For example, one expert suggested that a fertility fund should be levied, while another from the entrepreneurial sphere said that "one should complete the most basic reproductive responsibility by giving birth to two children before he or she has the right to use contraceptive products', and so on.

We welcome constructive opinions based on rationality, however, it should be said that some of these suggestions have gone to the opposite pole of a serious marital and childbirth policy.

The basic feature of this rhetoric is that many don't regard child-bearing as a basic right, but more as a tool for achieving economic and social purposes. Based on this, a punishment and reward mechanism is set. We believe that any good family planning policy ought to be based on respecting peoples' fundamental rights so that each family can freely make their own choice.

Daisuke Kondo

Hosting Tokyo Olympics During COVID Is Like Gyokusai Suicide

With infections surging, and only 1% of the population fully vaccinated, many say that devoting so many resources to hosting the Summer Games is a recipe for disaster.


TOKYO — A doctor friend of mine is a member of the Medical Services team for the Tokyo Olympic Games, but right now his attention if focused on New Delhi. "If the current situation continues, Japan will become like India," he told me last week. "We'll be totally unable to fight against the new Indian variant of Covid-19. When the medical system collapses as we fear, hosting the Olympics will be but a wishful dream."

The Tokyo Olympics is planned to kick off on July 23. In view of the current pandemic situation, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Chairman Thomas Bach will visit Japan on May 18th to confirm whether the Olympic Games can be held as scheduled. Right now, the number of coronavirus infections is surging, and the vaccination efforts are faltering badly, with just 1% of the population fully vaccinated.

To curb the pandemic, the Japanese government has declared a third state of emergency for major cities and their neighboring prefectures. Some 70% of Japanese companies have been asked to let their staff work from home, universities have switched to online classes, cinemas and tourist parks are closed, restaurants are open until eight o'clock in the evening but no alcohol can be served anytime of the day.

Why is it that Japan has failed to come up with its own vaccine?

Since the outbreak of the pandemic, the unemployment rate and closures of companies have multiplied. Numerous restaurants where I eat regularly sent me messages one by one to apologize that they are shutting down permanently. Some had been around for more than 30 years.

But there are other even more puzzling factors. First, why is it that Japan has failed to come up with its own vaccine? The pharmaceutical companies in the US, China, Russia and Britain have all successfully developed vaccines and have given priority to their residents. Yet, Japan, the country that likes to boast that it's "the only developed country in Asia" has fallen far behind on this front.

After Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga visited the US in April, he proudly claimed that "During my stay in the US, I had a telephone conversation with the general manager of Pfizer and he promised to provide Japan with the vaccine." I couldn't understand his mentality, as the leader of a country, to be so proud about having to beg for such favors.


The Olympic rings in front of the New National Stadium, in Tokyo. — Photo: Cezary Kowalski/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Secondly, why is it that people over 65 were given priority in receiving the jabs? The need of giving it to the medical corps as a priority is fully understandable, but why isn't it the working-age population instead of the elderly? The elderly can easily stay at home while people who make up the workforce have to get out of the door to earn their bread. In order to increase the herd immunity and to suppress the increase of infections, it is reasonable to give vaccination first to the working-age population.

In Japan, 36 million of the overall population of 126 million are people over 65. And like my parents put it – we all have a retirement pension and have no need to go out and work. Moreover, it's probable that one's health condition worsens after receiving a vaccine so we don't want to be vaccinated. Lots of people our age share the same thinking. Yet Suga's explanation is that it's more likely for an elderly infected by Covid-19 to become seriously ill, and jabs help to reduce the number of deaths and hospitalizations.

To look at the issue deep down, however, one can't help suspecting that the real motivation is just to pave the way for the run up to Japan's general election this coming fall. It is hard to imagine that Suga would disappoint these 36 million potential voters.

More than 65% oppose hosting the Olympic Games as scheduled.

So, the remaining question is – can the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics be held as planned if the pandemic continues to wreak havoc?

On April 28, the Aichi Prefecture federation of Medical Worker's Unions based in Nagoya protested on Twitter calling "to stop hosting the Tokyo Games'. "Under current circumstances, nurses will be too swamped with the pandemic to attend the games." The message immediately gained thousands of supporters.

And in April, the Jiji Press, a Japanese news agency conducted a survey on the public's opinion of the games. More than 39% of those surveyed thought that "the Olympic Games should be called off"; 29% thought that it should be held as scheduled; and 26% of the respondents thought that it should be rescheduled a second time. In other words, more than 65% of Japanese people oppose hosting the Olympic Games, beginning July 23.

Suga wants to go ahead with the Olympic Games, with his eye squarely on the upcoming elections. In referring to his determination, the press even used the term gyokusai, literally "shattered jade" in Japanese, meaning to fight to the last person without surrendering. With only around two months ahead of the scheduled Tokyo Olympics, are the Japanese people being forced to engage in a COVID "gyokusai"? We'll know soon enough.

Wu Chen

Biometric Risk: Why China Should Say No To 'Face Swiping'

Registering facial recognition data with a biometric authentication application is all the rage in China, but it comes with major privacy concerns.


BEIJING — A friend of mine recently made a business trip to China's southeastern city of Shenzhen. Arriving at an office building, he was not allowed into the elevator until he had registered his facial recognition data with a biometric authentication application. This action is called "face swiping" in China.

After some hesitation, he finally yielded to the request in order to get to his appointment on time. However, the more he thought about this afterwards, the more he regretted that he didn't stick to his principles — even if that meant he would have been letting down his company. He was worried that his biological information could be abused and misappropriated.

Face swiping is increasingly used in security inspection in China. Not only has it become normalized for use as an ID card verification process in airports and railway stations, but more and more places are following suit, including social media platforms and mobile payments among others.

It is most commonly used in office buildings and residential blocks. What is different from airports and stations is that, in order to pass the security check at an office building or a residence, one is obliged to first go through a registration and verification process. This extra step creates the risk of privacy infringement, and personal biological data could be violated and misappropriated with all kinds of consequences.

Under current circumstances of imperfect supervision, legally collected facial data is being misused.

It is worth noting that, according to a recent survey in China, embezzlement of personal information by using AI face-swapping technology is far too commonplace. A CCTV report pointed out that one can purchase as many as 1,000 strangers' photos online for a mere 2 RMB (30 US cents). Chinese media have reported that criminals have used artificial intelligence technologies to alter people's photos that they illegally obtained, and turned these photos into deep fakes for criminal purposes.

Battling against unscrupulous criminals, the eastern city of Hangzhou submitted a revised draft of the city's Property Management Regulations to the standing committee of the National People's Congress of Hangzhou for deliberation in October. The aim of this draft is to prohibit estate management bodies forcing property owners to provide biometric information such as fingerprints and face recognition to enter their community. This is the first time that discussion about the importance of "privacy and data security in relation to convenience" has entered the lexicon of local legislation.

The fact that a local legislature is seriously examining the application of face recognition is a big step forward. Many are hoping that debates about the collection of personal biological information might now be taken up at a higher level in China, with appropriate legislation applied.

Facial recognition payment in Tongxiang, China — Photo: Xinhua/ZUMA

The first step would be to regulate who is authorized to collect biometric data, such as faces and fingerprints. The purpose of collection should be defined clearly while the method of storage and security has to be guaranteed.

Not only should one be allowed an "opt out" choice, but an alternative method for verifying their identity has to be provided for people who are not willing to share this data.

Even if the collection of facial metric information is permitted, further clarification and transparency on the use of this data must be conditional so as to avoid misappropriation. Under current circumstances of imperfect supervision, loopholes and the existence of an illegal photo trading market, legally collected facial data is being misused.

Is your face an account or a password?

An effective check-and-balance system needs to be implemented by tech companies driven by their interest in developing an increasing number of facial recognition applications. One of the reasons why China rapidly advances in artificial intelligence is because it collects far higher amounts of data information than Europe and the United States.

Facial recognition is one of the few areas where artificial intelligence finds a wide range of real application scenarios that can be successfully commercialized. But it's precisely because of this potential that we need to be more vigilant about such "progress."

Neither office buildings nor private residencies has the ability to develop a face-swiping system themselves. They are being driven by high-tech companies trying to promote widespread usage of their applications. Therefore, just by banning the use of face swiping in offices and residences, without allowing system providers to participate in the rulemaking, will reduce the legislation to a cat-and-mouse game.

There's no doubt that improving technologies aid many people. The critical question is, as some experts put it: Is your face an account or a password?

The difference between these is clear: an account doesn't get changed regularly, whereas a password can be altered at will, and should be frequently for security's sake. Everybody has only one face, unless you squander a fortune on plastic surgery in South Korea. Using your face as an unchanging password for authenticating numerous services is at your own peril.


Wealth Inequality In China: Measured At Home And At School

After the topic of bulk sanitary napkins went viral online, the broader issue of the gap between rich and poor has come out of the shadows across the communist nation, including the availability of laptops for students.


BEIJING — In the past few days, the topic of sanitary napkins has somehow gone viral in China. It all started with a screenshot posted of an online shopping platform displaying cheap, bulk sanitary napkins for female hygiene. Before the discussion was unleashed, few in China had ever heard the concept: "period poverty." For many, it even seems incomprehensible – isn't a pack of basic sanitary products just the price of a cup of tea? How can anyone not be able to afford it?

Yet, the reality is that in China, a considerable number of girls and women can only afford such sanitary products when packed in bulk – 21.99 RMB ($3.25) for 100 pieces. They have neither a brand nor fancy packaging or even an official licensing code. But even worse off are the women who can't afford any sanitary products.

In China, 600 million people still live with an average monthly income of less than 1,000 RMB ($148). This startling fact from Chinse Premier Li Keqiang at the national Two Sessions conference early this year sparked a lot of heated discussion at that time. The topic of "bulk sanitary napkins' outlines the real picture of living conditions behind the statistics and allows people to see the silent, struggling side of poor people within a massive nation. China, in other words, must face the question of the wealth gap in society.

This is not the entire face of China.

Income disparity separates people from each other like a wall. Even though the internet has reached out in such a way to shrink the whole world into a kind of village, the hidden wall of wealth remains hard to break down. If one takes into account the lack of care for females in Chinese tradition, it's imaginable that the cruel existence of injustice is even more likely to be ignored.

Chinese people can easily feel encouraged by the fact that average per capita income exceeds $10,000, and that 400 million Chinese people have risen to the middle class, with forecasts for that number to rise beyond 500 million in the next few years. Thanks to China's booming economy in recent years, more people's lives have become more prosperous, in both urban and rural areas.

For people living in big cities, the abundance of products and their purchasing power cannot be compared with the poverty of the past. When they choose sanitary products, what matters to them most are brands and quality. The debate over "period poverty" reminds us, however, that this is not the entire face of China. Images of "bulk sanitary napkins' suddenly smashed through the hidden wall in an unexpected way and reminded people that another side of China exists.

China must face the question of the wealth gap in society — Photo: Sheldon Cooper/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Another instance of that wall coming into view was when COVID-19 forced all schools to go online. Even while parents in urban areas were complaining that this was bad for their children's eyes and lead to tensions with everyone at home, in rural areas there was a very different worry: Less than 10% of their children have access to a computer, according to a survey conducted by the China Development Research Foundation.

If the support given by parents are also counted as educational resources, then the rural students are deprived even further, given the fact that there are more than 60 million so-called "left behind children" where one or both of their parents have gone to work in the cities leaving them in the care of their grandparents or extended families.

When we talk about our yearning for a better future for China, we can't stay indifferent to these silent groups of people. It should lead toward solutions, through tax cuts, government assistance or charity relief, even if a certain gap between the poor and the rich as well as class estrangement are inevitable even in a healthy society. Understanding, tolerance, assistance and protection for the bottom of society are sure ways to help minimize friction.

In October, the Central Committee of China's Communist Party will lay out the the country's 14th Five-Year Plan, a national economic blueprint launched for the first time in 1953. The world's second largest economy and its 1.4 billion citizens will embark on a new journey, now starting from a moderately prosperous point. The "bulk sanitary napkins' help us to see more clearly that there are differences, better perceive ourselves and look for rational ways to find solutions.

Yan Yong

Clearing Out Disabled: City Gentrification, Chinese-Style


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.


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.


The Latest: New Gaza Flare-Up, Biden-Putin Meeting, Unmasking Spain

Welcome to Wednesday, where Israel carries out first airstrikes on Gaza since the ceasefire in May, Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin meet for the first time since Biden's election and Ronaldo changes Coke into water. Chinese daily Economic Observer also advocates for more open discussion about the real reason why China's couples are not having more children.

• Israel air strikes in Gaza after Hamas incendiary balloon attacks: Early Wednesday morning, Israel carried out air strikes in Gaza in response to fire balloons launched by Hamas from the territory. This is the first major flare-up since last month's ceasefire following a brief but deadly war. It is not known whether the latest strikes have caused any injuries or death.

• Biden-Putin Summit in Geneva: U.S. President Joe Biden and Russia's President Vladimir Putin have a highly anticipated bilateral meeting in Geneva today. On the agenda: regional conflicts, climate, COVID and cybersecurity. No major breakthroughs are expected but there are hopes that the leaders will find some common ground after trading invectives from afar in recent months.

• Taiwan reports largest incursion by Chinese air force: According to Taiwan's government, 28 Chinese air force aircrafts entered the island's air defense identification zone (ADIZ) yesterday. Over the last few months, multiple missions of the Chinese air force have taken place near the self-ruled island, but this was the largest incursion since the Taiwanese ministry began regularly reporting the activities last year.

• Car bomb explosion at Colombia military base injures 36: In the Colombian border city of Cucuta, two men drove a white Toyota truck into the military base after passing themselves off as officials. According to the Defence Minister Diego Molano, the hypothesis is that the National Liberation Army guerrillas are to blame but the attack is still being investigated.

• Leftist Castillo wins popular vote in Peru's presidential race: With all ballots counted, and a turnout of nearly 75%, leftist candidate Pedro Castillo has just over 50% of the votes. But he cannot be declared the winner until electoral authorities have finished processing legal challenges brought by right-wing contender Keiko Fujimori. It could take weeks before a winner is formally announced.

• China to send astronauts to new space station: On Thursday, three veteran astronauts will become the first Chinese astronauts to land on the initial stages of China's orbiting space station module, Tiangong or Heavenly Palace, which is still under construction. The mission, called Shenzhou-12 or Divine Vessel, is the first of four planned and marks a significant milestone in China's expanding space program.

• Greenpeace parachuting protesters lands on soccer fans: Several spectators were treated for injuries caused by a Greenpeace protester who parachuted into the Munich stadium before France played Germany at the European Championship. The parachutist seemed to lose control and had a brush with the supporters before landing on the field. Greenpeace has apologized for putting people in harm's way.

Watch Video Show less

In China, A Post-Pandemic City Model Built On Street Vendors

Chinese officials are realizing that the 'soul' of a city is key to strength and prosperity.


CHENGDU — In order to ease the economic impact of the COVID-19 outbreak, authorities in China's western city of Chengdu have decided to temporarily allow impromptu stalls for food and other goods to be set up along local streets.

The measure was praised, rather unexpectedly, by Chinese premier Li Keqiang during the National People's Congress taking place at the end of May, celebrating that "the creation of 36,000 mobile stalls has solved the unemployment of 100,000 people overnight."

Just when the public was speculating that other cities would follow with similar measures, another central government decree announced that street vendors' occupation of roads and marketplaces won't be used this year in assessing the "civilized city" performance indicator implemented since 2005.

The announcement has sparked enthusiastic reaction from the public, and especially from lovers of street food.

But will these government initiatives also offer a real economic solution? "Guaranteeing employment" has been the number one official priority since China began to emerge from the coronavirus health crisis. Behind each employed person stands a family. And for small hawkers selling food or wares in the open air, the economic impact of the epidemic has been particularly severe.

Good news for lovers of street food — Photo: Guo Cheng/Xinhua/ZUMA

However, the reason why the Chinese public welcomes the government's measure goes beyond assuring employment and people's livelihood. This action has brought to people's attention the fact that our country's initiatives to make cities more orderly, standardized and cosmopolitan — and much of urban planning and management are founded on such thinking — those people making their livelihood selling on the street have been overlooked. Yet the work and lives of these people embody the idea of human dignity and decency and highlights an ordinary person's hopes and struggles when they come to live in a city.

After the lockdown, we couldn't be more eager to see the bubbling life of a city return.

The original meaning of city is a place where people come together to buy and sell. During the outbreak, the distance between people was rigorously spread as far apart as possible. Even when passing a stranger, we turn away our heads to avoid each other.

After experiencing the silence and emptiness of a city during the pandemic, we couldn't be more eager to see the bubbling life of a city return, including the sounds and smells of even more street stalls. When one stops to listen to the hawkers' yelling and selling, even if it's a wordless exchange, it remains nonetheless a real encounter between people.

Not only does a street teeming with vibrant business help those at the bottom of society to make a living, but it's also what touches people's hearts — it's their whole connection to a city. In the past few years, many Chinese cities have seen roads widened and an ever more modern skyline. We like the prosperity of what this symbolizes, but we know something is missing.

A city should be inclusive for all who live there and, in particular, the dreams of those at the bottom of society. Only cities that have a vivid life and a soul can truly count on a future.

Chen Zhiwu

How China's Free Market Economy Opened The Door To Romance

Traditional ideas about marriage still hold some sway among the Chinese, but more and more, couples are finally giving love a chance.

BEIJING — For most of China's long history, there have been marriages, but not much in the way of romantic love. Only in recent decades has that finally changed.

Contemplating this issue, I can't help thinking about Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who married Priscilla Chan, a Chinese-American woman, in 2012. Why, many Chinese people asked themselves, would one of the world's wealthiest men, with a fortune of $59 billion, marry a woman of average appearance? What's more, he seems to sincerely love her. How strange! Those kinds of comments are actually quite common among the Chinese. But why?

The answers lie in the difficult economic realities of old Chinese society. Traditionally, the first mission of marriage was to help the entire family financially and, by bringing new children into the fold, provide a counterbalance to old age and illness among the clan's senior members. The ultimate goal, of course, was to have a son to provide security in old age, and for that, marriage played the decisive role.

The building up of the in-law relationship is another key element for boosting long-term security. Marriage is about two people committing until death do they part, but by extension, it's also about the merging of families. That's why, in Chinese society, behavioral rules and the relational structure of all members of the clan are carefully and highly developed.

And since marriage involves so many other people's interests, it traditionally needed to be controlled from the top-down — by a patriarch. As such, the decision-makers of arranged, blind-dates were the parents of both parties rather than the two young protagonists themselves.

Logically, parents measure each other only with hard indicators such as appearance, fortune, and family status. Personal factors like sentiment and love were not weighed since they were important for the young couple but not necessarily for the other family members.

In China, the family is, first and foremost, a production unit.

As a study conducted by World Bank economist Lixin Colin Lu showed, marriages resulting from free love are more harmonious, but the wife doesn't necessarily respect her parents-in-law, and overall family finances may suffer. In contrast, marriages that were arranged by parents don't guarantee a good relationship for the young couple, but the benefits are that the daughter-in-law is more obedient and respectful, there are more grandchildren, and the elderly enjoy more security.

There's a song from the Fairy Couple, a well-known traditional Chinese Huangmei Opera​, that reveals a lot about Chinese views on love and marriage. It's widely seen as one of the most romantic love songs, but a careful look at the lyrics shows that it's a love-based essentially on shared interests and responsibilities. "You'll plow the field and I will weave," the song goes. "You'll fetch the water and I will nourish the plants."

The fact of the matter is that the family constructed through marriage is, first and foremost, a production unit in which the combination of the couple's skills and abilities maximizes their total output to obtain the best possible living standards. And until the last few decades, these economic imperatives have always dominated the function of marriage.

Certain historians hold the view that Chinese people also cared about love (and love stories), as evidenced by the Cowherd and the Weaver Girl, a folktale about forbidden love in which, on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month, a flock of magpies would form a bridge allowing the two lovers — separated on opposite sides of the heavenly river, i.e. the Milky Way — to reunite for one day.

Romantic experiences were absent in Chinese society.

Yet the fact that the cowherd and the weaver girl meet up at all is precisely because old Chinese society allowed no such luxury. Only in fiction was that allowed. In ancient times, there surely existed love stories, but "love " itself was never mainstream.

It was a luxury, rather, that was reserved to a privileged few, as one Chinese scholar realized while struggling, in the 1920s, to translate French romantic poems. The translator struggled in particular with the word "rose," which westerners use to express romantic sentiment. But Chinese people have no feeling towards roses, he noted.

How then to translate the word so that Chinese readers understand its romantic connotations? This was mission impossible, he concluded, because romantic experiences, in general, were so absent in Chinese society.

Choices, choices

Some also argue that arranged marriages can lead to love. True, but rarely. Traditionally, the young couples met each other only after the parents and matchmakers sorted out all the details and conditions of the marriage. In certain cases, the couple-to-be didn't meet until the wedding day itself. What is the difference between such an arrangement and a business deal? How likely is love to foster in such a scenario?​

A dozen years ago, Professor Yan Yunxiang from the University of California conducted a survey in a rural area in northeast China, where he asked people in one village if they'd describe the period prior to their marriages as "falling in love." The oldest among them had a different way to describe it: They called it "seeking relatives through marriage." Villagers who married in the 60s and 70s used the expression "looking for marrying object." Only couples who married more recently conceived of things in terms of "falling in love."

File image of Chan and Zuckerberg in Prague — Photo: Lukasz Porwol

Obviously, the shift from "seeking relatives through marriage" to "looking for marrying object" was a revolution in itself. It shows that the spouses-to-be were already enjoying some agency in the decision, with more space for emotional considerations. But marriage still had a clear utilitarian purpose.

Since then, though, love really does seem to earn a place in the equation. Some say it's because the concept of the family has changed for people in China. They have become more modern. But there are other factors at play too, especially in terms of how the economy operates.

With urbanization and industrial development, people are no longer weavers and farmers. As such, the couple's function — as a production unit — has changed dramatically. And the future security of families can be managed through markets. It no longer depends on marriage alone.

What's the point of a husband?

But as the economic and risk-avoiding functions of marriage are gradually replaced by the market, and love is more valued in a marriage, this also increases the rate of divorce. Meanwhile, the proportion of single people also rises. These are all the costs of individual freedom and financial development.

Nevertheless, they are the result of Chinese people attaching more value to love and affection, and of having more choices. This is rather positive, although the fact that so many Chinese still can't comprehend Mark Zuckerberg's choice of partner means that our society still limits the space allowed for feelings of love and emotional attachment.

One woman put it to me quite simply: What's the point of a husband?, she asked.

After all, it used to be that women needed men to move the coal, to carry heavy things around. But now logistics companies can do the job. Anything can be delivered right to your doorstep. Men also used to be the only ones earning income. But now many women earn more than men, at least in highly urbanized areas. Women don't even need a husband anymore — at least not technically — for making a baby or sex.

Perhaps from that perspective, there is no point — unless, of course, there's love.

Yan Yong

The Problem With China's Parents-Know-Best Mentality

Adults have a lot of leeway when it comes to raising kids. But that doesn't mean their power should be absolute — parents don't, after all, have ownership of their children.


BEIJING — Much has been said in recent days about an incident in the Bund, Shanghai"s trendy waterfront district, where on a particularly hot day, several minors were seen wearing heavy coats for an ad shoot.

Critics questioned why the parents of these pint-sized models would agree to let their kids roast in the heat like that. But parents said the public should mind its own business: What parents decide to do with their kids is their concern, it's "a private affair."

There's also a commonly held belief that children essentially belong to their parents, and that parents are therefore entitled to do as they choose. But is that really true?

A lot of Chinese people certainly think so. They believe that since parents give birth to and raise their children, they thus have full control over them, even in matters such as the child's career and marriage choices. But that doesn't mean that their offspring belong to the parents. Children aren't possessions. They aren't private property.

From a biological point of view, parents are providers of their children's genes. Legally speaking, they have the custody and guardianship during a child's minor stage. And emotionally, they are the protectors of children, especially young children. Even so, children are independent individuals and by no means the possession of anyone, including their parents.

Children aren't possessions. They aren't private property.

This is consistent with the spirit of the UN's Convention on the Rights of the Child, which advocates the human rights of the child as an independent and complete individual entitled to the rights and obligations appropriate to his or her age and development stage.

Looked at from this basis, how parents treat children isn't, therefore, just a personal matter. That's not so say every decision a parent makes should be open to public scrutiny. Parents should, of course, have full discretion to decide what kind of parenting style they want to adopt, or how their children should dress, for example. But when it comes to the child's basic rights, there are public-sphere standards to which parents must adhere.

Children in Haikou, Hunan Province — Photo: iamsheep

In the case of the Bund controversy, if the children volunteered to shoot the ads and therefore wear the heavy coats, despite the heat, the public indeed has nothing to say about it. But what the parents in question should have said, therefore, is that, "My child wanted to do this." Instead they used the "it's a private affair" argument, which is an extension of the idea that, "The child is mine; I do as I wish."

That same mentality is at play in countless cases where children's rights are infringed or the child is even physically abused. Not too long ago a video surfaced of a mother kicking her daughter (also a child model) during a photo shoot. Naturally, this outraged the public and provoked discussion about professional norms for junior models.

There have also been cases where a child was confined to a cage, or a boy was supposedly missing but was instead being used as a kind of pawn in a power struggle between his parents. All of these stories stem, in part, from this subconscious idea in Chinese culture that children are the property of their parents.

All parents love their children, but their approaches aren't always proper.

In reality, no member of a family is the private possession of any other person in that group. This applies to the relationships between parents and children as well as to spouses. And yet, there are still too many people in our society who don't fully grasp this concept.

It is essential, therefore, to raise awareness, because in too many cases, parents aren't even conscious of the ways in which they might be violating their children's rights. All parents love their children, but their approaches aren't always proper. Proper love means accompanying their children's growth until they leave home. This requires the realization that parents and children are independent and equal respectively.

As Khalil Gibran, the Lebanese-American poet who wrote The Prophet, wrote: "You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth. Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself. They come through you but not from you. And though they are with you yet they belong not to you."

Editorial Board

Carrefour Says Au Revoir To China: Lessons In Global Commerce

As Carrefour gets ready to sell a majority of its operations in China, lessons can be learned from the history of the French retail giant's choices over the years.


BEIJING — Carrefour, France's retailer giant, has announced that it will sell 80% of its Chinese operation, in a transaction worth 4.8 billion RMB (about $700 million), to, one of China"s largest retailers. This is how a multinational retail giant puts a full stop to its adventure in China where it endeavored to succeed for more than 20 years.

Meanwhile, Suning — a purely local representative of Chinese retailers founded in 1990 — is going through a retail transformation as the deal is struck.

What we can't help asking, looking at Carrefour's decision, is what will it take for a foreign investor to win over Chinese consumers and be capable of sustaining success?

As a matter of fact, more and more foreign companies are finding the Chinese market very hard. Some struggle to survive, some quit. This is of course related to the Chinese economic downturn, but not only.

Carrefour introduced a brand new format of hypermarket into China as early as six years before China joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001. It started China's supermarket era.

Carrefour was once the beneficiary of China's opening process.

At one time, Carrefour was the inevitable rival of nearly all of its Chinese counterparts. It was also a well-respected mentor for them when, in 1995, Chinese supermarkets were yet to set off. Suning had only been founded five years earlier, and its sales were mainly air-conditioning equipments.

However, the subsequent growth of China's retailing sector has exceeded the imagination of all observers. This is particularly true since entering the internet and mobile e-commerce era. Combined with Chinese enterprises' innovative business models, the massive market scale, an ever-expanding middle class and fast-iterating and diversified consumption habits, the Chinese market went through a period of breaking up and restructuring at a gallop.

China's local retailing giants had not imagined this, but even operators like Carrefour were left behind in a passive role vis-à-vis the new model. Though Carrefour made efforts to transform by coming up with online shopping channels as well as small convenience stores, it failed to turn the situation around.

Beijing retail, large and small — Photo: Markus Winkler

Carrefour is the epitome of this era of changes. It witnessed the profound changes that the Chinese market went through and the successes and failures within it. When Chinese people started to pursue high quality development, upgrading and stratifying their consumption, they also affected the providers of goods and services. More than one billion consumers embraced internet with huge enthusiasm. The power that drives forward this market is bound to be different from that of 2001 when China had just joined the WTO, and very distinct from that after 2008, when China became the world's biggest internet market.

Carrefour was once the beneficiary of China's opening process. But when it failed to cope with competition in a more effective way, it was left behind by this same process.

Carrefour's case, however, doesn't constitute a footnote for those who believe that foreign investments in China are declining. The trend of foreign investment in China has not changed. According to the latest UN report, China still maintains the second position for global foreign capital inflows. And according to data from China's Ministry of Commerce, in the first five months of 2019, foreign investment in high-tech manufacturing and high-tech services has largely increased: the actual use of foreign capital in the high-tech industry has increased by 47.2% year-on-year.

China's new round of high-level opening to foreign companies has begun.

Thus, the real trend is that operations by multinationals in China are reshaping. This is the choice of the market and also the choice of consumers. China's new round of high-level opening to foreign companies has begun. Relevant policies in the fields of finance, automobiles, credit and medicine have been launched. Meanwhile a new revised list of foreign investment access will also be released.

The span and depth of China's opening-up will be expanded. Compared with the time when China had only just entered the WTO, this is a market with greater carrying capacity and potential. Nevertheless, for multinationals that wish to succeed in China, they ought to understand first how China's 40 years of reform and opening-up has changed its market and its consumers — before they step on the gas pedal.

It should be noted that it is precisely the area that first opened up to global competition that gave birth to the batch of Chinese companies that has finally taken the lead from the foreign ones. Chinese people should be grateful for all those years they were accompanied by Carrefour.

The history of business evolution in China carries the memories of all the companies that have worked and strived in China. Their names are part of the commercial glory, whether they are born locally or from overseas.