Construction of the Shenyangnan Railway Station, the biggest in northeastern China, will be completed
Tang Liming


BEIJING â€" A recent United Nations report predicted that the year 2017 will be the turning point for China’s demography. After reaching its peak that year, the population will start to drop. And yet at the same time, as a recent survey of China’s State Council showed, each major Chinese city has plans to build an average of 4.6 brand new districts, and each mid-sized city will build 1.5 of them. Put these districts together and they are capable of accommodating 3.4 billion people.

That is a staggering number. It’s more than twice China’s current population. In other words, China’s natural demographic growth lags far behind its urban expansion.

Over the past decade, in terms of square kilometers constructed, Chinese cities have expanded by 270%, whereas the urban population has increased by only 27.3%. What took the Western countries a century has taken only 30 years for China to achieve.

Such a situation occurs not only in China’s much developed coastal areas, but also in its western inland areas. Not only in the mega-cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, but also in much smaller third and fourth-tier cities. Even in the northeast, where there is a depopulation of 1.8 million per year, local authorities ignore this reality and continue to be hooked by this addictive interest in building construction.

Take Shenyang, the northeast’s largest city and an old heavy industry center, as an example. In the next three to five years, it is to build in its Economic Zone as many as 33 new towns and an inter-city transport system that can pave the way for housing three million more people. Yet nobody knows where those people are going to come from.

The mapped-out exponential growth of population, even if it’s mostly empty talk from officials, provides the condition for local authorities to obtain central government permission for grabbing arable land for construction. At the same time, the transfer of land revenue to businesses and property vendors, so as to attract investment and the building of infrastructure, brings together multiple stakeholders, including corrupt officials, and leads to a further frantic pursuit of city expansion by local government.

Cranes in the fog in Fengdu, Chongqing, central China â€" Photo: Leo Fung

Yet this "Great Leap Forward" style of urbanization can be disastrous.

From the perspective of system theory, the faster a place urbanizes the more likely it will fall into social disorder, with a decline in living quality, the rise of criminality and a broader moral decay. One sees that the various ills and contradictions of this country’s urbanization, with public authorities' fascination with demolition as a symbol, has completely disrupted the rhythm of market development and thrown China’s city expansion into chaos.

Urbanization should be a social-economic evolution and a process propelled naturally by the market. Alas, China has been building with a wrecking ball. This is contrary to basic economic law. We need not make sweeping denigration of urbanization, but rather denounce the "Great Leap Forward" style of urbanization that has been undertaken at the cost of many social conflicts and injustices involving tears â€" and even blood.

Urban development has never been a matter that can be subjectively determined by the government or by an individual. It is a gradual historical process where population, industry, resources and knowledge concentrate and evolve over time. All of these elements are indispensable to make the system work.

This is why China has to fundamentally change the way urbanization is currently carried out by force and at the lowest cost possible. The social conflicts accumulated from previous urban development are going to be replaced by even higher-cost ills in the future. If instead, authorities can curtail the aggressive approach to urbanization, perhaps the worst can be avoided.

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Oui-Haw! American Country Music Has Global Appeal

Some might ask: Why is there such a thing as International Country Music Day? Turns out the American musical genre has pockets of popularity around the world, from twanging sounds in Japan to South Africa to line dancing in France.

Japanese cover of a Dolly Parton album

PARIS — To the rest of the world, there may be nothing more American than singers with acoustic guitars crooning about beer, trucks and Southern living. But the longstanding genre has had surprising relevance faraway countries. Academic papers have even been penned on why these cultural symbols — so specific to the Yankee experience — have such global appeal.

The examples abound of the traveling power of this popular music genre that blends folk, blues slavery-era spirituals and Southern gospel. One famous story recounts that during his time as a political prisoner, South Africa's Nelson Mandela was allowed to play one song over the loudspeakers. What tune did he pick? The Dolly Parton classic "Jolene," in which the Tennessee icon pleads with another woman not to take her man.

Tokyo Sexwale, a fellow freedom fighter in the cell next to Mandela, told the podcast "Dolly Parton's America" that the choice was somehow perfectly natural: "We are all human beings. The jailed and the jailer. But we all come from one country, but we all don't want to lose. Whether it's a man or your country, nobody wants to be hurt. Don't hurt me."

With this theme of art's ability to transcend geographic boundaries in mind (and to mark International Country Music Day, here's a swinging tour of country music's worldwide influence.

Africa: Classic Country Imports And Kenya's Own Elvis

Nigerian country music singer-songwriter Ogak Jay Oke — Photo: Mgbo
  • Back in 2007, NPR reported about the popularity of country music in Nairobi, Kenya — particularly Dolly Parton and Texan singer-songwriter Kenny Rogers, who received extensive television and radio play. Reporter Gwen Thompkins highlighted how, despite cultural differences, Kenyans found strength and a common ground in songs about agriculture-based economies facing societal and political challenges. As Henry Makhoka, the head of programming at the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation, told Thompkins: "Most of the country music we play talks about country life, talks about the farm life and so on. That kind of environment was abundantly available where I was born."
  • In fact, country music has been popular in Africa since the 1950s, with local artists across the continent interpreting the genre's musical and thematic elements (see Ivory Coast duo Jess Sah Bi & Peter One and Nigerian country-disco pioneer Emma Ogosi). Many harken back to country music's roots; the banjo was in fact an instrument brought to the Americas by African slaves.
  • Currently, one of the biggest country stars is Elvis Othieno (a.k.a. Sir Elvis), who grew up in a country music-loving household and was inspired by Garth Brooks and Hank Williams. Originally from Kenya, Sir Levis has performed around the world — he started his first country band while living in Norway — and is part of a generation of African country stars that also includes newcomers Esther Konkara and Ogak Jay Oke, who hails from Nigeria.

Asia: A John Denver Classic Hits Home

John Denver in 1975 — Photo: Wikimedia Commons
  • Hayao Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli is known for its rich depictions of Japanese culture and mythology, so it's somewhat surprising that the 1995 animated film Whisper of the Heart centers around a country song: John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads." Denver's ode to West Virginia is a unique fit in the coming of age story about the stress of urban life in Tokyo, but Studio Ghibli is far from the first to adapt "Country Roads" to a foreign audience.
  • The song has been covered by over 150 artists (from Olivia Newton-John to Hiwain singer Israel Kamakawiwo'ole) in at least 19 different languages, from Hindi to Greek to Hebrew, often changing the lyrics to be about the singer's homeland. Researchers in 2009 found that it was the most popular American song among college students in China. (Denver was in fact one of the first American artists to tour modern China in 1985 and his music was played widely on Armed Forces Radio in countries like Philippines, Korea and Vietnam where the U.S. had an important military presence.)
  • This ode to the Appalachian Mountains also has a special meaning for many who came to the U.S. searching for the American Dream. As Jason Jeong wrote in the Atlantic, many Asian-American immigrants see the song as both "an ode to an uncomplicated vision of the United States" and "a melancholic reminder of leaving a place they called home, and everything lost to the promise of a better life."

France: Translating Country Sounds — And Dance Moves

Linedancing in France — Photo: Country-France Facebook page
  • France, a country proud of both its language and cultural output, has a long history of rock stars pillaging country standards, often completely changing the songs' meanings: from American-French singer Joe Dassin changing "City of New Orleans" into "Salut les amoureux" ("Hello Lovers") to "Five Hundred Miles Away From Home" by Bobby Bare somehow becaming Richard Anthony's "J'entends siffler le train" ("I Hear the Train Whistle").
  • Whether it's creative liberty or cross-cultural miscommunication, this trend has been popular since the days of big '60s household names like Johnny Hallyday to Eddy Mitchell to Hugues Aufray. The result usually infuses the French ennui of the "everyday man" into these American classics.
  • Line dancing has also become somewhat of a phenomenon in France, with clubs around the country (especially in more rural areas) featuring dancers who dress the part in cowboy hats and boots. According to weekly news magazine L'Express, some 4 million people — nearly 9% of the French population over 18 — have tried country-style dances.

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