Posted by: Jason | December 2, 2011

Hong Kong Day 2

Our second (and last) day in Hong Kong was packed – in the space of four hours, we tackled water allocation on the East Dongjiang (Pearl) River with Professor Lee of Hong Kong University, temporal variation in the enforcement of pollution regulations with Professor Lo of Hong Kong Polytechnic, and the delicate balance of historic preservation with urban development and environmental sustainability in one of Hong Kong’s most affluent neighborhoods.  This final piece was a walking tour of the Central district, and our guide was the very esteemed Bernard Chan – former member of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, current HK representative at the national congress in Beijing, chairman of at least six major policy advisory councils (including historic preservation and environmental sustainability), a columnist for the major English-language newspaper, and an all-around fantastic person.  Bernard was incredibly generous with his time and genuinely funny – if he had four more days to spare, we would have taken them in a heartbeat.


As it stood, he spent about an hour and a half with us – first outlining the broad history of Hong Kong’s development from an insider’s perspective and then guiding us around the mid-levels (a series of elevated pedestrian walkways) to discuss various preservation projects he has been the advisor for.  As he explained, historic preservation was unthinkable a decade ago – absolutely nowhere on anyone’s radar.  Instead, decision-making in HK was driven by economic growth – spurred by fear about what the return to Chinese control (in 1997) would mean.  Later, when it became clear that business in HK would continue mostly unchanged, Bernard said that people finally began to identify with it as home – thus, the beginning of the preservation movement.

Bernard Chan

Posted by: Jason | December 1, 2011

Hong Kong Old & New

After a quick trip up to Victoria Peak this morning (and lovely hike down Findlay Road and the Peak Tram trail), we met with Peter Hills of Hong Kong University.  Professor Hills took us on a walking tour of Hong Kong’s Wan Chai district, which is a textbook case study of economic development battling historic preservation.  There was a timely article about exactly that in The Standard today – here are the opening paragraphs –

With the completion of the new government headquarters at Tamar, the future of the old Central Government Offices on Lower Albert Road has become a hot topic.


The administration has suggested selling the buildings to developers. If this were to happen, the tranquillity of the area could be seriously disturbed, if not completely destroyed. Lower Albert Road and its environs would certainly become yet another shopping and tourist location, perhaps with a hotel or two.


What would become of the stately tree standing for so many decades in great majesty outside the main block, when the developers moved in?


Posted by: Jason | November 30, 2011


For the most part, we’re in Hong Kong safe and sound. Two students had postponed flights, but assuming everything worked out overnight, we should be seeing them this morning or later today.

I mentioned in the last post that we asked this group of students to do quite a big more preparation than the group from 2009. We asked them to enroll in two courses – (1) Water, Politics and Economic Development with two professors from the Economics, Government and Environmental Studies departments and (2) Destination China with two professors from the Chinese, East Asia Studies and History departments. Before diving into the trip itself, I wanted to give a little more background on these classes –

The goal of the Water, Politics, and Economic Development course was to give students a background in the political, economic and environmental issues surrounding water management and allocation in China. As we explained on the syllabus –

“This course focuses on the political economy of water in the developing world, with a focus on China as the primary case study. We will explore the complex interactions among water use, politics, and economic development, as well as the quality and distribution of water among a country’s stakeholders. In addition, we will investigate the governance structures employed for decision-making, including the tradeoffs between resource use and conservation.”

Destination China, the other required course for the students on the trip, gave students a background in Chinese history and culture. The course included discussions of films and two books – Border Town by Congwen Shen and Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China by Leslie Chang.

As part of their work in Water, Politics and Economic Development, students were also required to complete a comparative case study of a water management issue. The goal was to have students explore a contemporary case study from outside China (the Tennessee Valley Authority, for example, or India’s Tehri Dam project) and apply the lessons of that case to a similar Chinese case. They’ll be presenting their research throughout the trip, starting with some presentations at Hong Kong Polytechnic University this evening.

Posted by: Jason | November 29, 2011

2011 – Round Two Starts Now (Well, Tomorrow)!

Thanks to some generous contributions from Lawrence alums and a planning grant from the Luce Foundations LIASE (Luce Initiative on Asian Studies and the Environment), we’re leaving tomorrow afternoon for our first official study trip under the new “Sustainable China” banner. 13 students, 4 faculty (from 4 different departments), 19 days, and 8 cities, all with the goal of better understanding what we call the “Three Cs” of sustainability: commerce, culture and conservation.

It’s a follow-up to our 2009 trip in many ways (as well as the subsequent trips that Professor Finkler and I took to Guiyang), but this trip also represents a new beginning for Lawrence. This time, the December study trip is part of a much broader initiative at LU, with goals that are much deeper than just understanding water allocation.

We’ve also pushed our students much harder in their preparation. Tomorrow (maybe to kill time on the 16hr direct flight from Chicago to Hong Kong), I’ll describe the coursework and research projects our students did over Fall term to prepare themselves for the trip. For now, I’m going to go play with my daughter – she wasn’t old enough to miss me last time!

Posted by: Jason | December 21, 2009


We’re home (although the snowstorm on the east coast clearly didn’t want us to be), and I’d like post one more time with a few thank yous.

Thanks to Professor Marty Finkler for putting together a fantastic trip.  The amount of work that went into planning, scheduling and organizing twelve students and dozens of local experts across seven cities was incredible.  Marty was also an unflagging team leader, and his schedules frequently made energetic 20 year-olds ask for extra time to nap. Likewise, Professor Tim Troy was a fantastic travel companion.  Plus, the discussion he led for An Enemy of the People was one of the high points of the trip for me.

Speaking of students, I commented to Marty on the drive home from Chicago that I have a hard time picturing a better group for a trip like this.  So thanks to Tasmia, Steve, Nico, Ven, Tu, Tam, Syed, Patrick, Sae, Alex, Byron and Natasha for being enthusiastic and engaged.  I’m looking forward to your posters and presentations next term.

Finally, thanks to the Luce Foundation for the grant that gave us the opportunity to go to China.  We made initial connections and strengthened ongoing relationships between Lawrence and various organizations over the course of the trip, and I hope we have the opportunity to develop those further.

Posted by: Jason | December 21, 2009

Shanghai Days 2 and 3

We wrapped up the trip with two light days – the Zizhu Science and Technology Park and Coca-Cola headquarters on Friday, then the Shanghai Urban Planning Museum and Yu Garden on Saturday morning.

Zizhu is a massive planned business community – dozens of international science and technology firms, three universities, and housing/recreation for 70,000 on-site residents.  A representative from the Shanghai Environmental Protection Bureau gave us a really brief tour of the grounds, then brought us to Coke.  Unfortunately, instead of a discussing of the company’s environmental policies, wastewater treatment, or pollution controls, we got a 90-minute presentation on Coke’s Chinese marketing strategy and a tourist-type tour of the headquarters building.

Saturday morning was reserved for leisurely packing and goodbyes, but a handful of us left early and went to the Urban Planning Museum and the Yu Gardens market.  It was worth it for the scale model of the city alone.

Posted by: Jason | December 19, 2009

The Mekong

My primary interest in China’s water comes from its international rivers – the Mekong, the Indus, and the Brahmaputra, in particular.  Writing for the New York Times from Sop Ruak, Thailand, Kevin Fuller recently posted a story about dams and development along the Mekong (along with an accompanying photo essay by Kevin German).

The Mekong’s headwaters are in China, but before emptying into the South China Sea, it flows through Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.  Collectively, usage of the Mekong is managed by the Mekong River Commission.  Unfortunately, the two upstream riparians – China and Burma – have refused to participate in the the shared governance of the river.  As China’s demand for hydroelectric power grows, the demands it places on the Mekong will continue to increase.  Unlike dams on the Yangtze, Yellow or Pearl Rivers, however, Chinese reservoirs on the Mekong have direct international repercussions.

But today the river, which courses 3,032 miles through parts of China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam before emptying into the South China Sea, is rapidly being transformed by economic development, the region’s thirst for electricity and the desire to use the river as a cargo thoroughfare. The Mekong has been spared the pollution that blackens many of Asia’s rivers, but it is no longer the backwater of centuries past.

China has built three hydroelectric dams on the Mekong (known as the Lancang in Chinese) and is halfway through a fourth at Xiaowan, in Yunnan Province, which when completed will be the world’s tallest dam, according to the United Nations Environment Program.

In Vietnam and Laos, many local economies depend on fishing the Mekong –

“The fish will have nowhere to go,” said Kaew Suanpad, a 78-year-old farmer and fisherman in the village of Nagrasang, Laos, which sits above the river’s great Khone Falls.

“The dams are a very big issue for the 60 million people in the Mekong basin,” said Milton Osborne, visiting fellow at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney, Australia, and the author of several books on the Mekong. “People depend in very substantial ways on the bounty of the Mekong.”

Some analysts see the seeds of international conflict in the rush to dam the river. Civic groups in Thailand say they are frustrated that China does not seem to care how its dams affect the lives of people downstream.

Not all local users share my fears about international conflict, however –

And yet, for now, the dams are not national preoccupations in any of the countries along the river. “Most of the voices that are shouting in the wilderness about these dams are still very little heard outside of academic circles,” Mr. Osbourne said.

There have been no major protests, and for many people in the region the dams are the symbol of progress. The development of the Mekong is also an affirmation of a new Asia that is no longer hidebound by ideological conflict.

Posted by: Jason | December 19, 2009

Shanghai Day 1

We got to Shanghai via overnight train from Wuhan, so our first day here started bright and early at 7:00 am.  Shanghai is the last stop on our tour of southern China, and we’ll be here for two and a half days before flying home (although “home” is widely scattered – out of the twelve students in our group, there are six countries represented).

We checked into the (very lovely) Howard Johnson Shanghai, showered, made our selves presentable, and had a meeting with Dr. Jiang of an international environmental consulting firm called Environ.  He gave us a presentation about municipal and industrial wastewater treatment in Shanghai (a topic we also covered in Chongqing, when we met with a representative of the city’s Environmental Protection Bureau), which is pretty fascinating stuff.  China is much more progressive than a lot of folks give them credit for (and this is coming from an independent environmental consultant – not a government official).  Just this week, for example, Beijing announced that it would like to start raising prices for domestic and commercial water use, in an effort to (1) conserve water and (2) create an environmental fund for water infrastructure projects.

Environ’s task is to help local and international businesses comply with China’s environmental regulations – which isn’t as easy as you might assume.  The Three Syncronies Policy, for example, requires new businesses to (1) design, (2) construct, and (3) operate pollution control facilities in parallel with their commercial industrial project.  Dr. Jiang was forthright about the challenges to China’s environmental regulations – government data aren’t reliable, connections with the local Environmental Protection Bureau can get regulations “waived”, and fines are too small to deter all but the least profitable violations.

In the afternoon, a Lawrence alum who works for A.O. Smith took us to the company’s brand-new water filtration factory.  It’s not only a new facility, but an entirely new market for them, so we were seeing their Shanghai facility in it’s incubation period.  Danielle told us a little about the company and her role in the Nanjing headquarters, and then we got a tour of the production, assembly, testing, packaging, and shipping floors.  I don’t know how representative it is of light industry across China, but as an example of Chinese manufacturing, it was eye-opening.  Although it was cold (everything in Shanghai is cold, but I think that’s my own failure – I should have taken Marty seriously when he warned me to pack a coat and hat), the production floors were professional, well-lit, open, and uncluttered.  After the tour, we got a chance to ask questions of the plant’s new director, and he was happy to talk about working conditions and environmental policies.  I wasn’t allowed to take pictures on the floor though, so alas, you’ll have to take my word for it.

Posted by: Jason | December 18, 2009

El Folkenfiende

If I can back up a few days, I want to write about a great experience we had on the final evening of our Yangtze cruise.  Before we left Wisconsin, Professor Troy, who is part of Lawrence’s theater and performing arts department, asked us to read Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People.  It’s a play about a small town in Norway, but for the purposes of our trip, it’s also a play with broad, interesting implications for China’s relationship with the environment.  Last Sunday night, we reserved the ship’s library to discuss the play, and it was an excellecent, educational experience.

The challenges China faces – economic development, environmental sustainability, urbanization – aren’t altogether different than the challenges in Norway in 1888 or in the United States during industrialization.  China’s population and economic size make the problems internationally conspicuous, but the challenge of balancing short term self-interest with long-term collective good is a universal one.

Posted by: Jason | December 17, 2009

Yichong and Wuhan

The main dam-related stops on our trip were Yichong and Wuhan.  I had an abysmal internet connection in Yichong and we didn’t actually stay at a hotel in Wuhan, so I’m days behind schedule here.  Commence: Lightning Round.

Yichong: The dam itself was too foggy to see well, but we’ve seen about eight scale models of it at various places, so we knew what to look for.  Even shrouded in fog, it’s an intimidating pile of concrete and engineering.  We also went to the Three Gorges Project museum, which was near our hotel and just downstream from the dam itself.  Out of the small-scale models, its was the most detailed.  Still, China – would it kill you to build a scale model with running water?  A current on the Yangtze – that’s all we’re asking for.  The next morning, our local tour guide, Max, agreed to take us to a resettlement area.  Nearly 1.5 million farmers and villagers were resettled as part of the Three Gorges Project, and we wanted to get a better sense of what their resettled lives are like.  What kind of housing was built for them?  What’s the industry and infrastructure like in the resettlement towns?  Instead, our tour guide took us on a four hour nature walk with the Chinese version of a renaissance faire in the middle of it.  It was a beautiful area and the views of the Yangtze were stunning, but it was about as authentic as Epcot Village.

Wuhan: Further downstream, we met with the directors of the Yangtze River Scientific Research Institute, which is the organization responsible for the hydrological plan for the Three Gorges Dam.  After a summary of some of their current research on silt and runoff levels, they took us to the smaller of their two physical models.  As someone with a healthy appreciationg for scale models, it was just incredible.  It’s based on a topographic map of the area around the dam, and they can manipulate hundreds of variables to recreate conditions down to very small detail.  One of the researchers from the Institute told us that this model is used primarily for prediction, and that they generally use 100 years of past hydrological data to model conditions 100 years into the future.

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