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China’s Dongtan Eco-Village – and how the press fell for it hook line and sinker

You have to wonder who is writing the Rough Guide to China these days – we quote from the latest edition on Shanghai:

‘In its relentless rush into capitalism and modernity, China’s second city is currently exploding in every aspect. Fresh restaurants and new nightlife scenes arrive daily. Shops are increasing, expanding, scrambling for custom, grabbing at shiny cash produced in the nearby mint, China’s main money-producing plant.

Once the heart of European imperialism in the East, diverse history still clings to Shanghai in its architecture, walkways and trolleybuses, but the pulse is certainly one dashing towards the future. The Chinese government are currently building a whole new city, Dongtan, just off Shanghai’s coast.

Dongtan represents the most forward-thinking philosophy in the world: its aim is to house a visionary society, using renewable energy, reusing or recycling everything from rainwater to vegetables and to be totally carbon-free.’

Now, forget all the Xinhua-like guff and nonsense about modernity being measured in French restaurant openings, and fast beating pulses (usually a sign of hypertension actually) etc., it’s the almost uncontested view of the Dongtan project that is interesting here.

It is interesting because the press seem to have fallen for it unquestioningly.

Call us churlish, but is this one very small eco-village really the ‘best forward-thinking philosophy in the world’? Certainly the unholy alliance of the Shanghai government and contractors involved (such as Ove Arup) think so. But we beg to differ.

There are two issues around Dongtan that are interesting.

Firstly, the question of why you would want to build a ‘Potemkin’ eco-village, which claims to be so environmentally friendly, when you have a city of 20 million people up the road where virtually no buildings have lagging in the roofs, decent window frames or any other far simpler and less expensive (but less publicity friendly) pro-environment and energy saving measures, that could be applied to thousands of existing buildings.

Publicity is important – the government must love the developers who, according to Dr Goh Ban Lee, an academic interested in urban governance, housing and urban planning in Asia, ‘…have cleverly hitched on the eco-bandwagon to tout it as the world’s first sustainable city’

That’s a city which at most will house 80,000 people by 2020 (the average population of Shanghai’s ten planned new non-eco-friendly suburbs is a million people a piece).

Secondly, there’s the question of what damage to the environment you create by building a Potemkin eco-village. In one of those wonderful examples of Orwellian Double Think, that occur occasionally in the pages of the Chinese press, in the same week as we had an editorial slavishly praising Dongtan, we had an article noting that an ornithological survey of Chongming Island (where Dongtan is) found that the number of ducks and swans opting to spend the winter in Shanghai this year was less than one 10th what it was in the winter of 2005.

Could this be anything to do with the construction of an eco-village on their traditional flight path? And remember the massive tunnels, bridges and subway extension to Chongming that are still to come – bet the birds are looking forward to those too.

Just so much grousing by those Access Asia guys you may say – and probably correctly. However, as the old English saying goes – it’s not that clever to put the cart before the horse.

The boosters would have you believe that Dongtan is a vision of China’s green future, rather than just a small project on the outskirts of a big non-green city that is likely to stay that way.

In short, Dongtan goes ahead, costing US$2 billion for the first phase alone, while building codes in Shanghai remain somewhere between lax and non-existent, doing nothing to encourage environmental protection or energy saving.

While in winter heaters pump out heat that goes straight out the window, in summer the air cons do the same with cool air (meaning most of us freeze all winter and boil all summer, despite rising electricity bills) while efficient water use is not monitored – ergo: cart before horse.

There is a little historical tradition in China that Dongtan fits into quite nicely.

Those of you who were students of recent Chinese history may recall the case study of the Shenfan collective farm, a Dongtan of its day.

Indeed, William Hinton’s book Shenfan remains on the reading list for many Chinese Studies courses, despite being blatant propaganda for Mao’s disastrous agricultural policies.

The hype surrounding Dongtan today feels a lot like Shenfan then (with the added extra of some Round Eye involvement and much cash), a model project that was largely smoke and mirrors, but that succeeded in one major aim – to get journalists (and Rough Guide writers) to wax lyrical and make everything seem OK.

It wasn’t then, it isn’t now. We humbly submit that Dongtan is not a solution but rather a mask and a diversion – just as Shenfan drew the hacks while famine gripped the nation, so Dongtan draws the crowds while environmental rot continues untreated.

Enjoy your day.

Nicked from the AccessAsia newsletter. By Paul French and Matt Crabbe.

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