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Date Posted: 10:34 19/04/2004

Shanghai protects environment shock

Big bastard buildings will be stopped!

IN 1805, seven of the most powerful pirate groups in China decided to form a federation, whereupon they carved up the coast between them. Eventually, the British Navy turned up, and using Hong Kong as their base to trade tea, silk and opium, they sought to set up a pirate-free zone all along China's eastern seaboard. During a routine patrol of the Yangtze Delta in 1850, they discovered a small marshy island that would come to be known as Jiu Duan Sha. A hundred and fifty years later, I was sailing around that very island, and discovered that it has now been designated as a special environmental protection zone – Shanghai's only wetland reserve, no less. Apparently, it has a special kind of grass. And some fish.

This was another junket for journalists. The city was celebrating the inauspicious fourteenth anniversary of the Pudong New Economic Zone, which was formally established on the eastern side of the Huangpu River in Shanghai on April 18, 1990.

The first time I had come to Shanghai, in 1993, the view from the Bund - the city's famous riverside promenade - was limited to a number of massive neon signs advertising the likes of Canon and Fuji. Much of the area was dominated by farmland and shanty-towns. Only, a decade later, thanks to the aggressive introduction of foreign investment, an astonishing space-age skyline dominated the view. Visitors often say it reminds them of Blade Runner. The jagged nightscape had become a kaleidoscope of slogans and logos. It was, and is, an object lesson in what a place would look like were architects given free rein to create an experimental urban landscape. The problem was that it wasn't just one architect, but the discordant visions of several, all competing for attention. Looking at the eclectic clutter of a myriad of gleaming new-concept office blocks – lined with transparent lifts and capped with a number of preposterous geometrical shapes – you start to think that any moment now, one of them is suddenly going to rip itself out of its foundations and transmogrify itself a giant killer robot. Nevertheless, there was always an empty, ghost-town quality about the place. You got the feeling that life had not yet had a chance to catch up with business, or with the aspirations of the government. And to fill the gap, the usual temporary recreations had appeared – the ex-pat bars, the saunas, the massage parlours – but still the place remained eerily quiet.

At another unearthly hour on a Saturday morning in April, our team took a car from the Shanghai government buildings situated in People's Square and arrived at the Pudong Airport Dock about an hour or so later, surrounded – as ever – by cranes digging away at the looming piles of gravel.

We embarked a small and scruffy government-issue vessel, clambering across a plank and trying not to look down at the turbid, rancid Huangpu River. My hangover was a mere hint of what was to come later, and it was relieved, somewhat, by the cold sea wind - even if my cigarettes were repeatedly blown out as I perched on the stairs leading to the deck, and even I was constantly prone to paranoid fantasies about being blown off the ship into the grey, squally seas.

The usual introduction was made, with some paunchy official rattling off the statistics relating to economic growth and the relocation of residents in the Pudong district. That's what the whole of China was all about these days. The massive movement of people, enforced or otherwise, gripped and shaken and thrown aside by an unprecedented social transformation involving a quarter of the world's population. It was already hard to imagine the thousands of farmers who used to make their living in Pudong, but were displaced by the imperatives of China's reform programme. Throughout China, we would see some of the effects of the changes – hundreds of millions somehow displaced, forced to begin anew.

The official was talking about the 'greenification' of Shanghai. Only a few years ago, one would go to bed in the evening and wake up, open the curtains and find that a new skyscraper had suddenly appeared overnight. By now, you were just as likely to find that a tenement slum had been summarily razed to the ground and replaced by a tranquil patch of grass where locals would walk their dogs, wandering serenely through the trees as if they had been doing it all their life. The environment had now become a concern, however. After years of wanton destruction, the government had decided that things must change. Was it too late?

The great white hulk of Pudong International Airport was clearly visible as we sailed around the edge of the island, unable to disembark because of the inadequate docking facilities and the appalling winds. The noise of the boat's aging engine was enough to drown out the sound of any overflying aircraft.

There were a number of other boats sailing to and fro: cargo ships laden with gravel, entering and exiting the Yangtze perhaps, as well as a number of rogue fishermen inching past. There was a fishing ban in place in the area, and the officials accompanying us insisted that it was being enforced rigorously.

Wherever a foreign journalist goes, Chinese journalists are required to follow. On all the junkets I have been on in the last two years, there has always been a little man standing behind me, a video camera perched on his shoulder, capturing my every move. Piles of government or industry newsletters show pictures of me taking pictures.

Taken to a park in Pudong, I was interviewed about the island, and said how good it was to find an area so close, geographically, to Shanghai itself, and yet so conceptually remote - an area off limits to development, an area where there will be no high-rises, no real estate wars, no Starbucks. Looking for something positive to put on the evening news, the interviewer then asked us if we had confidence in the Pudong government's ability to protect the island, and we said we did, because... But the because didn't matter, because they probably decided to chop the rest of our speech.

In China, interviews are cut to bring out the best and most favourable. In my experience, the opposite is the case abroad, and one can only say that they are both equally true, or untrue.

In fact, the trick, performed regularly by Chinese TV journalists, is to stand in front of you, leave the camera running, and ask you to give your impressions of something, be it the relocation of a mausoleum in the Three Gorges Region, the protection of the environment, the relative largesse of a small Jiangsu village, or your impressions concerning the entire autonomous region of Ningxia. By doing so, they expect they will eventually have something favourable they can edit into their reports. The trick for interviewees is not to allow anything to be taken out of context.

And so, on to the Pudong Green Belt Management Centre, where a smart, sharp government official was waiting for us. The park in which it was situated used to be farmland, and the 3,000 or so peasant residents were allowed to stay and work as gardeners. The area was magnificently landscaped, with its canals and white stone bridges. I was suspicious. And while our fellow Chinese hacks were looking for something good to say, we were looking for evidence we could cut into a critical account of the government's environmental policies. Thus, I asked some obscure official if Shanghai's success came at the expense of other regions. It was a loaded question: of course it did.

Someone said that the shift of the burden, that passing of the buck, is an inevitable part of development. Meanwhile, an official was saying that these days, the trade-off between economic development and the environment was a false one, and that environmental protection and economic growth could be achieved at the same time. I then quoted the governor of Yunnan, who said recently that environmental protection could only come when the economy was already strong enough. We quoted the governor of Chongqing, who also said recently that he was 'ashamed' that Chongqing, while setting the fastest economic growth rate in the country, had also become second-worst in the air-quality rankings. We then mentioned the overdevelopment of the rivers in Yunnan, where the big power firms are all moving in to build hydropower facilities on a number of the region's untouched rivers, and where many local people in the area were getting angry that the coast was always being given the priority, that the power stations being built in the west - by companies based in the east - were of no benefit at all to the locals.

Still, the green belt was a great thing, and indicated - at least - that there was a point where Pudong would stop growing. But it was a good thing for rich Shanghai, and our suspicion was that rich Shanghai - and Guangdong, Beijing, Zhejiang, Jiangsu - are now in a position to export their problems to the interior.

We don't look at it like this anymore, said the official. We shouldn't look at it on such a narrow self-interested basis, and should look at the overall benefits. We're all citizens of the world, he said, also citing the example of foreign companies coming to China to benefit from the cheaper production costs, and thereby creating - in the parlance of official government cliché - a 'double-win' situation.

Which is all very well for someone living in Shanghai, of course. It is surely harder to persuade the people of Shanxi about the double-win, when their cities are collapsing, their water-supplies dwindling, and their skies blackening out.

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