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Poor areas prisoner to catch-up mentality
EVERY Chinese metropolis or province seems to be trapped in a catching-up mentality.
That is, they all aspire to become more modern and sleek like, say, Manhattan, Tokyo or Singapore. Even some less developed and definitely non-cosmopolitan localities have boldly envisioned a bright future for themselves.
For the southwestern province of Guizhou, the role model is Switzerland. At a recent forum on "ecological civilization" held in Guiyang, the provincial capital, prominent speakers from China and abroad weighed in on the similarities between Guizhou and Switzerland.
Home to undulating mountains and numerous lakes, the province is akin to the Alpine country in topography. But whatever similarity they have probably ends there. The province, four times as large in size and four and a half times as populous as Switzerland, has a per capita GDP that is only a tenth as big.
So when a short publicity film about Switzerland was shown at the forum, depicting the country as a backwater a century ago, it created quite a stir.
Xinhua news agency reported on July 22 that many in the audience wondered out loud how a poor landlocked nation with little arable land and natural resources could overtake most developed nations.
And Switzerland's rags-to-riches story is inspiring enough for some to boast about a similar turn of fortune for Guizhou.
While some aspects of Swiss strengths are not replicable, such as its banking and watch-making traditions, some speakers had an epiphany when they considered Switzerland's tourism industry.
For instance, Long Yongtu, China's representative during its final WTO membership talks, expressed his admiration about the "mountain sightseeing" for which Switzerland is famous.
"I've visited Switzerland about 100 times. Every time I felt how much it resembles Guizhou. If one day Guizhou becomes another Switzerland, it would be my personal dream come true," said Long. As a native of Guizhou, he encouraged provincial officials to tap into sightseeing resources.
Having recently returned from Switzerland, I believe that advertising Guizhou's verdant mountains as a selling point might work for its tourism as the Titlis and Jungfrau have done for Switzerland's. But while there is ample reason to be optimistic about Guizhou's bid to lift itself out of poverty through a tourist boom, there are also many caveats.
Switzerland is hailed worldwide as a model of ecological growth. I was told weeks ago by a colleague that Swiss urban expansion is never synonymous with deforestation or reckless seizure of farmland, as is the case in many parts of China.
And the fact that iconic Swiss exports - fine watches, Victorinox pocket knives and chocolates - involve few emissions in their production comes as an embarrassing reminder that Guizhou's polluters and watchdogs have yet to clean up their act.
One of Guizhou's major exports, rare earths, are actually more a curse than a blessing. In mining these materials, widely used in smartphones and aerospace industry, countless hills in Guizhou have been stripped of their vegetation.
Water pollution is another scourge. In the worst water pollution incident the province has experienced in years, the Wujiang River of Guizhou was contaminated by excessive phosphorous and fluorides in May 2011.
Therefore, any talk of learning from Switzerland seems like hot air if it is not backed up by better enforcement of environmental laws.
One piece of good news from the Guizhou forum is that local authorities are experimenting with assessment of officials in terms of how well they protect their environment.
There is the so-called "one-veto" mechanism that effectively kills their promotions if they fail in a certain area - which could be intercepting disgruntled petitioners, or maintaining work safety. We yearn for the day when this "one-veto" also denies opportunity to those who fail to curb pollution.
Besides bureaucratic penalties, the law also has a role to play.
In many ways, environmental laws have toughened up on polluters and on the watchdogs that shelter them.
The draft of the amendment to China's Environmental Law, currently under deliberation, stipulates that polluters be fined by the day if they are found to be illegally discharging waste. This proposal is widely considered to be a milestone, Beijing Times reported on Wednesday.
Moreover, officials could be disciplined or sacked for withholding pertinent environmental information from the public, fiddling statistics and inaction, according to the amendment, which is publicized to seek public input.
At a time of seemingly enhanced environmental awareness, the Guizhou forum has sent a message loud and clear. If a poor, peripheral province can dream a different dream about how to prosper - unlike others hell-bent on cluttering their skylines with high-rises to resemble Manhattan, Tokyo or Hong Kong - then the local policy makers deserve some credit for venturing off the beaten path.
Switzerland is a far cry from and thus a distant goal for Guizhou, which starts from a low base, but it is at least more suited to its conditions.
Hurray for Guizhou, but thumbs down to Changsha. The capital of central China's Hunan Province recently planned to build an 838-meter-high, 9 billion yuan (US$1.45 billion) skyscraper. If completed as scheduled and unchallenged by rival construction, it would be the tallest building ever in the world, the Hunan-based Xiaoxiang Morning Post reported on July 20.
Grave risk lurks in this ambitious goal. Changsha planned to build the skyscraper from scratch in a matter of 10 months, defying common sense about engineering and construction safety. Following an outcry, the project was halted for "lacking proper legal paperwork."
Such haste may be inspired by its neighbor. Wuhan, capital of Hubei Province, topped off a 636-meter-high tower last year. Back then, media reports said it would be the tallest building in China, but soon that superlative was surpassed by a record-breaker elsewhere.
The race to rival others, especially neighbors, in lifting skylines is a reflection of how Chinese cities today are superficial, unimaginative and criminally destructive in urban planning.
On his recent visit to Ezhou City in Hubei, President Xi Jinping said creating a beautiful countryside is not about "applying makeup," referring to vanity projects.
For years we have witnessed too many Chinese aspirants heading to Dubai on "study tours," even after the city lost its glamour in the 2009 debt debacle.
Guizhou's choice to model itself after pastoral Switzerland is a welcome deviation from this trend. An oasis in the sand could be a spectacle, but it could also be a mirage.
An ecological destination that balances nature and development, however, is the future.