Mainland China: A Travelogue
Crossing the Border
The next day was one that we'd both been looking forward to; torrential rains could not dampen our enthusiasm! You can take a train, ferry, or car to the border. By train, the border is less than an hour away and fortunately there was an underground passageway to the train station from our hotel. Shenzhen was our destination, and what a town, if you can call a city of 12 million a "town." It's one of the fastest growing urban areas in the world. Only thirty years ago, Shenzhen had been nothing but a small fishing village on the Pearl River Delta just north of Hong Kong. Given its location, it had been designated by reformist leader Deng Xiaoping in 1980 as China's first "special economic zone." This led to a boom, with tax breaks for industries that led to massive industrialization supported by endless blocks of high-rise apartment buildings. (Over $30 billion USD has been invested in Shenzhen's industrial production.)
An official welcome at CE Lighting Once through customs, we bought cheap umbrellas, crossed a dangerous thoroughfare, and checked into the Shangri-La Shenzhen Hotel.
After an hour to catch our breath, we took a taxi to CE Lighting, one of Shenzhen's leading lighting manufacturers. Thanks to Russ Sturm at the International Finance Corporation, we'd arranged a lighting factory tour. And we were honored to be hosted by CE's president, Chen Gang, his North American sales manager, and two other officials. For two hours we reviewed the company's rise to prominence in fluorescent lighting as well as solid state, light emitting diode (LED) technologies. The building's elevator was shaped like a light bulb. We were impressed by CE's creativity in applied lighting, and how the company has positioned itself to be a leader in Asia, Europe, and Canada.
Wang Lei then drove us to a nearby CE Lighting factory, located in a government-structured industrial park. The rain was cleaning the air and we were struck by how lush Shenzhen really is. We pulled into a non-descript industrial park. At this location, one of its smaller operations, CE Lighting has about 500 employees, mostly 16 - 24 year old workers who had come from the countryside to Shenzhen for work. We learned that Shenzhen is very popular among Chinese youth; it's their land of opportunity.
The factory tour - that I thought might take an hour or two - turned into six hours of intensive exchange followed by a very special Chinese dinner. (Everywhere we went we were treated to Chinese delicacies, many of which were downright scary!) In Shenzhen we'd seen the force of a population, how cheap labor resulted in little automation and lines and lines of manual tasks with neatly uniformed workers toiling diligently assembling electronic ballasts, compact fluorescent lamps, and other specialty lighting fixtures. CE Lighting is part of a massive economic engine. And Shenzhen is on the go, complete with Western-style downtown shopping and vibrant city life. Huge neon signs challenged the notion of China as a developing country.
Cross Country by Train
Everyone had suggested flights to get around China, but I'd insisted on taking the train to see the countryside. Besides, it was the weekend and a new national holiday, Dragon Boat Festival, would make business meetings impossible. (China has had only had two national holidays and days off per year; Dragon Boat made it three.) Why not go cross country to see a slice of the nation? The inland route would cut through mountains.
What we hadn't expected was a primitive train, making local stops. Unsanitary conditions reminded us of the profound dichotomy in China between highly developed and developing. For hours we caught glimpses of Chinese rural life. We saw agriculture nestled between in ravines between steep hillsides and rugged terrain. Farmers tended their fields, planting rice in paddies; a large cow was wallowing in a body of water. Bikes and motor cycles were clearly preferred transit options. It looked like few homes had electricity. The train seemed to be a lifeline to these areas.
We were on the train for 25 hours and shared a "soft sleeper" with two locals. They were gracious and wondered why we hadn't taken a plane to Nanjing. An adorable young Chinese boy was fascinated by me, he even wanted to touch. Since then, we've responded to his father's e-mail messages. We had no seats, only upper bunks, so we spent lots of time in the rather crude dining car complete with cigarette smoke, and low-cost Chinese food provided our sustenance. We met a young couple, shared a lot of laughs over beer, and befriended all.
As we approached Nanjing, the proliferation of solar thermal systems for hot water heating was striking. They were everywhere, a common and prevalent technology, seemingly littering rooftops. I reflected on structural and solar aesthetic concerns in America; I'm quite sure that most of these systems went up without engineering analysis. Crude plumbing often connects these free energy sources to apartments. Even new buildings are capped with multiple systems, few matching the next, all capturing the free energy of the sun. Everywhere we looked were solar collectors.
A little over a year ago, EcoMotion hosted Chen Jianghua in Los Angeles at the request of Natural Resources Defense Council. He's the Director of the National DSM Center located in Nanjing. He and his daughter Sherley welcomed us warmly at the train station, and then took us to the Jingling Hotel, Nanjing's finest. (What contrast from cramped train quarters to the executive floor of the Jingling. Our room was big enough for a couple ping pong tables!) We took long showers. Then we were whisked us away for foot massages - complete with ginger compresses -- and a fine dinner.
Chen Jianghua was most dear. He'd been looking forward to hosting us and called me his Chinese brother. We had dinner with his wonderful wife and daughter. (Remember China's one-child rule? It struck us so as we talked about our collective four kids.) Thanks to Jinghua, I found myself getting more and more experimental with the food. That night we started with a pig's head appetizer. While I squirmed a bit, Sherley asked innocently, "What's the problem?" She likes the delicacy, and had I had duck blood soup? That's a specialty in Nanjing!
The next morning I met with Chen Jianghua and his colleagues at Jiangsu Electric, the local "wires" company that hosts the National DSM Center with its staff of 11. (China has five generating companies under the auspices of "State Grid.") We spent hours discussing the role of energy efficiency in China, and how critical the Center is to sustaining China's energy future. A far-flung strategic discussion then ensued on how best to foster efficiency in a country where many industries have less than a one-year payback on efficiency measures, but where there is still reluctance to invest in "negawatts."
For a DSM program planner, the situation is pretty sweet: Imagine 15% annual load growth. Imagine 75% coal-fired generation. But it's still hard to create savings and my colleagues have been searching for ways to make efficiency attractive. While mostly related to the boom in cars and trucks, the abysmal air quality in Nanjing provides an impetus for change. Our hosts believe this can drive efficiency more effectively than abstract arguments about global climate change.
In Nanjing, I was indeed shocked by the pollution. My eyes were sore. The proliferation of cars is choking the air. Bikes, long the mainstay of Chinese urban transportation - and one of China's sustainable, signature elements - are being relegated to less and less road space. We were disturbed by how autos threaten both pedestrian and biker safety. The car is almighty and pedestrians have no rights, even in cross walks. I found myself being proud to be a Californian: First, we have made huge strides cleaning the air. Second, we honor the pedestrian. On the upside, Nanjing is building its second subway line.
That afternoon, Jianghua arranged a guided tour for us of Nanjing's points of interest. Our tour guide, George, has an amazing knack. Nanjing has a rich history and was China's capital several times. We learned about Nanjing's most famous resident, Sun Yat-sen, the feng shui of Nanjing's Purple Mountain, and saw many people enjoying Nanjing's cultural heritage and its open spaces.
That evening, we met Jianghua in a private dining room in old town Nanjing, what the locals call China's Chinatown. The motif was dim sum, little dishes of local delicacies. Between courses we were entertained by musicians playing traditional instruments. We toasted liberally and I found myself eating things that I'd never imagined, including duck-blood soup, duck's feet and knuckles, and stinky tofu. Afterwards we walked through the historic district, teaming with neon and life. Jianghua also took us to the National Test Center Museum: Years ago, scholars came from all over China to take aptitude tests to determine their place in society. The most able were exalted to positions within the government, revered in society.
Early the next morning, a driver took us to the Nanjing Airport for our 1.5 hour China Air flight to Beijing. We'd been spoiled in Nanjing and we were ready for the next adventure. The brand-new Beijing Airport made an instant impression, complete with double-decker jet ways set up for the jumbo Airbus jets; the 3-kilometer long terminal is the world's second largest building. The airport shows off China's technological prowess and will make a significant impression for all coming to the Olympics.
We took a taxi to Beijing's central business district and the Jinghuo Hotel, the capitol's first green hotel. It had been recommended by colleagues at The Energy Foundation's Beijing office. It was also within walking distance of NRDC's office and a straight shot to Tian'anmen Square, site of Mao Zedong's mausoleum and the Great Hall of the People, and of the 1989 student protest that culminated in the Tian'anmen Square Massacre in which hundreds (and potentially thousands) of protestors were killed.
After checking in, we walked to Tian'anmen and ran into thousands of onlookers behind fences. Was the torch coming through? No, but we were in time to see the Peoples Republic of China flag being taken down by the troops, a ceremony much like the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. We stood before a massive palace adorned with Chairman Mao's imposing portrait, hanging at the southern entrance to the Forbidden City. In the nearby mausoleum, his body is refrigerated by night and then raised for daily public viewing.
Thanks to Terry's language abilities, we used a kiosk to buy subway tickets back to our hotel. What a system! No wonder the bike is being replaced in Beijing. I'm a New Yorker used to tokens; BART and the DC Metro have accustomed me to fare cards. But I couldn't figure out where to insert the fare cards. (An amused subway worker showed us how to swipe them.) Spanking-clean trains featured LED displays that make is easy to see where you are, and upcoming stations. Parts of the Beijing subway are as modern as Hong Kong's Airport Express. Were we really in a developing country or one of the most advanced cities in the world? Both.
I met with Bo Shen at NRDC to get a better understanding of its China efficiency project, and then with Wanxing Wang at The Energy Foundation. Were they optimistic about China's energy future? Both are highly pragmatic: The country can indeed make major changes and quickly; but there are barriers. The upside? In the past several decades, China's GDP has quadrupled while its energy use has only doubled. And then there are 1,000 major industrial sites that are responsible for a third of all Chinese energy use. These provide major targets for savings.
Think of the positive aspects of centralized planning: The PRC government had recently moved a major steel mill out of Beijing to help cut emissions. It had been the city's worst polluter. Fifty GW of smaller, less efficient, and highly polluting coal-fired power stations were recently closed by government decree. Major steps can indeed be taken, but require cultural awakenings in the power and industrial sectors.
I was struck by Wanxing's comment that China is "the world's factory." Recent analysis documents that as much as one half of the country's entire energy demand is embedded in products that are exported all over the world. This spells major opportunity, especially as Chinese industry has been four times as energy intensive per unit of GDP. This gross energy use speaks to the potential for major savings and major environmental reforms.
We took several trains to visit the site of the Olympic games. At the time is was fifty-seven days and counting! A massive building in the shape of the torch; the remarkable new 'bird-nest" stadium for the opening and closing ceremonies. There appeared to be lots of work to be done. Few of the locals seemed focused on the games; most seem busy with their lives and their own daily advances in society.
The Great Wall
Our Chinese immersion was coming to a close, and our last day was reserved for the Great Wall. Imagine a 3,000 mile long wall to fortify the country from the Mongols to the north! It's the only man-made structure that can be seen from space. We were struck by the rugged terrain that the wall traverses. Thousands of Chinese and people from around the world visit the wall and get a work-out climbing up and down its hilly sections. We passed up Badaling - the most popular section - and went to Mutainyu to experience the wall in relative serenity. We couldn't imagine how it was built, complete with watchtowers and
In this location, a 26-foot high by 20-foot wide structure undulating and snaking over treacherous mountains. What a massive accomplishment; what profound determination.
We left China exhausted and full of perspectives, some related to energy, others more personal. The people we met were so kind and hospitable. Despite China's massive proportions - both massive problems and massive opportunities - it is like all countries, made up of caring souls and individual identities in a sea of population.
We visited China in the recent aftermath of the May 12, Chengdu 7.9 magnitude earthquake which killed tens of thousands and dislocated millions of Sichuan Province residents, and darkened the entire country. Many Chinese we met got tears in their eyes talking about the earthquake; some cannot watch TV because it hurts too much. While we were over a thousand miles east of the quake, there is pain throughout the land.
So much of old China is rapidly giving way to urbanization and development. Bicycles are still prevalent, but these icons of Chinese society are giving way to subways and buses and cars. The demand for cars is in the hundreds of millions. There's the inevitable westernization of China: We learned that Kentucky Fried Chicken is much more popular than McDonalds. The Chinese like the spicy chicken.
We leave China with renewed pride in American and Californian environmental accomplishments. Sure, there's lots to be done, but look at our progress cleaning the land, water, and air. Right now, the urbanization of China is literally choking the urbanites. Visiting some of China's major cities - Shenzhen, Nanjing, and Beijing - made the comparison with American progress stark. America proves that China's opportunity for a green future is real.