China then and now: a whole new cup of tea

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Despite this newfound love affair with the car, China is also frantically building massive public transportation systems. As we boarded a train in Beijing, we connected to a high-speed train network that boasts speeds approaching 400 km/hour across a ribbon of rails stretching 6,500 km across the country. This network will quadruple in length within 10 years.

From no subway in 1995, Shanghai now has the world’s largest metro system at 420 km, and will double to more than 850 km by 2020. Meanwhile, Beijing’s subway is expected to grow to 420 km within two years. In major urban centres all over the country, shiny new compressed natural gas and electric trolley buses ply the streets.
It’s all enough to make Translink green with envy, and other Canadian transit systems look downright archaic.

Olympic Grounds Beijing (credit: Peter ter Weeme)
Beijing's Olympic green is architecturally and symbolically part of the city's coming-of-age

To the Chinese, the crane bird is a symbol of longevity. Similarly, the construction crane has emerged as a symbol of the country’s economic growth and influence. Everywhere we turned, cranes stretch into the skyline as thousands of apartments, retail outlets and offices sprouted like seeds under the warm spring sun. Massive new suburban housing developments like “Imperial Garden” or “Harmony Village” beckon where rice paddies were only years before. Stop to consider that China is adding the jaw-dropping equivalent of 40 mid-town Manhattan’s of floor space to the country’s building inventory every year.  

Meanwhile, its energy consumption is insatiable, wonton and wasteful, and growing at alarming rates. The world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases opens two new power plants every week with all of the impacts that go along with burning coal. The hollowness of the concept of “clean coal” is most evident here, where the horizon is invisible from the haze and ozone burns your throat after even a few hours exposure.

What’s more, coal-fired electricity and oil sales climbed 24 percent in the first quarter of 2010, on the heels of similar increases in the last quarter of 2009. Paradoxically, while being one of the worst polluters, China has also become a world leader in the production of wind turbines and wind energy, and produces 30 percent of the world’s solar photovoltaics.

Change has come at a cost

All of this change has come at a cost. I saw that first hand as we cruised the Yangtze River. The once majestic “Three Gorges” have lost more than 100 metres in height as the river has risen behind the world’s largest hydroelectric dam. Official government propaganda calls this mega-dam a “water control project”.

Three Gorges Dam (credit: David Kuefler)
The Three Gorges Dam is the largest of its kind in the world and produces almost double the installed capacity of all of BC Hydro's dams in B.C. The water behind the dam is also being diverted as far north as Beijing, 1,000 km away.

Meanwhile, ninety percent of the country’s river water and half of its underground water are polluted. Excessive fertilizer use, dirty water, heavy metals and solid wastes have contaminated more than 10 percent of its arable land. Alarmingly, both stats are climbing. Air pollution, too, is at critical levels in all major urban centres and regularly fails to meet World Health Organization standards. We found the constant smog and pollution stifling. 

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