Beauty in the details: Infrastructure in Beijing and Guangzhou

Roses in street medians! Protected bike lanes everywhere! Bridges with bike ramps! Oh my! Throughout our time in China, I was blown away by the meticulous attention to detail in development projects.

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Perfect roses growing in Beijing street medians 

In numerous instances, it was clear that urban planners paid close attention to how consumers used public spaces. From there, city planners conceived simple solutions to vexing issues. For example, crossing the street on foot or on bike can be dangerous. To make cities more pedestrian and bike friendly, city planners introduced overpass bridges with ramps to push strollers or bikes. In our meeting with the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, we learned how Guangzhou overcame traffic congestion through changes in the bus route. (For more information on the bus route changes, a fellow student covers the meeting in a blogpost below.)

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A brave biker on a Guangzhou bridge

In some instances, technology played a critical role in creating efficient and elegant transportation systems. Instead of traditional, clunky bike racks, bikes are locked digitally through QR codes. As a result, bike riders drop off their bikes in orderly rows on sidewalks. Small tech details created a user-friendly metro system, such as illuminated subway maps, train arrival clocks, and more.

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A world without bike racks [Guangzhou]
These details might seem minor, but they created efficient and interconnected transportation systems. Pessimists might wonder if these details serve as a veneer for more troubling issues. While the roses in street medians may have entranced me, I couldn’t help but wonder if we were seeing the true development story in China. At the margins of Beijing and Guangzhou, are there issues that roses can’t cover?

In a statement at the museum for Guangzhou’s greenway, President Xi Jinping summed up the country’s attitude towards details in development projects. Roughly translated, President Xi stated, “In order to get the big things right in development projects, China must also get the little things right.” China is certainly getting the little things rights, and it’s a lesson for all countries – developing or wealthy – to not lose sight of the small details when pursuing major infrastructure projects. – A.P.

Veggie Avant-garde

Being a non-vegetarian and non-allergic in China is easy, duck and other delicious meats are plentiful and readily available. And China is a country that is – just like France – serious about its food and its meat. When a 2015 WHO study found that processed meats have potential to cause cancer, industry organization, companies and consumers allied to back their meat industry, claiming that the country meat products are safe to eat. The public cried out: “So you’re demanding that we all become like rabbits and eat grass?” In fact, China’s cuisine is so meat-focused that macrobiotic dishes, salads and vegetable-only dishes seem as distant as ever.

However, my hopes of converting our adamant vegetarians to meat consumption were crushed during the second week of our trip, when we visited a Buddhist vegetarian restaurant close to the Jade market of Guangzhou for lunch. So called Mahayana Buddhists, which is the dominant form of Buddhism in China, completely reject the consumption of meat as a basic principle. This form of Buddhism has its origins in northern India and is made of an array of different schools and interpretations of human beliefs and values. The two main values are “compassion” and “insight”. It emerged around the 2nd century and is one of three main classifications of Buddhism which are Vajrayana, Theravada and Mahayana. Mahayana Buddhism has supposedly entered Chinese culture during the Tang dynasty (618 to 907 CE).

Buddhist cuisine inspired by the Mahayana stream of thought has found a brilliant

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Could you tell? Yes, it’s false duck.

solution to being “meat haters” in a country of carnivores. They invented dishes that looked, smelled and tasted like meat, but where made from wheat gluten. This means – at least in theory – that meat-eaters and vegetarians can sit happily at the same table. I can testify to the fact that the faux meat served at this Buddhist restaurant in Guangzhou was in a way “the real deal”. The faux shrimp, chicken and fish looked, smelled and tasted like real meat. In this way this lunch put an end to the epic struggle between vegetarians and non-vegetarians in the group on where to eat. Even when it comes to food it seems, a little compassion and insight can enlarge one’s horizon.

– Timothy Trollope is a non-vegetarian second year student at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy and passionate about all things energy policy, including international climate policy.

Sources consulted:

Ancient History Encyclopedia: Definition of Mahayana Buddhism.

“China’s Meat Lovers Have Serious Beef With WHO Cancer Study”- the Wall Street Journal.

False Duck image taken from: http://food.ndtv.com/opinions/vegetarians-should-try-meat-substitutes-at-their-own-risk-712463. 

 

Infrastructure investment as a development tool

As a former employee of a multilateral development bank, I was eagerly awaiting our group’s visit to the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).  Part of my interest stemmed from the fact that this institution has been presented by the Western media as China’s alternative to the World Bank.  However, under its current structure the regional scope of the AIIB’s lending operations positions it as a competitor to the US and Japan-dominated Asian Development Bank (ADB).

The initiative that led to the creation of the AIIB was launched by Chinese President Xi Jinping during a speech to the Indonesian Parliament in 2013.  Despite rumors of strong US opposition –the US government is believed to have lobbied against the AIIB in an attempt to persuade its allies to ignore the project– the initiative consolidated after the UK announced its decision to apply for membership in 2015.

The AIIB started full operations in 2016 and currently has 35 regional and 18 non-regional members, with another 24 countries as prospective members.  Although AIIB’s objectives and lending portfolio are primarily focused on regional members, loans can also be issued to non-member countries in special circumstances.  The procedure to invoke non-regional lending requires the project’s approval by a Super Majority, which means that it needs the affirmative vote of two-thirds of the total number of Governors, representing not less than three-fourths of the total voting power of the members.

One of the concerns that critics have expressed with regards to the creation of AIIB is whether the institution will provide value added given the presence of the World Bank and ADB in the region.  Nonetheless, with infrastructure needs estimated to exceed $26 trillion through 2030 and an infrastructure financial gap of 2.4% of projected GDP for the next five years, according to figures from an ADB study, there seems to be enough room for complementarity between AIIB and the other multilateral development banks operating in the area.  Indeed, AIIB has sought to reinforce this view by recently approving a $600 million loan for the construction of the Trans-Anatolian gas pipeline.  This project, which aims to connect Azerbaijan to Europe, is co-financed by the World Bank and other multilateral institutions, as well as the private sector.

Including the aforementioned project, the AIIB approved 12 loans for a total of $1.7 billion in its first year of operation, exceeding its initial target of $1.2 billion for that period.  That figure is in itself an indication of the demand for infrastructure funding by countries in the region.  It will be very interesting to see how future projects unfold and whether the bank reveals any preference to finance projects associated with other landmark Chinese initiatives like the One belt, One road.

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The AIIB’s headquarters are located in Beijing.

A full meal with Peking Duck at Quanjude

One of the activities I was secretly looking forward to in China was eating the traditional Peking Duck. I became a fan of Peking Duck in my native Lima, where Chifa, a culinary tradition that mixes Cantonese and Peruvian elements, is one of the most popular types of foods. The Limenean variety of Pecking Duck is served over two courses: the first consists of the traditional roast duck breasts served alongside pancakes, hoisin sauce and scallions; this is followed by a sauté of the dark meat parts and vegetables like bean sprouts, which is usually served with romaine lettuce leaves to make small wraps.

In Beijing, a group of us visited the Shuangyushu branch of the renowned Quanjude Roast Duck Restaurant, only a few blocks away from the Remnin University subway station. Since there was about a dozen of us, we were seated at a private room in a different floor of the restaurant, away from the frenzy of the restaurant’s crowd. The individual dishes started arriving shortly after we ordered. Together, the full duck meal consisted of over 7 dishes and different types of vegetable accompaniments, which made the Peruvian version that I had been used to seem like an appetizer in comparison.

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The chef slicing the duck. Photo credit: Cliff Martin.

The duck meal opened with thin pieces of crisp skin, which could be eaten alone or dipped in sugar, to stimulate the appetite. Next came the traditional pieces of sliced meat, served with pancakes, cucumber slices, green onions, and sweet bean sauce. As opposed to the Peruvian version, which includes large chunks of meat, the traditional version at Quanjude had mostly skin and little breast meat. Four different dishes of giblets made their appearance soon thereafter. The first was a very smooth and creamy duck liver mousse, or foie gras, which was among the best I have tasted. This was followed by gizzards alongside duck tongues, neither of which I had tried before, but had a delicate flavor. The third was a duck heart dish served with vegetables, which had a strong, gamey taste but was nevertheless one of the groups’ favorites. The last was a dish made from duck blood curd, which I initially stayed away from, but which I finally tried after seeing the positive responses from my more adventurous peers. A vegetable dish made from bitter melon, an Asian fruit I had never tried before, was also served as an accompaniment. The vegetable certainly lived up to its name: its bitterness was overpowering, making it perhaps the least popular dish of the night (although I found it to be an effective palate cleanser, so found myself going back to it repeatedly). The last duck meat dish consisted of deep fried portions of duck breast, which were juicy and given extra flavor by their skin. The duck meal proper was ended by a creamy duck broth, served without any meat and vegetables, and by a sweet duck shaped pastry with a bean paste filling—a great way to end a traditional all-duck banquet.

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A full duck meal. Photo credit: Cliff Martin.

The duck meal at Quanjude Roast Duck Restaurant was the fanciest meal we enjoyed during our trip to China—it was a delicious and memorable experience that I will certainly look back to whenever I go out to eat Peking Duck back in Lima.

Migrant Workers in China

Migrant workers in China often face challenges when they move from rural to urban areas. The national government and an assortment of Labor Rights nonprofit organizations help migrant workers claim back their unpaid wages and rights in the workforce.

Little Bird, an internationally recognized Chinese nonprofit, works in Beijing and Shenzhen to help labor rights for migrant employees. In 2004, its existence promoted a people’s mediation committee in Beijing, China to provide a service for workers and their employers needing legal mediation to settle disputes. Such work and efforts are done in cooperation with the provincial government which supports their clients living in mass production cities. Migrant workers usually are coming to cities to find work, typically low-skilled and low-wages within factories. However, peoples’ opportunity to have mobility in the city becomes stagnant when they are not paid enough (or at all). The national government and nonprofits such as Little Bird continues to address such problems as they support the missions of China’s global prosperity. Although, their work might look different in the years to come as nonprofits who are normally funded by international donations are effected by recent Chinese law that prohibits such transactions. As a result, nonprofits have to figure out a way to stay afloat and provide for workers while the government expands on programs that only supplement not replace the crucial work they are doing in China.

The journey for migrant workers, however, may look different. Some face the difficulties of not being paid fair wages or forces to work long hours in poor conditions yet others have found way to be successful business owners. In early Shenzhen, migrant workers were able to grow and develop as the city grew and developed. The local government ensured that the people living their had the resources they needed to thrive and many took advantage of such opportunities.Now, many migrant workers are centerboards providing goods and services to the diverse Shenzhen population. Public policy played a vital role in that phenomenon like allowing migrants to easily change their Hukou to the Shenzhen province. A Hukou is a residential status that determines your eligbility to governmental services according to your birthplace. The government’s direct and indirect support for ambitious and driven workers has made the city from 30 years ago look quite different and exciting.

Challenges for LGBT Advocates in Beijing

During our trip we spoke with LGBT community advocates about their experiences building relationships and influencing policy in Beijing. We met with an LGBT advocacy organization in Beijing, and we learned about the constraints that these groups face, how they manage to still to effectively provide services in the community, and how they navigate their political environment.

The organization we visited had windows dressed with cheerful rainbow curtains, marking their office as a safe space. We learned that safe spaces for the LGBT community in Beijing are rare, and that a primary service that these organizations provide are meeting zones where members of the LGBT community can freely and openly interact and find support. Building safe spaces is also a challenge online. We learned that many advocates prefer to use “more secure” networks like Whatsapp and Facebook, rather than Wechat, which is government-monitored, for their communications and outreach.

Relationship-building is an important component of NGO culture in China, and LGBT groups in China also have to be strategic in developing their partnerships. These outward-facing networks are critically important for LGBT-advocacy in China because LGBT organizations are relatively isolated from collaboration with mainstream NGO communities. Many service organizations that target vulnerable populations such as the elderly are apprehensive about partnering with LGBT NGOs, which are largely unregistered. LGBT NGOs also face resource constraints and limited access to government funding (government funding is generally limited to HIV prevention work rather than LGBT community support), so mainstream, well-resourced community service NGOs have no obvious incentive to partner with LGBT organizations.

One of the biggest obstacles to LGBT members of Chinese society is public perception. In China, homosexuality is still classified as a psychological pathology by medical professionals (including being listed as such in the Chinese equivalent to the DSM listings). Therefore building relationships with those who can dispel these myths with authority, mainly psychological associations and prominent psychologists outside of China, has been a key tactic that LGBT groups in China use. These outside scholars and medical professionals are able to use their influence to lobby the Chinese government better than Chinese grassroots organizations could on their own.

In China, the LGBT community faces many challenges to acceptance in mainstream society. The groups that provide services on their behalf also face obstacles in steering their work. However, the obstacles that these organizations face should not deflect away from the important work that they are doing for the LGBT communities they serve, and they should be applauded for their ingenuity and ability to navigate these challenges with relative ease.

Durian Days and Nights

Something that excited me most about my trip to China was anticipation of the food. I’m likely not alone in that regard, but perhaps I am more alone in what was enticing me most–durian. It’s a fruit that can also pass as a weapon, both in terms of its sharply spiked exterior (upon purchase, sellers will often line grocery bags in thick newspaper) and in terms of smell, which some have likened to that of a fresh gas leak, or rotten onions (and have also led some countries like Singapore to ban fresh durian on public transit). Famed chef and critic Anthony Bourdain, a fan of durian, was quoted as saying that after eating durian “your breath will smell as if you’ve been French-kissing your dead grandmother.” However, once you break open the shell, you are greeted by a fragrantly sumptuous and custard-like fruit that has been tempting and satiating adventurous food lovers for generations.


While it is often eaten for pleasure, durian has a long history of medicinal use. In traditional Chinese medicine, durian is believed to have warming qualities, and should therefore be avoided in summer months, or eaten in conjunction with something cooling. This may be a factor in why many places sell durian frozen, and consume it frozen on its own or mixed in smoothies and ice cream. Folk wisdom has also warned against consuming durian with alcohol, which has been corroborated with recent University research, apparently the high sulfur content in durian inhibits the body’s ability to detoxify itself. However, scientist interest in durian has been far-reaching. In fact, some scientists have been focusing their research on disaggregating the different smell compounds in durian. According to Scientific American, a researcher who was aware of smell barrier but still wanted to share his love for durian with the world has created a completely odorless durian, known as Chantaburi No. 1.

So whether you have your durian fresh, frozen, unscented, in gelato, or decorating a custard tart, it is definitely a must-try in China!