For China, an opportunity in crisis
By Emanuel Pastreich and John Feffer
A devastating earthquake leveled the Chinese town of Wenchuan, leaving in its
wake over 60,000 dead and five million homeless throughout Sichuan province. It
will take years to heal the damage of this tragedy. Nevertheless, even as aid
organizations and local governments scramble to erect temporary housing and
supply drinking water, it is important to step back and consider how the
international community can properly contribute long after the last rescue crew
First of all, today's China is a very different place from the country that
suffered a major earthquake 30 years ago. In 1976, China was largely closed to
the world, despite a rapprochement with the United States. As Wenran Jiang,
senior fellow at the Asia-Pacific Foundation of Canada, notes, China has opened
itself up to the
world, accepting international rescue and medical teams to an unprecedented
"But for a tectonic shift to occur in the world's perception of China as a new
kind of superpower," he writes, "Beijing needs to do more than demonstrate that
its crisis management is better than Burma's or that post-earthquake Sichuan is
no post-Katrina New Orleans."
One way for China to prove that it is a new kind of superpower is to do
something that goes beyond simply rebuilding Wenchuan. It can make a virtue out
of necessity and, with outside assistance, leapfrog over existing technologies
to create a new kind of city.
Such a transformation in the face of adversity is not unique. For instance, the
Lisbon earthquake of 1755 killed a similar number of people. That tragedy led
to the development of the science of seismology. King Joseph of Portugal
rebuilt Lisbon as a grand city boasting the first buildings with
earthquake-resistant designs. Lisbon's Pombaline district from that era of
regeneration remains a tourist attraction today.
China can do Portugal one better. With international help, it can rebuild
Wenchuan as an eco-city of energy efficiency and green commonsense that can
inspire the world - like the Colombian eco-village of Gaviotas for the 21st
century. Such an eco-city can be a model of sustainable development that points
beyond the contradictions of economic growth based on energy consumption.
Wenchuan could draw admirers just as Curitiba in Brazil does for its excellent
public transportation and environmental urban planning. Such a tribute to the
earthquake's victims, by implementing solutions that can save the planet, would
be more fitting than any plaque or monument.
China has already shown itself to be open to the establishment of eco-cities.
Dongtan island, near Shanghai, is an ambitious effort to create a
next-generation low-energy-consumption community powered by sustainable energy
and organized by the Shanghai Industrial Investment Corporation.
Built by the global engineering firm ARUP, Dongtan will feature extensive local
organic farming that will make it food self-sufficient. Its public
transportation will be powered by hydrogen fuel cells, and its carbon footprint
will be virtually nonexistent. By doing something similar inland, China can
transform not only how it approaches the environment but, because of how
important China is to the global picture, how the world deals with climate
The recreation of Wengchuan as an eco-city could rely on an already extensive
regional network of environmental cooperation. South Korea signed environmental
cooperation agreements with both China and Japan in 1993. The Sino-Japan
Friendship Center for Environmental Protection has been around for more than a
decade. In particular, Japan has been working with China to control the
latter's air pollution.
Japanese cities, too, have established sister-city relations with their Chinese
counterparts, which has served as a conduit for transferring technology and
know-how. When Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao visited Japan in early May, his tour
of a state-of-the-art recycling plant prompted a request for cutting-edge
Japanese technology to address China's environmental problems.
Wenchuan could raise regional cooperation to the next level. Japanese
technology, South Korean funding, and the support of the Chinese diaspora in
Southeast Asia could all play important roles. Taiwan, too, could earmark
special funds as part of a newly unfolding economic relationship with the
But Wenchuan should not simply be a showcase. It must be sustainable and
replicable. Much as Habitat for Humanity builds affordable housing for the poor
around the world, the Wenchuan model must be workable not only where there are
blank slates but also in existing cities. To deal effectively and honestly with
the challenges of pollution, climate change, and energy inefficiency, we must
focus our efforts on the neglected regions of the world where the struggle for
economic growth trumps all other concerns.
Using hybrid automobiles in wealthy countries or installing more efficient
refrigerators, while necessary, is not nearly enough. Funding from wealthy
countries must help cities like Wenchuan meet the new global standards for
reducing carbon emissions.
If the Cold War was about the threat of nuclear war and massive ideological
conflict, the environmental struggle today is about regaining harmony between
nature and human development. President John F Kennedy asserted his solidarity
with the people of Berlin when he said in 1961, "Two thousand years ago the
proudest boast was civis romanus sum [I am a Roman citizen]. Today, in
the world of freedom, the proudest boast is Ich bin ein Berliner [I am a
citizen of Berlin]. All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of
Berlin, and, therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words Ich bin ein
In the spirit of the new age of environmentalism, let us update Kennedy's
famous words. Let us say today Wo shi Wenchuan de Shimin (I am a citizen
of Wenchuan). In that spirit of compassion, let us rebuild Wenchuan, the victim
of an act of nature, with an eye toward rebuilding all of our cities, the
victims of our blind embrace of unsustainable growth.
Emanuel Pastreich is the director of the Asia Institute at the SolBridge
School of Business in Daejeon, South Korea. He is a senior fellow at the
US-Japan-China Comparative Policy Research Institute (CPRI), a founding member
of the Daejeon Ecology Forum, and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.John Feffer is the co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus (www.fpif.org)
at the Institute for Policy Studies (www.ips-dc.org).