China – The Challenges

In our continuing series on China, Tavis talks environmental issues with Kongjian Yu and examines some of the challenges facing modern China. He also takes an inside look at the lives of migrant workers and their children and their struggle to better their lives.

Considered China's leading landscape architect, Kongjian Yu has been an urban and regional planning professor at Peking University since '97 and is the founder and dean of PKU's Graduate School of Landscape Architecture. He's also the founder of Turenscape, an award-winning firm with a practice that covers architecture, landscape architecture and urban design. He holds a Doctor of Design from Harvard's GSD and has lectured at more than 30 universities worldwide.

During the trip, Tavis visited a migrant workers' compound on the outskirts of Shanghai, where he talked with some of the workers and their families and came to realize the extent of the country's migrant challenge, as people come from the countryside to find work in the cities. This episode also looks at the U.S. media focus on China's growing wealth and the problem of its widening income gap.


Tavis: This is the view of Beijing from the roof of the Microsoft campus. The U.S. company has more than 3,000 employees here, second only to their Redmond, Washington headquarters. China’s big cities are already jammed, and in the next 10 years they expect the largest internal migration in history, with some 130 million people leaving rural China for urban boom towns.

There’s a downside, though, to all this galloping growth, and you can see it. A decade ago, bikes dominated the streets. Today, like us, everyone here wants a car. The government now limits car ownership in cities like Beijing, but that edit may simply be too little, too late.

For all the optimism you sense here, experts say that China’s growth at any cost model could derail all the economic gains of the past two decades. This is Houtan Park in the heart of Shanghai. Three years ago what you’re looking at right now was little more than an urban dump that was left behind when the World Expo site was closed down and gutted.

Dr. Kongjian Yu, who studied at Harvard, is the founder of Turenscape, one of China’s most acclaimed urban designed firms. He’s an outspoken advocate for environmental sustainability and was brought in literally to change the landscape here.

Dr. Kongjian Yu: Now remember, here it was a Brownfield before.

Tavis: Yes.

Yu: Heavily contaminated water and soil. In China, 75 percent of surface water, including this river, is heavily contaminated – 75 percent. So all the major lakes in China and the major rivers in China, virtually every river that runs through the cities are heavily contaminated.

So we had to find a solution. So we decided to make this park as a demonstration. How can you clean the water? Use landscape, use vegetation, use the ecosystem, not use sewage plant.

So we needed to find some inexpensive solutions, workable solutions, to solve this problem.

Tavis: Water is a big issue in China – too little in some areas and too much in others. In eastern and southern China epic floods are causing mass destruction, while at the same time in five provinces surrounding the Yangtze River, almost a million people are without safe drinking water.

China has a monsoon climate with torrential rains giving way to severe drought, but Dr. Yu says poor planning is partly to blame for their water woes.

Yu: We made some big mistakes in the past 30 years of urbanization. We used engineers as the only tool to channelize the river, to dam the river. So we virtually destroyed the water system.

Tavis: I read a quote from you, and your point was that if the environment fails, the economy fails.

Yu: Of course.

Tavis: If the environment fails, the economy fails, so I get that. I guess the question is, in a place like China, since you mention urbanization, where everything is about making money, everybody sees Chinese people as consumers, money, money, money, more money, how do you get traction on this idea? Where’s the money in this project? (Laughter) People want to know where – I see the water, I see the foliage, but where’s the money, Dr. Yu? Where’s the money?

Yu: Okay, okay. Okay, of course the environment itself, the environment asset itself is money, is worth money. The park will be used as an amenity for the (unintelligible) department here. Over there, you can see the buildings, those buildings? So that’s one thing. So landscape generates real estate, generates the increase of value of the land.

Tavis: So in China you now have a dozen cities, more than any country in the world, you have 12 cities that have more than five million people in those cities. No country in the world boasts that.

Yu: That’s right.

Tavis: Twelve cities with over five million people in each city. How, then, in the long run do you balance population and nature, population and environmental protection? How do you balance those things?

Yu: Well, that’s a very, very good question, and certainly very important. Which part of nature is more important than other parts of nature? For example, my body – I can take off my meat, my arms, but I cannot sacrifice my heart, right? I cannot sacrifice my head.

Tavis: Yeah, that would be a problem.

Yu: That (unintelligible) probably. (Laughter) So nature is the same. Think of nature as a living system, as an organism. My theory is that we need to identify nature’s critical infrastructure first – nature’s critical infrastructure.

Wetland, for example, is a kidney of the land. It contains water, it cleans water, it provides habitat for biodiversity. As the Chinese government – and believe it or not, right now it’s really worried about the environmental issues. They really listen, they really listen, and they really try to solve the problems.

Tavis: Now, there are a lot of people, respectfully, there are a lot of people who wouldn’t agree with you on that. They see that China is one of the world’s great polluters. I’m from the United States; we are a great polluter as well.

Yu: Of course, of course. (Laughs)

Tavis: They see China as a great polluter and aren’t necessarily convinced that the Chinese government is taking that pollution problem seriously enough. You come to China, everybody tells you to have a great time, but they warn you before you get here the environment is horrible, pollution is horrible. That’s what you hear about China before you come.

Yu: Well, of course. You can see today’s not a very good day, and it’s (unintelligible) so it’s very common. But compared to 10 years ago, when I came back from America to China to teach at Peking University, the situation is worse, the air condition is worse.

Now you can see gradually we solve the problem. Also, because it’s a matter of balance. The Chinese government has the pressure of development. We have 13 million people that want to move to the city every year, every year, which is almost the whole Australian population. They want to move to the city.

Now, but at the same time we are in shortage of water, for example, in shortage of oil, in shortage of all kinds of natural resources, almost. So it’s a balance.

Tavis: Kongjian Yu was born in rural China into a family of farmers. He believes respect for land is as crucial to the future of this country as any economic boom.

Yu: The past three decades we’ve basically taken from America the consumerist ideas to (unintelligible) the money, to consume, to invest for to consume. But in Chinese lower cultures, Chinese deep culture, we have a culture of saving – saving energy, saving resources, saving money. We have such a culture because in the history we have such a heavy population, and we have such meager resources.

Now, we develop this kind of culture. Now, that’s where I want to recover (unintelligible) culture.

Tavis: You know what the question is, to your point now – it’s a brilliant point – the question is whether or not the former will trump the latter, or the latter will trump the former. Put another way –

Yu: That’s right.

Tavis: – can the pace of the progress that you’re making environmentally keep up with the pace of the population growth and the money chase? Who’s going to win?

Yu: Of course, we have to – as a survival culture, we’ll survive, because we are at a crisis now, I would say. Whenever we have a crisis, then we have a kind of intellectual movement. We need to have intellectual revolution thinking, revolutionary thinking.

Okay, we have to go this way; we should not go this way. I think it’s not because we want or not, it’s because it is necessary. Our nation survives on this kind of engineering. No, we have to be able to save.

Tavis: Are you comfortable, though, that the pace of the progress is fast enough to make sure that that never happens?

Yu: Well, as I said, crisis means we are going to have some trouble. I have to show you, okay, here is the path. Here is a different direction. What can we do right now? We should not wait until disaster.

Tavis: Until Armageddon.

Yu: Yeah, ah. My company also is trying to show people early enough so that when they feel there’s a need to find alternatives, okay, here’s an alternative. Here’s a green alternative for urban landscape, for city building, for aesthetics, also.

It’s a balance, it’s a balance, but it’s a balance, but here is urban, it’s minimum, so that we will not sacrifice nature’s living system for this urban. So it’s a new urbanity, it’s a new definition of urban.

Tavis: I love it. It’s like Central Park in the middle of Manhattan.

Yu: Yes, yeah.

Tavis: Yeah, I like this; in the middle of all these sprawling buildings you have this beautiful, natural landscape.

Yu: Well, the whole river system should (unintelligible).

Tavis: Look like this.

Yu: And then we can solve the problem.

Tavis: Right.

Yu: Right?

Tavis: Wonderful work.

Yu: Thank you, thank you. (Laughs)

Tavis: This is very, very, very impressive. The environment is but one challenge facing government officials. Another is the rampant inequality between the rich and the poor. In Shanghai alone there are some nine million migrant workers. They’re the ones sweeping the streets and working in the factories.

There’s already been serious protests from migrant workers about their mistreatment. Authorities have pushed back hard, but you can only keep a lid on inequality for so long.

In this communist country where workers are supposed to have the same opportunities as the elite, most of the kids of migrant workers do not go to schools like these. Instead, they go to sub-par schools with limited resources. You could say ghettoized schools, separate and unequal.

Parents everywhere will put up with a lot if they think their kids will have it better. That’s a reality not lost on the Chinese government. So now in certain areas migrant workers’ kids are getting a break.

With my friend and colleague, Dr. Cornel West, I spent some time at the Jiao Tong school in Minhong (sp?) just outside Shanghai, where some 50 kids of migrant workers are at the vanguard of positive change.

Tavis: This is the dance studio.

This is the dance studio.

Tavis: Our guide and translator is Shirley Young, who lives part-time in Shanghai. She’s also a governor of the Committee of 100, a nonpartisan organization of Chinese-Americans who work to promote understanding between our two countries. Shirley is actively involved in education through the arts in China.

Tavis: How long have you been in this school?

Male One: About two years.

Tavis: Two years?

Shirley Young: Oh, wow. (Laughs)

Tavis: Are you enjoying it?

Male One: Yes.

Tavis: You said it’s about 2,000 kids. Is that a typical school in China?

Young: Yes (unintelligible).

Tavis: A couple thousand?

Young: Well, this goes from lower school to high school.

Tavis: High school, got it. What’s this class?

Young: This is a (unintelligible) class.

Tavis: The whole class?

Young: The whole class.

Tavis: Oh, my (unintelligible).

Dr. Cornel West: (Unintelligible)

Tavis: Are they learning a particular subject? Is there a subject in this classroom?

Young: They learn a language.

Tavis: Language.

West: Language.

Tavis: Is it possible that some of these kids read better than their parents?

Young: Possibly.

Tavis: Yeah. In addition to academics the school also focuses on dance and music. We were treated to some remarkable performances. And someone must have told them it was Dr. West’s birthday that week, because just before the performances ended, this happened.

[The children form a ring around Dr. West and sing “Happy Birthday” to him in Chinese.]

Tavis: We wanted to see where these impressive students actually live. Just a few years ago the Chinese government would never have let us take our cameras to a migrant workers’ compound, but some restrictions are indeed lifting. What Dr. West and I encountered was both unsettling and inspiring.

Young: Tavis, these houses are built by farmers who now have become landlords. So they just built these very minimal houses and then they rent them to these migrant workers, yeah.

Tavis: Hello, how are you? This is their home?

Young: This is their home.

Tavis: This room.

Young: He works – oh, okay, he works in a crystal factory.

Tavis: He works in a crystal factory. But this is their home.

Young: Right.

Tavis: This room.

Young: Right.

Male Two: Only room.

Young: Right, only this room. These are all his accomplishments. He gets a certificate. So these are his prize that he’s won for his accomplishment at school. So this is a very proud product of his schooling because he’s a good student.

West: This young brother here? (Laughter)

Young: Yeah, right.

West: (Unintelligible) over here, brother, yes, yes, yes, yes, yeah.

Tavis: His accomplishments are the wallpaper.

Young: Right, example.

West: Ooh.

Tavis: His accomplishments are the wallpaper.

West: (Sounds like) That’s true.

Tavis: They are decorating their one-room house with his accomplishments in school.

Young: That’s right.

West: Mm.

Tavis: Does he have siblings or is it just the two of them?

Young: No, the one-child policy.

Tavis: Oh, that’s right, one child, that’s right. Yes, okay. A divorced father, he fought for and won custody of his only child. How does he manage working and being a single father? I’ve never – because China is so family-oriented, I was stunned because the notion of a single father had never really entered in my mind here in China. How does he manage being a single father?

Young: Oh, I see. He works nearby here, so in the morning he sometimes sends him, sometimes he walks by himself. Then he comes back from work and then he cooks dinner. Oh, and here’s their bathtub.

Tavis: This is the bathtub.

Young: That’s the bathtub.

Tavis: This is the bathtub, right here.

Young: Right, right, uh-huh. That’s what they use, right, right. Okay, I see. So I asked him about how they do their homework, and this is a lamp and they bring the table over too, so that he can eat and he can do his homework.

Tavis: Homework, yeah.

Young: Right.

Tavis: Tell him thank you for –


West: Yes, thank you very much.

Tavis: Thank you. Thank you. I’m so glad you brought us here, because this really is the part of China –

West: That very few people see.

Young: Yeah, well, that’s why I wanted you to see this.

Tavis: – that many people don’t know exist.

West: Very few people get a chance to see it.

Tavis: And to your point, this is still the majority of China.

Young: Exactly, right.

Tavis: That’s the part that –

West: Exactly.

Young: And the trouble is, see, all the media that you read in America is about the billionaires and the (unintelligible) and all that.

Tavis: Oh, yeah, oh, yeah, the rich and the (unintelligible).

West: That’s exactly right.

Young: Which is interesting, but it’s a small minority. It’s like saying Park Avenue in New York is America. Well, it isn’t.

West: Yeah, it’s a slice of it, but it’s not all of it, that’s right.

Young: A small slice, and by far. So people sometimes don’t want to see that, but that’s what they need to see.

West: Right, right, that’s exactly – well, you want to see all of China, like you ought to see all of America.

Young: Yeah, and it gives you a better understanding of what the government’s trying to do.

West: Right, that’s right, that’s right.

Young: So when you talk about, oh, we want to have them voting and – well, that’s not the issue, okay?

West: We’ve got some basic things we’ve got to –

Young: Exactly.

West: – we’ve got to come to terms with.

Tavis: All right brother. In America, as you know, getting kids into quality schools is very, very political and very competitive. How did this family get him into this good school?

Young: So it was partially a little bit competitive in the sense that his accomplishments are pretty good, so therefore, when they applied he was able to get into the school.

Tavis: He earned his way in.

Young: Right, right.

West: He’s very smart, very smart.

Tavis: And he’s got his red.

West: Red thing on.

Young: Right.

Tavis: He’s a good student.

Young: Right.

West: Yeah.

Tavis: Very good student. Where do you do your homework?

Young: Right here.

Tavis: Right here, oh, yeah. And he’s doing good.

West: He’s got his achievement certificates there.

Young: That’s right, uh-huh.

Tavis: Every one of these houses you go into, these young – they are achieving.

West: They are achieving.

Young: Right, exactly, right.

Tavis: They are getting it done.

West: It’s their passion for learning.

Tavis: Wow.

Young: Looks like a rec center to me. Well, I mean, I’m saying it is. Look at this, it’s got trains, it’s got, it’s got ice cream, it’s got ice cream.

Tavis: You want to break, Doc, or you want me to break?

West: No, you going to break those, brother. The young brother breaks them.

Tavis: Yeah. Ah, I scratched.

West: Oh, shucks.

Tavis: We in a recreation center.

Young: You’re at the rec center.

West: Oh, yes.

Young: Oh. (Laughs)

Tavis: Only got one in (unintelligible).

Young: Oh…

West: Ah.

Tavis: We’re out of here.

West: (Unintelligible) touch, a little touch. Thank you very much. (Laughter)

Tavis: We had the privilege of visiting two more families. This dad, like many others here, spends weeks away from his family working far away from home.

Young: Oh, he’s the only worker in the family. His wife is not working. So it’s obviously to support the family is quite a challenge, I would think. He works over two hours away, so he has to stay over there.

West: He works over two hours away.

Tavis: From here.

Young: Yeah, he has to stay there and then – (speaks in Chinese). So he only periodically comes back to see them. So he regrets having to be so far away and to be far away from them, but he really needs the extra money to support the family. That’s why he sacrificed that.

Male Four: Thank you, sir.

Tavis: No, thank you.

West: Thank you.

Tavis: Thank you.

West: Thank you.

Tavis: Nice to meet you. Thank you. I’m just amazed at how they – how they make it work.

Young: Yeah. Well, it’s very neat and clean here.

West: This is neat and clean.

Young: Yeah, neat and clean, right.

Tavis: Neat and clean, absolutely.

Young: Oh, I see – so they made themselves a small place to bathe and a kitchen inside, so they did that themselves. So they – oh, so she’s on every other day schedule, so, I see. So she walks by herself when her mother’s at – she goes to work. On the days she’s not at work, her mother will take her.

Tavis: Oh, good, yeah.

Young: So, because the father works – (speaks in Chinese). I see. So he only comes home on the weekends.

Tavis: Mm-hmm.

West: Oh, okay.

Young: Uh-huh, I see, because he’s also fairly far.

Tavis: He works far away, too?

Young: Fairly far, yeah, fairly far, so he can come back on the weekends. Oh, I see, okay. So she’s in the second grade now, and she went in the first grade. (Speaks in Chinese)

Tavis: She’s doing very well, very well.

Young: She said the teachers help a lot (unintelligible) they all help her in school in all ways, for her lifestyle, for her studying, for all different ways. So they take a lot of care of her, which is great. (Laughter) She said, “You’re going to take it home,” and she says, “Okay.” (Laughter)

Tavis: No, no, I’ll leave (unintelligible). (Laughter) Thank you. Take care, okay. As we left, the kids went back to their afternoon classes and Dr. West and I considered what we had been privileged to see.

So the majority of the people in this country are poor, and today was a fascinating day because the last time I was in China I got a chance to sense a little bit of this, but I didn’t spend as much time as I did today with the migrant workers, with the migrant workers, the children of those migrant workers who were fighting to get a high-quality education.

You spend all your time shopping in Beijing and all your time hanging out in the clubs or shopping or dining out in Shanghai, you really miss the larger part of what China is all about. You spend time with these migrants and their children, you really get a chance to see what the rest of China, the majority of China, really looks like.

So it was just – it was depressing in a lot of ways, but – depressing in some ways but actually very uplifting in other ways, because every one of these migrant workers I met, every one of their children, smiles on their face, joy in their heart, happiness in their soul.

I’m walking in the door and they’re offering me water and food. It’s just – the hospitality of the Chinese people is unbelievable. Even when they have little, they offer you much. It’s a moving experience today, to kind see all of that.

Still got smiles on their faces, don’t they?

Young: Right.

West: They got smiles on their faces.

Tavis: Coming to China has been a great trip. So thanks for hanging out with us.

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Last modified: July 13, 2011 at 3:11 pm