Sunday, March 30, 2008

Two First Steps

I've been thinking a lot about traffic in Beijing lately, and why it doesn't work.

First, there's the streets: there are plenty of wide, four to six lane roads, and plenty of narrow, twisting hutongs, but little in between. In between the broad boulevards are enormous city blocks that could have twenty thousand people living in them, as well as numerous shopping and dining establishments. But to get to the buildings within the blocks, you need to navigate through the hutongs with two-way traffic, bikes, pedestrians, and usually cars parked on either side of the road. Near the school where I teach on Saturdays, I often see six or seven cars backed up in either direction and two drivers in the center honking at each other until one backs down and ever-so-slowly tries to back up and let the other pass. This usually takes an inordinately long time because all of the drivers behind him have to back up as well. There's plenty of honking, but people I've talked to about this don't seem to think there's any solution, or that it's an inescapable problem of greater car ownership.

I beg to differ. If the government were to ban parking on the side of the road except for a few designated areas, the problem would ease enormously. China puts up concrete shells in no time flat, but I can't recall seeing an above-ground parking complex in Beijing. Surely the government could easily construct enough of these to accommodate cars that park on the street now.

And it's not just hutongs that have parking problems. I see lines of cars parked on the ring roads all the time. Can you imagine cars parking along a freeway in America? The ring roads run at full capacity for much of the day in Beijing, and there's a large cost in terms of time and money when people wait in traffic. Drivers might not like having to go out of their way and pay money to park in a parking tower, but as it is now everyone is paying for it in lost time, and for me on my bicycle, increased risk of death as I move out into the road to avoid cars parked in the bike lane.

I also think that the narrowness of your average hutong necessitates ditching two-way traffic. There's just no way to have an efficient flow of traffic when a whole line of cars literally has to back up and pull to the side to let another line of cars through - not to mention the inconvenience it causes the pedestrians and cyclists.

Like many of the other campaigns the government has undertaken to change people's behavior, I'm sure this wouldn't be easy to implement. But we are, after all, talking about a country which has (at least somewhat successfully) managed to control how many children a person can have. Surely they can tell you where you can and can't park you car. And if this serves as a disincentive to buying a car? We can only hope. . .

Now if I can only think up a solution to Beijing's preternaturally even population distribution (lack of a dense city center). . .

Friday, March 21, 2008

Xiong Shi Lai Le (Here comes the bear market)

Or maybe not - the Dow doesn't seem to understand that the economy is in real trouble. First it went up four hundred points after Bear Stearns collapsed, then it went down a bit, then up two hundred points again. I just keep telling myself that short term fluctuations aren't really important, but I thought people would be running for the hills by now.

I have to say I'm disappointed that taxpayer money is being used to bail out a bank without the government itself taking possession of, and selling off, the assets. Dean Baker's commentary has been very illuminating with regards to this matter, and it's due to him that I know there are other options - what the Bank of England did with Northern Rock, for example.

The bottom line is, these bad loans are going to have their negative effect on the economy - we can't avoid it. Better to expose them now, deal with them, and move on. But the Fed seems to think putting Bear Stearns into bankruptcy would cause even more harm, despite the fact investors still suspect it's virtually worthless.

I wonder what the government of China thinks about the fact that it's 10 billion dollar investment was sold for pennies on the dollar in closed door, fire-sale meetings? And why are the top people at Bear Stearns not out on the street?

Random Thoughts On the iotsRa in ibetTa

Some bad, bad things happening on the roof of the world recently.

I'm temperamentally inclined to sympathize with the Tibetans, as is most of the world. Whereas most of China has been experiencing a dramatic increase in the amount of personal freedom they have (as long as it doesn't interfere with the Party), everything the Tibetans want (autonomy, independence, and the Dalai Lama) is anathema to the Chinese government.

It's also not hard to see why the Tibetans view the Chinese as oppressors - you can argue either side of the self-determination question, but there are many Tibetans alive who remember their independence, not to mention the depredations of the cultural revolution, and the still heavy weight of authoritarian rule than undoubtedly falls heavier on their shoulders than on those of the Han.

An interesting aspect of the current situation is the degree to which the Dalai Lama seems to be being marginalized by his own people. At least in public (and I have no reason to doubt his sincerity), he has always preached non-violence, sought autonomy not independence, and asked his followers to avoid causing problems for India by protesting. The younger members of the Tibetan independence movement don't think this "middle-way" is achieving anything, and want to push for more forceful methods (ironically still including "long live the Dalai Lama" in their protests).

But what do Free Tibet protesters in the US really want to happen? Do they expect America to install the Dalia Lama as the supreme leader of a theocratic government? It hadn't occurred to me until last week, but the Dalia Lama is still the head of the Tibetan government in exile, giving some justification to Chinese suspicions that he wants independence.

There's also been little in the way of condemnation of the violence against Han civilians and their property in Lhasa. Whatever the crimes of the Chinese government, surely shopkeepers ought not be the ones to pay the price. This thought brings me to another issue, the migration of Han into Tibet that has been described as cultural genocide. Certainly I can appreciate that when a place like Tibet receives a massive influx of outsiders eager to modernize, there is something lost in terms of the pristine, remote, austere quality that has enchanted so many visitors. But Tibet is not by a long shot the only place on earth confronting this dilemma, and it's not clear what the solution would be. If it were even possible, are we saying that non-Tibetans should be barred from moving there? I'm certainly not comfortable with such an idea.

There are also difficult questions with regard to America's "authority" to criticize China's behavior in Tibet - certainly nothing China has done compares to the complete decimation of the American Indian. And had we not killed them all with smallpox and straight-up murder I doubt that we would have respected their desire to live a traditional life free of strip-malls and gas stations. Are several generations enough separation from these horrible crimes to free us from a charge of hypocrisy? I don't know. These are complex questions, and that's really the whole point I was trying to make.

Of course, for now the solution would be for the Tibetans to stop killing Chinese civilians (I'm going to avoid digressing on whether or not Tibetans are Chinese and in what sense)and the government to stop oppressing the Tibetans, but that's about as likely a the US government not bailing out irresponsible bankers or sensibly ending the war in Iraq. Good night moon, good night China, good night Tibet, good night suffering and misery, you'll still be there when I wake up tomorrow.

A final thought: this article, nearly ten years old, is still awesome and incredibly poignant. I learned a lot about the Chinese perspective: