Just six months ago, the Zhujiang New Town (珠江新城) development could only be described as a hollow mess. Try following the paths from the central corridor to the shopping malls and you would find yourself stranded in a dead-end. Rumors circulated that the development was being held hostage by "princeling" factions locked in a real-estate battle. Each has cordoned off the space in front of their own complex. Pedestrians, causalities of the turf wars, were left to navigate the carnage of the street maze. Crowds stayed away from this decidedly un-pedestrian friendly center. The complex emptied out after 6pm, and I had chalked this up to another failure typical of post-socialist mega projects. Aim for instantaneous modernity and you often end up with a large scaled dysfunctional mess.

A week before Chinese New Year, I was surprised to discover that the corridor was now connected all the way to the northern tip at Tiyuxilu, where workers were busy putting the finishing touches on another new shopping center: Mall of the World. The underground center is advertised as a garden styled shopping complex. Pedestrians are transported underground by a series of escalators that lead to a cavernous series of shops. Disco balls and in-set mosses adorn the walls on either side.

On the ground level, two red tarmac strips run along each side and the tip of the walkway opens with a series of ponds with water lilies and peach blossoms. Beside the red tarmac for pedestrians and cyclists, LED rectangular panels light up at dusk, and the multicolored blue and purple panels disrupt the illusion of nature and match the grey and black towers in the sky. The angular buildings are tall branches that preside over the park. The greenery offers a respite from the tall skyscrapers.

The path is as large as socialist plazas and national malls but it is also reminiscent of another largeness -- of savannas, forests or glaciers. I remember Cheng Feng Lau's reflection on Beijing museums, is bigness the only way to express monumentalism?

The Hyatt, the GTLand Plaza serve as landmarks. The Canton tower, on the other side of the Pearl River stands straight ahead, an anchor. As you reach the end, a large water fountain, you will find streams of water dancing to nationalist music often ending with a single jet reaching for the sky to accompany the last note. At least today, the audience includes migrant families and restaurant workers. The quiet plaza of a week ago is gone and now crowds stream in to pose for photos.

Past the fountain you find the new public library and the Guangdong Provincial Museum. On the other side, the spaceship has landed, Zaha Hadid's Guangzhou Opera House. At the very tip, the Asian Games park stands between you and the Pearl River. Across the river is the Canton Tower.

The long tunnel walkway is reminiscent of the Cheonggyecheon, a public corridor in Seoul, reconstructed from restoring a creek covered by a highway that has been widely seen as one of the most successful urban renewal projects in the world. In Guangzhou, the greenness will have to be manufactured, which involves transplanting Palm trees, and in time for Chinese New Year, post-socialist monuments to prosperity.

Ecology and commercialism are meant to blend seamlessly, but all with invisible labor. This is purely an urban creation, the futurist "China dream" dreamt up by science fiction and realized through cheap labor and the efficient mobilization of resources of socialism with Chinese characteristics. Guangzhou is known as a flower city and its climate is great for plants year round. However, creating an urban ecological paradise requires moving tens of thousands of potted plants from their plantations to its new urban concrete home. Even in January with an average of 23 degree Celsius weather, migrant workers crouch down in the dirt, transplanting the perfectly timed blossoms from their pots to the new urban garden. In the drab concrete cities of China with its particulate saturated air, the noise and the pollution, an ecology of self-sustaining nature is only a secondary goal. For now, just the look, the feel of nature, manufactured as modernity, is a space that most residents would flock to.

A great post by Cathy O'Neil about Nate Silver's book The Signal and the Noise: Why Most Predictions Fail but Some Don't. O'Neil's critique resonated with what I have feared to be the wider repercussions of this soothsayer on the battle between qualitative and quantitative research in academia. Does Nate Silver's success provide greater ammunition for questionnaires and models that produce predictions at the expense of small-scale fine-grained case-studies that yield political analysis? To be clear, I am not against quantitative methodology per se, but rather, the authority of numbers that's come to dominate the social sciences, or the so-called "economics-envy" of political science and sociology. There is nothing wrong with wanting to gather statistics. There is however, something wrong, when all qualitative case-studies are dismissed because they don't have a high enough sample size or have the same predicative capabilities as Nate Silver's models. 

Criticising mathematical models on the terms of its accuracy is beyond my capacity. O'Neil's criticism, comes not on the basis of math  (from a person who knows math) but politics, and echoes observations that anthropologists have been making for decades about the structure of "expert" and institutional knowledge. Her central critiques are: 1) that Nate Silver misses the fact that bad and inaccurate models are constantly reproduced because they serve a function and 2) that Silver erroneously believes that expert "neutral models" trump politics. Anthropologists of development, James Ferguson's argument in The Anti-politics Machine, point out that discourses such as "development"  neutralizes political interest. David Mosse's Cultivating Development argues the separation between policy and practice, is why failed projects in development are repeated over and over again. Most recently, works in Science and Technologies Studies question how technicality, facts, figures raises expert knowledge above local knowledge. Silver's politically neutral world of facts and statistics performs precisely this "depoliticizing" function, where experts are the only ones that we can rely on. As O'Neil points out, this is a toopsy-turvy world, one that reduces complexity and politics of the financial crisis to a tale of good intentions gone bad due to not enough information. 
Production lines where white cotton strands are dyed blue, run 24 hours a day in Xintang, where most of the world's jeans are produced. The heavy white threads are delivered to the dye mill on large spools, and they are then lifted onto the top floor of the three-floor factory. Workers tie the end to a large connecting thread that runs the length of the line about 50 meters. If the thread breaks, workers have to manually thread it through the production line, which consists of long metal frames. Each corridor on the bottom floor hold large vats and tubes where dyes are mixed and then fed through to the vats. Threads are dipped in and then out of the vats. Steam shoots out from the pipes, making the dye spread more evenly, but also vaporizes the acidic smell of chemicals. Large pools of water lay on the floor, dyed a deep blue. Workers work 12 hour shifts, 28 days a month. The production capacity has increased year after year and they work overtime on the two days they have off a month. One the dye line, there are a handfull of workers, all men, some young, some middle aged. On the first floor, large piles of jeans lay piled on the ground where large number of women sit folded over to inspect the garments. For this dye factory, business has just begun to slow but even through the summer, production was at full capacity to meet increasing demand, a different shade of blue every season.

The China Southern Power Grid and Better Place showroom sold me on the idea that electric cars can take off in China. The world's eighth largest power utility and the Palo Alto based company with projects in Israel and Copenhagen propose to bring battery swapping schemes to China's southern cities, beginning with the Pearl River Delta Region, Hainan and then to the western Guangxi, Yunnan and Guizhou provinces, spanning the jurisdiction of the Southern Grid. Consumers purchase a custom designed vehicle "shell" and rent a battery that's serviced by Better Place, which provides electricity charge stations and battery swapping schemes. Each charge costs about 60 RMB (10 USD) for about 180km, cheaper than gas.

The Chinese state-owned Guangzhou Automobile Industry Group (GAIG) is tasked with developing a local vehicle "shell" model. In the showroom we were given demonstrations of the local charge station and battery switching procedure, which takes roughly one minute. 

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Like the transfer of other new technologies to the Chinese context, the introduction of electric vehicles carries environmental risks. The disposal of lithium batteries need to be monitors despite the promise of showroom staff that retired batteries will be used to store solar power. The scaling up of charge stations will most definitely put pressure on power utilities and increase demand on hydro dams, a major source of environmental conflict in southern China and Southeast Asia. 

Of course, the success of projects, even those backed by state infrastructural companies, depend ultimately on winning over Chinese consumers. Most Chinese showrooms usually come up short even with pilot projects -- new freshly whitewashed walls grey within a few days, the ostentation of the showrooms too extravagant to appear modern. The CSG and Better Place showroom however, does a good job of projecting the innovativeness and greenness of the electric vehicle in a quiet and functional way. The difficult task ahead will be to sell the Chinese market on an idea -- that progress and modernity and most importantly luxury, rest with electric vehicles rather than Audis and BMWs.

Greenways: an alternative and utopian vision of Chinese streets.

Under the thrall of China's national campaign to create "sanitary" (创卫)and "civilized" (创文)cities, Guangzhou is getting a makeover. Sidewalks are being scrubbed down and volunteers are out with multicolored sashes and thumbs-up signposts, attempting to reform traffic that obeys only one rule -- move when you get a chance. Sounds of whistles echo along with car horns at dusk in peak rush hour. Water fountains shoot synchronized white sprays into the humid air at shopping plazas that shape large city blocks. Pots of fresh flowers are wheeled out and set neatly in rows, forming slogans that broadcast "we're working towards civilization."

Navigating Guangzhou is always demanding but lately pedestrians and cyclists and even drivers, are made to move more gingerly. Crowds pause behind the large spray trucks with teams of city cleaners sweeping furiously behind and supervisors instructing in front. A quick chat with those who are responsible for this campaign, the countless number of guards and city workers, will tell you that they are under pressure. "Come back in a few weeks, this week we're busy 'creating civilization.'"

City walls display messages. Walls present official signs, illicit signs, political signs and personal marks. There are great forces in modern cities goes aimed at controlling these marks, to ensure that some are broadcast and others banned, others existing momentarily only they would make themselves disappear when necessary. In other words, signs are enabled, or made mobile or elusive by the larger political condition of their production. The loudness of signs and their reach are one way of looking at forces of power battling for control of the public imagination in city streets.

Graffiti artists take advantage of public space to make political statements and advertisers gravitate towards open spaces to cultivate desires. Walls, bus stops and sidewalks, any flat surface can become a battle ground for who can promote their messages. In China, if not for the tens of thousands of sanitary workers diligently sweeping with their wheat stalk brooms and little metal chisels, overpasses and sidewalks would be littered with little white business card sized stickers, a way that migrant construction and maintenance workers to advertise, to make sure that you know who to call if you ever need a plumber. The amount of labor for hire in Chinese cities -- people to help you move, make you breakfast, fix leaks and collect your scraps -- ensures the continuous rhythms of the city, yet authorities work to eliminate these support networks to speak through signs on the street, preferring to advertise their own messages while conditioning the reach and access of other voices.

Each sign have an intended audience and an appropriate context. Most political messages target the passerby, working subliminally. They are displayed at the most prominent spots where crowds are most likely to stop, linger and stare into space, receiving the message while thinking about what's for dinner. Other messages are prominent enough just to alert to the audience that there is a message and you know where to look if you ever need the details, to hit receive and upload in your mind.

One clue into who controls waste and how it circulates in Chinese cities begins with noticing waste signs. Like all signs, some are loud and scream at you from afar, and others are hidden and quiet yet carry authority. The anatomy of the sign needs to be taken apart -- the conditions of their production, meanings and effects, intended and unintended. Some signs follow faithfully in the tradition of political messages, alive and well today still, even in post-reform China. Other are declarations of exclusion and deserve closer analysis as to the condition of their production and their purpose. The cacophony of signs and billboards exist in their own context yet, when brought together they offer competing messages and visions for waste, tied together in an intricate network. They are clues into how materials circulate today and how they should move in the future.

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Guangzhou June 2011. Poster announcing the start of the recycling campaign. In April 2011, Guangzhou became the first city to mandate recycling by law. Giant wall size posters read: "Low carbon living and a civilized Guangzhou start from garbage recycling." This poster combines contemporary environmental rhetoric that sees climate change and carbon reduction as a central problem, while it curiously also refers to the relationship between proper waste management and a civil public sphere, a focus of Chinese cities, flagship of a modern nation.

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Beijing, August 2012. "There's no waste in the world." Sign at Dong Xiaokou waste market during the process of being dismantled.

The poetic force of this statement is lost in its English translation. The Chinese character 物 translates to matter, or material. "There is no waste material or there is no waste in the world." Vaguely Daoist in its sentiment. Compare with Laozi's Tao Te Ching "Existence from Non-existence..." 天下万物生于有, 有生于无".

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Beijing August 2012. "The problem of waste is actually a philosophical problem." Sign inside the new Greenshed Project, a citizen initiative into promoting recycling.

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Guangzhou August 2010. Banana grove. "Garbage dumping restricted, violators will be punished severely." Here is a private declaration of authority. Littering fine are not handed out by the authorities but the owners of this banana grove have decided to take matters into their own hands. Due to traffic restrictions on highways banning large trucks from driving in cities during the day, the transportation of waste happens mostly at night. The illegal dumping of waste have become a major problem in the countryside and carries little repercussion.

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Shanghai 2010. A housing compound that is designed to resemble dutch homes with a sign banning informal waste collectors, the primary way that waste is recycled in China.

The Forage Tracking project at the SENSEable city lab at MIT maps the collection routes of informal recyclers (catadores) who collect and sell recyclables to industry.  Vik Muniz's document Wasteland, recently featured the of waste pickers on Jardim Gramacho, a landfill north of Rio De Janeiro, ahead of government efforts to formalize recycling.   In Sao Paulo, the Forage Tacking project provides a spatial dimension to how waste circulates at a neighbourhood level using GPS and mobile phones.  


Jan banning's documentary series -- bureaucratics
Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island is being transformed into a 2,200 acre park about three times the size of Central Park with meadows and wetland, which will be named Freshkills park, a thin disguise for the strange name. Ironically, this marks a return to the land's original eco-system as it was thought that Fresh Kill, prior to being transformed into a landfill was dominated by a vast tidal wetland fed by fresh water spring and streams. The word "kill" is Old-Dutch for stream, brook, or channel.  Bird-watchers however, have been drawn to the site for some time with binoculars in hand, expecting to spot even the rare red-tailed hawk. Other more famous urban American parks developed on landfills include the Millennium Park in Boston, the Cesar Chavez Park in Berkeley, and Mount Trashmore in Virginia Beach.