China’s Green Leap Forward?

The North Korean developments seem to have swallowed a great deal of my attention recently, but I remain committed to blasting out short essays on a handful of China-related topics which began earlier this summer.  And thus:

The German sinologist Gerd Boesken roams the cities of Hamburg and Dusseldorf, dispensing much knowledge about China.  I was fortunate to attend his lecture in Hamburg this past July 15, entitled “China’s Green Leap Forward?”  The talk was arranged by the Hamburg Chamber of Commerce, took place in a gorgeous annex of the rococo City Hall, and was attended by all kinds of interested German businessmen.

(Having arrived in Hamburg in a wonderful BMW with a German banker who I had hooked up with via Mitfahrgelegenheit, I was again amid the Geschaeftsmaenner, like some exiled Bruenhilde who longs to hoist the spear with fellow warriors but is in fact in the midst of a long farewell.)    

Here, as promised, is the gist of the talk:

Boesken recaps the well-known notion of natural scarcity in China, but does so with slightly different figures than “percentage of arable land.”  Instead, he breaks it down as follows: whereas the U.S. has 7.5 hectares of land per person, China has but 1.5. 

Boesken then organizes his talk around the “Five Elements,” and states that each has a disasterous antipode.  For water, floods.  Water control has been a key political concept in China, seen in the water radical in characters for law, regulation, etc.  “Das tauscht mit Politik,” he says, going on to recap Wittefogel’s “hydrological theory” for the development of Chinese history and recalling the disasterous floods of 1742 in Yanzhou and 1937-38 on the Yellow River (the last caused when Chiang Kai-shek ordered the levies blown up to retard the southward onslaught of the Japanese armies).  Boesken’s graph: 

Wasser Regulieren –> Organisieren –> Regeln –> Herrschen –> Befehlen

After a note on natural catastrophes identified with last emperors (e.g., 1976 Tangshan earthquake), Boesken goes on to note that the PRC has 7% of the fresh water on the planet, 22% of the people, and that about 40% of the land in China is acutely effected by erosion.  And thus the rise of the drinking water business.  As Boesken keenly states of the CCP outlook or bottom line on the enviornment: “Die leute muesst ein Oekonomie verdienen, dann alles passiert,” or interpreted further in English, “Once the people can make money, then any eco-friendly project is fine.”   The Five-Year Plan for 2006-10 includes 300 million RMB for canals, and water conservation.

Boesken riffs extensively on coal for the East Coast cities and how the PRC is moving to displace coal partially through the use of atomic energy.  [He cites Johnny Erling;s 22 April 2009 article "Chinesichen bauen 42 neue Atomkraft Werke /The Chinese Build 42 New Atomic Energy Plants".]  Two of the plants are in the Liaodong Peninsula (Hongyanhe 1 and 2), but most are clustered in Zhejiang and Guangdong.  Some are set up with help from the US firm Westinghouse. 

On coal: Globally, coal provides 37% of electricity, but in China the number is much higher: coal provides 80% of energy, making this an urgent concern, as burning coal is “ungeheurere umweltnegatif / unbelievably bad for the environment.”  China is mining 31% of the coal in the world, versus 26% by the U.S. and 8% for India. 

On the subject of bio-mass potential, Boesken mentions the 700 million pigs being raised in China at any given time, stating that “15% Treibhaueffect bei.”  [still need to translate this phrase, apologies].   See endnote by ecologist and linguist par excellence Eliezer Gurarie.  Trash transport is a major concern.

“]Gobi and Green [click on picture for link to Futurist blog and AFP story]The Green Wall of China, the effort to plant trees across the entirety of China’s northern frontier as a barrier to desertification, is described as the biggest eco-project in the history of the world.  Here Boesken gets sidetracked a bit, but I love it: the propaganda campaign in support of this project is “typical for China’s political culture,” and can be called “Eco-Maoist propaganda.” 


With reference to wind, Boesken notes that from 2003-2007, we saw the commercialization of the wind commercial sector.

In 2008, China set the goal to be the world center of creation, use, and production (Entwicklung, Nutung, und Produktion) of wind power.  General Electric is working on this in China, and with greater and greater success.  Jilin province is particularly wind-rich. 

Wind Farms in southern Minnesota, U.S.A., the first such visible structure from I-90 driving East from Seattle

Wind Farms in southern Minnesota, U.S.A., the first such visible structure from I-90 driving East from Seattle


Along similar lines, readers may be interested in Peking University environmental historian Bao Maohong, a close friend who spoke at my university in spring 2008; Bao’s article in Conservation and Society gives a good sense of his work. 

My Summary: The United States needs to get in gear, listen a bit harder to Steven Chu, and mobilize these and similar projects or once again, as with the automotive industry in the 1980s, the country will be left on the margins of a major area of economic development in China.  The Germans are, as usual, way ahead of the game.   


Interview with Gerd Boesken, “Bamboo Circular,” Taiwan-Hamburg Friendship Society, May 2009.

Wolfgang Pomrehn, “China lüftet durch: Peking verstärkt Engagement fur erneuerbare Energien. Zwolf Windparks mit ingesamt 120 Gigawatt Leistung koennten 2020 knapp ein Zehntel des Bedarfs decken [China blows through: Beijing strengthens its engagement for new energies: Twelve windparks with potential for 120 gigawatts could provide less than one tenth of China's needs],”  Junge Welt [Young World, former organ of the {communist}Free German Youth, 17 July 2009, p. 9.

Endnote [by Eliezer Gurarie]

i like the green wall of china posting. that is, i like all your postings.  but on that particualr one, i wanted to comment, just to let you know that “15% Treibhaueffect bei.” refers to the “Treibhauseffect” or “Greenhouse effect“.  Probably, he said that coal “fuegt 15% Traibhauseffect bei”, probably meaning “is the source of 15% of the greenhouse gas emmisions”.

but commenting for some reason is disabled? or doesn’t work? or has a time delay? [I'm working on that, new apologies.]

“treiben” is a nice word by the way.  check it out here: is the best, quickest, most convenient and well-data-stocked source for german-english or -french or -spanish or -italian OR -chinese that i know of.

but in the meantime farethewell in duluth, one of the largest concentrations of finnic genes in the world, and beyond.

Kim Jong Un in Bern: Full Translation of Die Welt Interview

Kim Jong-Un, the 26-year old son of Kim Jong-Il, has reportedly been designated as successor to his father. In the absence of detailed information about the young man, the years he spent as an adolescent at the International School in Berne, Switzerland, have commanded no small attention.

However, the best of these sources have been referenced but not, to my knowledge, actually been made available in English. Thus, I have translated the most extended and detailed recollection from the German press, an interview by Welt am Sonntag with an anonymous classmate and friend of Kim Jong-un’s from his years in Berne.

The original German version is available here.

The other original reporting, based on interviews with Kim’s schoolmates, is in the Swiss-French magazine, L’Hebdo, an article which I will endeavor to decipher in a subsequent post.

The translation of the full text of the German article follows:

“Kim Jong-un played football, loved comics, and was humorous” / Kim Jong-un spielte Fußball, liebte Comics und hatte Humor”

 From an interview with a classmate who wishes to remain anonymous, by Elisalex Henckel 7. June 2009, 04:00 Uhr

I do not really remember any more precisely when he came to the International School of Berne (ISB).  It must have been 1993 or 1994. He introduced himself as Chol Pak and was at that time about eleven years old. His English was poor at first, he had a strong accent, so he got help with it. Later he mastered it quite well, and he learned German also — at least the basics.I think, he understands even Swiss German, which, over the years, all of us appropriated. Yes, it happens automatically when you live there.

Unlike his father, which I now know, he was a pretty big guy, lanky, round face, with a little acne, like most of us back then. I also remember, that he dressed extremely simply.  Even in later years, it was still black jeans, black socks, maximum color with a gray T-shirt.  One time he appeared in a grey T-shirt with blue stripes, and classmate said jokingly to him: “Going out like that today?” [So ausgefallen heute?] And so he had to laugh.

He had humor, and got along well even with students that came from countries which were enemies of North Korea – or are today.  Which countries those were,  we already knew, but it was never an issue. Politics was taboo in the school, and nobody dared to bring up such things. We didn’t even speak about our homes even once, since none of us were home. Most of us had diplomats as parents, other [parents were] businesspeople; a few came from rich Swiss families. There were people from America, Europe, Asia, many Jews and many Arabs, but in three years, only one dispute about the Middle East conflict.  We argued [haben gestritten] about football, not about politics.

Pak Chol was also on the football [soccer] team, together with several Americans.  One Israeli taught him [beigebracht] basketball. He also spent much time with a South Korean; I think this was because the South Korean could draw comics very well.  Pak Chol liked comics; his favorite were Japanese manga.

As for girls, none of us had this much on the mind, but there were parties. Chol was not very involved in these. I remember though, that he was a good student, especially in math.  Now, this sounds perhaps as if he was a nerd, but that’s not accurate: he simply had it together [er war in Ordnung]. I  never went to his house, even though we understood one another well, but this in itself was nothing special. The Americans or the Israelis were also at times not easy to visit – because of the security provisions of the embassies.

The ISB is a really special school. Very expensive and very small: in total, we had maybe two or three hundred students, a maximum of 15 per class. The teachers were great, as was the overall environment. The school is situated outside of Bern, amid greenery, and with mountains all around, so in winter we went skiing every weekend.  There were always some projects going on – once we have made compost and sold it Bern to raise money which we donated for a library in Togo. Pak  Chol also joined in this activity.

When he [Pak Chol] arrived at the school, another North Korean came with him; he called himself Chung Kwang.  Chol and he always arrived in the school together, they sat side by side and were always together otherwise. We thought nothing of it, as, sure, they were the only North Koreans. Nationalities seemed to play a very important role in this school. Yes, we often had to end new friendships, because through the transfer of their parents, some people left and new people came, and it always felt faster with friends who came from your own country.Probably for this reason, no one particularly surprised when Chol Pak and Kwang Chung, sometime in 1998 it was, simply did not appear again.

Both North Koreans played a major role in sports.  Pak Chol was quite talented.  He was strong and ran fast, but he could not keep up with Kwang. Kwang had a body like Bruce Lee; he was an incredible athlete and the best striker on the football team. Because he played so well, Kwang was more popular than Chol, but that seemed not to have phased Chol. The two amused themselves a lot with entertaining action films, by Schwarzenegger, for example – and also martial arts. Kwang always tried to teach kung-fu to Chol, or Karate. He was really good at it.

If I now consider what he [Kwang] showed to everyone, I can’t imagine that he was merely athletic. Once, he kicked a pencil from a fellow student’s mouth. That is surely not something a normal kid can do; he must have been  trained as an athletlic fighter; perhaps he was a soldier who just looked very young.

At the beginning, there were rumors that Chol was the son of North Korea’s dictator, and Kwang his bodyguard, but no one really seriously considered that it might be true.  And no one ever commented that one North Korean seemed to order the other one around. And besides all that, we were in a school where nobody really noticed such things because everyone was so different anyway.

When today I read in the newspaper that my fellow student Pak Chol is going to become North Korea’s dictator, I have to laugh. It is simply absurd! Crazy  [Verrückt!]!  I can not imagine that a dictator would come from our school. Es The school was actually permeated with concepts of tolerance and peace and equality, holding hands and stuff. Naturally, although it might sound like it, I don’t denigrate the experience at all: I loved my time at ISB, and I think everyone else did, too. How much it influenced Chol Pak, I can’t say, of course, because it all happened so long ago. It’s probable that the North Korean in him is stronger than the International School-student, but sometimes I think about this way: At the end of the day, he experienced the Western culture in its best form. Mostly, I wonder only if he remembers me. And whether he will call me when he reads this.


Encountering the DPRK in Beijing

The North Korean embassy is set on a leafy walled campus in Beijing’s wicked and rambling Chaoyang district.  It lies in close proximity to China’s Foreign Ministry, that grey monolith where I work each summer.  The North Koreans have a small fleet of cars, mostly old.  I have seen them driving Nissan sedans, circa 1986, repainted by hand in a dark blue; some of the affiliated businessmen drive minivans of somewhat newer vintage.  On the day Kim Jong-un was supposedly in town, I scoped out the DPRK embassy to find a black and quite possibly broken 1990 Honda civic with mismatched side panels double-parked out front.  Once a new car glided out of the front gate, probably the ambassador’s, a silver Honda hatchback, the driver calm while his superior confidently chatted into a cell phone while resting a black-socked foot up on the dashboard.   For a country that allegedly despises the Japanese, it is interesting how Japanese goods are not only prized, but they spare the same North Koreans the humiliation of driving South-Korea produced Hyundais or, worse, American Buicks. 

A North Korean flag flutters forlornly over a stone national seal, marking as Korean the three banks of dormitories which house maybe a thousand itinerants and their family members.  A handful of businesses in the area cater to their tastes in sunglasses, Gucci knockoffs, and, especially, suitcases.  Here, North Korean poverty and prosperity illuminate themselves.  (Yes!  North Korean prosperity exists for some.  If this notion seems foreign, read some Sheila Fitzpatrick’s work on everyday life of careerists under Stalin.)  Consumption and trade seem to characterize the lives of some of the DPRK diplomats: no self-respecting diplomat’s wife will return to Pyongyang without a couple of huge suitcases stuffed with Chinese or Russian goods.  North Korean kids suck on Coca-Cola bottles as big as their arms, boys play with toy trucks, teenage daughters bereft of Kim pins or self-consciousness stumble out of Sichuan restaurants holding hands and satisfied.  As the girls saunter back to the compound, arm and arm, a North Korean worker between the high brick wall and the flimsy green fence, visible to the street, plucks a certain type of weed which he is apparently intending to cook.  The girls and the omnipresent Chinese keep on walking, but a high class North Korean lady stops in horror, clutching her purse, looking at him with disdain, furious for the potential loss of face.  Society reproduces itself in all the strange expatriate ways.

On one day that “the successor” Kim Jong-un was supposedly in Beijing, two Korean ladies who appeared to be about 27 years old stood outside a Russian salon across the street from the embassy, smoking languidly and talking.  Their rapid awareness of my presence (not to be confused with the muteness which often attends admiration) produced silence as I walked by.  Yet their location, inherent suspicion, and posture told me they were DPRK, in a pose of strategic complaint.  And it seemed they had newly arrived.  North Korean ladies who have been around in China for a period of time tend to be more relaxed around Westerners, in my observations.  (This was made most clear to me a few days later as I entered a little French-style café around the corner from the Embassy and plopped down directly next to two middle-aged North Korean ladies.  Although they were the only other people in the place besides the bored but knowledgeable Chinese servers from Handan, their conversation paid me absolutely no heed and centered around – what else – their sons and how they needed to work harder in school.)  But this made me wonder, for all the reports on Kim Jong Un, why we have heard nothing about his wife or love interest.  If he is married, it is possible that in the long run she may in fact be the real power behind the throne…

From the North Korean embassy, it is not possible to ignore the wealth of China.  The area around the embassy is being progressively swallowed by development.  Chinese townhouses and upscale stores have just been completed on the one side, and a gargantuan and grotesque modernist hotel/international center is rising like some Tyrannosaurus on the other.  If intimidation were needed, the vision of Chinese power is total.  But the North Koreans take it with equanimity and participate in it.  Kim Jong-un does not need some damned tour of Shenzhen to understand how China is blasting off economically, he simply needs to circumambulate the district around his country’s embassy for about an hour.

North Korea as Barrier to China’s Great Power Aspirations

Chuck Kraus at the Foreign Devil blog, excavating a provocative and accurate piece by Bonnie S. Glaser, parses the shifts in Chinese policy attitudes toward North Korea.   After all the scrum over the (admittedly quite important) details of the arrest and release of Laura Ling and Euna Lee, this type of analysis gets one back to the “macro” picture.  After all, when the history of Northeast Asian foreign relations is written in a few decades, it is entirely possible that the most important event of 2009 was China’s effectively decisive shift out of the brotherly posture toward North Korea prompted by one too many earth-shaking nuclear tests, not a couple of Californian journalists who reunited a declining head of state (Kim Jong Il) with a former head of state (Clinton).   

Why did China decide to make this shift?  Glaser is quite correct in her analysis (as is Kraus from his perch in Shanghai), but she fails to draw the conclusion that China’s move away from North Korea also insulates the PRC from accusations of Chinese expansionism/overreach in a period when Western sensitivities toward this notion are already high. (Witness the paranoia over Chinese influence in Africa, where Beijing is in part snaffling up oil assets to hedge against American dollars.)  That is to say, Western perceptions of China as “the ultimate power behind the throne” in North Korea could potentially expand in a fashion hostile to China even though China is opposed to North Korean nuclear development.  If this idea sounds ridiculous to you, talk to the editors of the Atlantic Monthly and ask them what a nice bump in circulation they got with a red-tinged cover story by the (non-Korea expert, but undoubtedly well-travelled and saavy) Robert Kaplan about how China somehow winds up as the main beneficiary of a crumbling North Korea.    

If the U.S. seems congenitally unable to link North Korea into its broader foreign policy (witness the humiliating lack of coordination with the Megumi/abductee-obsessed Japanese on the hostage rescue; ditto for South Korea), then China is determined not to let North Korean intransigence interfere with the PRC’s broader rise as a responsible and legitimate power.