China aims to gear down in ‘Slow City’ movement

Dec 05, 2011 12:00 AM

by Wang Jiaquan, Sun Bin and Liu Weiwei

After thirty years of breathtaking, non-stop fast track development that has catapulted China to number two in the world's economic league table, it is now some drowsy hamlets, once obscured by the aura of record-breaking development tales, that are being hailed as tranquil sanctuaries for people seeking a less frenetic existence.
When Wu Weiguo touts the benefits of slowing down, he seems an alien to the mighty club of wooers of "a hen's rump". This Chinese transliteration of GDP has been coined by netizens to ridicule officials who take the English abbreviation for the term gross domestic product as their pet phrase.

Though Gaochun County that Wu governs boasts one of the richest villages in Jiangsu Province, a vital economic hub in east China, the Communist Party secretary is now more interested in adopting the brand 'Slow City' for the county.
Nestled in the booming Yangtze River Delta with the provincial capital Nanjing and the metropolis of Shanghai as its neighbours, the tranquil and sparsely populated Yaxi Township under Gaochun remained almost unknown until last year when it was awarded the title of China's first 'Slow City' by Cittaslow International, an organization that advocates sustainable ways of life.

Slowness, if not a shame, would have been the last thing local officials would trumpet in the past when they were keen to exert all efforts to compete for higher GDP growth as one of their major political achievements for promotion.
However, Yaxi may now become a model for a slower developing society as China encourages and embraces a sustainable way for economic growth while it tries to cool inflation amid the global recession crisis.

China lowered its average annual economic growth expectation for the five years from 2011 to 2015 to 7 % in a development blueprint published in March, compared with an average annual target of 8 % for the previous period.
The initiative signalled that China intends to focus on the transformation of the economic growth model in the next five years, or even a longer period of time, to rely more on technological innovation and improved efficiency. Premier Wen Jiabao made this clear at a press conference during the annual parliamentary session.

As a result, a number of provincial and municipal governments have also lowered their sights and ambitions for GDP growth. These include Guangdong, Zhejiang and Jiangsu provinces, which are dubbed as the country's economic engines.
Mostly as a result of macro-control levers, China's economy has seen a minimal but gradual drop in its growth curve this year from 9.7 % in the first quarter to 9.5 % in the second and then 9.1 % in the third quarter.

The good news for Wu Weiguo came when the municipal government of Nanjing, which administers Gaochun, decided in August to abolish the GDP-pegged governance evaluation regime for its six suburban districts and counties.
The new evaluation system takes employment, residents' income and other indices concerning people's livelihood as major factors, and stipulates that a chief official would fail the evaluation if major work safety accidents, serious environmental pollution and protests involving a mass participation of people take place within his jurisdiction.

Slow fashion
The 'Slow City' of Yaxi actually refers to an eco-tourism belt that sprawls over 49 sq km. It covers six villages with approximately 20,000 residents. And the township itself as a whole has a population of more than 60,000 in 22 villages that occupy an area of 150 sq km.
Currently, there are 147 'Slow Cities' in 24 countries, according to Cittaslow International, an environmental friendly organization set up in 1999 in Italy. Its philosophy is one that is appealing to more and more people who are growing weary of the fast pace of modern life.
The organization states: "Good living means having the opportunity of enjoying solutions and services that allow citizens to live in their towns in an easy and pleasant way."

Today a number of towns in China's Yunnan and Anhui provinces are also rallying to this call and competing for the title of 'Slow City'. Indeed, Yaxi has seen a surge of tourists since it became a 'Slow City'. Now it receives an average of 2,000 to 3,000 tourists every day with a record high of more than 10,000 reported during this year's weeklong National Day holiday, according to Xue Ming, the township head.
People in nearby booming cities or even from Beijing are flocking to Yaxi at weekends or on holidays to seek seclusion, if only temporary, from urban hustle and bustle. When entering Yaxi, all visitors have to slow down on its winding roads no matter what kind of super fast transport has carried them to the hilly holiday resort, be it planes, bullet trains or high-powered cars.

Xu Banghua, who works with a real estate company in Nanjing, went to Yaxi with eight colleagues. His industry is notorious for creating economic bubbles while skyrocketing housing prices have also triggered an avalanche of complaints from homebuyers. Xu said that holidays were a luxury when the housing market was hot, but now the cooled-down property sector -- as a result of government macro-control - has given him and his colleagues a chance to rest and refresh themselves.
"We used to be pre-occupied by a tight work schedule and almost have no time to breathe, but now we have enough time to slow down and relax ourselves. So, we came here after reading newspaper reports about the 'Slow City'," said Xu.

For Wei Liebao, Yaxi brings back childhood memories. The 34-year-old businessman, who owns an auto part store in Suzhou City, has left his shop management to friends and returned to Yaxi to open a tourist inn.
"Business thrives here, especially on holidays and at weekends. What's more, I can enjoy fresh air and a slower pace of life in the place where I grew up," Wei said.

Yaxi's rise from obscurity is an indication that Chinese people have now begun to think about a more reasonably paced lifestyle and growth model after the country has witnessed decades of fast economic growth, said Gao Guoxi, a professor with Fudan University in Shanghai.
Despite the pressure of combating inflation and shrinking exports, China still reported an economic growth of 9.4 % in the first three quarters of this year. The three decades of enviable economic growth has secured China the rank of the world's second largest economy, but the country has also to face the price and the woes of environmental pollution, protests over land requisition, complaints about rocketing home prices, deadly work safety accidents and a yawning gap between the rich and poor, among other problems.

The rapid growth, mainly stimulated by exports of low-end manufactured goods and financial investment, is regarded as unsustainable in the long term, especially as both China's government and people have begun to acknowledge that the country has to prioritize energy conservation, environmental protection and the improvement of people's livelihood.
China has put the brakes on its high-speed railway programs, the country's proudest symbol of rapid development, after a collision of two bullet trains in July this year, which caused the death of 41 passengers. The accident forced the government to order a safety check-up and slowdown of high-speed trains.

"The country has been on a fast track for decades since the reform and opening-up, but being too fast has also brought us some negative repercussions. For example, there is a waste of some resources and growing environmental pollution," said Wu Weiguo, who added that Gaochun County was no exception.
"Many of Gaochun's green hills were exploited in the 1980s, and now there are many bare places amidst the rocks. We also opened some small chemical plants at that time, which caused water pollution. Fortunately, we have now closed all of them. We don't want to exchange our green hills for mountains of gold and silver," Wu said.

"Too fast growth can undermine people's overall happiness while ironically the ultimate goal of economic development is to improve people's livelihood," he said.
Gaochun has cordoned off 70 % of its territory, including its hills and lakes, and declared them 'no-industry development zones', so that they can become almost parkland. Yaxi Township is one such example where now farming and tourism are the main sources of income for local people.

However, despite the acclaim for these far-sighted policies, Xue Ming, the head of Yaxi Township, says there is also a concern among some observers that the attractions of the 'Slow City' may ironically one day be the reason it speeds up again, considering the endless flood of tourists.
Currently, two expressways, an inter-city railroad and a light rail are under construction in Gaochun. All these projects may threaten Yaxi's reputation as a 'Slow City'. However Xue said that the county is inviting experts from Nanjing and Beijing to design a slow transport system for the eco-tourism belt, which includes footpaths, bicycle lanes and roads for electricity-driven tourist buses.

Obviously, the transformation to a more sustainable way of economic growth cannot be accomplished in one step across the whole of China, considering both the impact of inertia from the pursuit of speed over several decades, and the nation's traditional nature as a more leisurely culture.
Overall, China also has to face fresh challenges and risks as it gears down its pace of growth, taking into account issues such as unemployment and economic recession with perhaps even forecasts of a 'hard landing' with a plunge in annual growth to 5 % or less, as has been defined by some economists. China's Purchasing Managers Index (PMI), a preliminary indicator for manufacturing activity, dropped to 49 % in November from 50.4 % in October, indicating contraction for the first time since February 2009 and fuelling speculation that policy makers may shift more focus on steering the economy through hard times.

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