Essays

Father of the Chinese Railway

Remembering Zhan Tianyou, China’s pioneer railway engineer – Thomas Bird

This February, the state-owned China Railway Corporation inaugurated the Year of the Pig by announcing railway spending in the region of 800 billion yuan in 2019. While the UK and USA watch their antiquated railway lines crumble, the Communist Party of China views railway development as a core project both at home – sewing the vast territory of the People’s Republic together – and abroad, providing transport infrastructure in places as diverse as Laos and Kenya as part of President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Critics see China’s plans as semi-colonial, with tracks in Tibet and Xinjiang part of a broader placation program, while one-sided contracts in the BRI endebt poorer countries to China. China’s grand railway schemes also trouble economists, who see railways being built simply to stimulate economic growth while China Railway Corporation has, itself, a multi-billion yuan debt.

Dispatches

Mining the Zeitgeist

Thomas Bird excavates the Lianzhou photography festival

I follow the map on my phone as it leads me into the backstreets of Songzhuang Art Colony, the world’s largest art village, located on the eastern fringe of the Beijing municipality. Just when I think I’ve been lured into a labyrinthine trap, the unmistakable bald head of Shanxi-native Luo Dawei (罗大卫) emerges from a doorway and beckons me in from the cold.

“Sorry about the mess, we’re just moving in,” he says as I watch computers and office furniture being delivered, unpacked in a tempest of cardboard and dust.

Essays

Snap Judgment

Li Zhengde’s photography reveals an edgier side to China – by Thomas Bird

China’s second tallest skyscraper, the Ping An Finance Centre, was completed in the center of Shenzhen in 2017. The 115-storey superstructure is a testament to the city’s remarkable, four-decade ascent since its origins as a fishing village. Hong Kong has nothing as tall. Walking around mainland China’s third wealthiest city, Shenzhen feels rather well-to-do. Residential blocks have replaced the labyrinthine urban villages formed when high-rise buildings were hurriedly built in what had been countryside. A vast metro system has supplanted the old fleet of mini buses, while cars, not motorbikes, dominate the city’s six lane boulevards. The seedy border town once renowned for knockoff designer wares and sweatshop factories has given way to homogeneity and affluence.