Friday, March 16, 2012

Bo Xilai's Billion-Dollar Gingko Trees

Note:  In the wake of Bo Xilai's downfall, I noticed that many American readers are not familiar with what Bo actually did in Chongqing.  This report, which I sent to Jim Fallows in May 2011 (when Bo was still in his heydays) and first published in Jim's Atlantic pages, provides a glimpse.  I've never posted it on my blog; thought it might be of interest. -- Xujun

Gingko Fever in Chongqing

By Xujun Eberlein, May 2011

In Chongqing, China's fastest growing metropolis, slogans boldly plaster walls everywhere - "Forest Chongqing," "Livable Chongqing," "Accessible Chongqing." Evidently, the first target is being indulgently pursued:  when I visited in April, there were a lot more newly planted trees along the roads than I saw in my previous trip two years before. Most of the new trees were of the same kind, tall and densely planted in neat rows. Supported by wooden rods from three sides, many of them had an "IV bottle" - that's what the locals called it, I later learned - hanging on their bare branches. 

From the moving car I couldn't tell immediately what kind of trees they were, and I did not give much thought to them, though a gardener's instinct made me wonder why trees of this size - thick as a big bowl - needed to be planted so close together.

A few days later, I heard a story:

Once, Bo Xilai, Chongqing's Party chief who constantly makes international news, was on a business trip for a couple of days.  His subordinates grabbed the opportunity to please him. At a popular square downtown, a crowd of cadres made a scene diligently transplanting very large trees. Onlookers gathered, and they heard someone say, "Hurry, hurry! Secretary Bo will be back soon!" 

What trees did they plant?  Gingko, because that is what Bo Xilai likes. And I realized that the new trees I saw on the first day were gingko, too. Chongqing's streets and highways are now lined with gingko. In fact, gingko fever has been going on for two years, and the light at the end is yet to be seen.  A writer friend I met commented on this phenomenon by quoting Confucius: "When a ruler loves anything, those below him are sure to surpass him to love it more."

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Locals said that so many large gingko trees had been transplanted from other provinces that Guangxi, one of the suppliers, had sold out. And gingko prices went so high that Chengdu, Chongqing's neighboring city and the capital of Sichuan Province, could no longer afford to buy them.

"In the spring, every day on Chongqing's highways there are 30-50 trucks carrying gingko trees of anywhere from 25 cm to 100 cm in diameter into town."  China Economic Weekly reports [most links in Chinese] in an interview with a Parks Bureau official in September 2010.  The report goes on to describe "that magnificent sight still makes his heart miss a beat."

The zeal almost feels like the Great Leap Forward in 1958; the ubiquitous gingko trees now are on a par with the ubiquitous "little blast furnaces" used for backyard steel making then.

Gingko, dubbed as a "living fossil," is a slow-growing, long-living, exotic species best suited for ornamental landscaping. But Bo Xilai wants "Forest Chongqing" now. To achieve an immediate effect,  costly large trees have been densely and massively planted. The Chinese Worker's Daily reported that the gingko trees planted along Chongqing's River South Avenue in spring 2010 mostly were 40-50 cm (about 16-20 inches) in diameter. There were even some hundred-year-old trees,  about 100 cm (39.4 inches) thick, and costing over 300,000 yuan (roughly US$ 45,000) each. This is 100 times the average monthly income of Chongqing's taxi drivers.

Bo Xilai has proudly announced that, in 2010 alone, Chongqing spent 10 billion yuan - an equivalent of 1.5 billion US dollars - planting trees.  (The municipal's total fiscal revenue in 2009 was 100 billion yuan.)

But surely, as Mao once lectured, "To make one thing stand up, we must break down another thing first." In 1958, for example, metal utensils were collected (seized) from households (including my family) to be melted in "little blast furnaces" for backyard steel-making. Now, in order to stand up the gingkoes, other trees have to be cut down.

In my own upbringing in Chongqing, gingkoes were rarely seen. The most common local trees were a deciduous banyan (ficus lacor, called "huangge shu" by my townsfolk), and its evergreen relative ficus microcarpa. Both are leafy and rooty pagoda trees.  A thriving native species, ficus lacor ("huangge shu") was made Chongqing's official city tree in 1986, a designation approved by the city's People's Congress, and still unchanged, at least nominally. 

So, to cater to Bo Xilai's taste, banyan trees have been cut and replaced with gingkoes. This practice was lashed out at by local citizens in both spring and autumn 2010, reported China Economic Weekly. People questioned why the good old canopy trees had to be cut in exchange for the narrow gingko, and why for such a massive big change the government did not ask the opinions of its citizens like in 1986.  

Under public pressure, a government official gave an explanation that, because Chongqing is often cloudy (smoggy), the banyan, especially the evergreen kind, has too many leaves to further block the daylight.  He did not say that Chongqing, a well-known "furnace city," is in grave need of leafy trees to shade the scorching summer sun.

Experts say transplanting large trees will damage the ecology of their original location, and the chance of survival for such transplanted trees is about 50%, despite the expensive "IV bottles" added for temporary nutrition. It takes two years to know if a newly planted gingko has survived.

Whatever the criticisms, Bo Xilai said about ten days ago that - among all his achievements in Chongqing - he is most proud of planting trees (apparently more than cracking down on gangsters or singing red songs).   The trees he cited are "mostly ginkgo, camphor and osmanthus," with "several rows on each side of the roads."

"Planting trees never commits mistakes," Bo has repeatedly said (italics mine), using the rhetoric that reminiscences of the 1950s and 60s, when "you committed mistakes" were the most terrifying words in frequent political campaigns. When Mao launched backyard steel-making, presumably, people had thought "making steel never commits mistakes."

Historical records show that 1958 would have been a bumper harvest year for China's agriculture if the backyard steel-making had not taken farmers away from the fields and left unharvest grain to rot. What followed was a three-year famine that caused Sichuan Province (then including Chongqing) ten million starvation deaths. That was one seventh of the province's population.  Sichuan was hit the hardest because its Party chief, Li Jingquan, in addition to reporting grossly inflated agricultural production, transported a large amount of grain to Beijing and Shanghai, despite Sichuan's own severe food shortage. Unaware of this, people believed the Party propaganda that the disaster was natural. That widespread belief had led starving peasants to quietly wait for their deaths without putting up any protest.

Today no one thinks that grim scenario could repeat.  Unlike half a century ago, when all that peasants knew were either things in their own village or the broadcast from the Party media, access to information has greatly increased. On the other hand, the government's attempt to block "sensitive" material has been stepped up of late.

As of this writing, the replacement of local banyan trees with exotic gingkoes continues in Chongqing. Citizens take grudging notice, yet there is no shortage of flattery for gingko fever by, perhaps, well-meaning journalists. As late as yesterday, in an article titled "Chongqing's Breath of Fresh Air" on China Daily, the writer praises Bo Xilai's achievement and derides my townsfolk, "And for the citizens of Chongqing, the debate still goes on, even as they relax under the shade of the gingko and camphor trees, and take in the wafting fragrance of the osmanthus." It is unclear if the reporter, who apparently is from Singapore, has seen those trees herself.  For Chongqing residents to be able to "rest under the shade of the gingko" will take at least another twenty years. (Bo Xilai did say he was providing benefits for "future generations" after all.) Nor does she seem to be aware of the above government official's pronouncement that gingkoes would let in the sun and shade is unwanted.

Speaking of "wafting fragrance," there is a catch in planting gingko: it takes many years to tell if a new tree is male or female. The female gingko has a strong foul smell when it flowers. When that stench engulfs Chongqing's streets years later, the only option left will be to cut them down.

1 comment:

ecodelta said...

Its a pity China politics is so opaque.

It could be even more interesting than the elections in the US.

Some good media coverage and live interviews would be fascinating.

It is also one of the pillars of US soft power, even when it goes bad.

Obama may have been more popular outside the US than in any state
Hope they don't forget or put it to far down the road towards political reform.

Only Chinese politician I know with significant international projection is Mr Wen. Well... and Bo Xilai now...