Posts by Harrison Rule


Shanghai’s vanishing heritage: A cautionary tale of urban development

Harrison Rule

Society and culture | East Asia


At a time when China was still writhing from the ‘humiliation’ of two Opium Wars, the city of Shanghai would emerge  as a bustling centre of activity, developing from a frontier market town to the first modern metropolis in China. Foreign concessions, imposed on the city by the ‘unequal treaties’, brought fresh capital and economic opportunity to the coastal port, ushering in a phenomenal surge in domestic Chinese migration.

The Shanghai alleyway house, the city's innovative solution to this great demographic strain, is today however being pushed aside for 21st century urban towers, at the detriment of housing affordability and livability.

The new, strange, almost cosmopolitan dynamic of post Opium War Shanghai would warp the architectural face of a once modest trade settlement. Old and new Chinese districts adjoined the ill-defined borders of the British and French settlements, within which grand neoclassical Western mansions stood side by side with dense sprawls of Chinese stores and dwellings.

[caption id="attachment_5246" align="alignnone" width="491"] Nanking Road, Shanghai - displaying the intimate vicinity between Colonial and traditional Chinese spaces[/caption]

European merchants raced to Shanghai seeking to capitalise on the domestic property demand brought about by the huge surge in domestic migration to the city. A British diplomat at the time, Her Majesty’s Consul Rutherford Alcock, observed that visiting British merchants of the day viewed the Shanghai property market as a kind of 19th Century ‘get-rich-quick’ scheme. He recorded the words of one young, ambitious visiting merchant who concluded “it is my business to make a fortune with the least possible loss of time, by letting my land to Chinese, and building … In two or three years at farthest, I hope to realise a fortune and get away.”

The consequence of this race for ‘fortune’ and maximisation of profit, was an incidental synthesis of European and traditional Chinese architectural design.

The longtang 弄堂 or Shanghai Alleyway House, combined elements of the British row house and working-class homes which ensured dense concentrations of tenants for high rental efficiency, with the principles of Chinese vernacular architecture to appeal to the domestic market. The result were dense, clustered neighbourhoods connect by narrow, intersecting alleyways organised like 'fish skeletons'.

[caption id="attachment_5269" align="alignnone" width="640"] The narrow entrance of an original Longtang neighbourhood[/caption]

These alleyways acted as communal spaces, key arteries of community interaction and public household rituals. They served as a catalyst for the creation of close-knit neighbourhoods, an essential function for a city swelling with new arrivals.

The concept proved so successful that by the end of the 1980s alleyway houses accounted for as much as 80 per cent of Shanghai’s built-up area.

Today however, these former staples of Shanghai’s vernacular design are near impossible to find.

Much like the European merchants of the 19th century, Shanghai’s current patrons and investors are pursing the maximisation of profit. The textured fabric of old Shanghai, is viewed as obsolete and unprofitable compared to the encroaching mega towers of the 21st century.

[caption id="attachment_5281" align="alignnone" width="1920"] Looming towers overshadow a small, isolated alleyway community near Jing'an Villa[/caption]

The few remaining remnants of the alleyway house typology represent distinct pockets of historical memory, threatened by the great Chinese economic machine. The destruction of the longtang is not simply the loss of an incredible piece of cultural and architectural heritage however, but the destruction of a potential solution to a crisis faced by many megacities around the world - the crisis of social sustainability.

In February 2016 Chinese government authorities highlighted the need to provide low-income urban residents with affordable housing as a top priority for the Communist Party. In order to achieve and maintain social and economic diversity within its cities, decision makers in Beijing and Shanghai should heed the lessons of the great alleyway house social experiment. The longtang have successfully forged Shanghainese communities since the mid 19th century, providing socially sustainable and economically diverse housing for residents while creating safe, liveable spaces built on principles of community interaction.

These neighbourhoods, an integral part of the identity of the city, remain however an endangered species. As China faces yet again another gigantic domestic migration to the 'city on the sea', the architectural face of Shanghai must adapt once more. Outside observers can only hope, that the value of social design is recognised – before it is too late.

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Tiger on a tightrope – Why Taiwan is called ‘Chinese Taipei’

Harrison Rule

International relations | Asia


Heads of state from across the Asia Pacific will congregate in Peru this November for the annual APEC Economic Leaders' Meeting. As the global political heavyweights gather around the diplomatic roundtable in Lima however, one placard may seem out of place.

Squeezed between household names like Barak Obama, Vladimir Putin and Shinzo Abe will sit a Taiwanese politician from a minor opposition party, under the banner of ‘Chinese Taipei’.

A name for a nation that does not exist, ‘Chinese Taipei’ is a political compromise. It’s a label for one of Asia’s four great ‘economic tigers’ that must perform a delicate balancing act to win the right for global recognition. The diplomatic status of ‘Chinese Taipei’ or Taiwan as it is more commonly known, is a quirk of history – a by-product of a 70 year-old civil war over the governance of Asia’s oldest superpower.

[caption id="attachment_5005" align="aligncenter" width="500"] Taiwanese politician Lien Chan greeting Russian President Dmitry Medvedev at the 2008 APEC Forum[/caption]

In the early hours of 10 December 1949, Communist troops laid siege to the final Nationalist stronghold in China – Chengdu. Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalist Government, battered and bruised retreated to safety of Taiwan. The Nationalists however, much like the Communists, insisted that their government continued to represent all Chinese people, both on the island and the mainland.

While for much of the Cold War, most Western powers including Washington and Canberra recognised the administration operating in Taiwan as the legitimate government of ‘China’, it became apparent in the 1970s that the People’s Republic of China in Beijing posed greater economic and political utility in the fight against the Soviet Union.

And so, in 1971, representatives of Taipei walked out of the UN General Assembly, an organisation of which they were founding members, as Resolution 2758 was passed. It recognised the People’s Republic of China as “the only legitimate representative of China to the United Nations.”

The following decades saw a string of memorandums and communiques, with the United States promising to withdraw recognition and reduce the quantity of arms provided to Taiwan in exchange for an assurance from Beijing that Taiwan would be able to engage in capitalism and maintain a degree of autonomy – “one China, two systems” in the words of Deng Xiaoping.

But the China of the 1990s, undergoing turbulent economic and structural reforms, was ill-equipped to represent the diplomat and economic interests of a democratic, capitalist Tiger, eager to engage with the region.

The compromise was ‘Chinese Taipei’.

Taiwan would be permitted to participate in multilateral organizations, not on the basis of legal sovereignty, but on its role as an autonomously governed economy with significant regional economic interests.

The restrictions placed on this new ‘Chinese Taipei’ were not however limited to simply a humiliating name. A Memorandum of Understanding signed between China, Taiwan and APEC in 1991 significantly limited Taiwan’s space in the organisation, specifying that Taiwan is not permitted to send its President to the annual APEC economic leaders meeting or its Foreign Minister to the Ministerial Meetings.

Instead a strange diplomatic ritual has emerged, in which the APEC secretariat sends a special envoy to Taipei to deliver a letter of invitation to Taiwan’s President, who is then expected to politely decline. A second envoy then delivers an invitation to a candidate that has been both elected by the president and approved by the APEC host nation.

For a country with limited diplomatic means, the ability to appoint an APEC representative has become an unconventional but important tool for maintaining balance on the tightrope that is cross-strait relations.

Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan’s newly elected president, has used the APEC candidate selection process to extend an olive branch to Beijing. Representing ‘Chinese Taipei’ in Peru later this month is James Soong, leader of the People First Party – a small pro-China, minor opposition party with only two seats in the Taiwanese Legislative Yuan.

[caption id="attachment_5035" align="aligncenter" width="800"] Leader of the Taiwanese People First Party and representative of Chinese Taipei to APEC 2016, James Soong[/caption]

Tsai’s election of a candidate with a strong pro-unification stance is a show of good faith from a president whose Democratic Progressive Party is viewed in Beijing as a major challenge to the existing status quo.

Pulled in two directions by an ever growing domestic desire for recognition and an intense pressure from its powerful neighbour, Taiwan must tread carefully. The Little Tiger of East Asia must exploit the abnormality of its peculiar political position, even if that means working under an unfamiliar banner to achieve its diplomatic objectives.

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Warm diplomacy in the world’s coldest capital

Harrison Rule

Society and culture | Asia


“The sleeping giant of Asia has awakened.”

So warned Charles Morgan, the Honourable Member for Reid speaking of Asia to a deeply divided Australian parliament in the midst of the Cold War.

“It has been said that he who rules or dominates Asia rules or dominates the world. As the methods and techniques of Genghis Khan are being revived … we could suddenly be embroiled in trouble.”

At the time, the image of a ruthless conqueror whose great Golden Horde toppled even the most equipped armies of Central Asia and beyond, sent shivers down the spine of Australia – a young nation that viewed itself as alone in its own region, highly reliant on far off powers for protection.

The Mongol Warlord whose empire stretched from the Caspian Sea to Siberia, has acted as a cautionary symbol in Australian Defence politics, of an Asia with an inherently aggressive and expansionist spirit. An Asia that is to be feared, placated or contained.

It thus with great irony, that Australia’s newest embassy has been erected in a city guarded by the watchful gaze of the Great Khan himself. Casted in steel and gold a stoic Genghis watched on from the wild steppes just east of Ulaanbaatar as diplomatic relations were formalised between the two unlikely partners earlier this year.

[caption id="attachment_4742" align="alignnone" width="3557"] Genghis Khan Equestrian Statue - Located East of Ulanbaatar on the bank of the Tuul River. Source: Jonathan E. Shaw [/caption]

This was a move that seemed quite out of character for a sea-girt middle power that has traditionally focused its diplomatic efforts on Oceania and South-east Asia, while consolidating its presence in Northeast Asia to a few major capitals.

So what has changed? Why reach out to Mongolia now?

The importance of engagement with Asia has never been of greater strategic value than today. Following mutual recognition in 1967, diplomatic officials in Canberra were “at a loss” to describe the exact nature of Australia’s business in Mongolia. It was only recently, with the shift in focus towards the “Asian Century”, that Australia has realised the economic and strategic potential of deepening relations with powers like Mongolia.

With a rapidly changing global order, Australia is facing increased competition for access and influence in the region. Larger Asian countries are becoming more central to global diplomatic decision-making and are beginning to encroach on Australia’s traditional diplomatic stomping grounds.

Mongolia presents an opportunity for deepening and broadening our relationship with Asia. The Land of Blue Skies has already backed Australia’s bid for a UN Security Council seat as well as advocated for Australian participation in important biennial diplomatic forums such as the Asia–Europe Meeting. Like other small powers squeezed between military giants, Mongolia is looking to combat its vulnerable geographic position by expanding its diplomatic networks.

By supporting Mongolia’s aspirations for involvement in the ASEAN Regional Forum as well as other international financial institutions, Australia may in return win the support and cooperation of a state in the heart of the world’s most dynamic region.

As mineral-rich nations, both Mongolia and Australia rely heavily on Chinese importation of resources for economic prosperity. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute released a report suggesting that the two nations will find themselves in deep competition for mineral and agricultural export markets in North-east Asia. While this may in part be true, the economic relationship shared by Australia and Mongolia is in fact far more complex.

Fifty Australian companies have a presence in Mongolia, according to data released by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, including mining giants Rio Tinto, BHP Billiton, Leighton, Xanadu Mines and Kumai Energy – all of which have significant Mongolian mineral leases and investment plans.

On the other hand, Mongolia lacks the domestic technology, wealth and expertise to capitalise on its resource potential. In a 2011 joint-statement, it was made clear by the Mongolia government that the country is looking to Australia for vocational, agricultural and legal assistance in the coming decades.

While some Australians may still be skeptical of their country’s engagement with Asia, we must depart from the political trappings of the past. The image of a terrifying Mongol horde surging towards Australia is today unfounded and laughable.

The “sleeping giant of Asia”, as the late member for Reid warned, has indeed awakened. The threat posed today, however, is not one of ideology or a Pan-Asian Empire, but of a failure to engage.

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Bhutan, body counts and beauty

Harrison Rule

Society and culture | Asia


In elegant white cursive, the words “mountains, monasteries and magic” accompany an image of a picturesque Buddhist temple delicately balanced on the edge of a rugged cliff face.

This is the scene chosen by travel guide giant Lonely Planet to encapsulate what the Himalayan hermit kingdom of Bhutan has to offer visitors, as one of the guide’s “Top experiences in Asia.”

Though the company behind the iconic blue spine travel guides has always been criticised for homogenising and euphemising myriad cultures and societies, Lonely Planet’s most recent glossy depiction of Bhutan seems more fitting for a clichéd corporate motivational poster hanging above the water cooler in a dreary office break room.

In reality, the land of the Thunder Dragon is definitely no Shambhala.

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