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July 18, 2013

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Home » Opinion » Opinion Columns

Vanity projects may lose their luster as GDP slows

WE are daily witnessing new and ever-grander landmarks being proposed, designed, and erected across the country.

They can be the highest high-rises, the widest boulevards or the most expansive squares.

Landmarks are not necessarily restricted to the land.

A proposed 123-km undersea tunnel linking Dalian in Liaoning Province and Yantai in Shandong Province will be the world's longest of its kind and, at a cost of 260 billion yuan (US$42 billion), probably the most expensive.

This penchant for grandiose and extravagant landmarks has even infected some institutions supposedly intended for charitable purposes.

A towering 24-meter-tall sculpture of Soong Ching Ling - a bust covering 800 square meters - was almost completed last year in Zhengdong New District in Zhengzhou, Henan Province.

A towering controversy arose when media exposed the sculpture as a project of the Henan Soong Ching Ling Foundation. Madame Soong (1893-1981), wife of Dr Sun Yat-sen, is a revered figure and a famous philanthropist who helped children.

Heated discussion arose over the propriety of financing wasteful image projects with donations intended for children's charities.

As a result of the furor, the nearly completed project was halted last year and totally dismantled a month ago.

The cost for erecting the project was 120 million yuan.

The cost for tearing down the mammoth structure has not been disclosed. However, both the construction and demolition are sure to give a boost to the city's lackluster GDP.

This statue was not by any means the most impressive in the city of Zhengzhou.

Imposing statues

The provincial capital is also home to the gargantuan twin sculptures of Yan Di and Huang Di - legendary fathers of the Chinese people - that tower 106 meters in front of a 150,000-square-meter plaza.

In case these numbers are not meaningful, this "founding fathers" monument is eight meters taller than the Statue of Liberty in New York City, hence, the tallest statue on Earth.

The bridge of each deity's nose alone measures eight meters. The two faces combined cover 1,000 square meters.

These imposing predecessors probably convinced the Henan Soong Ching Ling Foundation decision makers that the modest Soong sculpture was a safe bet and would not be too eye-catching. But the age of social media changed that when word of it spread.

It is strange that this project alone should be singled out for such criticism, since nearly all sculptures, squares and landmarks today have been financed by the Chinese people.

And regardless who have financed the monstrosities, they should be condemned as eyesores totally incompatible with the quintessentially Chinese location in Zhengzhou, an area in the Yellow River basin considered one of the cradles of Chinese civilization.

The essence of Chinese culture is zhongyong, which can be translated as all things in moderation, nothing to excess.

The obsession with quantitative conceptions - biggest, tallest, fastest, most expensive - is a fairly recent Western import. These notions of magnitude enable us to reduce our aspirations to numbers, preferably superlatives, the bigger the better.

Ironically, by Western standards, we as a city and nation can claim nearly all the attributes of an awe-inspiring international metropolis and miraculously emerging economy with dazzling promise of prosperity.

But people today seem to be more restless and disquieted than before.

Since we appear to have lost our native ability to reflect or judge ourselves, or even lost touch with our inner selves, we seem to be in a perpetual state of thirst for external approval, approbation and attention.

Some local officials are mad about superficial grandeur because grandeur is both useful and profitable. Grandeur also shows we have "arrived."

Useful because for the past three decades the mandate for ambitious officials at all levels has been "growth" - at any cost.

Penchant for projects

Profitable because increasingly local officials know that growth creates ample room to line their own pockets with bribes or kickbacks from projects of grandeur. Grandiose image projects are ideal for the purpose of stripping state or public assets.

Strangely, as individuals we also strive to keep up in vanity, with our colleagues, relatives, and classmates.

The vanity object at issue can be the trendiest, most expensive and exclusive tourist destination, the most luxurious brand, the latest gadget, movie, or the latest "enrichment" course for our children already staggering under homework.

According to Monday's Xinmin Evening News, a woman surnamed Xu in Wuhan, Hubei Province, has already spent nearly 120,000 yuan to enroll her son, now 5 and a half years old, in 17 training sessions, including pinyin (the Chinese phonetic alphabet), pottery, vocal music, English, piano, Chinese literacy and math.

By following this meticulously designed plan she is determined to bring out the most and best in her son.

Each day from 8am to 4pm she travels with the boy between these training appointments; they do not return home until after 9pm.

We now live in a country where we no longer have the patience to wait for a sapling to grow up.

To hasten growth, we resort to generous application of fertilizers, pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, and all kinds of other chemicals believed to be helpful.

Loss of 'inwardness'

In a certain sense, the woman in Wuhan is little different from China's football association in its folly of spending an astronomical sum of money to hire Jose Antonio Camacho as the national coach.

In the wake of a humiliating defeat by Thailand, the association has terminated his coaching contract and is now in a row over compensation.

The football management has no clue that whether that 11-man team wins or loses has nothing to do with the spiritual and physical welfare of a nation of more than a billion people.

The outcome of a game vanishes from sight in the long perspective; it is excluded from the final reckoning.

But as we have abandoned nearly all interior life that we once found pleasant and empowering, we now willingly prostrate ourselves before those false gods, enthused about sex goddesses, idols, tycoons, brands, e-gadgets, or a rolling ball.

As Karl Jaspers (1883-1969) wrote in "The Perennial Scope of Philosophy" (1949), "Today there is a de facto nihilism in numerous forms."

"Men have appeared, who seem to have abandoned all inwardness, for whom nothing seems to have any value, who stagger through a world of accident from moment to moment ... driven by elemental, irrational, overpowering and yet quickly passing emotions, and ultimately by the instinctual urge for the pleasure of the moment," he wrote.

China's current government has evinced some tolerance for relatively "low" GDP growth ("Slowing growth to test China's reform efforts," Shanghai Daily, July 16), and that's a very encouraging sign.

Only by fundamentally playing down that misleading GDP metric can we hope to reconnect to important values from which we have grown estranged.

Hopefully, a less GDP-driven China might have lower tolerance for such grandiose projects as monstrous statues, vulgar monuments, and the many empty but destructive landmarks.


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