'Gingko Fever in Chongqing': The Billion-Dollar Trees of Central China

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When I was off in China earlier this year, one highly memorable series of guest posts was by the writer and technologist Xujun Eberlein. In a five-part sequence -- parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 -- she unraveled a historical mystery involving US and Chinese interactions in the huge central Chinese city of Chongqing. ("Chungking" in tales of Chiang Kai-Shek and the Flying Tigers in World War II.)

BoXilai.jpgAnyone who follows Chinese politics and culture knows how much Chongqing has recently dominated the news. Its flashy party secretary, Bo Xilai (right), is seen as a source of hope by some, and menace by others, because of his all-fronts "Red Culture" campaign. This is an effort to promote old style -- ie "Red" Communist -- values as an offset to the unbridled market-mindedness of modern China. If you want to take it as a sign of hope, you see it is as a critique of the extraordinary inequalities that have come with rapid growth. (This spring in Beijing I watched a man driving a Bentley, and angling it around another man who was pulling an ox cart with the yoke over his shoulders.) If you take it as a cautionary tale, you are concerned about the "cult of the personality" that Bo Xilai is building up and other aspects of this mass-culture campaign.

Xujun Eberlein has been back in Chongqing and sends this dispatch about a symbolic front in the "Red Culture" campaign: the fever and fervor over gingko trees.  Her report follows, plus her photo of gingko trees along a Chongqing road:

>>Gingko Fever in Chongqing

By Xujun Eberlein

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 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! Secretory 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 say "that magnificent sight still makes his heart miss a beat."
 
The zeal almost feels like the Great Leap Forward in 1958; the ubiquitous gingkoes 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 today. 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.
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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