Q+A: Peggy Liu
Summit (S): Tell us about your early memories of China.
Peggy Liu (PL): When I was a child, my parents brought me along for a cruise along the Yangtze River. This was, of course, before the dam was built, which created the largest hydro-power plant project to date, and forced the relocation of 1.3 million people away from their homes. Eventually we moved into a tributary and up a smaller river, and I remember the river was so clear that I could see the marbling of every single pebble at the bottom of the riverbed. I could actually take a sip of that water and it tasted so sweet and clear and—as a child—I remember thinking that’s how water should taste.
China doesn’t actually taste like that today. Instead, we have rivers that run bright red with industrial water pollution and we have thick algae that accumulates in lakes and on top of beaches. We have 18,000 dead pigs floating down the Shanghai Huangpu River because we don’t know how to dispose of diseased pigs. So, because of that reality in China today, one of the absolute top priorities of both citizens and the government is ensuring safe food, air and water.
S: Talk a little bit about the actual work JUCCE is doing and its current projects.
PL: JUCCE loosely stands for “Joint U.S.-China Collaboration on Clean Energy.” Six years ago, when we founded JUCCE, our mission was to accelerate the greening of China. What most people don’t know outside of China is that we are actually very committed to going green and, when I say “we,” I mean that it’s not just the citizens. The central government and the local governments have a lot of money behind going green. They have a lot of new policies constantly being put into place, such as a plastic bags ban. In fact, the government has announced a program to shame the top most polluted cities and to praise the top cleanest cities.
Our organization tries to green China by working with the decision makers: the mayors who are building new cities and the central government bureau-heads who are putting policy into place.
We train 50 people at a time on topics like eco-heritage tourism which, of course, Hawai‘i does so well, but which is really devoid in China. We are trying to create new programs for social spaces which, again, we take for granted in the U.S., but which don’t really exist in China. We train mayors on how to manage municipal waste, water, clean energy, smart transportation and anything else that is required to build a sustainable city.
We’re really trying to change the way China thinks. In the past, we have not been building at a scale or purpose that will benefit ordinary people in China. Instead, we’ve been building infrastructure and factories for phallic symbols like cars. We’re trying to do this with programs like our flagship consumer program, called China Dream, which has gotten a lot of play internationally and has sparked a national conversation within China about going green.
S: Can you paint us a mental picture of what Shanghai or Beijing looks like?
PL: Before I moved to Shanghai I used to live in Silicon Valley in the ‘90s, during the heyday of the Internet. What was fascinating about living there at that time was that it was like a new gold rush. There were new companies, new money and new buildings coming up all the time in Silicon Valley.
If you think about what’s happening in China today, it’s very similar; except that it’s happening at probably 10,000 or 100,000 times the scale and the pace. New roads lie beneath us and new grids surround us, but it’s not just that; it’s the culture of the society itself that’s changing. I like to tell people that China becomes a new country about every five years. If you look at societal values and you examine where Chinese people set the bar for the China Dream in terms of what is possible for them to accomplish during their lives, it keeps getting pushed higher and higher.
S: You have a vignette about a particular woman eating one kind of meat that was actually another.
PL: When I was living in California, I had my first child. And the best memories that I have of him at that time were of him running to the blueberry bush to pick the blueberries off and pop them into his mouth. But in China, today, we can’t do that. The sad thing is that our children can’t appreciate and love food or the earth that it’s grown from in the same way. Instead we live in a country where people fear and mistrust the very food they consume.
Just last month, we found out that 22 tons of what was allegedly beef was not actually beef; it was made out of pork and paraffin. We had a case where melanin in our milk poisoned six infants and put 200,000 more in hospitals. We had a case where the stuffing in frozen dumplings was actually made from cardboard. Last year, we had a case where the hotpot meat—the frozen meat that you dip into the broth to cook—was made not from lamb but from rat and mink.
These cases are only a few of the many, many instances of really horrible food-industry practices in China. We need to move China from a state of mistrust to trust; from a country where our kids go abroad and ask "why is the sky so blue," to a country where safe food and air are givens.
S: As a Hawaiian and an American looking at China, I’m always struck that it’s such an old civilization—one of the longest continually existing human civilizations. Do you see a disconnect with what is happening now in China and that long history?
PL: A lot of the change that’s happening and the incentive to go green in China has to be looked at from the context of where China is coming from. So although China is one of the longest civilizations in history with probably more than 5,000 years of culture that we’re drawing from, the cultural revolution essentially wiped the slate clean in terms of our society, in terms of our art, in terms of our culture.
For the last 30 years, since China has opened up, we’ve really been absorbing many ideas from the West. A lot of these ideas come from Western advertising and Western television. So we’ve been drip-fed these candied images of a sort of perfect dream with ever more houses, more cars, more steaks, more rings and more things for me; but that’s not going to work for a China of “we.”
We cannot lead China down a path of Kim Kardashian dreams; we need to create our own China Dream. We need to carve our own sustainable path. If this doesn’t happen we are going to have a China Nightmare instead. But, of course, that would really be a global nightmare, because China is not just going to tap into its own resources to create this nightmare; it’s going to—and it’s already doing this—going to go abroad to other countries and look for oil and look for coal and look for rare minerals and look for food products, and all sorts of other resources to feed this growing, consumerist middle class.
What people don’t realize about China’s middle class is that it’s at about 500 million strong today—it’s already a large group. These are people who can buy refrigerators and televisions. But by 2025, that groups is going to be 800 million strong. And they won’t just be buying refrigerators and televisions; they’ll also be worrying about the color of their sneakers; they’ll be thinking about their quality of life, about leisure tourism to places like Hawai‘i. So think about the resources. If we don’t lead people to a sustainable lifestyle and a re-imagined prosperity that they identify as part of the China Dream, then we are going to have a China nightmare.
S: Can you talk about urbanization and then dream yourself about what the China Dream should be?
PL: I live in Shanghai, and I refuse to take the airplane to get around China these days because 80 percent of the time it’s delayed. So now I take five hours on high-speed rail that goes 300 kilometers per hour. It’s very comfortable, and what you see out of the window is really amazing: You see construction cranes littering the sky, building anonymous block after anonymous block of apartment buildings; all gray cement. You also see mountains that have been pockmarked with empty cavern after cavern as they are raped for their stone in the name of urbanization.
People can’t really comprehend the scale of the urbanization in China until they visit, but let me give you a few statistics and try to put them in context: In 20 years, 350 million more people—more than the entire population of the United States—will have moved into or been engulfed by cities. To support that, we’re going to have to develop infrastructure. That means 170 new mass transit systems—subways, bus rapid transit, high-speed rail, maglev trains—more than all the modern systems that have been built in Europe to this date combined.
Over that 20-year period, we will also have built 50,000 new skyscrapers that are 30 stories or taller, which is equivalent to 10 New York Cities—not Manhattans, New York Cities. This is also the equivalent of all of the building stock in Canada in a given year—two billion square meters each year.
Now this means jobs, so it’s good on one hand because people can migrate into cities and they can be the shopkeepers, they can be the people running the subways, they can be the people running the schools, they can be the teachers, and people have a better quality of life, generally speaking. Overall, you can say that dense, compact, vertical cities are a more sustainable way of life than everybody living in small suburban towns and everybody driving home from work an hour each way. But on the other hand, this creates a huge social problem of inclusion: How do you welcome literally 350 million new neighbors into these cities, these towns, these neighborhoods?
S: Where do you want to see China go?
PL: As somebody who was born and raised in America and has traveled to probably 40 different countries around the world and now calls China my home, I can see how beautiful China could be, but it’s certainly not there yet.
In the last three years, JUCCE has been undertaking a co-creation process that involves talking to people around China—people who deeply understand the Chinese culture; people who really understand sustainable living and sustainable cities; people who can do storytelling. We’ve been bringing these people together to co-create a new China Dream, what we deem the first re-imagining of prosperity, in a curated fashion. Again, if we can re-imagine prosperity while we simultaneously embed sustainability within that China Dream, that will be the easiest way for us to lead those 800 million middle-class people along a different path.
We now define this China Dream along four main pillars. The first one is being able to take for granted safe food, air and water. Certainly we’re still very far away from that today.
The second one is vibrant living. Vibrant living means that you’re healthy and fit, able to focus on your studies as a young child or—if you’re a 70-year-old—that you’re still bringing your bird in a little cage to the park every day to do tai-chi, or you’re still going ballroom dancing at night with your friends. We’re heading down the path where a third of the Chinese population is going to be over 65 soon, so vibrant living is really about thriving mentally, socially and physically.
The third pillar is creating livable communities. The way that we picture livable communities is not necessarily the suburb with the large single family home, with two dogs, maybe a cat and two cars. That type of lifestyle is not possible for China. Instead, we envision compact, dense, vertical skyscraper living on top of a lot of public transportation. I myself live on top of two subway lines, which is very, very convenient. I can literally take the subway straight to two airports as well as the high-speed rail.
The last pillar is about creating the opportunity for everybody, no matter where you live, to progress and create a better quality of life for your children and yourself. It doesn’t mean we throw away our past but, instead, it means really cherishing our more than 5,000 years of heritage. Rather than follow the cultural revolution path, which is essentially wiping the slate clean of our Chinese culture and replacing it with Louis Vuitton, we want to create a Hermès Shang Xia life. If you don’t know, Shang Xia is the the new brand that Hermès has created for China. It’s made by Chinese people and it celebrates the Chinese culture.
S: Where do you see Hawai‘i fitting in to this network?
PL: In the last few years, my family and I have been traveling between Hawai‘i and China often and, one day, we’d love to move here. I see Hawai‘i playing a very unique role as an East-West bridge, especially as China’s influence becomes greater globally and as more Chinese tourists travel abroad.
Certainly one of the things that Hawai‘i, for me, represents is the the beauty of nature. Eco-heritage tourism is actually something we teach in our government training classes. I would love for Chinese tourists to be able to better appreciate nature, to be able to see blue and green everywhere, mountains and oceans. I want them to see the kind of beauty that you have in Hawai‘i as a normal part of everyday life, rather than as a rarity that can only be seen while on vacation.
This is an education process; the ability to teach Chinese tourists how to behave in nature is something that is laughably possible and very necessary. You have to put this in context. Most of the 1.3 billion people in China have not been able to travel abroad and many have grown up in tiny concrete and cement blocks with a whole family crammed into a space smaller than 100 square feet. All of these people are seeing places like Hawai‘i for the first time, and I think if you can have a center that welcomes more Chinese tourists and educates them at the same time, you begin to treat them not just as tourists but also as students of the world. I think that is a fabulous opportunity for China and for Hawai‘i.