Ian Teh | Traces (2011)

Country of origin: United Kingdom
Project location: China
Program: Magnum Foundation Fund
Year: 2011

Travelling to Lanzhou, the largest city near the northwestern region of the Yellow River in China, Ian Teh explores relationships between river communities and expanding industrialization. Teh’s work examines issues such as environmental degradation and water shortage. Teh writes, “The fall of this famous river is a tragedy whose consequences extend far beyond the 150 million people it directly sustains. The Yellow's plight also highlights the dark side of China's economic miracle, an environmental crisis that has led to a shortage of the one resource no nation can live without: water.” He plans to produce a multimedia piece and possibly partner with Greenpeace and Green Camel Bell in China to distribute this work.


On October 27, 2011 Ian Teh and Mayling Birney spoke about the politics behind fast paced development and the wide-ranging implications of China's economic boom. In June 2011, Ian Teh traveled to Lanzhou, a city along China's historic Yellow river, where he explored the impacts of China's rapid industrialization on the landscape. Mayling Birney is a comparative political economist with an expertise in the politics and political economy of China. She is a lecturer in the Political Economy of Development at the London School of Economics. She is currently finishing a book tentatively titled Ruling Against the Law: How Mandates Constrain Democracy in China.

TEH: A significant part of my work is devoted to an ideal, a dream of a nation. But this cityscape for example, one of the first images of my photo essay, presents a seemingly peaceful scene of rising skyscrapers seen from a distance in the fog, perhaps even reminiscent of traditional Chinese paintings except in reality, it's a sprawling city seen through a polluted haze. Lanzhou's pride rests in being the first and largest city along the Yellow River, but it has gotten out of control in its massive discharge of human and industrial waste.

This ambiguity is a visual metaphor I use to reflect on the delicate balance between environment and development. It begs the question, which way is China tipping? My images are a starting point, a window to suggest greater forces at play. Mayling, in looking at my work, does it relate to the things you are working on?

BIRNEY: It does, and one of the things I love about your photography and this particular collection, is the ambiguity that comes across about whether this is a positive path for China or a self-destructive one. One picture that captures this well is the one with a massive amount of buildings in the background, high-rises coming up in the middle ground, and a cleared, gray wasteland in the foreground. In the middle is a strip of green but the strip is fake. It's a picture of what the future will look like, but it's not there yet.

It captures a contrast between the current reality development creates and hopes for future. For some people this leads to dreams that come true, but for others it does not. One of the interesting things about China is how it achieves incredible amounts of development that make us see the political system in a positive light; and, at the same time, the way development happens often ruins the environment, the livelihoods, and the dreams people have held making us see the system as devastating

TEH: I'm oscillating between being in awe and being horrified at what I'm seeing in China. How does the Chinese political structure prioritize its objectives? This might give us a foundation to look at what I'm witnessing on the ground.

BIRNEY: Your photography captures the massiveness of development projects in China. The fact that they're massive is not by chance, that's something the system is set up to generate: big, dramatic, visible changes. But the system is not good at creating subtle changes that are less easy to see with the naked eye.

China's political system is distinctive in that it's particularly good at achieving the highest priorities, which are two things: (1) the stability of the political regime including the repression of opposition within the regime, and (2) economic growth. The central government also wants to achieve a better balance between economic growth and environmental protection, but the environment is not as high a priority.

One of the reasons China is good at achieving its highest priorities, yet often fails to uphold its own laws, is that it does not run on a system of laws. It's really run on what I call a rule of mandates, where higher officials direct lower officials to achieve priority objectives. Lower officials know that stability is most important, followed by growth. So they'll let other laws go by the wayside, and it won't be a problem. Then, when economic growth and environmental protection are in conflict, as is so often the case, officials are typically incentivized to pursue economic growth over environment protection, rather than balance them as laws suggest or as the public might want.

The second reason is that there isn't a strong political system in place for monitoring whether priorities get done. Monitoring in China is top-down rather than bottom-up, which means there is less of it. Local governments do big, visible things because you can easily verify whether or not a road was built, whereas it's much harder to verify whether or not the water quality is good because those results could be faked easily.

China is an authoritarian system where people become officials by having more important people approve them rather than public approval. So officials have an incentive to be accountable to higher levels of government, rather than to the local public. At the same time, higher officials have put in place something a bit unusual to ensure some minimal responsiveness to public frustrations. It's a constraint, known as the stability veto target – if you fail to prevent mass gatherings as an official, then all the other good things you've done do not matter. Preventing massive unrest is more important than anything else. This way, central officials hope to limits how far local officials push development projects and how much they dislocate and prey on local people, though it doesn't always work as hoped.

While there is a minimum level of protection for the public, it is a highly unequal society, and getting more unequal. That said, China has been more successful at sharing the benefits of development and education than many other developing countries.

TEH: In hearing you make this distinction between mandates and a rule of law, I am reminded of my image of the power station viewed from the backyard of a farmer's home. It always struck me how incongruous it is that heavy industry shares the same space and resources with agriculture.

Since local governments are responsible for raising tax revenue, they have incentive to take rural land away from farmers and invest in heavy industry. This newly appropriated land can be sold off at many times its original cost. All this helps maintain growth, which helps explain why industry is allowed to be uncomfortably close to the nation's food chain.

BIRNEY: I also find this photograph intriguing. It visually conveys one of the big issues in China today: that often development happens in people's backyards. This development, this power plant, is literally behind the backyard of this villager's home – yet it is inaccessible to him. This photograph captures the fact that most people in China do not have access to the benefits of new development projects that take place in their own backyards.

There are two significant reasons for this. One is the lack of property rights. For poor farmers around the world, typically the only asset they have is their land; it is their only source of economic stability. In China, poor farmers don't even have that, because the government reallocates land. The government is supposed to pay farmers fair compensation, but often the price they set is far below market value. Development does happen in rural areas, but farmers are woefully under-compensated for it.

The second reason is that the market does not drive economic development in China as much as people think; it is a state-dominated economy. It's not state-run the way it used to be, but financing and permits to operate are largely directed by the state. These are often allocated to favor big businesses that are well connected politically over small entrepreneurs. Development in rural areas comes from big players who get access to local resources and maybe employ some local people in low-paying jobs. This increases the welfare of those lucky enough to get jobs, but does not fully include locals in the benefits of development.

The benefits in rural areas typically go to people who are not from there, or to the rural elite, and this photograph captures this phenomenon.

TEH: It makes me think about one of the top priorities, stability. It seems as if the state is designed to give just enough to promote the stability that they need, and anything else is up for grabs.

BIRNEY: Yes, it's admirable that the political system does share some of the benefits of development, but it's often appalling how unfairly it is shared or how certain communities are taken advantage of. When things are unbearable, if the public dares to protest, they may get a concession. However, the leaders of the protest are typically arrested so they have to be ready to make an incredible sacrifice, even if the average person might get some concessions. For instance, if people protest against a polluting factory, local officials might be fired and/or someone from outside might require the factory to change or pay compensation.

The system is responsive when people are pushed to desperation, which is more than you can say for a lot of developing countries. But we should still want the system to better respond to people before that. And we can ask: Why are civic organizers, who help give voice to otherwise voiceless people in China, bearing the brunt of punishment?

TEH: Another thing that interests me is the wealth gap in China. I read an article recently about farms that grow organic food but don't advertise. They stay behind tall fences, hidden from prying eyes, supplying organic food only to the political elite and the very rich.

BIRNEY: Yes, China has different classes of citizenship, almost like an apartheid system, where some people have urban citizenship in the most developed cities, like Beijing and Shanghai. If your parents have citizenship (hukou) in a large city you'll have access to better public services, pensions, social security, healthcare, and education system. The next best hukou is to be from a minor city. The least desirable is a rural hukou. This means your children only have a right to education and healthcare in the rural area you are from, even if you work in the city, or another rural area hundreds of miles away. This hukou system is a real source of inequality.

TEH: This also controls the population and how far you can travel. That way migrant workers can't stay in big cities and will eventually go back.

BIRNEY: It's partly why you see the social dislocation embodied in your photographs. People typically arrive in large cities without their families. Children from rural areas do not have the right to be educated in the city so they are left behind with their grandparents. This creates new communities around pockets of fast development that are without full families. In your photographs there's a sense of people being alienated from their past, their history, their families. This is not driven strictly by development but by the way in which development is happening.

I love that photograph of the little red building that looks like a temple on a hill. But instead of streams and winding paths, it's a modernized industrial version with straight, severe tracks that cross towards it. To me it embodies the new faith the political system has: that development and industry are a replacement for the old traditions, old family structures, and old beliefs in China.

TEH: Now that you mention it, one might say that the gravel hills in this photograph look like mountains in a Chinese painting.

BIRNEY: It looks like the space where the water would've been has been reduced to the same single element: rock, tamed by industry.

TEH: Recently I worked with an NGO called Green Camel Bell in Lanzhou, China. They are an example of a civilian grassroots monitoring organization that works in tandem, but not officially, with the government's environmental agency. They take regular walks around the city and nearby towns, checking for illegal waste dumping. On a landfill I visited, the main one for a city of 3 million people, things have improved because they now have three waste treatment plants that treat raw sewage before it gets piped into the river. Prior to that, all sewage and industrial waste were piped untreated into the river. It makes me think of China's gargantuan economic development as a body builder with massive biceps but puny, skinny legs. Why just those big visual projects without adequate infrastructure for a more sustainable development? I think opening up the system doesn't necessarily mean it would have to threaten China's first objective, which is maintaining the one-party system.

BIRNEY: I think that's very true; that a lot could be done short of national democratization that would really improve the system and make it work for a broader array of the public. More civil liberties could be granted, the media could be allowed to be independent, and civil society could be permitted to form independently and to challenge problematic government policies.