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Fantasy Islands: Chinese Dreams and Ecological Fears in an Age of Climate Crisis by Julie Sze

China’s environmental emergency, Julie Sze tells us, has given rise to fear, loathing, and, more recently, what may prove to be a historic agreement by Xi Jinping and Barack Obama to limit carbon emissions. The growing crisis has also set off a race to find solutions. From wind farms and solar panels to electric vehicles, Chinese government and businesses are in a race to keep the Chinese dream of a higher living standard from being overwhelmed by coal-choked air, toxic water and clusters of cancer villages.

Fantasy Islands: Chinese Dreams and Ecological Fears in an Age of Climate Crisis by Julie Sze
Fantasy Islands: Chinese Dreams and Ecological Fears in an Age of Climate Crisis, Julie Sze (University of California Press, January 2015)

China needs big solutions for problems that are almost unimaginably large. Setting up entire new cities—so-called eco-cities—was one path to change. On paper, it seemed sensible enough to build high-end showcases that could serve as experimental demonstration sites and diffuse good environmental practices more broadly throughout the country.

Dongtan was the most ambitious of these projects. Set on Chongming Island, the world’s largest alluvial island just north of Shanghai, Dongtan was supposed to exemplify the way in which a rising and increasingly urban China could live in harmony with nature. Crucially, it was also one of the earliest such cities, so the entire concept was something of a blank canvas. Three-quarters the size of Manhattan, plans for Dongtan billed it as the first sustainable city. The project was designed to be as close to carbon-neutral as economically possible and the first phase, housing 10,000 people, was intended to be ready for the 2010 Shanghai World Expo.

The plan, which met skepticism from the beginning, was stillborn. Dongtan appears to be a casualty of the 2006 downfall of Shanghai Party Secretary Chen Liangyu on corruption charges, as construction was close to starting. Yet enough preliminary work had been done by Arup, the global engineering and urban planning firm, to give a record of the hopes and dreams of the Dongtan fantasy are there to be unearthed.


Julie Sze has written a perceptive and engaging account of the hopes and dreams embodied in Dongtan and why the project was such an abysmal failure. A mix of critique and reportage, the weaving of a theoretical approach with that of a traveler whose father coincidentally grew up on Chongming, Sze masterfully unpicks the strands of what was intended as the world’s largest new environmental city. Her story is made even richer because she sets it against the backdrop of the 2010 Shanghai Expo, designed to showcase sustainable development under the slogan “Better City, Better Life”. Although construction of the eco-city never started in earnest, the island was linked with Shanghai in 2010 by the world’s longest tunnel and bridge.

In place of true environmentalism, Sze finds little more than utopian (and often, dystopian) fantasy, one with little connection to either vibrant cities or thriving nature. Sze rightly notes that China’s approach to environmental issues is to treat them as engineering problems. Dongtan, Sze writes


is as much an expression of imagination, historical memory, and anxieties about the future as it ever was a specific development project.


The broader eco-Shanghai project, Sze adds, is about “the branding of the urbanism of ecological ambition,” a way of finding a quasi-magical technology solution to environmental problems. The desire to build projects like Dongtan is not a genuine attempt to solve environmental problems, but an effort


to build an ‘anti-Shanghai,’ a space that will somehow be both rural and urban, Chinese and cosmopolitan, natural and artificial.


Sze’s account of the Shanghai Expo might have added sculptor Xu Bing’s magnificent pair of phoenixes, made entirely from construction waste. The sculptures, which celebrate the human and material toil that go into the making of modern cities, were rejected by the Beijing property developer who commissioned them (and asked that they be encased in crystal to make them prettier) but shown at the Shanghai Expo. They now hang at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York.

Sze is the founding director of the Environmental Justice Project at the University of California Davis, where she teaches, and it is no surprise that she eviscerates China’s techno-utopian fantasy. She excels at her critique and she is dismissive of the idea that a market-based society can produce solutions to environmental problems. Although Sze’s critique is often compelling, Sze does not flesh out a more positive vision of where an increasingly urban China should turn. Yet that should not take away from Sze’s impressive achievement in looking through new eyes at China’s efforts to deal with its environmental challenges.

Mark L. Clifford is the author of the forthcoming The Greening of Asia (Columbia University Press, 2015). He is the executive director of the Asia Business Council.