Hutong Economics: This Old House

Evan Osnos’ latest Letter from China in The New Yorker explains the often short-term thinking behind much of China’s development, in contrast with the long view often discerned behind some grander projects. In his illustrative anecdote, a “carpenter-electrician-plumber-contractor” visits Osnos’ Beijing home to take on a range of more or less urgent renovations:

… I asked why the doors were rotting in the first place after only four years. He laughed harder this time.

“When I renovated this house, the landlord only wanted to pay for materials that would last five years, because his lease—from the landlord above him—only lasts five years. So when it came to choosing the metal and the wood and the details, we only bought materials that would last for five years.”

In the spirit of Beijing these days, it had a certain logic. We often see houses in the neighborhood demolished and rebuilt in the course of a few weeks, so it’s not much of a stretch to imagine the lifetime of a house in terms of a few years. Chinese friends who are among the wave of new homeowners these days often complain that their buildings look decrepit after five years.

Americans who are weary of Washington dysfunction often remark, after a whirlwind visit to China, that the country seems to take a longer view of things by building new airports and highways and laying grand plans. That is true on the most high-profile projects, but that aphorism has always conformed more to our imagined notions of China than to the details of day-to-day life. Step closer, and China’s breakneck speed has its liabilities, whether it’s in the construction of a railway or a house in an alley.

For another view of modern China through the lens of home maintenance, see Xujun Eberlein’s ‘Who is the Guilty Party?‘, via CDT.

September 16, 2011 2:20 PM
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