USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program

Freedom vs. Freedom

As a result of the 1997 Sino-British Joint Declaration, contemporary governance in Hong Kong has much in common with Western nations.  A market driven economy and personal liberties are key components of the ‘one country, two systems’ resolution, which is to last until at least 2046, fifty years past transfer of sovereignty from the United Kingdom to China.  What happens after this is anyone’s guess, but for the time being freedom of press guarantees uncensored media, a highly effective guard against government corruption and abuse of power.  Ditto for free speech and assembly, which empower residents to organize and voice concerns in a democratic manner.  With the exception of Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, who is appointed by Beijing, all political positions are subject to popular vote and the people’s universal suffrage mandated by law.

Yet despite Hong Kong’s freedoms and high quality of life, Chinese increasingly view the territory and its politics as passé at a time when freedom and opportunity of the economic variety exist to a far greater degree in dozens of booming mainland cities.  Shenzhen is directly adjacent to Hong Kong on the mainland and has grown from a farming village to a city of 15 million over the last three decades while its neighbor has remained practically stagnant.  The question this begs is why would any profit-seeking developer consider working in a city that protects 75% of its limited land supply and subjects every project to environmental scrutiny when he could simply negotiate with politicians to build the same thing faster and cheaper on the mainland?

China’s rapid industrialization, abundant land supply, lack of bureaucracy, and ballooning middle class create an unparalleled opportunity for profitable development and constitute a new kind of freedom unmatched in the Western world.  From Steven Holl’s Vanke Company Headquarters in Shenzhen, to OMA’s CCTV in Beijing, and a host of other Chinese projects commissioned to European and American architects, the pull of this new freedom is something Westerners must now reconcile.

A black and white reading trumpeting the benefits of liberal democracy and the downfalls of communism (or quasi-communism, as in the case of China) leaves out a grey area in the middle from which we have much to learn.  A heavy-handed centralized government has brought hundreds of millions of people out of poverty in China, and we as Americans would be obstinate to avoid considering the merits of such an approach, or at the very least using it as a springboard for a bit of national reflection.  Exactly what constitutes freedom or a high quality of life could be argued in much the same subjective manner as the architectural merits of a building or the urban merits of a city, and there’s nothing quite like a challenge to the status quo in spurring progress. To simply remain complacent and ignore this challenge altogether though is one mistake the United States cannot afford to make.

Matt Luery

Filed under: America, China, development, Economics, Freedom, Politics

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AAU FALL 2013:

University of Southern California
School of Architecture
Asia Architecture and Urbanism
Study Abroad Program

Andrew Liang
Bu Bing
Steven Chen
Yo-Ichiro Hakomori
Andrew Liang
Yuyang Liu
Neville Mars
Academic Contributors:
Thomas Chow, SURV
Bert de Muynck, Movingcities.org
Manying Hu, SZGDADRI, ITDP, Guangzhou
Clare Jacobson, Design Writer, Editor, Curator
Laurence Liauw, SPADA, Hong Kong
Mary Ann O'Donnell, Shenzhen Noted, Fat Bird, Shenzhen
Paul Tang, Verse, Shanghai
Li Xiangning, Tongji University, Shanghai
Daniel Aguilar
Hong Au
Michael den Hartog
Caroline Duncan
Nefer Fernandez
Christian Gomez
Isabelle Hong
Jin Hong Kim
Ashley Louie
Javier Meier
Paula Narvaez
Ashlyn Okimoto
Tamar Partamian
Samuel Rampy
Luis Villanueva
Krista Won
Tiffany Wu

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