This past week, I had the opportunity to speak with a Kunming resident about the city’s ongoing development. A simple conversation about the bike lanes evolved into a discussion about the deeply personal experience of the city’s changes.
Storytelling on participatory media platforms is one way people can regain their sense of agency. However, the Internet, an outlet many often take for granted, is under strict governmental surveillance and control in China. Not only is freedom of speech unprotected, but any blogger suspected of causing “disharmony” can be penalized and punished without trial. Despite the challenges, the Chinese Internet community is working together to speak up, and their voices are outpouring into mainstream media.
Hello Colab Radio! This is Sewon Chung from the weekly series, Bike Lanes of Kunming.
Kunming is changing at a rate faster than I had imagined. For now, the residents rely on the city’s extensive bicycle network and bus system. But Kunming will soon have an expansive subway system, a domestic high-speed train station, a trans-asian railway line, and one of the biggest international airports in Asia.
I began documenting the city’s bike lanes as an extended photography project, but along the journey, I began collecting countless recorded and unrecorded conversations with friends and strangers about how it feels to live in a city that’s changing so quickly. I’m excited that MIT’s Colab Radio platform gives us this special opportunity to share our experiences.
The story that I want to share with you today is from the perspective of a Kunming resident who is originally from China’s ultramodern city, Shanghai.
I want to introduce you to Bob, a computer programmer and an avid micro-blogger, who is very passionate about social media and travel. Bob is a Shanghai native, who moved to Kunming for its warm weather and slower pace of life. I spoke to him about my bike lane project and the Colab Radio community, and he was very enthusiastic about sharing his thoughts.
Here’s what Bob has to say about Kunming’s changes.
“Kunming actually is a very nice city. It’s not a very industrial city. It’s very precious, compared to other Chinese cities. Other Chinese cities are designed in the same way, developed in the same way. They lose their traditional things. Our city designers don’t have this kind of idea. They just want modernization. This is very sad. We can develop in a different way.”
As I mentioned, Bob is a blogger on Weibo, which is one of China’s fastest growing micro-blogging websites. Many popular blogging and social-media platforms such as, Blogspot, WordPress, Tumblr, Twitter, Youtube, and Facebook are all blocked in China. Through government-approved websites, the Chinese Internet users can still share information. Bob talks about a recent popular topic on Weibo:
“A several months ago, there’s another issue raised very popularly on Weibo: Why do we not know where the government spends money? For example, our government spends less money on education. This money is not an absolute number, but a relative number. How much percent of the GDP income is spent on education? Compared to other countries, ours is a small percentage spent on education, and a small percentage spent on medical care. Lots of money go into some projects — facility projects, infrastructure projects, and these kinds of huge projects. They overspend money on these projects. It’s not necessary. We don’t need to get ‘we have the number one speediest train in the world.’ We don’t need this kind of reputation. What we need is how to make people living in the country more comfortable.”
I asked Bob more specifically about what he’s read on Weibo about the Kunming subway. He found out that the Kunming subway ride is projected to cost more than the subway ride in Shanghai or Beijing.
“How did they get this price? Maybe they had a meeting to make a decision in Kunming’s government. They didn’t ask people. How do they ask? They could try to do surveys. They can do surveys online, on Weibo. It’s very easy and possible. Why couldn’t they do that? When we make a decision for the whole population living in China, we need to be serious. Some people say, with 1.3 billion people, it’s not convenient to vote. But we can use the Internet. We can use Weibo, micro-blog. There’s a lot of advanced ways to do this. We cannot cover the information. We need make all these things transparent. A transparent society is stronger.”
Post and photos by Sewon Chung. Field recordings by Taurin Barrera.