As China’s Economy Slows, Its Slow Economy Takes Root
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
As the frailties of the country’s fast-growth model become clearer, Chinese communities are adopting slow living as an alternative.
By Ben Halder
- More than 100 cities and counties are embracing “slow living,” setting population limits, throttling down traffic and restricting fast food.
- They’re rejecting the high-speed life and rapid urbanization that have epitomized China’s development, as the economy shrinks.
In China’s eastern Jiangsu province, a giant snail sculpture sits proudly amid canola fields just outside the town of Yaxi. It mimics the logo of Cittaslow — the international organization that promotes slow living and recognizes towns that support this way of life.
After the town of 20,000 residents became the first Chinese city to gain Cittaslow accreditation in 2010, the movement seemed in no hurry to take off in the rest of the country. It appeared that slow cities — which represent a rejection of the high-speed, high-intensity life, along with the rapid urbanization that have come to epitomize China’s development — were out of tune with the world’s second-largest economy.
But now, as China faces its worst recession since 1976, more and more communities are adopting a less urgent lifestyle, breaking with the country’s approach for the past several decades. That trend is expected to pick up steam with the coronavirus pandemic underscoring the pitfalls of modern life.
Today, 12 Chinese cities are accredited by Cittaslow, whose name is rooted in “città,” the Italian word for city. Another 120 cities and counties have applied and are awaiting assessment, as the country — and the world — battles its biggest public health crisis in decades. Cities have to meet 72 criteria, such as having a population under 50,000, enacting a 20 mph city-center speed limit and tightly restricting businesses like fast food restaurants — ideas perfectly suited to a society grappling with the coronavirus.
The concept also is gaining popularity at a broader public level, with a 2019 survey finding that 70 percent of Chinese respondents understand the notion of slow cities. China is also the testing ground for a new ‘Cittaslow from Zero’ project that aims to create from scratch a new city that will from its birth meet the requirements of the slow cities movement, says Pier Giorgio Oliveti, general secretary at Cittaslow.
The faster their neighborhoods and towns acquire the same generic supermarkets, gas stations, shopping malls … the more people feel the need for enclaves of familiarity.
Paul Knox, Virginia Tech
And city life in China isn’t the only thing getting a slow makeover. The emergence of China’s slow movement is influencing the travel, food, and fashion industries too. It’s a backlash to the way in which China’s rapid urbanization has given birth to generic cities often lacking in identity, and industries that have adopted homogeneity to facilitate scaling up, say experts.
“The faster their neighborhoods and towns acquire the same generic supermarkets, gas stations, shopping malls … the more people feel the need for enclaves of familiarity, centeredness, and identity, and the more value they attach to cultural heritage,” says Paul Knox, an urban geographer at Virginia Tech.
Knox believes that a response to globalization more than urbanization is fueling the slow movement in China. Suichang Tea Garden Village caters to both sentiments. Perched high in the Zhejiang hills, the village last year became China’s first dedicated slow tourism destination. Around 50 buildings are being renovated and rebuilt to welcome guests, who stay alongside existing residents. The project is the vision of a group of Chinese entrepreneurs, operating under the banner LeLiving, who aim to attract tourists searching for immersive experiences in one authentic location, rather than tours that jump from attraction to attraction. A 2019 ITB China Travel Trends report found almost two-thirds of Chinese travel agents expect cultural travel to increase by more than 30 percent over the next three years.
The concept of slow food — which promotes the benefits of local, sustainable, organic produce over store-bought goods — could be next. “In China consuming local, seasonal food has been a symbol of quality of life for the last 2000 years,” says Sun Qun, general secretary of Slow Food Great China, the Chinese arm of Slow Food — a global network that promotes access to good, clean, and fair food and that originated in Italy in 1989. But these qualities have been forgotten by China’s youth, Sun says, and the slow food movement hopes to reestablish these qualities.
China’s importance to the global movement was outlined in 2017 when Chengdu hosted 400 representatives from 90 countries at the Slow Food International Congress, the first time the event was held in China. In late 2018, Carlo Petrini, the founder of the slow food movement, launched a pilot project in a village outside Chengdu which aims to build a school, library, and museum to help promote the benefits of local, organic food and sustainable agricultural practices. It is the first of 1,000 such schemes planned over the next five years across China. Interest in slow food has benefited from growing public concerns over food safety and supply chain crises — underscored by the pandemic that is believed to have originated from a Wuhan wet market.
China, once the engine room of the fast fashion industry, is also an emerging pioneer of ethical, sustainable clothing, or slow fashion. A report by Chinese e-commerce platform Tmall found sustainability to be a key motivator for Chinese fashion consumers in 2020.
Challenges remain. China’s sheer size, business-dominant outlook and an environment where “social movements are inseparable from government recognition and support,” are the slow food movement’s main obstacles, says Sun. Similar difficulties exist across China’s slow movement.
But there’s increasing evidence that a growing market for sustainable clothing, organic food and a slow life will also mean new economic opportunities. According to research firm Rakuten Insights, a majority of Chinese consumers are willing to pay a 25 percent premium for organic foods. Meanwhile, Yaxi’s yearly average earnings per resident have quadrupled to almost $4,325 since it joined Cittaslow.
That rise in Chinese consumers willing to invest more to ensure quality over quantity — from lifestyle and travel spending to the weekly grocery haul — provide China’s slow movement a solid foundation for growth. Even with China’s economy slowing, its slow economy appears to be accelerating.
- Ben Halder, OZY AuthorContact Ben Halder