Urbanism and Geopolitics

Today I have just completed my first month in China. Time permitting I will get back to blog-postings that include lots of photos. But for today, I wanted to reflect on issues of urban politics and what that means for my work in China.

1. Addressing some paranoias about China

When I was preparing to move here to Suzhou and teach at XJTLU, a number of people raised concerns about how I might get in trouble with Chinese authorities for speaking my mind. This blog post is a reflection on that question. And as a public posting, it is immediately accessible to a number of potentially interested parties.

First of all, as an employee of XJTLU, I was not only hired by a British university—but also by a Chinese university: Xi’an Jiaotong DaXue is a joint partner in this university. So the Chinese government has reviewed my research (and perhaps older posts on this blog) and hired me. In effect, they asked for me, critical approach and all. XJTLU has been pretty explicit about wanting a critical approach to planning, and planning is about politics at the urban scale. I have said that before and it is public knowledge. Furthermore, as a planning educator working at a Chinese university, I am part of the government of China; so I need to consider my position from multiple angles. I learned this years ago in Kabul: to some extent I continue to represent the Islamic Republic as a former professor of Kabul University and Kabul Polytechnic.

As for concern about monitoring and censorship: my role as an academic is one in which I expect to be monitored. In 2008, after returning from my fieldwork in Kabul, I flew to the Collegiate Schools of Planning conference in Chicago, partly as a test of whether the US Department of Homeland Security had put me on a no-fly list. Why? Because in 2003, 2006, and for seven months in 2007 I worked for the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. Thus far the U.S. government has left me alone, and I appreciate that. But for more than a decade I have also deliberately maintained a policy of public disclosure of information in the hope that I will prevent Homeland Security from ever being nervous about me. I will behave the same way here in China. My travel history is a little weird, and a matter of public record for national governments. I think they have fair reason to check on why I was in Haiti in 1988 when a coup happened; why I was in Tashkent and northern Tajikistan in 1992; and so forth. My job, in this respect, is to pursue my relentless curiosity about urbanism across the world, and not get paranoid about it. Self-censorship based on imagined hypothetical futures would be paralyzing.

As it is, being a planner means living with the curse of Cassandra of Troy. I am still struggling to imagine the radical implications of climate-change and resource depletion on massive future cities. I have plenty to worry about already. As for the People’s Republic, they just had a typhoon sweep across several provinces. On that scale I am completely insignificant; and if I ever do become significant, it will be in an effort to help the PRC plan for their cities to be more sustainable. That may involve some harsh criticism of current local urban policies, but as I understand it that is the job the People’s Republic itself has hired me to do.

2. Kunduz, Mosul and the intersection of urban and national politics

As my colleagues say, urban planning is about politics with a small ‘p’, not a capital ‘P’. Generally I agree with that. The planning of bus routes, sewer lines, and housing affordability generally does not cause the same level of concern as questions of national sovereignty. But politics at both levels tends to be mutually reflective because people from the same environment of governing expectations (what Foucault calls ‘governmentality’) comprise the staff and group-thinking at both levels within any country. And every once in a while the national significance of cities themselves becomes apparent.

Several days ago the Taliban took over Kunduz City in northern Afghanistan. From their point of view, they are probably arguing that they recovered the city from the infidel-backed, corrupt government now based in Kabul. The news coverage I get from here (BBC, CNN, and China’s CCTV) focuses on the military struggle to take back the city from the Taliban. What I want to know, though, is: How will the Taliban govern the city while they control it? and What impression will that leave on the citizens of Kunduz?

Seven years ago, when the Taliban started taking back a few rural districts in remote provinces, I heard reports that they immediately started collecting taxes and used them to fund their governing. Part of their governing process was to set up courts to resolve disputes. Generally, Shari’a courts focus on things like real-estate property disputes, inheritance disputes, and divorce cases. In 1989 the current President of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, wrote a great paper about such court-practices in Jalalabad. Western media tends to portray Shari’a as something utterly alien and anti-modern, like Klingon jurisprudence. In fact, women have had property rights under Shari’a for 1300 years, whereas women under Christian rule have only gained many of their rights since 1789. I am not going to go into a detailed comparison here; rather, I need to point out that men and women might prefer Shari’a jurisprudence. In Afghanistan, the U.S.-backed government in Kabul actually incorporates Shari’a into the legal system, especially for property disputes. It is worth noting that the constitution of the present Islamic Republic was drafted with consultation from American lawyers and it incorporates both Shari’a and the Universal Declaration for Human Rights.

The problem across Afghanistan is not the inclusion of Shari’a, but the failure to implement justice in practice. The Islamic Republic’s courts are slow, and prone to charging exorbitant ‘clerical fees’ before a case sees trial. In contrast, the Taliban courts begin to consider cases immediately, and the fees are paid by the general tax. In one district, after the Taliban were driven out, interviewees commented that disputes which had languished for years where resolved by Taliban judges within a few days. As far as I can tell, the decisions were not annulled when the Taliban were driven out, probably because both they and the government use the same legal system. Instead, the lasting impression seems to be that the Taliban are harsh, but they oppose corruption and they implement justice. In other words they are building up more credibility than the Islamic Republic, because of the way that they govern local affairs. Politics with a small ‘p’, you might say.

I also noticed that the province of Kunduz had been dominated by the Taliban for more than a year, but what got international attention was the takeover of the city. This reminds me of the attention that ISIS began to receive after it took over Mosul. Control of turf, in itself, is not so symbolically important. Control of the people and the resources of urban space is what matters today. This was the lesson that the Taliban learned inadvertently in 1994. Mullah Omar was motivated to drive out several grossly corrupt mujahideen commanders from Kandahar. When they fled without a fight, the Taliban suddenly had control of a whole city. So far as I can tell they did not imagine what it would mean to be a governing authority until that moment, because anti-corruption had been their whole agenda. Two years later, when they took Kabul, they had to reimagine themselves again as the government of an entire country. Their initial behavior—storming the UN compound and executing Najibullah—indicates that they were indifferent to, and perhaps ignorant of international diplomatic protocol. Stomping on the sovereignty of local UN facilities came back to haunt them. It is not a good idea to piss off UN staff if you want to gain international recognition as a legitimate government. But 20 years later I expect they have learned a lot about what it means to govern, how to win hearts & minds by working at the local scale, and the symbolic significance of governing a city. I hope the Islamic Republic has learned those same lessons.


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