* The history of Fàguó Wútóng 法国梧桐 – appearing Shanghai former French concession.
法国梧桐 means French Phoenix Trees or French Platanus, known in the western world as London Plane (a.k.a. Platanus × acerifolia, Platanus orientalis or hybrid plane). The species was formed by hybridisation in the 17th century.
by Zane Mellupe
When after demise of Soviet Union Francis Fukuyama proclaimed that ‘history is over’ it meant one thing – the old antagonism between socialism and capitalism is over. The capitalism has triumphed and three pillars of liberal democracy – free circulation of ideas, people and capital is the future for the globalised world.
Whereas former socialist countries in Eastern Europe took a rapid ‘transition’ to capitalism, the breakdown of social structure proved this was a long road to prosperity, with a lot of suffering and sometimes dubious economic growth.
China has always stated publicly that it has chosen a different road – not succumbing to free capitalism, but rather a promotion of entrepreneurship and economic development under the guidance of state.
It was seen as, perhaps, a wiser, more gradual transition from command economy socialism to free market capitalism. What if China’s claims for different economic and ideological development was not just a rhetoric to ease the social tensions and safeguard transition to capitalism, but perhaps a genuine stance?
The promise of a globalised world has some romanticism in it – an arena, where free citizens of all countries travel, make business, learn about other cultures and promote civil rights and social development.
Some indeed take it at face value, while for others human rights and globalisation is just a cover under which to promote their economic interests. In earlier centuries it was openly called colonialism. The last thirty years have been unique that many people truly believed in a free, global market.
That kind of globalisation is coming to an end. United States, the long-time promoter of unhindered free market is now returning to protectionism policies and is waging trade wars with China. Not only this might be an economically unsound policy, it undermines the belief in the free market principle – it turns out to be just one more public relations tool used when it is expedient and abandoned when the tables are turned.
The policy of developed Western democracies to make economic deals with authoritarian and undemocratic countries has long been a subject of critique at home. How is it possible to maintain democratic values and simultaneously deal with tyrants and dictators? It is an ideological problem indeed. The answer to this has been two fold.
First, the example of Ostpolitik in 1970ies, when West Germany reversed its politics of not recognizing East Germany and increased contacts with an idea to change the regime gradually and promote this process via culture and humanitarian ties.
The second, more cynical approach is to define different principlesfor domestic and foreign policies – at home the human rights and freedoms of citizens are the highest goals. Whereas abroad the goal is promotion of the economic and ideological interests of the country, which allows for doing things not accepted by democratic societies at home.
Protectionisms are many. United States now has chosen an approach of economic protectionism. China protects itself in an ideological and cultural sense. Since 1990ies there had been an influx of Western things in China – pop-culture, lifestyles, imported technology, engineers, and joint businesses. Lately, China has increased limitation of this Western influence, by restricting access to many internet sites, and replacing Hollywood productions with local entertainment industry.
This can be seen both as a sign of weakness and strength. A weakness, if China has to insulate itself from foreign influence. Then may be its internal ideology is not so shock-proof? On the other hand, it can be seen as a sign of confidence. China feels self-sufficient, there is no need to learn from the West anymore – it’s time to project influence and promote Chinese values in the world.
Such ambivalent relationship with foreign influence is not a new thing for China. Since the middle of the 19thcentury when China opened to the world, it has experienced several waves of opening up to foreign influences and closing down.
While from the perspective of a globalist it may seem a wrong path and unnecessary measures often leading to individual human suffering, from the point of view of Chinesestate interests it has proven to be a working strategy.
With soft power being used by all sides the propaganda importance has increased, to the level that we live in a post-truth age now. A successful projection of one’s values is more important in this ideological confrontation than actual facts.
Larger states and corporations carve their positions with carefully boosting and managing their digital footprints. On individual level the importance of social acceptance has increased dramatically. In a digital social world where one’s every action and interaction is recorded and stored, it is important to project the socially accepted personas or risk ostracism and punishment.
People living in different informational bubbles evolve increasingly differing worldviews. As in the Cold War the competition is for minds of people. In the Cold War the democratic world won not only because of its economic superiority but also because of values it managed to project – a free world of citizens everybody free to pursue one’s own goals.
The digital revolution has shifted the locus of friction. Now it is not on the physical borders of ideological adversaries, but in different digital bubbles – where people spend more and more time. Instead of global equality and converging world, technologies are creating more and more isolated communities, organized not by nation-state allegiance principle but according to one’s consumer interests and beliefs. The globalisation is over.
WHY WUTONG TALKS
The birth of platanus acerifolia
法国梧桐literally means “French Phoenix Trees”. In the Western world it is known as the London plane tree (platanus× acerifolia, or hybrid plane). The species was formed by hybridization in the 17th century after platanusorientalis(European sycamore/Oriental plane) and platanusoccidentalis(American sycamore) had been planted in proximity to one another.
The parent species of “French platanus” originate from opposite sides of the globe, the first native to the United States, the second from an area spanning from the Balkans to China. They came together in the 17thcentury, collected as specimen from European voyages around the world. Planted close together in the Vauxhall Gardens in London, they produced their offspring, the London plane tree, which was discovered by John Tradescant, an aristocratic plant collector.
At the beginning plane trees were planted in the parks, as shade trees. After a request by emperor Napoleon III, Georges-Eugène Haussman redesigned the streets of Paris. Use of platanusacerifoliabecame widespread after the reconstruction of Paris in the nineteenth century. A massive 2.5-billion-franc project under the guidance of Haussman untangled the mess of the tiny streets of the French capital and sliced the city with wide avenues. Haussmann loved the London plane tree for the way it looked, and consequently lined the fresh boulevards with them at intervals of around six meters. This then became a trend around the world, and even today you’ll find the London plane tree in many major cities, most notably in Paris itself, London, Rome, Shanghai, Nanjing, Sydney, New York.
French platanus travels to Shanghai
In Shanghai they are called ‘Faguo Wutong’, or ‘French Phoenix Trees’.
In the nineteenth century China fought and lost two wars over trade disputes against France, the United Kingdom and the United States. As a compromise, the reigning Qing dynasty signed several treaties that gave these foreigner invaders more freedom, including the right to sell opium.
In 1849, France took areas in the cities of Tianjin, Hankou and Guangzhou, as well in Shanghai. This was called the French Concession. In 1861 it grew andnearly doubled its size in 1900.
It was at Hauihai road that the London plane tree first took root in Shanghai, in 1902. From there it was planted alongside other lanes in the French area, until in 1928, also Chinese started planting them. In late nineteen twenties, twenty thousand trees were planted in the nearby city Nanjing, which was then the capital of China.
法国梧桐,with parent species originating from opposite sides of the globe, has been a witness of Shanghai’s tumultuous history for the last hundred and fifty years.
Fungus ceratocystis platani
Initially, platanusacerifolia was more resilient to diseases than its American ancestor platanusoccidentalis, which was beset with anthracnose, a fungus disease from Oriental plane. While Oriental plane had evolved a considerable resistance against anthracnose.
However, in 2006, scientists started noticing a deadly fungus, ceratocystisplatani–affecting the London plane trees. The fungus was most likely brought to Europe by US soldiers in World War II; from there it has travelled to other places in the Eastern hemisphere. It was traced in contaminated ammunition boxes American soldiers brought over to Europe; boxes were made from North American plane trees.
Even a small scratch or cut on a plane tree is enough for the fungus to get inside and attack. It thrives deep in the tree trunk. Within three to five years the tree is fully infected. There’s nothing than can be done but to cut the trees down and burn them on the spot to stop the dissemination of the fungus.
Ceratocystis platanihas been spreading through the Europe, eventually it is likely to kill the planted plane trees that line the streets of cities, such as London, Paris and Berlin. It has been also spotted in Shanghai.
The mutations of trees have taken on different forms. There have been cases, where disease has also infected people. Starting as a light fever, it then gives way to more subtle forms. People get sullen, moribund, acquiring the look of the immobile plane trees. Such people get harder to recognize, sometimes even the relatives do not notice them. Their voices gradually die out,until they became utterly silent.
The fear of the ruler of all sycamores is getting over – because they are everywhere. The roots of the trees have extended over thousands of kilometers, seamlessly creating a subterranean network, a symbiosis of trees and people.
Disturbingly, when the hands mingle with roots, they also get contaminated, unbeknownst to the holders of the hands. Hands get soiled in the dark chemistry of the tree roots, ultimately, they get corrupted in subtle ways, not least influencing the holder’s thoughts. The increased exposure to trees extends the unknowing web of compliance. Some people have begun to live in the libraries of burnt books.
A few of them still stand but as soon as their confidence grows, they get pruned and the only thing that might help them to get out of the vicious circle is human factor, human laziness, human faults. A high price to pay for those who do not or cannot fit in the system.