Scotch This Plan

Scotland’s decaying capital city shows why this country is not ready for independence.

EDINBURGH, Scotland — Sometime in the fall of 2014, Scotland will hold a referendum on independence from the United Kingdom. The outcome is far from certain, but whatever happens, Scotland will certainly gain further powers of self-determination. Its capital city, Edinburgh (population 500,000), has been the site of the Scottish Parliament since 1999 and has been, most think, the chief beneficiary of the ongoing devolution of power from London. Its future, unlike that of any other Scottish city, seems assured. And by most objective measures it's an exceedingly fortunate place. It hosts the world's largest arts festival, it's rightly celebrated for its culture, and it scores consistently well on quality-of-life indices. Its employment levels have even held up well after the 2008 financial-services crash, to which the city was well exposed. Yet Edinburgh suffers a weird urban malaise. Rather than a city whose time has finally come, it can feel more like Venice, a once-great city now in abject decline. If the city is a glimpse of Scotland's future as an independent -- or somewhat more independent -- nation, Scots may have some cause for alarm.

Deplaning at Edinburgh's airport, you pass a series of new mural-scale photographs celebrating one of the world's most dramatic urban landscapes. They're emblazoned with quotations from celebrated Edinburgh writers -- David Hume, Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson. What the panels extol are achievements of the now-distant past, and the visual image of the city presented in the photographs is dominated by the castle, a largely 18th-century creation.

Leaving the airport, you do wonder whether the city isn't actually reverting to its 18th-century condition. The spectacularly potholed roads, the decay of buildings in the central area, and the remarkable absence of new construction suggest the city council wishes to return to the era of Hume and Stevenson.

I took American urban sociologist Sharon Zukin around Edinburgh in the summer of 2012. She found it a hard city to read. The UNESCO-listed central area looked run-down, she thought; the upscale neighborhood of Stockbridge seemed "poor." I had to agree, looking at all the thrift stores and shabby street frontage.

And the problems were more than surface impressions. Consider Princes Street, Edinburgh's Fifth Avenue, a straight mile of retail set below the great volcanic plug of the Castle Rock. It would be hard to find a more spectacular place to shop, and it ought to be one of the world's great avenues. But nearly 30 percent of the units are vacant here, and many of the occupied units are short-term lets selling tourist knickknacks. Lift your eyes upward, and many buildings at the second-floor level and above are empty.

Princes Street has been subjected to numerous partial regeneration schemes over the years, each of which has left a mark (look up, for example, and you see the remnants of a 1960s scheme to put the sidewalk up in the sky, overlooking a six-lane freeway). These failures pale by comparison with the chaos wrought by the Edinburgh Trams project, which is intended to bring street-running light rail to the city, but is already six times over budget at $1.5 billion three years late. Originally a three-line, 20-mile network, the project has been cut to a single line from the center to the airport, duplicating an already efficient and much-liked bus service. Nobody much wants the trams now, least of all Princes Street merchants who have seen business decline markedly over the five years of the scheme's construction. The Liberal Democrat party, which as leader of the City of Edinburgh Council initiated the project, saw its share of the vote cut to just 5 percent in 2012 city elections.

Perhaps it was a blip? Think again. Due north of Princes Street, along the Firth of Forth, is Edinburgh Waterfront, a project to rebuild the city's industrial ocean frontage. It starts promisingly enough in Leith with warehouse conversions and funky bars, but head a quarter-mile east and you find yourself in a dystopian wasteland of vacant lots worthy of a J.G. Ballard novel. The waterfront reaches its peak of despair at Granton Harbour where a handful of shoddy buildings emerge from a giant mud pool, the inadvertent result of stalled construction. Wrecked bicycles and shopping carts litter the scene. So poor are these buildings, they're already -- after five years -- falling down. The owners paid up to $600,000 for apartments here at the height of the boom; they would be worth barely half that now.

It all adds up to one inescapable conclusion: Edinburgh has some of Europe's shoddiest attempts at urban regeneration. Regeneration is risky, but for mistakes like these to occur in such a wealthy place at the height of an economic boom is, as British architectural critic Owen Hatherley put it, simply a scandal.

Perhaps Edinburgh just doesn't do modern anymore? It's easy to reach that conclusion. The city had a collective nervous breakdown over development in the mid-1960s. The University of Edinburgh's attempted demolition of 18th-century George Square met ferocious, and ultimately successful, resistance from the Cockburn Association and the Georgian Group of Edinburgh, conservation groups with the support of the city's indomitable middle class. The city has been terrified of modernization ever since.

But Edinburgh has its difficulties with historical buildings too. In the middle of 2012, a corruption scandal emerged involving council officials colluding with local builders to impose unnecessary repair orders on buildings. Edinburgh's power to impose such orders was unparalleled in Britain as a result of the city's desire to protect its UNESCO World Heritage status. The statutory notice system that resulted was a license to abuse, however. The council could, and did, impose repairs where none were needed. The system was rightly feared by residents, who had no control over costs once the council was involved. Those costs could run into hundreds of thousands of dollars. The council's entire historical-property department was suspended in 2012, and at the time of this writing, 17 members of the department are expected to face criminal charges.

Edinburgh struggles with the past as much as it struggles with the future. The result is a curious paralysis and a paradoxical sense of decline. That's fine for aesthetes in search of photogenic ruins, less so for the majority population who regard the city as a living entity, not a museum. How has it come to this, at a moment when conceivably from 2014 Edinburgh might regain its status as capital of an independent nation?

Malcolm Fraser, a highly regarded local architect, was outspoken on the question when I interviewed him at the end of 2012. It's a failure of leadership, he thinks. The city government lacks both a plan and the ability to stick to it. In one looks at the city council's website, it's hard to disagree. The council's priorities for development are extremely hard to discern, apart from limiting human activity wherever possible. Its plan, "Sustainable Edinburgh 2020," is shot through with anxieties about the heritage lobby and middle-class opinion -- a NIMBY's charter.

Edinburgh's uncertainties are in some ways a representation of its political turmoil. Since May 2012, it has been led by an uneasy coalition of leftist (Labour Party) and nationalist (Scottish National Party -- SNP) interests, whose primary concern has been to restore stability and trust after a febrile period under the previous centrist (Liberal Democrat) administration. The city has an uneasy relationship with the SNP-led Scottish government, which is single-mindedly focused on independence -- Edinburgh's Labour majority is staunchly pro-United Kingdom. This is no context for grand urban visions.

Still, there is a sense of opportunity lost. So what would Fraser do differently? He speaks passionately about infrastructure, lots of it, including -- unfashionably -- completing and extending the tram project, as well as large-scale projects to improve walking, cycling, and the public realm. His model would be Copenhagen, which routinely invites foreign architects to collaborate on urban projects. Fraser's vision is unusual, and infectious, and he has enough friends in government to have been named as chair of a task force on the future of urban streets. That is a good sign. Fraser also thinks the city has clients who understand the value of good buildings. The University of Edinburgh has become one of them, lately being much bolder with its estate. It's rightly proud of its airy new informatics facility and its refurbished library, the latter designed by Basil Spence in 1968. Once hated, Spence's building has become one of the sights of the city, like a great ocean liner moored in picturesque 18th-century George Square. Each August, these buildings form one of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe's main backdrops, and for a brief period they help give the impression of a city at ease with its future.

But for the other 11 months, Edinburgh's urban stagnation is real. It seems unable to move forward, yet its stewardship of the past has led to corruption on a grand scale. And the city's difficulties are perhaps in microcosm those of a nation uncertain about its future. Before Scotland can be a country, its capital needs to get its house in order.

Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images


The Laughingstock Next Door

How the Chinese are using Kim Jong Un's antics to mock their own leaders.

BEIJING — North Korea's latest nuclear test may have stirred alarm in Washington, but its intimidation effect seems to have been lost on much of the Chinese web universe, which largely saw the announcement as a joke. "He's so naughty!" chided one web user, while another suggested that the resulting earthquake came from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un eating too much and falling on his posterior.

It wasn't the first time Kim had been the butt of jokes in China. After North Korea's successful missile launch on Dec. 12, many expressed joy and pride on behalf of the North Korean masses. "The brigade members plowing the hills of Seipo County were so inspired by the successful launch of the second Earth observation satellite that they opened up thousands of hectares of wasteland in just a few days," one message from a popular satirist nicknamed Miss Choi in Pyongyang read, pretending to be oblivious to North Korea's failed rocket launch test in April. "Big Brother [China], please step up your effort, or we will surpass you!"

Liu Bin, a journalist at China's independent-minded newspaper Southern Weekly, told me he is uncomfortable with all the joking around. "What is there to laugh about?" Liu wondered. "Isn't laughing at North Korea like the pot calling the kettle black?"

That's exactly the point. Over the past few years, more than 100 North Korea-related satire accounts have emerged on Sina Weibo, managed by self-proclaimed North Korean patriots. They post messages glorifying the Kim regime in an extravagant propaganda style that invites jeers and ridicules from commenters who may or may not have gotten the joke: The real targets, of course, are China and the Chinese Communist Party.

The most popular account, "Writer Choi Seongho," has 600,000 followers. In his Weibo biography and in his posts, Choi claims to be a North Korean journalist based in China with his heart "tied to Pyongyang"; in a private message, he told me he is a North Korean defector from a "special family" and that he went to high school in China. Whatever the truth, most of his followers probably take him to be Chinese, for he posts hilarious messages in flawless Mandarin, which, while ostensibly mocking North Korea, often make for pitch-perfect satire of China.

After the one-year anniversary of Kim Jong Il's Dec. 17, 2011 funeral, for instance, Choi posted a photo of the weeping crowds with the message: "Could you let me know if there is a second leader in this world that was so beloved by his people?" "Your [leader] was the second, guess who was the first?" a user, catching Choi's allusion to the hysteria that characterized former Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong's funeral in 1976, answered wryly.

After the 2012 Nobel Prize in literature was awarded to Chinese writer Mo Yan in October, Choi wrote: "The Nobel Prize is not a big deal. Starting from next year, North Korea will offer the Kim Jong Il Prize for progressive figures all over the world to compete!" Here was another wry allusion to China: In 2010, immediately after the Nobel committee awarded the Peace Prize to jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, an embarrassed and enraged group of patriotic Chinese established their own award. Named the Confucius Peace Prize, it drew mockery in China for choosing Russian President Vladimir Putin as its 2011 recipient. Choi's followers got the joke.

To those who tease him for his hyperbolic patriotism, Choi responds with feigned seriousness: "Watch your tone! The Internet is not a space beyond the law," a reference to the now-notorious title of a December editorial published in The People's Daily, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party, that called for stricter Internet censorship. To those who accuse him of propagandizing for the Kim regime, he responds: "My colleague editor Hu in our Hu-Choi editorial department is cursed by netizens all over everyday, but he still posts messages on Weibo with great composure" -- an unmistakable jibe at Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of the Global Times, a nationalist Chinese tabloid, and a frequent target of digital slings and arrows on Weibo.

A land that remains stubbornly isolated, perpetually relevant, and eternally weird, North Korea makes an appealing subject for satirists all over the world, from comedian Andy Borowitz, who tweets as @KimJongNumberUn (bio: "I used to be an unemployed twentysomething still living at home. Now I have nuclear weapons. It's all good, yo.") to North Korean propaganda artist-turned-defector Song Byeok, who paints subversive pictures depicting Kim Jong Il as Marilyn Monroe in her famous subway grate scene, or as a loving father surrounded by barefoot, starving children.

In China, however, satirists and the public seem to embrace the subject with particular enthusiasm: Besides Choi, other "North Korean patriots" such as Miss Choi in Pyongyang, Pyongyang Art Troupe Member Kim Ranhui, and Park Chunghwan in Pyongyang have also launched themselves to Weibo fame by professing their undying love for the Great Leader. One of the most watched send-ups of Kim Jong Un, dubbed Fat Kim the Third by web users, is a stand-up routine in which a comedian sharing Kim's physique parades around the stage and complains about territorial disputes. The Chinese public gleefully indulges itself in the thrill of ridiculing the communist dictatorship next door, as China's strict censorship has made it difficult for them even to search for some of their own leaders' names online.

Satirists like Choi acknowledge this psychology and cater their work to it. "I give [the Chinese public] an outlet because I know they need to pour out their feelings to me," Choi told me. "They live under an authoritarian regime in which they will get punished for criticizing their own officials. They won't, however, if they criticize" North Korean leaders.

North Korea today still shares more in common with China than most Chinese would like to admit. In a June 2010 essay titled "Orphan of Asia," Han Han, one of China's most influential social critics, described his feeling toward North Korea as "a straggler looking back sympathetically at someone trailing even further behind." A 2007 film made by Chinese filmmaker Hu Ge named 007 vs. Man in Black has been viewed online 3.7 million times. It tells the story of a secret agent working for a totalitarian state (similar to North Korea) setting out on a mission to procure a bottle of Hennessy XO, supposedly Kim Jong Il's favorite beverage, for the "great king." The agent comes to China, where, motivated by his love for the king and the spirit of self-reliance, he overcomes great difficulties and accomplishes the mission. When he brings the liquor home and serves it, however, the king dies of poisoning, for the alcohol turns out to be an adulterated product sold illegally in the Chinese black market.

In a public sphere as tightly controlled as China's, in which a harmless political parody on Weibo can land a citizen in a month-long detention, North Korea-related satires have opened up precious room for the Chinese public to vent its frustration with own domestic politics. But sometimes, the jokes go too far for nationalist Weibo users. One recent Choi post, for example, seems to have touched a raw nerve of many of his followers. Above a picture of a dilapidated train cart, he wrote: "North Korea did not, and does not plan to build a high-speed rail system, because we do not have billions for them to embezzle," alluding to the gargantuan corruption associated with China's high-speed rail construction project. Some web users scolded: "Get out!" ("My followers are all very patriotic," Choi explained. "I can satirize some bad things, but there is a line I am not allowed to cross. When I crossed that line in their heart, I always just had to delete those messages.")

What makes Choi's job easier is the Chinese media, which sometimes treats North Korea as a respected ally. This can cause embarrassment: In late November, the U.S. satirical newspaper The Onion announced its decision to name Kim Jong Un the "sexiest man alive" for his "devastatingly handsome, round face, his boyish charm, and his strong, sturdy frame."

Evidently failing to recognize the parody, People's Daily Online, the website affiliated with the Communist Party's official newspaper, endorsed the nomination by citing the Onion article and posting a 55-photograph slide show of Kim Jong Un on its website. Choi rushed to express his support. "The highest commander is much more handsome and fashionable than the aged cadres around him, isn't he?" he said. "Editors at People's Daily Online have spoken the mind of people all over the world!"