The book is organized as a tetralogy. The reader needs to work diligently to mine each part for the source of Yu’s determination. A young boy of four at the commencement of the Cultural Revolution in 1967, he gained intimate knowledge of sustainable agricultural practices firsthand. What Yu later recalled as a simple and humbling life was shattered when China opened relations with the West. The widespread application of DDT destroyed the very habitat of his boyhood. In a 2019 interview he shared with me a vivid memory of the bloated white bellies of floating fish turned to the sky—a moment when, I believe, he linked the actions of big government with life on the ground. The end of the Cultural Revolution meant that Yu was able to receive an education, a path that ultimately led to Harvard where he earned his Doctor of Design in 1995. These nuggets of information help us understand how this remarkable man established his passion for the environment and human rights and how he earned his academic credibility. Both led to the development of an authentic voice and to his ascension to a platform from which to speak and be heard by those who can effect deep systemic change in Communist China.
Kongjian Yu is a model of ethically motivated transformational leadership in the 21st century. Sorkin, too, identifies Yu as a leader, but falls into the irresistible trap of many male commentators on leadership: he uses military terms such as “generalship,” “army,” and “battlefield” to describe Yu’s modus operandi. A more refined vocabulary and understanding of leadership is urgently needed today. Part I, “The Writings of Kongjian Yu,” demonstrates that Yu has a full grasp of this new leadership and, therefore, has much to teach us all. He has humility, heart, a message of urgency, a compelling narrative, a clear understanding of the institutions that control the systems, credibility, and, above all, enduring patience.
The “Writings,” composed between 2003 and 2015, comprise letters addressed to mayors, ministers, party secretaries, and even one to Xi Jinping, president of the PRC, interspersed with lectures from that same period. In this collection, it is possible to extract patterns of Yu’s effectiveness. As Sorkin notes, Yu wants to tap China’s capacity to think and act at scale. Yu understands that mayors responsible for city-building, and experts serving mayors, are motivated by the idea that success involves the embodied emulation of Western cities. Mayors are his audience, and he appeals to shared language and experience, making a plea for the reverence of nature and of people. He names the movements he is seeking to begin “Negative Planning” and “The Big Foot Revolution.” He rejects the old thinking of the West’s City Beautiful Movement, which he regards as pretentious and emotionally vacuous. Yu’s counterproposition is a rallying cry; a century earlier, the May Fourth Movement, a symbol of the New Cultural Movement, had brought about a renaissance establishing a vernacular language. He laments that the designed landscape of China is untouched by the new Cultural Movement; only then does he list the practices that must be stopped. Yu’s visions of the future embody the humane and pragmatic; appreciate ordinary people and ordinary things, and respect and adapt to natural processes.