Perspectives on Chinese Urbanization

By Joshua K. Leon

The scale and speed of migration into Chinese cities is unprecedented in modern times. Consequently no single state has ever been pressed to alter its built environment so drastically in just one generation. Much has and will be written about this critical period in Chinese history, but three timely recent books stand out. The Concrete Dragon by Thomas J. Campanella lucidly describes the broader aesthetic alterations in Chinese cities during this planning and building boom. Shanghai Rising, a volume edited by Xiangming Chen, explores the complicated nexus of state power and global forces that underpins growth in the eponymous business capital. The Great Urban Transformation by You-Tien Hsing explains China’s furious territorial politics from a geographic perspective. Together these interdisciplinary works speak to the broader aesthetic, cultural, and territorial dimensions of urban China’s (literal) ascent. While urbanization is hardly unique to China, these books all give sufficient emphasis to the national context, and while they grapple with the requisite role of global forces in reshaping local environments, in toto they tell a story of urbanization with Chinese characteristics.

Already I find myself guilty, as Campanella might say, of trafficking in superlatives. The Concrete Dragon’s descriptive style allows the author to vividly capture the aesthetic changes happening in urban China. His descriptions derive from personal accounts as well as extensive research drawing on the author’s background in planning and architecture. The approach is resultantly visual (helped along by Campanella’s own photography). Campanella’s objective, to describe the contours and consequences of a “wholesale reinvention of the city as we know it,” cannot be done without first underscoring the vastness of China’s expansion (p. 15). Some sample evidence: In one recent year China put up 28 billion square feet of new housing, while in another it spent $400 billion on construction projects. Shanghai has added the equivalent of 334 Empire State Buildings worth of office space over a 14-year span (p. 15). Construction—and lots of it—is a defining feature of Chinese modernization.

Globalization is part of this story. Yet Campanella describes global influences operating in China not simply as exogenous denationalized market forces acting on a passive society, but as forces that have been harnessed by the state and an emergent affluent class. This serves as context for a much-needed discussion on suburban growth (population is actually falling in some urban cores, and instead spreading outward). New developments are roaring through urban peripheries, creating landscapes that are oddly international. A huge share of new residential development features foreign motifs, emblematic of China’s renewed place in world affairs and indicative of personal status. This is illustrative of China’s transition beyond the socialist ideal of housing as a commodity, toward housing as a consumer lifestyle. But nothing embodies the consumer transformation more than theme parks, of which China has more than any other country. Here too we see hybrid influences, from Buddhist revival to Soviet Communism according to Campanella, who devotes a full chapter to the subject. For instance, Shenzhen’s Minsk World is home to an actual mothballed Soviet aircraft carrier, replete with an attendant Russian MIG squadron. To apply Campanella’s analysis, we are seeing a reengagement between China and the world on a symbolic level embedded in its living spaces.

Xiangming Chen’s edited volume Shanghai Rising examines the unique nexus of global forces and developmental state policies that are transforming Chinese localities. Shanghai is catering more heavily to global markets in its development, but its success in doing so relies on state planning. Its economic transition from manufacturing toward higher value service sectors—insofar as it has been achieved—rests upon massive state investments in both publicly and privately utilized infrastructure.

The first set of essays in Shanghai Rising situate Shanghai’s increasingly prominent place among Asian cities. Shanghai experienced 12 percent annual growth since the 90s, and attracted nearly a quarter of China’s foreign direct investment in 2006 (p. xv). Despite this impressive rise, and its rapid development of state-of-the-art infrastructure, Shanghai is facing a shortage of high-end knowledge workers—a proverbial hardware versus software dilemma. Even though Shanghai’s built environment has come to resemble first-tier global cities like Hong Kong and Singapore (both the subject of comparative case studies), the complexion of its economy retains significant differences. For instance, as Tai-Lok Lui and Stephen W.K. Chiu emphasize, services make up less than half of Shanghai’s economy but virtually all of Hong Kong’s (p. 113). Despite their structural differences, however, there are two important reasons for comparing Shanghai to Asia’s existing knowledge capitals. First, Shanghai’s rise means competition in areas where these cities have long held competitive advantages. The top-tier global cities may have to reorient their traditional functions, particularly when it comes to managing investments in China. Shanghai’s rise raises the likelihood of competitive triangulation between cities, complicated further by Beijing (not the subject of a case study) which has a distinct attraction enjoyed by neither Shanghai nor Hong Kong: proximity to the central state, which retains considerable power in allocating national resources. Second, Shanghai too is beginning to deal with diminished competitiveness in certain sectors due to increased wages and land costs. As Ann R. Markusen and Pingkang Yu point out, its position could be perilous if new employment sectors do not quickly replace jobs lost in manufactures.

The second set of essays in Shanghai Rising deal variously with the global forces reshaping Shanghai localities. The built environment reflects Shanghai’s emergent globalism. The city’s rise has coincided with the emergence of globalized spaces from high-end shopping areas, to business centers, to a growing foreign residential presence. The essays in Shanghai Rising generally do not portray globalization as a ghost-in-the-machine exogenously acting on passive state and societal structures. Shanghai, by this narrative, has a distinct sense of efficacy as it modernizes, striving to harness global forces through an ambitious state. John D. Kasarda, for example, depicts global markets as a race to the swift in which the places that succeed are able to effectively organize their built environments to accommodate consumer demands. The just-in-time transport of many categories of physical goods must subdue time and space, making air shipping increasingly important in world trade. Airport clusters are consequently key components of urban economies, a competition that China has embraced with a binge of airport construction.

You-Tien Hsing’s The Great Urban Transformation is a magisterial study of territorial competition in core cities, as well as the urban fringes and (most wrenchingly) the rural hinterlands. Reform era decentralization and market restructuring initiated a scramble for authority over profitable redevelopment. Hsing draws on immersive field research—using colorful vignettes of her personal experiences at the beginning of each empirical chapter—and a formidable command of reform-era land laws. Competition over land is particularly fierce in China, she explains, because land rents are a vital source of government revenue for cities (land is still nominally controlled by the state).

As a consequence an entrepreneurial spirit pervades local governance. In core cities, “socialist land masters” hold authority over properties owned by the central state, a legacy of the top-down era (p. 34). They have de facto control over territory located within the jurisdictions of municipal governments, which for their part have sought to reclaim control of this valuable land by promoting redevelopment according to the logic of profits. In practice this means replacing money losing state-owned property usage with more capitalist oriented land uses such as “banks, hotels, retail shops, high-end commercial housing, and office towers” (p. 39). Meanwhile, urban fringes, the second set of geographic locations Hsing studies, are increasingly crucial points of territorial contestation as cities expand. There, urban governments encroach upon rural governments that once thrived on decentralized industrial development, subverting rural authority by staging dense urban development projects on former farmlands. On the rural outskirts, the third location studied by Hsing, semi-legal development projects legitimate the position of rural townships struggling to control land profits despite their legally ambiguous position.

Land is a major source of profit and revenue, but also an underlying source of inequality, subjecting entire communities to painful displacement. With a Jacobsean eye, Hsing explains why some communities are resilient to these pressures while others are not. Guangzhou’s Shuping Village, a historic settlement on the city’s urban fringe, has managed its autonomy in the face of what Hsing characterizes as an extractive governance structure. Villages in the city, she argues, have the distinct advantage of retaining collective legal rights over land, and remain under the authority of village collectives. This differs from core urban neighborhoods which are integrated into the municipal government’s authority structure. This anecdote makes the case that peasant villagers can thrive in urban fringe areas if they are semi-autonomous and sitting on land that appreciates in value because of urban growth. The system Hsing calls “village corporatism” also entails a distribution of profits through shareholding, though those without residential status are left out.

Despite this potential for exclusivity, Hsing sees village collectives as bright spots in grassroots civic engagement—shielding residents from displacement and enabling a lasting community identity among peasants while simultaneously diffusing the profits from development. Peasants on the rural fringe are less resilient. Urban expansion into these areas results in the mass expropriation of housing and farmland, and while this campaign has devolved at times into violent confrontation between peasants and developers, collective mobilization on the rural fringe remains comparatively weak. While Shuping Village could successfully assert legal claims over its territory, these communities are vulnerable to predatory displacements by more powerful urban governments seeking cheap land. “Therefore,” explains Hsing, “relocation is never a neutral movement between equal places” (p. 191). Opaque negotiations facilitated by developers create mistrust between villagers, precluding unified resistance. Demolition crews intimidate by cutting off services.

These fascinating passages by Hsing illustrate an inequality theme that runs vividly throughout all three books. The ambitious blend of technocratic state planning, land reform, and globalization that propels Chinese development forward has also created a noteworthy share of unforgiving living spaces.

Josh Leon teaches International Relations at Villanova University, and covered the 2010 Shanghai World Expo for Foreign Policy in Focus and Next American City. A longer version of this article appears in the June 2011 issue of Cities.

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