Photograph by The Eng Koon/National Geographic
We all know about the amazing expansion of, and creation of new, Chinese cities over the past couple of decades. Discussion of the significance of all that growth is inconsistent. Perhaps we don’t know what conclusions to draw from China because so much of the world seems in flux these days. Straight line projections are more dubious than ever. A couple of articles in the online journal, Foreign Policy, expose our confusion over China, in my opinion.
On August 13, 2012, the journal published an article by Isaac Stone Fish with the provocative title, Unlivable Cities. Fish paints a stark picture of life in Chinese cities. He says that the megacities “may seem impressive on paper, but they are awful places to live.” Fish’s perspective comes from living in China for seven years and traveling widely within it. He first decries the remarkable sameness of many Chinese cities.
Yes, China’s cities are booming, but there’s a depressing sameness to what you find in even the newest of new boomtowns. Consider the checklist of “hot” new urban features itemized in a 2007 article in the Communist Party mouthpiece the People’s Daily, including obligatory new “development zones” (sprawling corporate parks set up to attract foreign direct investment), public squares, “villa” developments for the nouveau riche, large overlapping highways, and, of course, a new golf course or two for the bosses. The cookie-cutter approach is such that even someone like Zhou Deci, former director of the Chinese Academy of Urban Planning and Design, told the paper he has difficulty telling Chinese cities apart.
This model of endless fractal Beijings wouldn’t be so bad if the city itself were charming, but it is a dreary expanse traversed by unwalkable highways, punctuated by military bases, government offices, and other closed-off spaces, with undrinkable tap water and poisonous air that’s sometimes visible, in yellow or gray. And so are its lesser copies across the country’s 3.7 million square miles, from Urumqi in the far west to Shenyang way up north. For all their economic success, China’s cities, with their lack of civil society, apocalyptic air pollution, snarling traffic, and suffocating state bureaucracy, are still terrible places to live.
Fish saves his harshest critique for Harbin, the northern Chinese city with over 6 million residents that is the home of the Harbin Institute of Technology and the International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival. (A good number of Chinese landscape architecture students studying in the U.S. hail from Harbin.)
Like many Chinese cities, Harbin can be extremely challenging to the health — and not just due to the sometimes scandalously toxic food served in dim, poorly lit restaurants. Hospital bathrooms in Harbin and elsewhere often lack soap and toilet paper, ostensibly out of fear that residents will steal the items. Six months after I arrived, a benzene spill in the nearby Songhua River briefly left the city without running water. The air in Harbin was so polluted that I felt as though the coal dust had sunk into my lungs, and a fine layer of black soot seeped in through our windows overnight. But even Harbin wasn’t as filthy as Linfen, a city of 4 million people in central China’s Shanxi province that Time in 2007, on a list of the world’s 20 most polluted cities, said made “Dickensian London look as pristine as a nature park.”
Whoa! Not exactly a gleaming city of the future! Fish lightens up a bit toward the end of the article, but the focus is clearly on the “unlivability” aspect. Contrast that with another Foreign Policy article from the Sept/Oct, 2012 issue and the cognitive dissonance is hard to avoid. Dustin Roasa tells us that the cities of the future are made in China. Is that supposed to be exciting, or terrifying? Roasa lands on exciting. Roasa’s claims ring true too, as he says “China is at the forefront of the world’s flashiest urban innovations.” Roasa recites a list of Chinese innovations, some familiar, some not, and he begins his article with lines designed to make Americans cringe. It’s the familiar meme:
just 12 years into the Asian Century, the city of the future has picked up and moved to China. No less than U.S. Vice President Joe Biden recognized this when he said not long ago, “If I blindfolded Americans and took them into some of the airports or ports in China and then took them to one in any one of your cities, in the middle of the night … and then said, ‘Which one is an American? Which one is in your city in America? And which one’s in China?’ most Americans would say, ‘Well, that great one is in America.’ It’s not.” The speech raised eyebrows among conservative commentators, but it points out the obvious to anyone who has spent time in Beijing, Hong Kong, or Shanghai (or even lesser-known cities like Shenzhen and Dalian, for that matter).
In these cities, visitors arrive at glittering, architecturally arresting airports before being whisked by electric taxis into city centers populated by modular green skyscrapers. In the not-so-distant future, they’ll hop on traffic-straddling buses powered by safe, clean solar panels. With China now spending some $500 billion annually on infrastructure — 9 percent of its GDP, well above the rates in the United States and Europe — and with the country’s population undergoing the largest rural-to-urban migration in human history, the decisions it makes about its cities will affect the future of urban areas everywhere. Want to know where urban technology is going? Take the vice president’s advice and head east.
OK, China is a huge country, and Harbin and Shanghai are very different places. But the efforts exerted in Beijing to alleviate air pollution in advance of the Olympics make it clear that the horrible and the impressive can coexist. If, indeed, Chinese cities are the cities of the future – models for the rapidly growing cities in Asia, Africa, and elsewhere – what part of the model will we get?
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