The Concrete Dragon: China’s Urban Revolution and

February 19th, 2009 at 11:21 pm David Frum | No Comments |

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In his new book arguing the case for America’s coming decline as a world power, Fareed Zakaria makes much of the fact that many of the world’s most grandiose pieces of Americana are no longer located in the United States: the world’s biggest shopping mall, the world’s biggest Ferris wheel, etc.

But that does not convey the half of it, not a fraction of it!

China is home to the world’s newest Eiffel tower (admittedly only one-third the size of the original) and an exact replica of the White House. It is building highways, skyscrapers, bridges, and subdivisions on a scale and at a pace unprecedented in world history: Shanghai for example has built four huge new bridges just since 1991.

This is a story of economic change, obviously. But it is a story of economic change taking a certain form: of radical instant urbanization more dramatic than any in world history.

In 1998 alone, 27 million rural migrants made their way to China’s major metropolitan centers. That equals the sum total of all European migration to the United States between 1820 and 1920. … MIgrant workers in Beijing alone outnumber all the African Americans who migrated to the urban north between 1940 and 1970.

That arresting comparison comes from The Concrete Dragon: China’s Urban Revolution and What it Means for the World by Thomas Campanella – one of the most attention-grabbing and thought-provoking books on China I have read in a long time. Campanella is a professor of urban planning at the University of North Carolina, who lived for many years in China and observed the upheavals and transformation of the 1990s.

Here’s more:

There were fewer than 200 cities in China in the late 1970s; today there are nearly 700. Many of these are simply reclassified towns and counties, but even the smallest among them are immense by American standards. Forty-six Chinese cities passed the one-million mark since 1992, making for a total of 102 cities with more than a million residents. In the United States, we have nine such cities. There are scores of Chinese cities most Americans have never heard of that rank with our largest. Guiyang and Jinan, for example, are roughly the same size as Phoenix and Philadelphia, and Heifei and Wuxi – middling cities in China – each exceeds Los Angeles in population.

And this:

In 2003 alone, China put up 28 billion square feet of new housing – one eighth of the housing stock of the United States. In the year 2004 alone, some $400 billion was spent on construction projects in the People’s Republic, nearly the total gross domestic product (GDP) of sub-Saharan Africa that year. There were virtually no modern high-rise office towers in Shanghai in 1980; today it has more than twice as many as New York City. … Nationwide, China’s construction industry employs a workforce equal to the population of California. Nearly half the world’s steel and cement is devoured by China ….

Americans must of course ponder what the rise of China will mean for America. I’ll take up that topic when I write about Fareed’s book later in the month. Campanella invites us to consider what urbanization has meant for the Chinese themselves.

The Chinese character “chai” means “to tear down, to demolish.” Chinese authorities post this character on the walls of condemned buildings. The device has become so ubiquitous as to become a symbol of modern China itself.

One artist has achieved fame with paintings that depict scenes of demolition juxtaposed against images of Chairman Mao, framing the characters “chai” and “na”: “an allegorical device,” Campanella writes, “that situates urban demolition at the very center of Chinese identity by turning chai into a Chinese homophone of the nations’ English name.”

China’s urbanization has come at the cost of the destruction of China’s ancient cities, and especially Beijing. As with everything else about China, the scale of the wreckage is again unprecedented and unparalleled: perhaps 1 million people lost their homes in China in the 1990s, more than the total displacement from all urban renewal projects in the United States since World War II. Compensation was nearly always inadequate, often nonexistent. Beyond the human toll was an incalculable cultural loss:

Old Beijing was not just a huge city, but a carefully constructed symbol in itself: a square wall, pierced by great grates and bisected by a grand central road leading to the imperial compound, all forming from the air the grandest Chinese character of them all. This city is lost – and its loss is further mocked by the Chinese penchant for rebuilding kitschy replicas in theme parks, again on a scale that dwarfs anything in America, thank goodness.

What has replaced China’s old cities is a new kind of urban/suburban lanscape of multiple mixed-use high-rise landscapes served by ring highways, with gated themed single-family housing for the well-to-do: a kind of vast oriental Houston. Campanella describes these new urban scenes with dry almost dead-pan exactitude, illustrating them with many of his own photographs. I was amused by this for example:

[M]arket research in 2003 found that 70 percent of property development in Beijing at the time emphasized Western geographies and architectural motifs. For every neotraditional Chinese villa there are a dozen projects like Roman Vision in Nanjing, Germany Villas in Suzhou, or Shanghai Czech Quarter, with its “Independent Garden Villas of Czech Style.” Vancouver Forest in Beijing has craftsman bungalows mixed with Georgian, Tudor, and Prairie-style homes (in kindred north-woods spirit, another Beijing company offers custom-built log cabin villas).

In Wuxi, a city in the Yangtse Delta a the north end of Taihu (Tai Lake, there is Cambridge Impression. On eof several billboards advertising the project featured an array of black granite stones with names of Cantabrigian luminaries past and present: Wordsworth, Milton, Newton, Byron, Bacon, Wittgenstein, Darwin, Keynes, Hawking. Another displayed an aerial view of the finished product – a fragment of faux Britannia in the People’s Republic. When I toured the project site in late 2006, construction was well underway; an English church steeple rose above a huddle of Tudor-style townhouses and mansions, still latticed with scaffolding. At the entrance of the “Sample District of British Lifestyle,” a carefully positioned perspective rendering of the town flowed seamlessly to the completed buildings nearby – creating an optical illusion of an ersatz reality. Another billboard, with a flowery garden scene and English wrought iron furniture, carried the startling exhortation, “TEA TIME, NOT KILL TIME.”

China’s rebuilders has exacted fearsome human costs from the builders, who often are denied even the most basic safety equipment. Death and mangling are ordinary events in Chinese construction. The costs for the beneficiaries are less immediately deadly or painful, but also real. Just as China has built its suburbanized cities at blinding speed, so too it is speedily discovering what American critics realized a generation ago: These city forms are less than satisfying to those who must live in them.

At the beginning of the 21st century, China is erecting a vast oversized array of reproductions of mid-20th centuries: dependent on automotive technology that may not be either environmentally or economically sustainable in the decades ahead; characterized by urban forms that we who developed them are gradually rejecting as isolating and alienating.

When I read comments about the Chinese construction achievement, I think of that Cold War joke about “our Soviet supercomputers being the biggest in the world.” It’s not so clear that the accomplishments that so impress many Western commentators are in fact so very worth accomplishing.

It may be the bitterest irony of China’s ambitions: China has risen to wealth by serving Western wants and tastes. It has used that wealth to import Western wants and tastes. It may next be about to discover that the West itself has outgrown and discarded what a West-emulating China has so dearly bought.

From the unusual vantage point of urban theory, Thomas Campanella has delivered one of the most knowledgeable and intimate account that I have yet seen of the human results of China’s enrichment. It is obviously a story of great gains for human happiness – but also of some frightful losses as well, and with perhaps many unintended consequences stored as well. The final balance sheet reminds one of that famous comment of Chou En Lai’s about the French Revolution: It is too soon to tell. This surprising and engrossing book at least begins the work of telling.

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