Shijiazhuang, an industrial boomtown in Hebei, south of Beijing.

Shijiazhuang, an industrial boomtown in Hebei, south of Beijing.

China is one of the world’s great agrarian societies. It developed along the Yellow River Valley thousands of years ago as a country deeply connected to the rhythms of the river and the vagaries of the seasons. Its emperors’ most important duty was to carry out rituals to ensure good harvests. Peasants made up the vast majority (at least 90%) of the population and covered the country with fields, paddies, irrigation canals, and terraces. Farming was considered a dignified and noble profession, while merchants were thought of as greedy scum to be harshly taxed. Chinese culture is deeply intertwined with agricultural festivals and rural traditions.

Yet China also has a long and proud tradition of urbanization; impressive fortifications and big cities go back to prehistoric eras. Even in ancient times, cities like Chang’an and Luoyang were as big as or bigger than anything else in the world; medieval cities like Bianjing or Hangzhou were thriving metropolises that anchored the eastern end of a pan-Asian trading network. Housing more than a million people, these cities were distinguished by meticulous urban planning: broad, formidable walls, wide, straight streets laid out on an easy-to-follow grid pattern, vast parks and gardens, beautiful palaces and mansions, bustling markets filled with produce from around the world, gambling halls, brothels, teahouses, bars, restaurants, inns, artisans’ workshops, graveyards, temples, warehouses, factories, rivers, canals, all manner of shops, and of course, row after row of houses. Foreign travelers like Marco Polo (in the 1200s) were flabbergasted. The Song Dynasty wall scroll depicting a festival in Bianjing, Along the River During the Qingming Festival (1100s), is a classic of Chinese art. (A portion is seen below.) Chang’an was a model for other grid-based cities, like Kyouto in Japan and Gyeongju in Korea.

Zhang Zeduan, "Qingming shanghe tu".  Fu Xinian, ed.  Zhongguo meishu quanji, Liang Song huihua, shang (Series Vol. 3).  pl. 51, pp.135-137.  Collection of the National Palace Museum, Beijing.

The Communists had a pronounced bias towards rural areas, partially because of the traditional bias mentioned above, and partially because Mao Zedong based his revolution on mobilizing China’s disgruntled peasantry, so he owed it to them to redistribute land and foster agricultural productivity. Urban areas were associated with snooty elites, capitalism, the dreaded bourgeoisie, and the Nationalist Party Mao had overthrown. During the Great Leap Forward, industrial production was moved into the countryside — with disastrous results. During the Cultural Revolution, politically dubious academics, party apparatchiks, and businessmen were moved into the countryside to learn the dignity of farm work — with disastrous results.

After Mao died, the Party learned its lesson. Urbanization was China’s future. Urban areas mean concentrations of economic power, muscle power, and brain power. Land management reform and modern farming techniques freed up millions of farmers to go somewhere else and work. Foreign investors streamed into coastal cities to set up factories and jointly owned enterprises. In time, a native class of entrepreneurs and capitalists grew to amass fortunes and create a new society in China’s cities.

This rural-to-urban transition has certainly changed the character of China — and the world. The prestigious economist Joseph Stiglitz identified China’s urbanization as one of the 2 key factors reshaping the world in the 2000s (the other being technological innovation in America). Urbanization binds the country together, breaking down old village traditions and obscure languages in favor of a homogenized Mandarin culture. It connects the Chinese with the outside world and the temptations of modern life, whetting appetites for higher living standards and stimulating ambition. This creates a new consumer society and new markets for the many, many things China manufactures — which is crucial, since China needs to reorient its economy from investment and export to domestic consumption and services.

Since restrictions were loosened in the ’70s, migrants have been streaming into cities to work in factories and build up savings (while also sending some back home). They are a common sight in Chinese cities, especially outside train or bus stations: tough, leathery folk with dirty clothes hauling around huge bags. They tend to cluster in cheap, crowded and dirty apartments, lending the outer regions of Chinese cities a ghetto vibe. Yet strict regulation has kept China from developing the ghastly, teeming slums that blight India or Africa, and living conditions tend to be spartan but sufficient.

Migrants look for work in the thriving city of Chongqing in central China. Image source: New York Times

Migrants look for work in the thriving city of Chongqing in central China. Image source: New York Times

Meanwhile, the cities themselves are booming and swelling into things their residents would hardly have recognized 50 years ago (or even 30 years ago). Movie theaters, shopping malls, supermarkets, KTVs (karaoke), and theme parks provide amusement. A nationwide construction boom has led to China practically getting covered by a thicket of skyscrapers, some of them reaching to dizzying heights —the new Shanghai Tower is 632 meters high, making it the world’s 2nd-tallest building. The New Century Global Center, a massive shopping mall in the central city of Chengdu, is the world’s biggest building. Daring architects build some pretty weird stuff, like a building shaped like a pair of pants or an office complex shaped like a circle with a hole in it.

Nanning, capital of Guangxi, near Vietnam. Image source: Imgur

Nanning, capital of Guangxi, near Vietnam. Image source: Imgur

Of course, there are many downsides to China’s rapid urbanization. Foremost are the rural migrants again; they stick out very obviously in the cities, with their hickish habits, speech, and attitudes. “True” urbanites sneer at them for being dirty, simple and uncultivated, and they get discriminated against routinely. This is compounded by the hukou system, a household registry instituted by the Communists (but based on older Chinese traditions) to monitor who lived where and to keep farmers on their farms. Since China’s opening up, farmers are allowed to move to the cities, but changing their hukou is still very hard. The Party is eager to keep a big labor pool on hand for factories to use, but not so eager to allow unrestrained development.

As China shifts more and more into an urban society, officials are changing their minds and loosening hukou restrictions. New reforms allow migrants to apply for urban hukou if they meet several conditions (like getting a job, a place to live, and paying into social security funds), but they remain out of reach for most migrants. The most desirable cities — the so-called “first-tier” cities, Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou — are hardest to register in, since authorities don’t want these already massive cities growing beyond reason.(Indeed, most migrants aren’t even interested in changing their registration status; having a farm somewhere is a good insurance policy for economic busts.) Until then, migrants find it hard to access social benefits like pensions and health care or to enroll their kids in good schools. This has led to a much more serious rural-urban divide than in other countries, to the extent that some observers call it China’s version of segregation. (And given how uncomfortable many city folk are with living near migrants, they might be right.)

Pollution is another unwelcome byproduct of China’s rampant urbanization. China’s determination to advance the economy at all costs has led to some of the world’s worst air, water, and ground pollution, and it makes the air hard to breathe and the water undrinkable and unswimmable. China’s biggest cities — especially in the northeast — are perpetually wreathed in haze and smoke, and seeing the sun or even the sky is a rare sight. Trash — as in the rest of the developing world — is usually just dropped on the street. All those wide avenues and huge distances mean getting around by car is most convenient — which means epic traffic jams and more smog. Pollution is such a huge problem, it’s worth its own blog post, but for now let’s just say it’s one of the defining characteristics of Chinese cities, despite more and more efforts to ameliorate it.

The rampant development that party officials fear is already a problem; overly ambitious city planners have bought up lots of farmland and expanded their cities, sometimes faster than people can fill them. Dispossessed farmers are sometimes put to work in the inevitable factories and get apartments that improve on their grubby old huts. They don’t mind this so much, but other times they are just forced off the land with nowhere to go or do (and no real way to complain about it or prevent it). And just because buildings are built doesn’t mean people want to use them — some parts of suburban China are dotted with eerily vacant or nearly vacant apartment blocks, office buildings, and entire cities. The New South China Mall in the city of Dongguan is the world’s largest shopping mall with 659,612 m² of leasable area — but it’s 99% empty. These sorts of urban schemes are probably the best symbol of the bubble economy China is running on.

Harder to quantify is the sense of soullessness and drabness in a lot of Chinese cities. Beijing combines the imperial splendor of the Ming and Qing dynasties with grandiose Communist features like Tiananmen Square, the world’s largest plaza; Shanghai, with its sparkling skyline, throbbing economy and leftovers from the early 1900s, enchants visitors; and Hong Kong remains a magnet for tourists drawn by its street life, picturesque setting, cleanliness, and efficiency. But outside of these heavy hitters and a few other gems (Xi’an, Qingdao, Hangzhou), most of China’s cities, for all their impressive size, are outside of tourists’ radar. Municipal governments across the country put economic growth and commerce above all else; when they do try to beautify their cities or give them a unique spin, they don’t always succeed. This is a debatable topic, and opinions vary on how interesting or livable China’s “second-tier” cities (mostly provincial capitals) are, but judging simply by how obscure major Chinese cities are, growth and ambitious plans don’t always translate into attractive cities.

A typical street scene in Xi'an, provincial capital of Shaanxi, central China.

A typical street scene in Xi’an, provincial capital of Shaanxi, central China.

No matter what the downsides may be, China’s urbanization is surely one of the most profound and consequential changes of the last 2 decades or so. It is reworking the national character of one of the world’s oldest countries, reorienting it from concerns about the weather and the harvest to concerns about household appliances and office jobs. Portions of Chinese cities are resembling the rich world more and more — posh suburban neighborhoods, glitzy malls, playgrounds. (Hong Kong is already there, but this article isn’t really about it.) A country that was 20% urban in the early 1980s has tipped towards 54% urban now, and is projected to reach 60% by 2020. Yet China is still much poorer than its Western and Eastern rivals, and most of its city-dwellers toil in low-paid jobs and live in cramped, rustic apartments.

With its towering skyscrapers, choking smog, massive avenues and plazas, grubby sidewalks, dazzling architecture, and colorful street markets, China is always an exciting place to visit. It’s like experiencing the Industrial Revolution in the 3rd millennium, only sped-up.

Shanghai in 1987 vs. 2013. Image source: Reddit

Shanghai in 1987 vs. 2013. Image source: Reddit


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