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31 August 2012

China’s urban wasteland is a bad model for British growth

How many Chinese cities can you name?

Obviously, there’s Beijing and Shanghai. Nanjing (Nanking) and Guangzhou (Canton) might also come to mind – along with Shenzhen (Hong Kong’s near neighbour), Xi’an (home of the Terracota Army) and Chongqing (home to 30 million people). But what about Wuhan, Tianjin, Shenyang, Fuzhou, Hangzhou, Harbin and Chengdu – all of them comparable in size to London and much bigger than any other British city?

It is, when you think about it, extraordinary that so many vast cities can exist all but unknown to all but a tiny proportion of people outside China. Part of problem, according to an article by Isaac Stone Fish in Foreign Policy, is that most modern Chinese cities look the same – the opinion not of ignorant westerners, but of the Chinese themselves:  

  • "Our traveler does not know whether he is in Changsha, Xiamen, or Hefei – he is in the city Calvino describes as so unremarkable that ‘only the name of the airport changes.’ Or, as China's vice minister of construction, Qiu Baoxing, lamented in 2007, ‘It's like a thousand cities having the same appearance.’ 
  • "…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."  

Moreover, this is not a uniformity of beauty: 

  • "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…"  

But so what? Who needs beauty when you can have economic growth? That appears to be the attitude of those British commentators who argue for a relaxation of our planning laws and environmental protections. However, one only has to look at countries like America, Spain and Ireland to see where that kind of building boom gets you.

The Chinese boom, turbo-charged by huge internal migrations, a state-controlled banking system and an often shocking disregard for the rights of local people, has continued for longer than most. But China too will pay a heavy price. Indeed, it already is: 

  • "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." 

The competitive advantages that currently drive China’s economic growth will not last for ever. Chinese wage rates are going up – as is the price of the oil-based transport that moves Chinese exports around the world.

There will come a point at which Chinese cities – like our own cities – can only prosper if they offer an environment conducive to life in all its richness: 

  • "In a different era, but one suited to China’s present condition, England-based novelist Henry James wrote, ‘It is difficult to speak adequately or justly of London. It is not a pleasant place; it is not agreeable, or cheerful, or easy, or exempt from reproach. It is only magnificent.’ After three decades of breakneck growth and 5,000 years of history, China's cities have most of that going for them. Now they just need to work on the magnificent."  


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