China's new megacities, a look at the interior of the country where everything seems to be happening
“We started off in Zhengzhou. We thought that it would be interesting to write an article about this city. What we saw over there was so interesting and worth telling, that we decided to write a book and include more cities.” Being interviewed is Michiel Hulshof, a Dutch journalist. Four years ago he decided to move to the country where everything seems to be happening at the moment, namely China. He worked as a correspondent and discovered that he was interested in topics that other people don’t write about. “We often hear about the coastal cities of China, Shanghai and Beijing to name a few, but what happens within China is often untold.” At a party in China, Hulshof met a Dutch architect named Daan Roggeveen. He also had an interest in cities. “So we decided to start a research on how the cities in the hinterland of China look like, how they are built, the urban design, the people living within the cities and the story behind them and their city.” This resulted in the book ‘How the city moved to Mr. Sun – China’s new megacities’.
How did you select the cities described in your book?
Hulshof and Roggeveen chose 13 cities (Zhengzhou, Shijiazhuang, Chongqing, Wuhan, Xi’an, Kunming, Changsha, Lanzhou, Guiyang, Hothot, Chengdu, Yinchuan, Kashgar) based on their size. Each city described in the book ‘How the city moved to Mr. Sun’ has the potential to grow to a metropolitan area in the future. But the cities also have a central function within their region. Usually these are the capitals of Chinese provinces. The Chinese are proud of the modernisation of their city. They feel comfortable and part of their city. Just 10 years ago the houses and life in cities like Chengdu or Chongqing was very poor, there was no running water, plumbing or electricity, and now it’s a metropolitan area.
What about the title of your book? Who is Mr. Sun? – Farmers have to make room for modernisation of cities
“Mr. Sun was one of the most interesting people we met throughout the process. The traditional story of growing cities is that people from the countryside move to the city. But this was not the case with Mr. Sun. He lived in the countryside of Shijiazhuang, close to Beijing. He was a farmer and he was poor. Then the city started to grow to the point that it took over his farmland (as well as that of all the people in his village). They got some money, but not much. So Mr. Sun did what more farmers in China are doing, he decided to build an apartment building on his farmland. The area was transformed from a rural, poor area to a city district. He started to rent out the rooms in his building to companies and construction workers, while he remained a farmer himself. On top of his building he created a farm where he kept his chicken and crops. As a landlord he earned much more money than as a farmer, while still doing what he liked best: farming. The problem however is that the Chinese government does not like these city districts, so they are disappearing. Unfortunately this also happened to Mr. Sun. A project developer bought the ground and the apartment building, knocked it down, and built a shopping mall instead. In China the compensation for losing your ground or house is usually very little and this frustrates people.
Social problems in big cities: discrimination against migrants/construction workers
The construction workers are the ones building the cities making them more modern and metropolitan. However they are often discriminated against by Chinese born and raised in the cities. These workers are migrants from the farmlands of China. These men move to the city for work, however their kids are not allowed to go to school in the city, which means that they leave their whole family behind and in some cases do not see their family for years. Within the city their integration is difficult. In recent times however there are some cities which do allow migrants and their families to become permanent residents, but in return the farmers usually have to give up their farmland.
A widening gap between the poor and rich of China
China’s growing cities face the same problems which cities around the world are facing. First of all, sustainability is an issue. Big cities use more energy, more water, there are more cars and thus more pollution. China is very much involved in the ecosystem discussion, but they are mainly talking about it and not really taking concrete action. However because people are becoming richer and the middle class is growing, citizens do take active part in the environment. Recycling and sustainability is important to people living within the cities. Second, the gap between the poor and the rich is widening more and more. The areas where the poor live have bad social conditions and opportunities. The same problems that exist in socially and financially deprived areas in Europe, exits in China as well; there is a high amount of unemployment, school drop-outs, crime etc.
Cooperation between China and Europe
China could learn from the mistakes which European cities have already encountered within their set of “big city problems”. At the moment China is constructing an enormous new city district with lots of buildings that look exactly the same; they are not aesthetically appealing, they’re bland and don’t inspire much. This happened in the ‘50s in Europe as well. There was a need for housing but there was no time to build it. So a simple plan was put together for quick and easy houses. These areas are now “problem” areas. China can thus look at Europe to learn what not to do while constructing this new city district. Another example of cooperation between China and Europe was during the development of the financial district in Wuhan. A team of urban planners and architects, went to Paris, Frankfurt and London, to see which model would be suitable for them. They chose to work with London and built the financial district in Wuhan according to their model. Similarly there are some Dutch design studios developing social housing in China. But vice versa European and American cities can learn much from the growth of Chinese cities. “They are definitely doing something right, because people in China are becoming richer very fast. The UN has set Millennium Goals which state that by 2015 the world poverty rate must drop enormously. The only country actually realising this goal at the moment is China.”
Go West policy, is aimed at bridging the gap in the development of China’s interior
When China decided to gradually change the communist economic model into a capitalist economic model, they did so starting with the coastal cities. Later this capitalist model was incorporated in the interior of China. This is called the Go West policy which is aimed at bridging the gap in the development of China’s interior. When the financial crisis started in 2008, the Chinese government chose to inject $ 586 billion in the economy, especially in central and western China. They invested in high speed railway lines interconnecting provinces with one another, airports and roads were built, creating more work opportunity. Thus China has not exactly been struck by the economic crisis, but the effect can always come later because building such modern buildings and infrastructure means that life becomes more expensive. “We saw many empty apartments or districts while doing the research. In many cases these spaces have actually been sold but nobody lives there, because people buy apartments or buildings as an investment, but if there is no one to rent or buy from them, then there will be a problem further down the road. At this moment there is a real estate bubble. The question is when will it burst.”
A move to a focus on the non-physical parts of the city
People cannot be politically involved in China so to talk about an inclusive city where citizen’s input and participation is appreciated is impossible. All these cities mainly focussed on building their infrastructure in the last 10 years. “If you look at them they have the physical appearance of world cities. The skyline of Chongqing looks like that of Chicago or Hong Kong. I think that these cities are entering a new phase now, where the focus is much less on construction and much more on developing the non-physical parts of the city, like culture and academic life and healthcare. Chengdu, for example, aims to be a world famous cultural city. Just investing money is not enough however. You can built a museum or theatre but you need art, people, acts to fill up these museums and theatres. There are a lot of artists and writers in China but the most interesting ones are not allowed to show all their work in China because of political implications. Aside from this, China was traditionally a developing nation, so the older generation who used to be farmers will not visit a museum or theatre, so these developments are really for the younger, new generation. It’s interesting to see how this will develop.”
EUKN, Elizabeth Winkel