‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Percy Bysshe Shelley, ‘Ozymandias’ (1818)
It is safe to assume that government officials in Ordos did not read Shelley’s great sonnet ‘Ozymandias’ before they built a gleaming new city in the middle of the Gobi Desert. Shelley’s poem was inspired by the fallen empire of Ramesses the Great, pharaoh of ancient Egypt in the thirteenth century BC. Ordos is a municipality in Inner Mongolia, not the capital of a great empire. But it does claim one-sixth of China’s proven coal reserves, and this means it is very rich. Like Ozymandias, ambitious local leaders are building a great city in the sand.
Kangbashi New District, as it is known, features lavish public buildings and bucketloads of local pride. The municipal government’s huge new headquarters overlook an enormous flagstoned square dotted with vast sculptures of Genghis Khan and his ravaging Mongol hordes. When Premier Wen Jiabao visited, locals say, he told officials their building was more luxurious than the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Beside the square is an US$80 million museum, whose asymmetric exterior looks like a deformed UFO, and a US$60 million theatre, reminiscent of a traditional Mongolian cap sculpted in stone. An eight-storey public library features a glass-roofed courtyard and a floor reserved for Mongolian literature. Beyond the square, a sprinkling of skyscrapers and thousands of regimented apartment blocks shimmer under the desert sun. It is all very impressive, until you notice that the city is missing something essential – people.
Ordos is the poster-child of critics who argue that China’s urbanization process has become unmoored from reality. In 2010, legendary short-seller and hedge-fund manager Jim Chanos proclaimed that China was on ‘a treadmill to hell’ (forgetting, it seems, that the whole point of treadmills is that they don’t go anywhere). Comparing China’s reliance on property development to a heroin addiction, he declared that China’s reckless investment practices were a bubble waiting to burst. A year later, doom-monger extraordinaire Nouriel Roubini, who anticipated 2008’s global financial meltdown, warned that China’s excessive investment rate could result in a financial crisis, years of anaemic growth, or both. Roubini cited the proliferation of ‘ghost towns’ – empty new cities – as evidence that China’s excessive investment had crossed a critical threshold. He was almost certainly thinking of China’s infamous ghost town in the desert.
So are Ordos’s leaders inflating a crazy bubble, or is there method in their madness? The local government drew up the blueprint for Kangbashi when Ordos’s commodity boom took off in 2002. Money was no object: in 2006–10, annual GDP growth averaged a scorching 23 per cent and local government revenues jumped sevenfold over the previous five-year period, surpassing Rmb150 billion – well over US$20 billion. Per-capita GDP soared past US$20,000, twice the level in Beijing. The local government’s idea was to kill two birds with one stone: to build a new town to house the municipality’s growing urban population and to persuade wealthy locals to spend their money at home. Ordos’s urban population jumped by more than 400,000 to 1 million in the first decade of the century, and is expected to keep growing. Kangbashi is designed to accommodate 300,000 people, a city the size of Newcastle-upon-Tyne or Pittsburgh. But officials were also keen to avoid the fate of neighbouring Shanxi, whose own coal bosses are famous for taking their money out of the province and spending their bags of cash on luxury apartments in Beijing.
The government’s policy has been half-successful: the vast majority of Kangbashi’s homes have local owners – yet up to 80 per cent stand empty. Most investors in the new city do not live there, instead preferring to remain in the old city of Dongsheng. Every morning, hundreds of government officials and employees of state-owned enterprises make the thirty-minute drive from Dongsheng through sandy scrubland to their shiny new offices in Kangbashi. In the evening they return to their homes in the bustling old neighbourhoods, where there are restaurants, shops and life.
Government planners say they chose this inconvenient location for the new city because Dongsheng is chronically short of water, whereas Kangbashi sits on the banks of a river. As Kangbashi develops and Ordos’s urban population expands, they hope that more people will choose to move into the new city. Officials plan to move 150,000 farmers off the land by 2015, and these people will need housing. With compensation rates for some demolished homesteads on the edge of the city reportedly reaching up to US$300,000, many new urban residents will be able to afford to buy a home. In addition, Ordos is likely to attract thousands of urban migrants drawn by its boomtown credentials. Yet it remains far from certain that these new residents will choose to live in Kangbashi rather than Dongsheng, which is enjoying a construction boom of its own.
To planners’ dismay, much of the private cash in Ordos is flowing into the water-starved old city. Dongsheng’s skyline is filled with cranes, and its roads are congested with luxury cars. Dongsheng more closely resembles a resource-rich Middle Eastern mini-state than a typical Chinese city. Locals drive imported Range Rovers at US$250,000 each, and the pavements outside the city’s glitzy karaoke halls are lined with Lexus SUVs. Taxi drivers claim they earn up to US$3,000 per month – six times the going rate in Beijing. Many of the locals walking along Dongsheng’s drab but bustling streets are not long removed from the farm, but their leather clutch purses are stuffed with cash.
Ordos’s new rich demand a luxury apartment along with a fancy car. ‘Our customers are mainly coal bosses who have sold their business to the government or they’ve got rich doing property financing,’ explains Ma Shaohua, a Beijing native and client manager at Prince Mansion, the swankiest new address in the old town. The 700-unit complex, which features marble floors and faux-baroque styling, is set in tree-lined gardens next to a bubbling river, until recently a stinking sewer. More than 150 of the 180 first-phase units sold within seven months of going on sale, despite a price tag of US$2 million each. ‘They have the Louis Vuitton and the Armani, and now they want a luxury home and a luxury car – a Range Rover, Bentley or Rolls Royce,’ says Ma.
Until recently, many of the city’s inhabitants were not dissimilar from the people now building them their marbled palaces. In the centre of town, migrant workers take a break by the side of the road after a twelve-hour day lugging breezeblocks and pouring cement. They live in a filthy row of old village-style housing backing onto their construction site. Mr Zhen, a 54-year-old farmer from north central China, says this is his first stint as a migrant worker. ‘Did you come to see the great western construction boom?’ he asks cheerfully. Zhen earns US$450 a month working as a builder, a huge sum for a farmer and substantially more than most migrant workers around the country. ‘People here used to be poor like me,’ he says without resentment. ‘But Ordos has exploded with wealth.’
For the moment, there are many more winners than losers from Ordos’s commodity boom. The question is how long this can continue. At the end of 2011, reports suggested that Ordos’s speculation-fuelled economy was beginning to unravel as local house prices dropped by up to a third. Sad tales emerged of amateur financiers and their borrowers committing suicide. When bubbles burst, it is a painful business. But Ordos can probably survive a market correction or two: the city has so much coal that both government officials and investors alike can afford to throw money at dubious construction projects for years to come. In any case, if Ordos’s gamble fails, it has little relevance for the vast majority of property developments across the country. Most of these are new suburbs attached to existing cities, not mini-Dubais in the desert. Kangbashi will not slip into the boundless sands just yet.
There are even signs that the city in the desert is beginning to attract residents. On a busy strip of restaurants not far from the main square, the owner of a packed Sichuan eatery says business picked up considerably in 2011. More businesses are moving into the new city, and two university campuses have opened, bringing with them thousands of students. As Kangbashi’s impressive new schools also open their doors, families will be attracted to the area, where house prices are lower than in Dongsheng. Mr Suo, a retired soldier who moved from the old town in 2009, says he was lured by cleaner air, space and cheaper prices. ‘It’s still pretty quiet, but we now have about a hundred households living in our compound,’ he says. ‘Back in 2009 Kangbashi was a ghost town, but not any more.’
Sorting fact from fiction in China’s property market is tough. When stories about China’s ‘ghost towns’ emerged in late 2009, the markets began to swirl with exaggerated rumours about the extent of overbuilding across the country. One popular claim, amplified by the market’s echo chamber effect, was that China had 65 million apartments sitting empty. Suddenly every city looked like Ordos.
It is hardly surprising that China’s property market is rife with rumour. Many of the biggest players in Chinese real estate are state-owned and unlisted, and around half of all property developments in China are not even sold on the open market. China’s property-market statistics are contradictory and notoriously hard to interpret. To describe the market as ‘opaque’ does not do it justice. Yet the property market matters. China’s economy, with its concentration of steel mills and cement plants, is unusually dependent on its construction sector. And China plays such an important role in setting prices for any number of raw materials that even a mild slowdown in its construction sector causes ripples across global commodity markets. If China’s housing market really is one giant bubble, the world needs to know.
Fortunately, the investment gurus who propagate the ‘China bubble’ thesis are wrong because they misunderstand the nature of Chinese urbanization. They fail to comprehend its scale, and they base too many of their conclusions on business norms in the West rather than on those in China. Critics such as Jim Chanos and Nouriel Roubini are right that China’s economic model encourages overinvestment and that its cities are littered with waste, but China’s economy remains at a stage in its development at which efficiency is not the be-all and end-all. It can digest a few white elephants. Moreover, the truth of the matter is that China is not building too many apartments, and a handful of empty urban districts are not evidence of a giant property bubble. Chinese property investment may be inefficient, but it is sustained by a huge, growing and sustainable demand for new housing.
Most critics of China’s property market fail to understand just how much new housing China’s urbanization process will require. Every year, China’s cities must absorb more than 20 million new inhabitants. In addition, as China’s existing urbanites grow richer, they are demanding bigger and better apartments. In 2011, demand for new housing reached more than 10 million units, which should prove a sustainable number for the next decade or more. China’s current modern housing stock, defined as homes with individual bathrooms and kitchens, is around 150 million units. But 200 million migrant workers currently live in dormitories or slum housing. If one believes that the urban poor deserve to live in proper flats, the corollary is that Chinese cities actually have a significant shortage of housing – somewhere in the region of 70 million units. China is not building too many new apartments; it is building too few.
As China grows richer, migrant workers and working-class urbanites will need to be rehoused in civilized accommodation. China’s vast social housing programme, which began in earnest in 2009, represents the start of this process. GK Dragonomics estimates that 40–50 million new urban households will need to be housed between 2010 and 2020, while the total underlying housing demand for the next twenty years, including demand from upgrading and public housing projects, will be approximately 10 million units per year. Ill-conceived projects will fail along the way, and some developers and investors will lose money. But China’s cities must build ahead to accommodate millions of new urbanites, and it makes sense to house people in new districts rather than hope that congested old neighbourhoods can bear the strain.
Most of these new districts will be built on the edge of expanding cities. The ‘ghost towns’ moniker is unhelpful because it implies that China is building lots of empty new cities. This is not the case: genuinely new cities are the exception not the rule. It is far more accurate to think of housing developments as new suburbs or satellites of existing urban centres rather than as orphans sprouting in the countryside. These suburbs provide much-needed housing for people relocating from older, smaller homes in the city centre and for young families looking for affordable homes. Most ‘ghost towns’ are merely new suburbs that people have not moved into yet. In time, China’s empty cities will fill up.
Kangbashi in Ordos is a rare example of a genuinely new city. Three far more representative examples of new urban development can be found in the cities of Linyi, in the coastal province of Shandong; in Zhengzhou, the capital of central Henan province; and in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province in China’s subtropical southwest.
Linyi is an unremarkable prefecture-level city once known for its sprawling wholesale markets but now better known for its abuse of the blind human rights activist Chen Guangcheng. Back in 2002, Linyi city had a modest population of 650,000. This made it little more than a large town by Chinese standards, and tiny compared with Shandong’s major cities, Jinan and Qingdao. Yet Linyi city is the capital of an administrative unit containing many smaller towns and villages with a population in excess of 10 million, the largest in Shandong. One of those villages is Dongshigu, where Chen was held under illegal house arrest after exposing forced abortions and sterilizations in his rural community. Aside from policing China’s harsh family-planning policies, Linyi’s government officials are promoted for boosting economic development. So in 2003 they set out to leverage their chief asset – a large but mainly rural population – and transform their sleepy town into a thriving metropolis.
Linyi’s officials couched their plan in the politically correct language of ‘urban–rural integration’. In reality, as in the urbanization drives in Chongqing and Chengdu, that meant moving farmers off their land and turning them into urban citizens. The government demolished rural homesteads, reclaimed and consolidated rural construction land for agriculture, and concentrated the ex-farmers in new urban neighbourhoods. In 2010, Linyi combined twenty-four villages into five city neighbourhoods that took up just 30 per cent of the space occupied by their old homes. The extra land created by this consolidation was either sold for urban development or used as collateral for bank loans to pay for building new homes and roads.
Linyi’s total urban population, which includes a dozen or so smaller towns and cities in addition to the prefecture capital, jumped from 3.3 million in 2003 to 5.3 million in 2009, pushing the urbanization ratio up from 33 per cent to 48 per cent. Linyi city itself doubled in size to 1.5 million, and its urbanized land area nearly trebled. Local officials say they demolished and renovated 20 million square metres of urban housing in 2004–08 – enough to rehouse roughly 1 million residents – and built a further 1.8 million square metres of publicly subsidized ‘economic’ housing. They claim that 213,000 former farmers found urban jobs in 2008 alone, many as couriers in Linyi’s wholesale markets. From 2003 to 2010, Linyi’s pace of urbanization was a brisk 2 percentage points per year, faster than the national average.
Over the coming decade, city planners are preparing to move a further 2 million farmers into urban areas. Their aim is to push the prefecture’s urbanization ratio up to 65 per cent. By 2020, they expect the total urban population to rise to 7.6 million, of whom nearly 3 million residents will live in Linyi city. The rest of the new urban population will move to twelve satellite towns, whose current populations of 100–200,000 are expected to double.
This ambitious plan presents the city government with a number of challenges. The first is to build sufficient homes and infrastructure to accommodate a fresh wave of migrants. Officials have focused this effort on constructing a new city district that faces the old city from across the banks of the Yi River, an expansive waterway lined with sandy beaches where locals swim in the summer. Nanfang New Zone, as the district is called, features wide roads, new schools, and a museum dedicated to science and technology. Many of the gleaming buildings would not look out of place in Shanghai: Linyi Commercial Bank, for example, occupies a forty-storey skyscraper. Inevitably, there is a huge new headquarters for the city government, which overlooks a mammoth public square and landscaped park, complete with an artificial lake spanned by traditional Chinese bridges. Yet five years after work began on the new district, the hundreds of apartment blocks and smart office buildings were unoccupied. Shops, restaurants and businesses were conspicuous by their absence. Like Kangbashi, all that was missing was people.
Driving through the vacant streets it is easy to conclude that Nanfang is an empty monument to the ambition of local officials – a vanity project and a colossal waste of money. Officials may have the power to drive millions of farmers off their land, but they do not understand market reality. Some of the new apartment blocks are designated for expropriated farmers and employees of local state-owned enterprises, but most are for sale. Whether Linyi’s local economy can create enough wealth and, therefore, demand to fill hundreds of thousands of empty flats is far from certain. The market rationale for Nanfang’s shiny new buildings is speculative at best.
Yet the reality, as so often the case in China, may not follow conventional economic logic. Viewed from the local government’s perspective, the new zone is a rational investment. Having already demonstrated that they can deliver rapid urbanization, Linyi’s officials are justifiably confident they can hit their ambitious urbanization targets for 2020. And rather than building low-end flats on the outskirts of town to house incoming migrants (the cheaper alternative), it makes sense to invest in a pleasant new district where existing urbanites will want to live. Roughly half of nationwide demand for new flats is driven by existing homeowners looking to upgrade. When Linyi’s upgraders move out of their old flats, less wealthy residents – including new migrants – can move in. Until then, the state-owned banks which helped to finance the investment can wait to get their money back.
Five hundred kilometres west of Linyi is Zhengzhou, one of the biggest cities in central China. Zhengzhou’s new district, Zhengdong New Area, is so large that city officials had to gain approval from Beijing before building it. Officials in Zhengzhou, like Ordos, have received a barrage of criticism for their ambitious, and extremely expensive, project. Construction on the 115-square-kilometre site, which contains a business district, new headquarters for the provincial government, high-speed rail transport hub and fifteen university campuses, began in 2003. Total investment is reportedly expected to top Rmb100 billion. In December 2010, Zhengdong was featured in a report by US-based financial website Business Insider, which presented satellite images of Kangbashi and several other Chinese ‘ghost cities’. The photographs of Zhengdong showed hundreds of empty new apartment blocks and public buildings.
Once again, not all of the criticism is justified. Zhengdong is designed to give Zhengzhou – the commercial centre of a teeming province with a population of 94 million – the modern infrastructure it needs to expand effectively. Already severely congested, Zhengzhou is home to around 11 million people, of whom nearly 6 million live in the city proper. Unlike Kangbashi, Zhengdong is an extension of the old city, to which it will soon be linked by the city’s first subway line. When the satellite photographs of this new district were taken, it was hardly surprising that the public buildings looked empty: many of them had yet to open. In the summer of 2011, Zhengdong remained a work in progress, yet residential areas that had opened four or five years beforehand were filled with cars and people. Most brand-new apartment blocks were empty, but older neighbourhoods were thriving.
It is a similar story in Kunming, which has built a new district 20 kilometres south of the old city centre. Chenggong New District earned the distinction of being cited by the Financial Times in a discussion of China’s investment bubble. But like Kangbashi, Nanfang and Zhengdong, Chenggong was not built on a whim during China’s economic stimulus period of 2008–10 – a common criticism of much investment at that time. Kunming’s resident population grew by 1.5 million in 2000–10, and the characterful city is determined to catch up with more developed cities along the east coast. The provincial Standing Committee planned the construction of a modern district to serve as a new centre for government, education and logistics back in 2003. If the plan works, Chenggong will house 950,000 people by 2020.
Government officials and university students will form the residential core of the new district. The city government has moved into its plush new headquarters, and nine university campuses are relocating from the old city. Down the road from Yunnan University’s imposing new campus, salespeople at a residential compound say that 90 per cent of the apartments have been sold – some to investors, but most to university teachers. Prices here are one-third cheaper than in the old city. And the area is slowly coming to life, with restaurants and shops occupying around 30 per cent of the ground-floor commercial areas.
Chenggong, like thousands of new developments across China, is visibly wasteful. Chinese officials’ obsession with gigantism ensures that city avenues, as Beijingers sadly discovered in 1989, are wide enough for a squadron of tanks to rumble down them. But the crucial question is whether these ‘ghost towns’ will remain empty. Both urbanization data and experience suggest that they have a good chance of filling up. Hundreds of once-empty districts across the country, from Shangdi in northwest Beijing to Donghu in southeast Wuhan, have turned into flourishing neighbourhoods. China’s economic model, which relies on cheap financing and significant investment from the state, is wasteful. But there is far more slack in the system than in Western countries, which tend to value efficiency and immediate economic returns above anything else.
One example above all others shows how the Chinese model can work: Pudong. Shanghai’s unlovely new district, built on the marshy banks of the Huangpu River, is the model for new districts nationwide. In 2011, Kangbashi (Ordos), Nanfang (Linyi), Zhengdong (Zhengzhou) and Chenggong (Kunming) were at much the same stage in their development as Pudong in 1998, when a visiting Milton Friedman slammed Shanghai’s glittering new business district as ‘a statist monument for a dead pharaoh on the level of the pyramids’. With the occupancy rate in its swanky new office towers at just 35 per cent, Pudong was itself something of a ghost town back in the late 1990s. Yet within a decade, Pudong’s skyscrapers were full and millions of residents had moved into new homes across the Huangpu River. Pudong offers a lesson in patience: new districts must be given time to become viable commercial centres.
Friedman criticized Pudong as ‘not a manifestation of the market economy’. Pudong was indeed planned by technocrats rather than commercial developers. But that provided a platform for its success: as private investors backed out or scaled down their plans, state-owned developers with deep credit lines remained patient. This gave Pudong enough breathing space to ride out its initial difficulties and emerge triumphant a few years later. The Shanghai government helped the process by instructing all the big banks to move their city headquarters to Pudong’s new business district in Lujiazui. Few people at the time wanted to work in a sterile construction zone devoid of restaurants or greenery, but the government gave them no choice.
Now, there is no iron rule that other new districts will succeed like Pudong. Shanghai, after all, has obvious advantages that no other city in China can match. But almost every city in China does have a fast-growing population and residents who want to live in nicer homes. Moreover, many cities have taken a leaf out of Shanghai’s technocratic playbook. Shanghai helped Pudong fill up by forcing banks to move there. Zhengzhou and Kunming, and to a lesser extent Ordos and Linyi, have followed suit by moving government offices, universities and schools. That means thousands of officials, students and teachers will populate new districts. And this is not a case of the government creating artificial demand: the number of university students in Zhengzhou and Kunming quadrupled between 2000 and 2010, so new campuses are needed. Zhengdong alone will accommodate 240,000 university students and teachers. The rationale is not only ‘build it and they will come’, but also ‘build it and make them come’.
The experience of Dachang township on the northern edge of Shanghai suggests these tactics might work. Back in the late 1990s, when Shanghai University opened a US$160 million new campus there, the whitewashed buildings were marooned amid empty fields. The roads outside the campus were car-free, and students had nowhere to eat but the dreary student canteen. Getting into the city required waiting for an hourly bus, a ramshackle vehicle that listed severely to one side, belching black smoke from its exhaust pipe. The journey could take up to an hour and a half, but few students bothered, instead hunkering down to play endless games of cards.
Today the area around the university, once forlorn and desolate, has been transformed into a leafy and thriving suburb. The empty fields behind the campus are filled with restaurants, cafés, bars, noodle stalls and ice-cream parlours. There is a cinema and karaoke joint; gyms, book shops and internet cafés; a Walmart supermarket and a Suning household appliance store. The simple housing blocks built to accommodate dispossessed farmers are still there, but are now surrounded by smart compounds occupied by middle-class suburbanites. ‘It’s paradise these days,’ says one returning ex-student, who recalls campus life ten years ago as a crushing bore.
The economic transformation is the result of several factors. The arrival of a critical mass of consumers created the conditions for private businesses to flourish, at the same time as rising property prices and population growth pushed more residents out of the city centre. Then, in 2009, the opening of a new metro line cut the commute into central Shanghai to just half an hour. The final factor in Dachang’s transformation was less tangible but just as important: time. It took a decade for the old township to become the thriving suburb it is today.
The parallels with Zhengdong and Chenggong are obvious. Moving universities into a new area guarantees a critical mass of residents that encourages businesses to move with them. Like Shanghai University, the twenty-four universities setting up in Zhengdong and Chenggong will soon enjoy their own subway stations. And as these new areas develop, more residents from the old city are likely to move, too. So although these new districts look like a speculative leap of faith, local officials know they will not remain empty. If they can ensure the new districts have several hundred thousand residents, so the logic goes, the market will do the rest.
Given time, officials in Zhengzhou and Kunming will likely prove their doubters wrong. Zhengdong and Chengdong are attached to large provincial capitals and the basis for growth is obvious. That is less clear in Linyi, a much smaller city which may struggle to create enough jobs for an influx of people with few modern skills. The population pressure is real, however, and these new urbanites will have to be housed somewhere. China’s urbanization process is riddled with inefficiency and waste. But new city districts and millions of empty apartments also reflect the size of the challenge facing a country that must build homes for hundreds of millions of people. China’s ‘ghost towns’ are not as scary as they look.
Grey, ugly and congested: why are so many Chinese cities so horrible?
Ordos, Linyi, Zhengzhou and Kunming all have one thing in common: they are attempting to create new city districts with a pleasant living environment. This brings us to a conundrum that puzzles most outside visitors to China’s cities. Even allowing for China’s enormous population and still moderate level of economic development, why are so many Chinese cities so horrible? And why do they all look the same?
The typical Chinese city is grey, ugly and congested. It has pointlessly wide roads and squares, and functional, boxy buildings clad in grimy concrete or dirty white tiles. The old parts of town have been demolished, save perhaps for a solitary pagoda, rebuilt and sucked dry of its historical sap. The roads are jammed, the air filthy, the streets often unwalkable. Pavements and public entrances are blocked by private vehicles, whose owners scream abuse at cyclists and pedestrians for getting in their way. It is, in short, anything but ‘liveable’.
China’s leaders are not totally unaware of this depressing fact. In 2007 Qiu Baoxing, then vice minister of construction, launched a tirade against the dreary monotony of China’s urban landscape. He lambasted local officials for the ‘senseless’ destruction of the country’s architectural and cultural heritage as China pursued its headlong rush towards modernization. Lamenting the ugly, uniform buildings casually erected on old temples and ancient streets, he put his finger on the most depressing aspect of modern Chinese urbanism. ‘It is like having a thousand cities with the same appearance,’ he complained.
China’s vision of modernity is narrow, bloodless and disrespectful of the past. Government planners tear down old neighbourhoods in the name of ‘development’ and ‘civilization’. Aside from a few exceptions, such as Beijing’s dwindling ancient alleyways and Shanghai’s colonial buildings, urban China has been almost entirely rebuilt since the 1950s. Most buildings today are less than thirty years old – typically square, six-storey apartment blocks made of bricks or cheap concrete. The few historical structures that have survived are invariably fenced off from the rest of the city and repackaged as an ersatz tourist experience. Often crudely reconstructed, they lose any evocative appeal they once held.
Even some of China’s most celebrated cities are in danger of losing their soul. In Chengdu, locals wax lyrical about how their city is relaxed and liveable – but it is actually as grey, polluted, car-ridden and ugly as most other big Chinese cities. Many of its famous outdoor teahouses have moved into sterile shopping malls, and food stands are banished from the streets. Chongqing has done a better job of maintaining local character. Its side streets still buzz with stalls serving spicy noodles and other fiery local delicacies. After dusk, locals huddle around cauldrons of bubbling oil, fishing out slippery cubes of tofu and spicy jellies of pig’s blood with glistening chopsticks. But Bo Xilai’s attempts to ‘civilize’ Chongqing forced roadside hotpot joints out of the commercial district, and the city is noticeably less chaotic than it once was. Soon Chongqing’s street life will be as dull as everywhere else.
Almost any Chinese official you meet can reel off a list of facts about his local city’s magnificent history. In the same breath, he will tell you how many square metres of construction were completed in the previous year. Privately, many officials are fond of comparing their modernized cities favourably with the dilapidated slums they see in that other large and ancient Asian land – India. India’s cities may be less modern than China’s, but almost any Indian city you care to name has done a far better job of preserving its historical heritage. Indian cities, like those in Europe, possess the one element that so many of China’s cities singularly lack: character.
China’s urban landscape reflects its authoritarian system of government. During the Mao years, ancient cities were torn down and reconstructed on Soviet lines. The Soviet urban planning system used bold city master plans to create cities of inhuman scale: urban design was designed to project Communist Party power. In the 1950s, Beijing’s city walls, a symbol of the hated feudal past, were demolished. The square in front of the Gate of Heavenly Peace – Tiananmen – was turned into the largest urban open space in the world. Historic courtyard homes were bulldozed to create avenues 100 metres wide. Similar destruction and rebuilding occurred in cities across China, albeit on a smaller scale.
China’s cities continue to suffer from the legacy of Soviet-influenced urban planning, which focused on boosting industrial productivity and ensuring social control at the cost of all else. Local governments built vast new roads and public squares, compounds to house factories and workers, and universities to educate engineers and technicians. Cities were regarded as massive factories, or ‘producer cities’, rather than as social spaces. Function was everything; there was little interest in making cities pleasant places to live. This resulted in a uniformity of urban design that still shapes how cities look today.
The influence of Soviet design is one reason why Chinese cities look so alike. City planners still view Beijing as a model, whether consciously or not. The capital’s power aesthetic is apparent in many new buildings across the country, especially those erected by local governments. Visit any Chinese city and you will find grandiose government buildings and expansive boulevards on the Beijing model. Some ordinary intersections in Chenggong, Kunming’s new satellite city, are fully 200 metres wide. The central public square in Kangbashi, in Ordos, is nearly as large as Tiananmen Square. Buildings and cities across China are routinely built and laid out on a scale that is designed to shock and awe, not to produce a comfortable living environment.
Top-down planning does have its advantages. It ensures that houses are built, bridges constructed, subways dug. Hangzhou’s master plan for 2001–20, for example, envisages moving all industry out of the city proper, building a 171-kilometre metro system, and expanding the airport to accommodate 30 million passengers. If officials say they will build something, they invariably do. ‘The most striking difference between Chinese cities and cities almost anywhere else is that they build ahead to anticipate growth,’ says Greg Clark, a London-based expert on city development who advises the municipal governments of some of the world’s largest cities. ‘In cities like São Paulo and Johannesburg, social and economic development is ahead of the physical infrastructure, which is constantly trying to catch up. In China it is the other way around.’ By building infrastructure ahead of demand, Chinese planners are able to help direct the physical growth of the city. This is one reason why so many Chinese cities appear to have a surplus of housing and infrastructure, and also why fears about ‘ghost towns’ are so often overblown.
But top-down planning also has its limits. Long-term plans can fail to anticipate the messy reality of rapid development and may lock in planning errors. One example is Beijing’s third ring road, which planners thought would serve as an efficient artery circling the core of the city. With few cars on the road in the early 1990s, planners followed the already outdated American practice of merging entrance and exit lanes. But as the number of private vehicles in Beijing exploded from 1 million in 1997 to more than 5 million today, these ill-designed (not to mention dangerous) junctions became a major cause of congestion. Beijing’s third ring road is consistently more jammed than other major arteries in the capital.
Long-term planning inevitably produces more uniformity than allowing cities to evolve organically. All municipal governments are required to produce a twenty-year master plan outlining general development goals, land-use patterns and a transport scheme. These are supposedly designed to address local needs, but one city’s master plan often looks suspiciously like another’s. Moreover, when city planners draw up designs for new districts, they must conform to certain national planning standards. The width of all new city roads, for example, must accord with regulations set in Beijing. The result is that dozens of new city districts all look the same.
Perhaps most damaging, China’s cities often seem to be playthings for local officials rather than places for people to live. Power is concentrated in the hands of a few officials who are rewarded for boosting economic growth rather than providing public goods. Officials have a clear incentive to push for more development, however unneeded or badly planned, yet little incentive to listen to the concerns of residents. The result is unhealthy competition between cities, overinvestment and endless construction: more roads, new industrial parks, unnecessary airports, bigger government offices. Every city aspires to be a mini-Beijing, rather than catering to local needs.
This problem is exacerbated by China’s system of government, which allows almost no public debate about how cities should develop. Residents are rarely consulted during the planning process for large development projects. Public monitoring only occurs once construction has started, or even after it has finished, by which time it is too late to turn back. ‘The facts only emerge through disclosure by the mass media or public outcry,’ says Xiaoyan Chen, a former urban planner at the China Academy of Urban Planning and Design. ‘By then, negative social impact and economic loss are hard to alter’.
What do almost all large, economically vibrant cities have in common? They have extensive public transport networks, usually with an efficient subway system. Exceptions are mostly found in the United States, with Los Angeles an obvious example. But Chinese cities do not have enough space to match the car ownership rates of the USA’s energy-guzzling auto-cities. And even if they tried, the environmental impact would be too dire to imagine.
Chinese cities have no choice but to invest in mass rapid transit systems. Fortunately, if there is one thing China does well, it is infrastructure. China already has eighteen mass transit networks in operation (mainly subways, but also light rail and Shanghai’s ultra-fast magnetic levitation train), with more than 2,000 kilometres of track. A further eighteen systems are under construction and due to open in 2012–17, while twenty-three more are at the planning stage. At 425 kilometres, Shanghai Metro has already overtaken the London Underground as the world’s longest network. Beijing Subway, at 372 kilometres, ranks third ahead of New York City, but work is under way on lengthening the track to 1,000 kilometres by 2020.
These numbers are slightly misleading because most big cities in developed countries have additional commuter rail systems stretching out into the suburbs. A true accounting of New York’s system would include the twenty or so commuter rail lines whose combined track far exceeds that of the subway system. As Chinese cities expand, they will have to spend more on above-ground commuter rail, which is the only effective way to bind together large urban areas. Moreover, the subway systems in Tokyo, Moscow and Seoul carry more passengers than those in Shanghai and Beijing.
Nevertheless, China’s investment in subway systems is overwhelmingly positive. And there are also encouraging signs, too, that Chinese cities are beginning to shape urban development around public transport hubs. For example, Tiantongyuan, a high-density community of giant housing blocks in the suburbs of northern Beijing, has three subway stations. Shanghai’s high-rise density has allowed it to retrofit its metro system as if it had always been there, and it has done a better job than Beijing of coordinating public transport with commercial development. ‘Having learned from the experience of Hong Kong and Japanese cities, high-density development around [subway] stations is now widely accepted by local governments,’ says Pan Haixiao, a professor of urban planning at Tongji University in Shanghai. Still, no Chinese city has effectively copied Hong Kong’s strategy of financing subway development by granting the right to build skyscrapers and shopping malls above its stations. MTR Corp, which runs Hong Kong’s MTR metro system, is a listed company which made a profit of nearly US$2 billion in 2011.
Building efficient mass transit systems is a necessary step towards persuading urbanites to get out of their cars, or not to buy one in the first place. Even five years ago, wealthy urbanites would not have been seen dead on Beijing’s subway – in stark contrast with cities such as London and New York, where hedge-fund managers (sometimes) rub shoulders with the proles. But attitudes have changed since the network expanded and the city government raised the cost of owning and using a car. Cars remain important status symbols, but experience shows that convenience can trump face.
This is important, because the greatest obstacle to reducing car usage in Chinese cities is changing people’s mindset. In particular, public bicycle rental schemes must fight against a widely held view that cycling is a backward mode of transport that belongs in China’s impoverished past. The proportion of people cycling to work in Beijing fell from nearly two-thirds in 1986 to just 18 per cent by 2010; yet 40 per cent of car journeys in the city were of less than 5 kilometres. In many cases cycling would be quicker and more convenient, but few businessmen want to be seen (or fear for their safety) on a bike.
One city where this attitude is changing is Hangzhou, where more than 60,000 bicycles are available for hire at 2,200 rental points around the city. The city government claims that the simple red bikes are used by more than 250,000 people per day, making it the biggest public bicycle rental service in the world. Cyclists swipe the bikes in and out with their city public transport card, which they must register under their state identification number. Renters pay nothing for the first hour, Rmb1 for the second hour, Rmb3 for three hours, and then a further Rmb3 for every extra hour – about 50 cents. The bikes, which feature advertising on their wheels and basket, have become so popular that Hangzhou is planning to increase their number to 90,000 by 2015.
Hangzhou’s system is designed to facilitate short journeys and solve the ‘last-mile’ transport problem. Even the most sophisticated and best-funded public transport, after all, cannot deliver commuters to their front door. Bicycle rental schemes can supplement a well-designed public transport system, but not replace it. The key challenge for China’s cities is to create mass public transport systems that connect seamlessly, making it more convenient to leave the car at home.
Local governments routinely spend grotesque sums on municipal vanity projects, often employing teams of international planners, architects and consultants. Competition with other cities means that if one city builds a swanky theatre or museum, theme park or Ferris wheel, other cities will want one too. Every major Chinese city today has its flashy, foreign-designed building – from Guangzhou’s much-admired opera house to the striking new headquarters of China Central Television in Beijing. When smaller cities and districts turn to supposedly superior international planners the results can be positive – but they can also encourage grand designs and gimmicky projects that do more to fan officials’ egos than serve local people.
Nonetheless, after half a century of soul-sapping utilitarianism, the pursuit of design is cheering in itself. The problem is that China’s striking new buildings typically find themselves drowning in a sea of architectural dross. In a country that must house millions of new residents every year, cities and developers are under enormous pressure to build millions of apartments as quickly and cheaply as they can. City planners concentrate on nailing down a land-use plan, while developers roll out the same cookie-cutter apartments across the country. Aesthetic considerations are not high on the list of priorities, especially in a country where many people have become inured to unremitting ugliness.
As China becomes wealthier and people’s standards begin to rise, urban design will improve. For the moment, however, most urban residents are far more concerned about price and comfort than aesthetics. The reality is that the urban landscape of a country that must house 1 billion people is never going to be beautiful.
A more pressing need than creating attractive cities is building cities that do not kill their inhabitants. The air pollution in urban China is horrific. Hundreds of cities are habitually shrouded in a brown or smoky fug that swallows buildings and bleaches the streets of colour. There is not much point in constructing signature buildings if no one can see them. Fewer than 20 per cent of China’s cities meet World Health Organization standards for sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide levels, and almost none for particulate matter. The air in dry, northern cities swirls with construction dust and sand blown off the Gobi Desert. China’s cities emit 75 per cent of the country’s greenhouse gases, and more than 400 are short of water.
As China’s urban population expands to 1 billion, its cities will have to use resources more efficiently and enforce environmental regulations more rigorously. Cleaning up China’s cities is more than a local concern: China is already the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter, and emissions will continue to grow as the country urbanizes. China’s economic model, which is reliant on heavy industry and manufacturing, means that energy usage is high for a country at China’s level of development. In 2010, per-capita emissions were around six tons of carbon dioxide, equal with France. China’s cities will struggle to improve air quality as long as car-ownership rates continue to soar and the country’s power stations remain predominantly coal-fired. China may be the world’s biggest producer of green technologies, but it still relies on coal for 70 per cent of its primary energy needs.
Wealthy Chinese urbanites traditionally lived in the city centre. In imperial Beijing they gathered in splendid courtyard houses set amid ancient alleyways shaded by scholar trees. Many wealthy Chinese today still choose to live centrally, although most prefer luxury apartments to dusty old courtyards. China has yet to experience the so-called ‘doughnut’ effect common in many US cities – a hollowing out of the inner city caused by moneyed professionals fleeing to the suburbs. Nevertheless, many Chinese cities are experiencing growing demand for a ‘villa lifestyle’: luxury detached homes set in quiet, leafy streets.
In both Beijing and Shanghai, many villas can be found on the way to the airport, conveniently located for ease of escape. Beijing’s villa-land is centred on the old village of Tianzhu in the northeastern outskirts of the city. Here rural communities have been pushed out to make way for low-density, gated compounds – suburban retreats for rich locals and expats escaping the hustle and bustle of the city. The villa communities, each with its own club house and phalanx of beret-wearing guards, project a sense of exclusivity and unattainable luxury. The names – Merlin Champagne Town, Le Leman Lake, Yosemite Villas – proclaim their foreignness. Billboards outside one new development, built by the property arm of state food conglomerate COFCO Group, advertise entrance to the global elite: ‘Paris time, New York time, Tokyo time. At Sky Villa they’re all on Beijing time.’
One of the most luxurious villa compounds is Grasse Town, set on a tributary of the Wenyu River, 20 kilometres east of Beijing’s central business district. Here bosses of state-owned enterprises and other well-connected sorts can snap up an 860-square-metre house, loosely styled on Californian mission architecture, for a cool US$9 million. The three-storey villas each boast a central courtyard, large garden, home cinema, bar and wine cellar. The best properties come with a view over a central lake, which is guarded by honking geese. Smaller, cheaper properties sell for a snip at just under US$3 million.
The gardens at Grasse Town are watered by the only river in Beijing that supposedly never runs dry. In 2006, the Beijing government spent US$200 million turning the banks of Wenyu River into an area of protected greenbelt or ‘eco-corridor’. But in front of freshly planted trees, where signs instruct visitors to ‘protect the local ecological environment’, diggers tear up lush fields of grass to make way for a golf course. Both sides of the river are home to several golf courses, despite repeated promises by the central government to crack down on these illegal and, crucially, water-intensive developments.
This part of Beijing has become a playground of the rich. Pampered children learn to ride at the Tang Polo Club and slurp milk-shakes in American-style diners. Yet the income disparities here are probably greater than anywhere else in the city. The International School of Beijing (ISB), which charges fees of US$30,000 per year, is backed by a migrant village with rubbish-strewn streets. Scantily clad children play in the gutter just a stone’s throw from ISB’s sumptuous facilities – a striking image of Beijing’s extreme social stratification.
The central government is trying hard to lower the amount of energy it uses to produce each unit of GDP growth. ‘In China you can go to any city, big or small, and they will have energy efficiency targets to meet. I have not seen that anywhere else in the world,’ says Ede Ijjasz, head of the China and Mongolia Sustainable Development Unit at the World Bank. Almost 200 Chinese cities have low-carbon or ‘eco-city’ targets. But at the city level there is often far more talk than action. The vast majority of so-called ‘eco-cities’ are anything but ecologically sound. For many local governments and developers, describing a city or building as ‘green’ is little more than a useful branding tool. Even those cities that invest in low-carbon construction or fancy waste disposal schemes tend to have wide roads and free parking. Rather than wasting money on a handful of expensive and dubious eco-cities, China would do much better to ensure that all new buildings are properly insulated.
Chinese cities have done a better job of mobilizing human resources to improve the environment, planting millions of trees and shrubs to help filter dust particles and freshen the air. Official statistics state that the total area of ‘green land’ in China’s cities grew from 475,000 hectares in 1990 to more than 2 million hectares in 2010. Changing city boundaries and a liberal definition of what constitutes ‘green land’ mean these numbers should be taken with a pinch of salt: few residents would believe the official claim that nearly 40 per cent of the area of Chinese cities is green. Moreover, many environmentalists doubt the effectiveness of planting monocultures of new trees, few of which are ever allowed to grow to their full height. Still, many urbanites have seen decrepit housing demolished to make way for new parks, and Chinese cities are noticeably less grey than they were a decade ago.
Greening cities is important, but amounts to tinkering at the edges. The most practical way for China to create more liveable, sustainable cities would be to enforce restrictions on car usage, crack down on urban sprawl, and invest in mass rapid transit systems. Dense, compact cities served by public transport are far more energy efficient than cities with sprawling, car-dependent suburbs. The good news is that Chinese cities are investing heavily in new subway networks. The bad news is that cities are rapidly expanding and suburbanizing, thanks to demand for more living space and exploding car ownership. This matters because the shape of cities built today will help determine energy demand and influence consumer behaviour for many years to come.
Beijing, with its car-dependent economy and five ring roads, is a fine example of how to create a city that is not environmentally sustainable. Few cities have expanded more noticeably than the capital, whose city districts today are six times larger than they were in the 1970s. In the 1990s, the municipal government designated car manufacturing a pillar industry but, unlike Shanghai, failed to restrict car ownership. As the city expanded and car ownership rose, planners shaped urban land use around an expanding road network. The construction of each new ring road encouraged the city to sprawl, while the radial expansion put more and more pressure on commuter arteries into the city centre. Twenty years on, the results are plain to see: Beijing suffers from appalling congestion and air pollution; the city is spread out, with a lower population density than other large Chinese cities; and residents suffer some of the longest commutes anywhere in the world.
One of the most pressing problems in a city of high-rises is finding enough space to park. New housing developments must have underground parking – but Beijing’s older neighbourhoods were not designed to accommodate hundreds of vehicles. Pavements are crammed with cars, and double parking is standard on many streets. Many of the city’s children have nowhere to play outside: all available public space is occupied by vehicles. The problem is far more serious in Beijing than in the USA or Western Europe, and is set to spread to many other cities across the country. Once a positive sign of growing wealth, the capital’s car boom is now undoubtedly lowering the quality of life.
As China’s urban residents grow richer, they will begin to demand cleaner air and a more pleasant living environment. In wealthy cities such as Shanghai, Hangzhou and, for all its faults, Beijing, this process is well under way. If Chinese cities want to be globally and nationally competitive, they cannot rely on economic growth alone to attract and retain talented, creative residents. If China’s urban dream is to remain intact, city planners and officials must work harder to create healthy cities in which people want to live. That means cleaning up the filthy air, investing in public transport, restricting urban sprawl, and respecting cultural heritage. It also means learning when too much planning can stifle a city’s soul.
Since it became the magnificent capital of the Southern Song dynasty more than 800 years ago, Hangzhou has been prized for its beauty. Countless poets have been inspired by the view over the famous West Lake, whose misty waters are lined with swaying willow trees, ornamental bridges and ancient temples. But for the city authorities today, this means one thing: tourist dollars.
A decade ago, Chinese tourists were easy to satisfy: all they wanted was a photo of themselves standing next to a famous ‘scenic spot’, preferably one ranked high on the government’s list of tourist attractions. All important scenic and tourist spots in China are given an official rating, following the (unofficial) Chinese rule that any object, idea or place must be properly quantified and categorized. Not only is Hangzhou’s West Lake a national 5A tourist resort – the top ranking available – it is even a Unesco World Heritage Site. This is a double whammy that few other Chinese cities can boast.
All this means that Hangzhou is not short of visitors. But Chinese tourists are becoming more demanding. As they grow richer and better travelled, they want more than a photo and a bag of local snacks. Increasingly, they also demand shops, bars, teahouses and restaurants, preferably selling characteristic local produce served up in a ‘traditional’ setting. The experience of visiting a place is gradually becoming as important as the act of visiting itself, even if that experience is more tourist tat than truly authentic.
The Hangzhou government has cottoned on to this change of mindset and is doing what it can to deliver an experience of the ‘old’ city. The focus has been on reconstructing and renovating the ancient streets and buildings that fan east of the old (reconstructed) drum tower. A decade ago, Hefang and Zhongshan streets maintained some of their traditional charm, lined with dilapidated courtyard houses with traditional whitewashed walls and grey-tiled roofs, or featuring handsome Western architecture from the Republican period of the early twentieth century. But the streets were also run-down, snarled with cars, and blighted with ugly modern buildings.
In 2004, the city government launched a ‘comprehensive protection and organic reconstruction project’. Government archaeologists dug up the road to reveal layers of paving stone dating to the Southern Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties. The reconstruction focused on trying to re-create the feel of the old town, including restoring an ancient waterway, long since buried under new stone and asphalt. Few genuinely old buildings have survived, and many have been built from scratch in ‘traditional’ style. Buildings with original, restored exteriors have been gutted, retrofitted and turned into modern shops. The result is commercial, but largely tasteful and pleasant.
Today locals and tourists saunter down pedestrianized streets lined with flowing streams. Some fine old buildings have been restored to their former glory, including the famous Zhongdetang traditional Chinese medicine shop, built around a magnificent courtyard, which dates back to 1808. Hypochondriacs crowd to the old dispensary to buy mysterious packets of dried fungus carefully stored in shiny wooden drawers. Many Western-style buildings, too, have been scrubbed up and could sit comfortably on the riverside Bund at the heart of the Shanghai’s old International Settlement, even if they do house McDonald’s or Häagen-Dazs.
Hangzhou took its lead from Shanghai, whose wildly successful renovation of a block of traditional ‘stone-gate’ houses showed the city government that restoring old buildings could be more lucrative than demolishing them. Snooty foreigners often complain that Xintiandi, as the shopping and restaurant complex is called, is faux traditional – a Disneyfied version of Old Shanghai. But the precedent set by Shanghai is an important one in a country where, until recently, few people valued the architectural fabric of their past.
The idea of restoring charming but decrepit old neighbourhoods is now being copied by several other cities in China. The onus is typically on reconstruction, which means demolishing and rebuilding, rather than genuine restoration. Beijing’s redevelopment of the Qianmen area south of Tiananmen Square is a case in point, although the reconstructed streets here are a considerable improvement on the choked and tatty thoroughfares they had become. But the southwest city of Kunming is doing a more sensitive job of restoring a block of wooden, shuttered houses and ancient courtyards in the city centre. These two-storey buildings used to house the city’s bustling bird and flower market, but many have clumps of grass growing out of their tiled roofs and are on the verge of falling down. The local authorities hope the area will become the city’s own Xintiandi, which literally translates as ‘New Heaven on Earth’.
Complaints that local reconstruction projects risk destroying some of the few remnants of the past that survive in China’s relentlessly modern cities contain more than a sliver of truth. Without them, however, the buildings would probably be torn down in any case. As more tourists demand a ‘traditional’ experience in China’s cities, reconstruction efforts may shift towards genuine restoration and preservation. Any attempt to respect cultural heritage and preserve local urban character should be applauded.
Exiting Tianjin station used to be a dispiriting experience – like arriving in grimy Middlesbrough in northeast England or rundown Bridgeport in Connecticut, only worse. But thanks to a major city redevelopment scheme, all that has changed. The honking three-wheel taxis and hotel touts that used to assault visitors have disappeared. Instead, a giant piazza leads down to a riverside boardwalk lined with landscaped gardens and colonial architecture. Whisper it, but China’s fourth city is almost nice.
Tianjin’s history as a treaty port, in which successive European powers and Japan built self-contained concessions, always gave it tourist potential. But until the late 2000s, the city’s fine colonial buildings lay neglected as it tried to forget its humiliating past. Tianjin remained famous across China for its local steamed buns, sweet twisted dough sticks and stand-up comedians. But few people wanted to visit this large, grimy, polluted city.
The transformation over the past few years has been remarkable. The focus is the Hai River, which runs through the centre of the city. The city government has renovated the fine array of Western buildings on the riverbank and replaced ugly brutalist architecture with replicas of old colonial mansions. Now tourists in open riverboats glide past the handsome new-old buildings, whose burgundy-tiled roofs glisten in the sun. Passengers disgorging from the railway station can walk across the handsome iron-rivet Liberation Bridge, constructed in 1927, to the gleaming new World Financial Centre. At 337 metres, it is taller than any building in Europe.
Further down the river, crowds lunch al fresco in the restored former Italian Concession, sitting at tables in cobbled squares. Meanwhile, fans of British colonial architecture can step back 150 years in the newly restored Astor Hotel, where former US president Herbert Hoover was a regular visitor during his days as a mining engineer in China. Most tourists from the capital return on the highspeed shuttle service, which leaves every ten minutes and completes the 115-kilometre journey in half an hour.
Just a decade ago, Tianjin was a quintessential modern Chinese city: big, ugly, charmless. Most of the city is still unattractive, but the Tianjin government deserves enormous credit for stopping the rot, restoring the long-neglected colonial quarters, and turning the city into a viable tourist destination. Some things, however, have yet to change. Outside the futuristic new St Regis hotel on the riverside walkway, a short stroll from the World Financial Centre, two old men unzip their flies and urinate casually on the pavement. Tianjin has scrubbed up, but it retains the rough edge of old.
In Zhengzhou’s Erqi Square, at the centre of the shopping district, construction workers in yellow hard hats are building the city’s first subway system. They scurry in and out of a giant hole in the road, criss-crossed with concrete bars and steel poles. The first line will open in 2013 or 2014, and is sorely needed. The resident population in the city is approaching 6 million; a further 5 million people live in the surrounding countryside and satellite towns. Like every other sizeable Chinese city, Zhengzhou’s roads are gridlocked and its air polluted. ‘Every day there are terrible traffic jams, and we never see a blue sky,’ moans Sun Weibin, a retired soldier who has lived in the city for much of his life.
At first glance, there is little to recommend Zhengzhou. Henan’s capital is a gritty, chaotic and congested place, unlovely even by the standards of so many Chinese cities. It creaks under the strain of people, cars and dangerous swarms of electronic bikes, which whoosh silently past on the pavement. But, like many Chinese cities, there is more to Zhengzhou than meets the eye. Veer off the bustling high street and the pace of life slows: old ladies sit on the street playing cards and men chat, shirtless in the late afternoon heat. The street is lined with vegetable stalls, repair shops and dingy, hole-in-the-wall restaurants. The area is poor, but it has a vitality and neighbourliness that cannot be found in the identikit apartment blocks sprouting all over the city.
On summer nights, when locals emerge onto the streets after their evening meal, Zhengzhou even gains a ragged charm. Ignoring the perennially smog-clotted air, citizens – young and old – stroll along the banks of the Golden River. In reality, this is a murky, concrete-lined cesspool. But in China reality doesn’t matter very much – it’s the idea that counts. Housewives stop for an open-air back rub on makeshift stretcher-beds set up by amateur masseurs. Children jump on bouncy castles and toss shiny, luminous rings into the air. Giggling lovers walk hand in hand, whispering in dark corners. And retired folk gather in the park to belt out the revolutionary songs of their youth, singing the praises of the long-dead Chairman Mao.
First impressions in Zhengzhou, then, are misleading. Take Driver Wang, a local taxi driver with a breezeblock head, and one of the toughest-looking men you are ever likely to meet. His forearms, darkly bronzed like the silt-laden earth of the Yellow River plain and covered with home-scratched tattoos, are as thick as a maturing sapling. Stubby, powerful fingers are attached to visibly muscled hands that could easily crush a child’s skull. The underside of his chin is roughly scarred, as if someone once tried to cut his throat. But Wang possesses a sweet-natured smile, and on closer inspection his tattoos spell out a traditional Confucian saying. ‘Honour one’s parents’, the crude strokes instruct. Like Zhengzhou itself, Wang is tough and unpretty, but ultimately good-natured.