‘Urbanization is not about building big, sprawling cities. We should aim to avoid the typical urban malady where skyscrapers coexist with shanty towns’, Li Keqiang proclaimed in his first press conference as China’s premier. Yet, when you look across the expanses of China’s megacities, skyscrapers coexisting with shanty towns is precisely what you find. Urbanization has spread so rampantly and expansively that rural villages and farming areas are literally being surrounded by cities.
The macro-plan of China’s urbanization is to spread a multi-tiered network of urban clusters across the country. The system will run on a hub-and-spoke model where megacities, urban conglomerations of more than 10 million people, will be surrounded by smaller cities, which themselves will be the centres of networks of even smaller cities and towns. So when we look at the new map of China we will no longer see large independent cities functioning as singular urban entities but a continuous amalgamation of interconnected urban zones that blanket the country.
The debate over how many megacity clusters China will create is ongoing, but current estimates are that there will be thirty to forty by 2030. But China’s network of urbanization doesn’t stop there, as some of these megacity hubs will also be linked together into even larger mega-regions. According to Keiichiro Oizumi of the Center for Pacific Studies, ‘mega-regions are not individual cities, but rather economic zones formed through the linkage of multiple major cities.’ There are currently three mega-regions extending down the east coast of China. In the north is the Bohai Bay Economic Rim, which could end up being a 260-million-person urban zone that covers Beijing, Tianjin, parts of Hebei province, and all the cities surrounding Bohai Bay. At the belt line of the country is the Yangtze River Delta, where the Shanghai mega-region, with its 80 million population, stretches to Nanjing in the west and Taizhou in the south. Further south is the Pearl River Delta, which is becoming an urban colossus of 42 million people that will contain Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Dongguan, Zhuhai and their surrounding cities. The future of China will be shaped by its mega-regions: megacity clusters inside megacity clusters, spiderwebs inside spiderwebs of urbanization.
What megacities look like
I looked out over a flat, wide-open expanse of farmland, fallow fields and dirt lots stretching far into the distance. A small brick shack was to my right. An old woman wearing a tattered quilted coat, matching trousers and a grey woollen cap was standing outside it. She was bent over a small patch of bok choy, hoeing. Three dogs ran in circles, barking and nipping at each other. A gaggle of ducks scampered down into a small mud pit that passed for an irrigation pond. Chickens pecked at the stones that were strewn over the narrow dirt road. I was in Shanghai, one of the most populous cities on earth.
The images that this city conjures up are of crowds, congestion, traffic, smog, packed subway cars and busy streets. The popular view of Shanghai is the truth: the place is packed, ultra-kinetic and overflowing with humanity. That is true for part of the city. But there is another Shanghai, one more hidden, less well known, and way more empty. It rings the Huangpu central area like a buxom woman hugging a chihuahua; it’s a buffer zone full of factories, old villages, broken-down huts, budding new city centres, ghost towns, migrant-worker slums, and enough cropland to cover Los Angeles one and a half times. Shanghai is one of the largest and most rapidly expanding cities on earth, but much of the city is urban in name only.
As noted previously, the term ‘city’ is an administrative designation in China, not necessarily a description of a particular landscape. So within the boundaries of Chinese ‘cities’ can be anything from towering CBDs to lowly villages. In modern China you can go from a modern cityscape of skyscrapers, shopping malls and international chain stores to an area of old brick houses and winding alleys, full of working-class people in ragged clothes stir-frying rice and vegetables in the street, just by turning a corner. In Shanghai, this transition is to be found at its most extreme: a fifteen-minute subway ride takes you from China’s financial epicentre to archaic farming villages that have seemingly missed the past three decades of economic reform. In one city China’s most modern and fashionable rub shoulders with peasants working their vegetable gardens. Li Keqiang may have expressed a wish to avoid the typical urban malady where skyscrapers coexist with shanty towns, but that is exactly what has been created in Shanghai.
Likewise, the outskirts of Shanghai are a scrambled mix of all facets of the city. There is no smoothly expanding sprawl that gradually peters out as it spreads outward. Rather, it’s more as if someone randomly flung the seeds of urbanization in all directions towards the city limits and they grew of their own volition. Over time, these seeds developed to become trendy new city centres, strange towns with foreign architecture, universities, shoddily assembled slums, and myriad housing blocks, hemming in countless agricultural areas. ‘The farm land that is left over is criss-crossed; it’s fragmented now with smaller pieces between infrastructure. There is a kind of gap between the urban areas and what was once countryside’, Harry den Hartog, the author of Shanghai New Towns, told me. ‘Another way to conceptualize these super-cities is to define them as “scape”. Scape is neither city nor rural landscape, but a post-urban condition’, says Rem Koolhaas, the designer of the new CCTV building in Beijing. This is what modern China scholars mean when they flip the old Mao maxim and say, ‘The city surrounds the countryside.’ In places like Shanghai it literally does.
As China’s megacities expand out into rural areas, urban villages fill in the gaps. An urban village, or chengzhongcun, is an area that is typically a rural-looking neighbourhood that had previously been swallowed up by the expansion of a large city. Urban villages are China’s slums. Although they often do not look nearly as ramshackle as the slums of South America or Africa, and many are relatively well kept, they serve the same purpose: they are the first steps into the cities for the rural poor. Unless you know what you are looking for, these urban villages can often be difficult to detect, as they look no different from any other rural town or village. It’s their position within the city that gives them their distinction. ‘The chengzhongcun … is a hybrid zone where the urban meets the rural … where the “centre” meets the “periphery”. It is in these hybrid zones that the lives of the urban ‘other’, that is, the nongmingong [migrant workers], are played out and new identities forged and contested’, wrote Gary Sigley, a professor at the University of Western Australia. In these areas China’s public maintenance and security infrastructure breaks down somewhat. People from all over the country flood into urban villages, most of whom are unregistered, which makes their presence there technically illegal. This, combined with the high rate of poverty, poor infrastructure, lack of social services, and a laissez-faire attitude on the part of municipal authorities, means that these areas often harbour crime and anti-social activity.
These urban villages are often perceived as a threat to a city’s modern image. Destroying them is a triple bonus for local officials: they can remove a slum, sell the land, and create a new middle- or luxury-class development in its place.
It is in these liminal zones that the next phase of China’s development is being staked out and defined. This is the space where the city proper meets the countryside, where the sprawl meets industrial zones, where luxury suburbs meet camps of poor migrant workers, where shopping malls meet farmland. This is an area that is spiralling in the flux of demolition, building and reconstruction. The next era in China will be about what happens on the peripheries of the big cities. There is no better place from which to view these developments than the outskirts of Shanghai.
The new Shanghai master plan
Beijing may call the shots, but Shanghai is the financial capital of China. Covering just 0.1 per cent of the country’s land area, Shanghai supplies 12 per cent of total municipal-derived revenues, and more than a quarter of China’s trade passes through its ports. The city has been growing rapidly: in just fifteen years Shanghai’s size has increased nearly sevenfold; its population has grown from 6.61 to over 23 million. Inundated by this torrent of growth the city needed a plan.
The Shanghai Master Plan was revealed in 1999, and set the course for the city to reinvent itself. With the motto of ‘One dragon head, four centres’, the following twenty-one years (1999–2020) would be set aside to rebuild the entire city. The goal was to position Shanghai as the country’s centre of economics, finance, trade and logistics, while re-establishing it as a global hub of commerce worthy of its history. As the city centre continued becoming more crowded, the local government sought to vitalize its suburbs to lower population density and extend the reach of the metropolis. To these ends, Shanghai introduced its ‘1–9–6–6’ plan, which was the blueprint for completely redeveloping the city’s suburbs by building a network of new towns, cities and villages. Shanghai would become one large central urban core, surrounded by nine decentralized medium-size new cities of between 300,000 and a million people, sixty towns of between 50,000 and 150,000 people, and 600 villages with roughly 2,000 people in each. These new developments were to be strategically placed outposts of urbanization evenly dispersed around the periphery of the city like spokes radiating from the hub of a wheel.
The new cities and towns were intended to lure away the city’s upper- and middle-class residents who were weary of cramped living quarters, traffic jams, crowds and the pollution of the central core with the promise of wide boulevards, open space, trees, lawns, cleaner air, a lower population density and quaint little towns in the suburbs. This was Shanghai’s attempt to suburbanize USA-style.
Shanghai is engineering itself to become a ‘middle-class utopia’; its new towns colonies of high culture and prestige encroaching upon the city’s untamed frontiers. It’s not just development that’s being shipped out to the periphery, but an entirely new way of life. Included within the 1–9–6–6 plan was the One City, Nine Towns initiative that gave birth to new developments themed on the classical architecture of Germany, Scandinavia, Canada, Italy, the Netherlands, the USA, England, Spain and ‘old time’ China. Throughout Shanghai’s tenth five-year plan (2001–05), most of these ‘cultural towns’ were built with the vision that they would be suburban utopias that would pull a million of Shanghai’s high-resource-consuming, car-driving middle-class and wealthy residents out of the city’s core by 2020. As Shanghai was again becoming a global crossroads of commerce and culture, it is perhaps no coincidence that the countries whose architecture was mimicked were precisely those that played a pivotal role during the colonial era. Only this time Shanghai was colonizing itself.
These new towns are tools of cultural influence; they are seeds of modernity that are meant to expand and consume the surrounding landscape, sprouting urban culture in rural soil. Gary Sigley described this movement as being a ‘metropole’, a term that was originally coined to ‘describe the relations between the Western colonial centre and the spaces “outside” which were subject to various forms of colonial power, and of the multifarious ways in which the “periphery” also reflected back upon the “centre”.’ What is happening in the outskirts of Shanghai is very much a process of colonization.
In the areas where these new towns are located there is a major divide between the local and rural migrant classes and the upper classes for whom the developments are intended. Harry den Hartog explained:
You see in many of those new towns many informal activities like selling watermelons, vegetables, meat, all kinds of products and also all kinds of services by people of the countryside. They offer themselves, ‘I can help you with painting your walls or making a new carpet for your floor or fix the problems in your kitchen or your toilet.’ So in general there is a big gap.
With this gap has come an element of conflict. Many of the residents surrounding these ‘colonies of civilization’ are not exactly pleased with the invasion of Shanghai’s moneyed, internationalized set. As Bianca Bosker, the author of Original Copies, explained to me at length:
I found the neighbours living next to China’s new Frances and Italys largely displeased by what they saw as a waste of land and money. In the case of Shanghai’s Scandinavian-themed Luodian Town, for example, ‘locals’ saw the European development as out of touch with their needs – its homes too expensive by far – and an unnecessary investment that had replaced a perfectly fine community. To build Luodian Town, its developers first had to evict existing residents from the land they planned to build on, yet the Nordic homes they built have remained mostly empty since its completion. In short, Luodian Town’s neighbours have watched a bustling neighbourhood replaced by a ghost town. Others who’ve seen these expansive theme-towns erected complain that the lavish towns make poor use of good land. Vast villas sit on sprawling lawns that some of its neighbours would have put to use farming even mattress-sized corners of fruits and vegetables.
These developments also risk exacerbating social tensions in a country with one of the greatest wealth discrepancies in the world. Many of these theme towns are, by design, spectacles of conspicuous consumption, and those who live near them are quick to comment on the lavish lifestyles of the homeowners within. The developments showcase the vast differences between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ in such a clear and drastic way that could make them catalysts of resentment and discontent.
One Fudan University doctoral student in Shanghai exclaimed in disbelief: ‘Educated people won’t relocate to such a remote area – they’ll run right back to Beijing or Shanghai – we don’t work as hard as we do only to end up in a cultural backwater!’. When Chinese developers began building upper-class residential developments in the suburbs of big cities many soon found themselves in an impasse: while the properties generally sold readily and for high prices, few people actually moved in. This has resulted in big cities like Shanghai and Beijing being encircled by upper-class ghost towns. Generally speaking, wealthy Chinese are not going to give up their grade-A addresses in the city centre for quaint, quiet lives in the suburbs – no matter how desirable the towns and houses are out there. What they do instead is live in the city and, when they have a little free time, take trips out to their houses in the outskirts, or alternatively hang on to them for potential resale or perhaps retirement. In consequence, China’s suburbanization movement fell flat on its face before it could make any headway. It became clear that the US model of satellite towns surrounding a central city wasn’t going to work in China.
China’s German ghost city
It was effectively a German town, designed by German architects next to a Volkswagen factory on the outskirts of Shanghai. The place had everything: housing, parks, canal-side promenades, benches, fences, shops, roads, town squares, statues, office blocks, even a church. But it lacked the essential element of a city: a sizeable population. Except for the stray car or motorcycle passing every five minutes or so and an old man pushing a baby in a stroller three blocks away, I was alone as I walked through Anting German Town.
This town sits like a foreign country plopped down in the middle of Shanghai’s industrial wasteland. Anting is also often referred to as Shanghai’s Automobile City – and this is more or less what it is. There is a VW plant, a slew of car components factories, an F1 race track, slums for Chinese labourers, and a few fledgling attempts at creating modern urbanity for the foreign workers at the factories. Up until very recently this area was a remote industrial zone, but now the world’s most populous city is steadily approaching.
I rode on metro line 11 from central Shanghai for over an hour to Anting, 30 km from the city’s core. The metro station had opened just a month before, and the next stop down the line was still in the process of being built. A new shopping mall was coordinated to open at the same time as the metro, and within a short span of time this town went from being a remote and difficult-to-access outpost on Shanghai’s fringes to having the two main ingredients a new area needs to grow and prosper in China: a modern mall and a subway station.
The German town is only accessible by a single road that discreetly connects to a highway that runs south from Anting’s old town. There is a comfortable buffer zone consisting of green space, a golf course, artificial hills and a lake, which keeps the outside world at bay.
The Chinese developers originally wanted a storybook-inspired anachronistic old Germanic hamlet, but the German architects refused: they didn’t come all the way to China to construct a joke. Instead, they built a German city like those Germans really live in today: a district full of modern three- to five-storey orange and lime green Bauhaus-inspired buildings equipped with double-glazed windows and central heating. They wouldn’t have looked out of place in a trendy new district of Stuttgart or Hamburg. The initial plan was to have Anting German Town cover 5 square kilometres. However, when the construction was only one-fifth completed the project went stale, and eventually fizzled out. Even so, an entire downtown core, with capacity for 50,000 residents, was completed.
In 2006, people began trickling in. But the intake of residents never became a stream – much less a flood that could have pumped life into the place. Although the developers claim that all of the properties sold, only a few were actually ever inhabited. According to official statistics, one in five homes are occupied, meaning the rest stand as empty cavities behind fake Teutonic walls.
I walked around rather aimlessly for the better part of two hours. The buildings were devoid of life, their windows like the empty eye sockets of a skull. I climbed onto a bridge that had collapsed into a pond, which nobody had found any reason to repair. What would be the point? Anting German Town was seemingly built just to fall into ruin. The affliction was straightforward neglect.
I then entered a little square that boasted statues of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller standing side by side. A voice called out from behind me. I spun around and saw two Chinese men sitting at a cheap patio table drinking beer in front of a bar. I was taken aback: an open business is almost startling in such a barren landscape. I walked over and sat down with them. One introduced himself as the owner of the bar, and his wife stepped outside to join him. I asked why he had come all the way out here to open his business. He looked into the distance, raised his glass to Goethe and Schiller, and said: ‘It is very good here; I can drink every day and no one bothers me.’ I couldn’t disagree with that: ghost cities are good places to be if you want to be alone. But before I could commend him for finding what he was looking for, a trendy looking, 30-something couple walked briskly across the square and took seats at a table. Drinks were soon being passed around as the nine to fivers began drifting in after a day of work.
I then met the other two owners of the bar, and asked why they had started up their business in a new development that lacked the vital ingredients of commerce, namely people. Neither seemed in the least worried that the town was at most only 20 per cent inhabited. I then asked one of their wives if she was nervous about the lack of people. She looked at me with surprise as though I’d just pointed out something she hadn’t noticed before. She responded that she wasn’t worried at all, and stated that a lot of Germans from the VW plant come regularly. Every Friday night they had a big barbecue and a house band. ‘More people started coming last year’, the owner’s wife explained. When I asked her if she thought this trend would continue, she replied with certainty that it would.
This sentiment was echoed by a translator for the McKinsey Institute. Although her commute is over an hour each way, she said that it’s worth it to live beyond the urban fringes of the city. She repeatedly described Anting German Town as wonderful. Not only was she seemingly unworried by the lack of population; she actually revelled in it: ‘There are not many people and this is good. My kid can play outside; it is not busy here.’ She admitted that the town was more than a little far-flung, and that there was a distinct lack of opportunity and places to work. ‘But for me it is good’, she said. When I asked her if she thought things would soon change in Anting and there would be more opportunity in the future, she replied disappointedly that she felt there would be. ‘But I hope not’, she quickly added, ‘because then more people will come.’
Another resident backed up the statements of her neighbours, describing Anting German Town as ‘very peaceful and lovely’. Her name was Lili; she quit her job in central Shanghai and moved out to the suburbs when her husband relocated his factory nearby. ‘It is better for my kids’, she stated. ‘They can play outside in the streets and there is no traffic and people everywhere. They can ride their scooter, play tennis, golf, and ride their bicycles. It’s safe here, not like in the city. We know our neighbours’, she continued. ‘In Shanghai I never even knew the people who lived right next door. We were always too busy. The people here are so friendly; we are like a big family.’ We continued talking about the town; the picture she was painting was very different to that shown in the international media. I pulled out my tablet and opened an article about Anting New Town that appeared in the German publication Spiegel Online, and handed it to her.
‘Nobody wants to live there’ she read aloud from the opening paragraph. ‘That’s not true!’ she exclaimed. ‘The plan was for 50,000 people’, she continued reading. ‘That would be so terrible!’ she commented with a cackle. She then explained that she didn’t want more people to move in. ‘If more people come it will be like the city. Now is enough.’ She returned to the article, visibly disgusted. When she finished she remarked, ‘That’s not the new city I know.’ As the article was published in October 2011, I asked if the city has changed much since then. She told me that when she first moved to Anting in 2008 she could walk through town without seeing anybody but security guards and street cleaners. She complained that she now has difficulty finding a place to park. It was becoming clear that these people like their ghost town the way it is.
Shanghai’s Dutch ghost town
‘This used to be an authentic Asian city with lots of original-style buildings. Now it has been developed and all of that is gone.’ Zhou, a home-grown resident of Gaoqiao, spoke as we sat together in the shade of the largest faux church in Shanghai. ‘It is a pity’, he reflected while shaking his head.
We were in Shanghai’s New Netherlands Town, a place that was designed to look just like Holland built in Gaoqiao, a city whose history dates back to the Southern Song Dynasty, although no sign of the area’s antiquity is evident anymore. It is now an industrialized zone to the north of Pudong on the east bank of the Huangpu River, which stands just outside the Waigaoqiao Free Trade Zone. It is ringed by tyre and chemical factories.
There is a giant wooden Dutch-style windmill here. There is a canal-side promenade that is almost an exact copy of a stretch of Amersfoort. The Netherlands Maritime Museum, Amsterdam’s Bijenkorf department store, and Voorburg’s Hofwijck mansion were also duly replicated. The main road through the Dutch neighbourhood is called Holland Culture Street. It is a shaded pedestrian walkway that cuts between four-storey buildings with old-style Dutch-inspired facades. It was obviously meant to be the epicentre of this new town. But there is no shopping to be done here, for most of the shops are closed, and there are hardly any pedestrians. A survey of Holland Culture Street can be completed quickly and easily: there is just a lone restaurant, a convenience store and two or three preschools. All other doors were firmly closed and the windows covered in faux fashion advertisements to hide the empty interiors within. On weekends young couples from central Shanghai come out here to have their picture taken in front of the exotic European-style buildings.
‘What do you think of this place looking like Holland?’ I asked Zhou as we sat in the shade.
‘It is a pity’, he repeated. ‘Chinese people don’t like it, and I think foreign people don’t like it either.’ He paused for a moment before turning the tables on me: ‘What do you think?’
‘It is a little fake’, I responded.
‘Fake! Yes, it is fake!’ he roared.
‘Do you see anything there?’ he continued excitedly. ‘There are no bars, no cafés, no places to go. I think when foreigners come to China they want to see Chinese-style cities and Chinese culture.’ Zhou then paused for a moment before shifting gears. ‘It’s not about the buildings’, he continued, ‘it’s about the culture, the people, the traditions. There is none of that here. It is a pity.’
I then asked him why he thought the government wanted it to look Dutch.
‘It is said that the Shanghai government wanted to make Gaoqiao a modern city but the local officials here just kept the money. If I was the mayor I would tear all this down and make it an original Asian water town’, Zhou ranted. ‘If they made it original Asian style and opened bars and cafés people would come. The water towns are nice, people like them. Not like this.’ He gestured out toward Holland Culture Street shaking his head.
He had a point: Shanghai’s new ‘water towns’ were way more kinetic than any of its foreign-themed towns. But how could this man really complain? The rest of Gaoqiao was either chemical plants, rust-encrusted industrial ports, sprawl or slums.
‘Who would want to live here?’ I asked, wondering how developers could ever think they could entice wealthy middle- and upper-class people to move out to this industrial inferno. ‘It’s all chemical plants, industry and ports, and it smells like burning tyres.’
‘Yes’, Zhou replied, ‘there are lots of factories and it smells like chemicals, like petroleum.’ He then thought for a minute and shook his head before admitting, ‘Yes, this place is very unhealthy, this place is very bad.’
Nevertheless, Shanghai continues its rapid outward growth, and it looks as if even its toxic industrialized suburbs will soon become prime real estate. Following the media explosion at the end of 2013 concerning Shanghai’s free-trade zones, the three main areas in which they are located have exploded in popularity, and the price of property in them has likewise dramatically increased. Apartments were being sold in Gaoqiao for nearly as much as they were going for in downtown Shanghai. Perhaps the officials and developers knew what they were doing.
Thames Town is a 1 square kilometre British-themed new town 30 km from downtown Shanghai that was intended to house 10,000 people in low-density, single-family, European-style villas. Despite the fact that almost all of the properties sold rapidly for insanely high prices (some for upwards of US$3 million) to wealthy investors and property speculators, very few people actually moved in.
I walked into the centre of town and found myself wandering down stone streets between rows of storybook faux-Tudor shops and restaurants. I ended up strolling through the village green, interrupting the photo-shoots of half a dozen brides, and stopped for a rest in front of the Romanesque Gothic-style church that is the town’s centrepiece. No services actually take place here; it’s basically just a background prop for wedding photos. (In China, couples have professional photos taken, dressed in full wedding regalia, multiple times in the year leading up to their marriage.) All around it was nothing but brides, brides, photographers, brides. None of them knew anything about Thames Town other than the fact that it is pretty, and a good place to have one’s photo taken.
I doubled back to the tourist information centre. I walked up to the counter and was welcomed by the three people working there. Then I asked what I believed to be a simple question.
‘How many people live here?’
‘I don’t know’, said the man whose job it was to answer such questions.
So I asked the two women flanking him. They said they didn’t know either.
‘1,000? 10,000?’ I asked trying to get some kind of estimate.
‘I don’t know’, the man said again, but this time he was clearly saying ‘Stop asking me questions like that.’
I continued asking, but it was in vain: the only definitive information available on Thames Town was that the tourist information office staff didn’t know anything about Thames Town. This official position was probably the safe bet. This place has been widely criticized all around the world as a flop, and I definitely wasn’t the first curious visitor to stumble in and start asking such questions. I would need to work harder to discover anything.
I walked back out into the street and looked for someone to talk to. Twenty minutes later I was still searching. I couldn’t find anybody. The sound of my footsteps was the only thing interrupting the silence. I began to enter the shops, and a striking aspect of the place immediately revealed itself: most of the shops, cafés, stores and restaurants only appeared to be in business. This fact hit me hard when I tried to walk into a café with posters and signs in the windows, chairs on the patio, pictures all over the walls, a fully equipped bar and a decorated interior. There was one thing blocking my way: a gate that was permanently latched shut. It was a fake café, built only as a visual prop, a still life of a business.
I eventually found a café that was meant for actual customers. I was the only one there, which didn’t come as a surprise. I ordered a coffee, then asked the woman behind the counter if she was local. She said she was, but she meant that she was local to Songjiang, the broader surrounding city, not Thames Town. I asked her how many people lived in the British-themed experiment. She just shrugged and said, ‘Not too many.’
‘10,000?’ I asked. She burst out laughing. Apparently, this was a bigger joke than I thought.
Thames Town was designed by Atkins, a genuine UK architecture firm, under the direction of Tony Mackay, a genuine British architect. But that’s where the authenticity ended. Although there is a statue of Winston Churchill and the buildings look English enough, it’s difficult to regard the place as anything other than an anachronistic fantasy – a place that got dressed up, went out to play make-believe, and never came back. The town is somewhere to have your picture taken, not a place to live in. ‘It has this almost dreamlike quality of something European’, the town’s master planner commented to the BBC about the way his work was brought to life. ‘It doesn’t look quite right’, he said. ‘It looks false’.
Of course, you can’t expect a newly built replica town to feel authentic, but this place was something else: it wasn’t alive. It was like an exhibit at Disneyland, something to look at but not touch. It made you want to walk on tiptoes, and just about the only thing to do was photobomb wedding pictures. There was no history, no story, no soul here, and this inertia seemed to prevent anything else from being created.
The future of Shanghai’s new towns
Shanghai’s 1–9–6–6 plan was a take on Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City design, where a network of small towns separated by green space would be dispersed around a central city. These new towns were meant to be a reaction to the crowded central cores of Shanghai, a way for people to escape and live in a peaceful American-style suburb, but this is not coming to pass. ‘The garden cities built around London are remote from the central city; there’s a green buffer’, Harry den Hartog explained. ‘Here [in Shanghai], the distance may be the same but because of development most of the new towns will soon be connected with the original city. So they are not physically independent, they are growing together.’ Shanghai’s Garden City initiative was intended to beat sprawl, but it has instead become the harbinger of such. When you look out towards the central city from any one of Shanghai’s new towns you can see the front lines of the generic city rapidly advancing. The new developments of Shanghai’s One City, Nine Towns programme will eventually become walkable, quaint little neighbourhoods floating in the raging seas of characterless high-rises and overbearing scape.
‘The train now comes here and there is a shopping mall full of restaurants and a cinema, and a supermarket. All came last year’, a resident of Anting German Town told me. Her town is slowly being included within the Shanghai matrix; the encroaching city can be seen looming on the horizon. ‘Someday they will build it’, she admitted sadly. The same can be said of all of Shanghai’s new towns, though this is probably the only way these places will become fully inhabited.
The Yangtze Delta Megacity also contains a place that has dubbed itself the ‘world’s richest village’, which is a good lens through which to view just how extreme China’s urbanization movement has become.
I peered through the white billowing emissions that were spewing from the twin smokestacks of a coal-fired power plant and noticed something very much out of place rising in the distance. In the early morning hours of a summer day I looked out across the central Jiangsu plains, and there, amid the typical factories, fields and villages was a skyscraper.
You almost come to expect such surreal scenes after living in China for an extended amount of time, but this skyscraper was something beyond the usual oddity. I was looking at the Zengdi Kongzhong, the fortieth tallest building in the world, the fifteenth largest in China. It is higher than the Eiffel Tower, New York’s Chrysler Building, everything in Tokyo, and will top out higher than London’s Shard, the tallest building in the EU. Seventy-four storeys high, it rises 328 metres into the smoggy Jiangsu air. This is the same height as the tallest building in Beijing – which is intentional. Yet there is another reason why the designers chose this height. In Chinese numerology the number 328 is loaded with significance; 32 is associated with business and 8 represents prosperity. This is fitting, as the skyscraper is a massive symbol signifying the economic prowess of a place that has dubbed itself the world’s richest village. ‘The skies above Huaxi are the skies of the Communist Party. The land of Huaxi is the land of socialism’ (Huaxi’s village song).
‘One village, one man, one miracle’, is the popular three-part summary of Huaxi. The village is held up as a model of success for Chinese socialism, a system where every man, woman and child is supposed to get rich from the globalization epidemic, at which point the society will become a communist utopia where all the wealth is shared. While Huaxi may not be exactly what the Communist Party means when it talks about building a ‘new socialist countryside’, the village’s success is lauded nonetheless.
Huaxi was once just a regular agricultural commune. Then in 1969, at the height of the Cultural Revolution, it started up a village-owned textile factory, which was brashly against the rules. Somehow, through political jockeying, grace or luck, Wu Renbao, the village secretary, was able to persuade his superiors to look the other way as the factory began producing and distributing goods. ‘I could not sit and watch my people starve to death. We were scared of being poor. And farming alone would never have led us out of poverty’, he later said. Wu Renbao practised what the Chinese call ‘outward obedience and secret independence’, where you show deference towards your superiors but then enact your own policies behind their backs. ‘If a policy does not suit our village, I will not implement it’, he said. In addition to textiles, the village began producing steel, iron, chemicals and tobacco, which it began exporting abroad under the cloak of political secrecy.
Later on, as China began to enact political reforms which broke up most communes, Huaxi decided to maintain the status quo under Wu’s direction. They built more factories and started up more businesses of various types. ‘If you just grow crops, you don’t really have a very rich life’, Wu said. ‘You’ve got to have money. Without money, everything is just empty words.’
Huaxi continued expanding, eventually buying twelve neighbouring villages. The original population of 2,000 peasants grew as workers from other areas began pouring in to work at the village’s factories. In 1998, Huaxi became the first commune to be listed on China’s stock exchange. Eight big corporations were founded there, and earnings in the range of $3–4 billion dollars began pouring into the village each year.
The streets of Huaxi are flanked with thousands of stone statues of Foo Dogs, lions and other guardians. There is a courtyard with larger-than-lifesize stone carvings of Chairman Mao and his core group of Party heroes sitting in big chairs with red cloth bandannas tied around their necks. Thick rows of trees line both sides of the streets in residential areas, completely surrounding each villa, giving the place the appearance and feel of a campsite. ‘We’re trying to build an ecological village that looks like a forest garden’, Wu once said. All of the houses are identical; from what I could tell, not one had anything on its exterior that marked it as unique. They look uninhabited when viewed from above. To add further to the strangeness, on a nearby hill there are replicas of the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, the Arc de Triomphe, Sydney Opera House, the White House and the Statue of Liberty.
There is only a single row of shops in the village, none of which sells anything special; these include a few clothing stores, a shoe shop, half a dozen low-budget restaurants and a few noodle houses. The retail options here belied a place whose residents were supposed to be incredibly wealthy.
There is a very clearly divided social hierarchy in Huaxi. At the top is Secretary Wu, his immediate family and their relatives. They are followed by the 2,000 original Huaxi residents, who now mostly hold managerial positions in the factories they helped create. They are said to receive a cut of the village’s revenue, and all have over US$150,000 in their bank accounts, two brand-new cars, a villa, and free health care. Beneath them are the 35,000 people who live in the twelve villages that Huaxi has recently taken over. At the bottom of the pyramid are as many as 40,000 migrant workers who have flooded into the town in search of work.
The original Huaxi families are said to work seven days a week without any holidays. Some news reports say that the residents are forbidden to even leave the village. Yan Lieshan, a respected Chinese author and journalist, described Huaxi as ‘a quasi-slavery system. No weekends. No vacations. No privacy. Everyone listens to one omnipresent and omnipotent god. And a person has to give up much of his freedom in exchange for a relatively well-off standard of living.’ Other reports say that if any of the villagers move away they lose all the savings, their stocks, house, car, and all benefits. There are no bars, no tea houses, no cafés, no KTV lounges, no Internet cafés. I did find a dingy pool hall, but it was clearly not the kind of place that any of the rich Huaxi villagers would ever step into. This was by all by design. ‘Gambling and drugs are strictly forbidden in the village. There is, in fact, no night life whatsoever … Anyone who engages in speculation will be driven out of the village, and his property confiscated’, the China Daily reported. The People’s Daily reported that ‘Huaxi Village is managed as if it were an army compound.’ Wu Renbao publicly defined happiness as having a car, a house, money, a child, and face. ‘If you have these five things, you are happy’, he said. The residents of Huaxi may indeed have these things, but it seemed as if they had little else. That is, other than their skyscraper.
‘This skyscraper will give us the edge’, said Wu. ‘No other village has one.’ Called the Zengdi Kongzhong, it is three towering, shiny blue pillars holding up a giant gold sphere. That it looks like a bowling trophy is perhaps no mistake, as the building truly commemorates victory. Its interior is everywhere plated with gold. There is a golden fountain where golden dragons spit water into the mouths of golden frogs; there is a sculpture of giant golden phoenixes soaring before golden clouds; even the railings and trimmings are plated with gold. On the sixtieth floor there is a golden room that has a US$50 million 1-tonne gold bull at its centre. The village claims that it built the skyscraper to attract tourists, though its prime aspiration is to be a city.
What mega-regions look like
‘Ladies and gentlemen, welcome aboard Harmony’, a recording rang out over the loudspeaker. ‘Harmony’ is the literal translation of Hexie Hao, which is what the Chinese call their high-speed trains. I couldn’t argue with this as I leaned back in a soft seat, stretched out my legs, and got ready to begin a short journey that would take me 165 km from Shanghai to Changzhou in under an hour. Almost silently, the train began rolling away from the platform on the minute of its scheduled departure time, and I was shot down the spine of what is quickly becoming the Yangtze River Delta super-megacity.
The master plan is to connect Shanghai with Nanjing in the west and Taizhou, Zhejiang in the south, tying up all of the sixteen budding cities of the Yangtze River Delta into a singular urban colossus of more than 80 million people. Many of the wealthiest cities in China are accounted for within this urban mass. In terms of per capita GDP, Suzhou, Wuxi and Changzhou routinely top China’s richest cities charts; Nanjing and Hangzhou are economic powerhouses; and Shanghai is the undisputed financial capital of the entire country. This is the most economically vibrant area of China; though it covers just 1 per cent of the country’s urban area and contains only 6 per cent of its population, it produces 20 per cent of the country’s GDP.
The nerve system of this megacity is the high-speed rail lines that run through its centre, connecting the various urban districts into a single, interconnected, pulsating megalopolis. Over 120 pairs of high-speed trains run the line between Shanghai and Nanjing each day, departing every 5–15 minutes. The G class train can cover the 300 km distance between these two cities in a mere hour and a half. To travel the same distance by car takes more than twice as long in good traffic. For scale, the average one-way commute of a Shanghai resident is 47 minutes, and this is without even leaving the city proper. Now residents can easily live in another city along the line and commute to Shanghai for work or vice versa. The speed of these passenger trains along with their frequent departures enables the population of this region to spread out, and seek homes and opportunity throughout the region. For example, someone could live in the lower-cost cities such as Wuxi, Suzhou or Changzhou and commute to Shanghai in the same amount of time it takes for the average Shanghainese to get to work. When a person can wake up in Shanghai, attend a meeting in Nanjing, and be back by lunchtime, these high-speed trains are making the mega-region dream a reality.
The train didn’t even get up to top speed before slowing down for its first stop at Kunshan. There was no visible gap between Shanghai’s industrial suburbs and this factory town. Large, cube-like manufacturing plants abutted large cube-like manufacturing plants until the loudspeaker of the train informed me that we were someplace else. It didn’t look that way to me, which is apparently a sentiment that officials in Shanghai share. Kunshan is ground zero in the Yangtze River Delta megacity political squabble.
‘There are not many people there but there are a lot of factories’, a Shanghainese businessman said of Kunshan. ‘There are more than two thousand Taiwanese factories just there.’ And this is what makes Kunshan worth fighting for. Although, relatively speaking, many industrial parks and manufacturing areas of China lack large populations, they are incredibly valuable to the municipal and provincial governments that preside over them. Selling land to developers is a prime device for local governments to generate revenue, but whether this land is sold for residential or industrial purposes is a very important distinction. Tax is only paid once for residential development land, but industrial land is taxed in accordance with how much is produced on it, meaning it will continuously feed the coffers of local governments. For this reason, industrial zones are prized by municipalities. Shanghai attempted to take control of Kunshan, but was met with big resistance from Jiangsu province, which currently presides over it. Politically speaking, China’s mega-regions are mega-debacles. Some of the smaller municipalities that lie within the bounds of the proposed megacities do not want to give up their autonomy and be cannibalized by their larger neighbours, just as provincial authorities do not want to give up any of their prime cities and manufacturing zones to contending tier-one municipalities. In this way, Kunshan has become a symbol of the internal political resistance to China’s broader mega-region drive.
For all that, the megacity plan is a way to reduce the runaway competitive edge that China’s largest and most famous cities have over smaller ones. As things stand, the growth and status of cities across China is very unbalanced. Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen tend to draw the most investment and the best talent. Companies stationing their headquarters in these cities carry a status and prestige that would simply not be present were they to be based in Jinan, Fuzhou, Taiyuan or Changde. The same can be said for the flow of the most educated and highly skilled workers, who often want to be in key cities where the action is. This creates a race to the bottom for smaller competing cities, who often try to keep up with the big boys by over-building infrastructure they do not really need, lowering the prices of commercial or industrial real estate, and offering bigger subsidies and incentives to attract investment, business, and talent.
The megacity and mega-region plans attempt to mitigate this imbalance and assist underdog cities. By linking together administratively with larger, more economically vibrant urban centres, cities on the periphery can benefit from a sharing of industries. For example, in the Capital Economic Circle decrees have been put under way to relocate 200 companies from Beijing to Tianjin and Hebei province. However, perhaps predictably, this was a contentious gift from the capital as most of the companies that were being handed over were those that consume a large amount of energy or are big polluters. Needless to say, Tianjin and Hebei were not exactly pleased.
Local municipalities’ resistance to China’s broader mega-region ambitions extend across the board. Many smaller cities tend not to want to give up their autonomy to larger ones in the process of conglomerating; hence these proposed mega-regions are still very much composed of more or less independent administrative units. Irrespective of whether or not China’s mega-regions ever become politically seamless entities, the fact is they are being built; physically they are becoming singular metropolitan expanses. The open spaces between Shanghai and Kunshan, Jiangyin, Suzhou, Wuxi, Changzhou, Zhenjiang and Nanjing are being filled in fast: factories, warehouses, colossal high-rise apartment blocks, and shopping malls are rising out of what had been just farmland for thousands of years.
The train soon pulled away from Kunshan and entered into the heart of Jiangsu province. ‘This part of the Yangtze River has the most fertile soil and the most economical [sic] prospects’, I was once told by a representative of China Medical City, a new development just across the river from where I was. Yet, as I looked out the window, it seemed as if the master plan was to asphyxiate as much of this fertile land as possible with a tight seal of concrete in the name of those ‘economical prospects’. Small plots of farmland dotted the landscape, but they looked as if they were just waiting to disappear. At regular intervals a cluster of factories, a housing complex, or a small city would pop up, fragmenting this ancient agricultural matrix into a thousand pieces. Farm, factory, warehouse, apartment complex, farm, factory, warehouse, apartment complex … was how the scenery rolled by at 350 km/hr. The patchwork of urbanization here still had many pieces missing, but the procession of upside-down L-shaped cranes along the horizon promised that this would not be the case for long. The cities between Shanghai and Nanjing are being connected together through their individual expansion as well as the growth of new districts, cities, towns and housing developments between them. Soon they will be contiguous.
The train didn’t have a chance to attain full speed between cities, which to all intents and purposes are in effect already part of the same megalopolis. All of the buildings looked the same; the only way I could tell that I was leaving one city and entering another was that the train sometimes stopped, whereupon a recorded voice through a loudspeaker told me that I was in a new location. Soon enough, that voice informed me that I had arrived: ‘Good afternoon, passengers. We have now arrived at Changzhou.’ I took one last look out of the window, at the hundreds of high-rise apartments, which looked like a dozen staggered picket fences layered back to back, forming a solid wall of city.