Tang dynasty poet He Zhizhang returned from a long sojourn abroad balding and as a stranger to his children. A contemporary poet in China might lament a homecoming strange, disorienting, even alien.
“Where is your memory? You will one day return to your hometown without recognizing anything. How do you call this place your hometown?” Qiao Runling, a deputy director at the National Development and Reform Commission, said in April at a real estate forum in Shanghai.
Qiao wasn’t reciting poetry, but his comment captures the problem with urbanization in China today. The framework planners have used during the past 30 years to build cities has been overly simplistic, void of creativity and without consideration for local culture. The same drab style of concrete and steel has risen in hundreds of urban centers. The results are wide boulevards that bisect tall apartment blocks for as far as the eye can see. Even the street names are interchangeable between cities.
“Most cities look alike. Most cities have similar buildings,” Qiao said. “If you walk around China, we see more and more similarities rather than differences.”
From a random street corner in any given medium-sized city, distinguishing it from the next one can be a difficult task.
Perhaps the most devastating aspect of this dull urban expansion is the lack of demand for it. Planners have drawn up master designs for their cities with little regard for who might come to live in them. At a talk at the European Chamber of Commerce last month, Paul Procee, lead urban specialist at the World Bank, drew a picture of how Chinese cities were shaping up without heed to market forces.
“The government builds these 10 roads next to each other, perfectly squared with humongous apartment buildings in between,” Procee said. Yet, at the same time, “on the fringes [of the cities] you see these informal three-story buildings coming up in a completely random way, and the government is not really paying attention to that.”
“What is being built in lots of these small counties are buildings that are for the middle class. And you really wonder, who are going to be the ones occupying this?”
In many of China’s more than 600 official cities, the answer could be no one. The middle classes already dwell in apartment buildings. Many of them will upgrade to bigger cities, particularly the first-tier cites. But for the county-level cities, where urbanization is currently focused, there are limited buyers for these flats. Such real estate isn’t priced for migrant workers, the heart of China’s urbanization process, Procee says. That’s why a market for informal housing on the outskirts of town is booming.
This model for urbanization is broken. In fact, from the perspective of many economists, the Chinese government never had it quite right.
Policymakers for decades have called urbanization the driving force of growth in the Chinese economy. This theory casts migrant workers – once they have made the leap from village to metropolis – as urban consumers who will buy cars and apartments upon arrival.
The Chinese government has it backwards, however. Towns cannot be built from scratch and the masses expected just to flock there; emerging urban areas need to demonstrate growth, innovation and develop new industries to attract a steady stream of people looking for work. For each migrant that enters a city, health care and education should be made available. Local governments must also provide subsidized housing. All of this is a huge cost to the state.
“Urbanization, in other words, is a consequence of rising wealth and can accommodate it,” Michael Pettis, an economics professor at Peking University, wrote in his blog last year. “It is not a cause of rising wealth.”
Ignoring the real source of demand for housing and confusing the drivers of urbanization have produced China’s infamous “ghost cities” – new, sprawling urban areas with few residents. This stubborn central planning is also rendering the bulk of Chinese cities cultural wastelands.
Where, then, is the real demand? And where is the real China among the myriad of faceless cities? The answer could be one and the same, says Qiao at the NDRC.
As China continues to urbanize, local governments and property developers must start taking into account local culture. Traditional Chinese painting and poetry often depicts quaint river towns with a slow, leisurely pace of life. Such art might romanticize the notion of a peaceful lifestyle, but Qiao says the Chinese people yearn for a more culturally enriched experience. Small towns, ones that reflect the local culture and history of the region they are based in, could be the future of urbanization in China.
The past 30 years has been spent wiping these places off the map. The small river towns that have survived are more akin to tourist attractions than living spaces.
“Actually, conventional urbanization is the elimination of local culture. That is a very harsh statement,” Qiao said. “Chinese people have demand for peaceful lifestyles. They want this kind of residential environment but the market cannot provide it now. So the next step is building peaceful, small towns. This will be the next step in urbanization and a new opportunity.”