Rip it up and start again: a kindergarten remains standing on a demolition site in Shaanxi Province. Photo: Reuters
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Disappearing villages: the losers in China's breakneck urbanisation

So rapid has China's development been that at any given moment there are vast, empty proto-cities waiting for people.

Ghost Cities of China
Wade Shepard
Zed Books, 232pp, £14.99/£65

In Manchuria: a Village Called Wasteland and the Transformation of Rural China
Michael Meyer
Bloomsbury, 384pp, £20

In 2011 China passed a milestone: for the first time in the country’s history, there were more Chinese living in cities than in the countryside. Over the next 15 years, the Chinese government plans to bring a further 100 million rural citizens to town, building new cities, districts and suburbs and promoting urban sprawl at breakneck speed to accommodate them.

Sometimes things get more than a little out of sync, we discover. In 2009, as al-Jazeera’s correspondent in Beijing, Melissa Chan visited Kangbashi, a city recently built in Inner Mongolia that had everything but people, and reported to viewers that China was full of recklessly conceived ghost cities. This is the phenomenon that Wade Shepard pursues in Ghost Cites of China.

It has all happened very fast. In most developing countries, established cities acquire shanty towns as surplus rural labour crowds in to join the cash economy; urban order is gradually imposed, roads are paved, plumbing and power connected and slums become low-income suburbs. In China, Mao Zedong kept people chained to the land for three decades using a strict set of controls that included residence permits and food rationing, but when the Chinese economy took off, those peasants were needed to build the cities and to work in the factories. Thus, China embarked on the biggest building frenzy the world has ever seen.

Instead of growing organically, entire cities have been conjured out of nowhere: a few are complete replicas of western towns, built as marketing devices by ambitious planners. Most have grandiose central plazas with clusters of extravagant showcase buildings; around them rise identikit grey apartment blocks in a landscape of motorways, factories and blighted countryside.

So rapid has China’s urbanisation been, that at any given moment there are proto-cities – vast, empty, urban stage sets – waiting for the actors to arrive. The term “ghost city” has come to symbolise lopsided and wasteful development, the reckless “build it and they will come” approach of unaccountable Chinese officials.

Shepard, a travel blogger, set out to challenge that judgement and argues that most ghost cities fill up in time. With commendable energy, he visits a long list of them and finds a few still spookily deserted but others that boast newly arrived populations, some there voluntarily, others less so. He encounters every variety of architecture and level of ambition. He witnesses urbanisation on steroids, conducted on a breathtaking scale.

There are structural reasons for the way China’s cities have been built. Among the most important is that local governments are chronically short of cash and make up the shortfall by seizing, rezoning and developing farmland. This creates sprawling cities and an oversupply of offices, along with the sometimes temporary mismatch between supply and demand that gives us ghost cities. More worryingly, it locks China into a high-emissions form of urbanisation that will continue to feed climate change long after the building boom is over. Now, belatedly, the buzzword in China’s urbanisation is “eco-city”, but the substance of the transformation is thin.

There is much to enjoy in this energetic if chaotic account: the landscape Shepard travels is so strange and monumental that it is hard to avoid being fascinated, even though the book at times feels as rushed and repetitive as China’s urbanisation. Shepard sets out to demolish the idea of ghost cities, but shows many examples, as well as those that do acquire populations. The book is a snapshot of an extraordinary moment: it can be frustrating, but it is rarely less than vivid.

Michael Meyer’s more personal story, In Manchuria: a Village Called Wasteland and the Transformation of Rural China, sees urbanisation from the other side. The unfortunately named Wasteland, in the freezing tundra of north-eastern China, is his wife’s native village. Her grandparents, aunts and uncles still live there.

Courtesy of this family connection, Meyer burrows into the landscape. He negotiates the complications of family relationships and explores the shifting economic and social relations of one, undistinguished village, along with the blood and drama of historic Manchuria. This is the homeland of the nomadic people who swept down into China in the 17th century and built the biggest version of the Chinese empire since the Mongols. It was occupied by the Japanese, who built an advanced industrial economy in the 1930s, but after the Second World War, stranded Japanese and Korean settlers died in large numbers, abandoned by their government. A further 160,000 Manchurian civilians died when the advancing Communist armies starved the city of Changchun into submission.

Wasteland has a railway station, but the high-speed trains that race between Jilin and Changchun do not stop there. A quarter of China’s villages have disappeared since 2000, victims of outward migration or the redrawing of boundaries that absorbed them into expanding cities. Wasteland is not immune: it was swallowed, on paper at least, by Jilin, 20 miles away. Meyer’s wife, a corporate lawyer, now lives in distant Hong Kong. She visits, but like most of her generation she will never live in Wasteland again.

Yet even if the place itself is undistinguished, the huge skies of north-eastern China are still a rare, attractive, incandescent blue. The peasants went through the collectivisation trauma of the Mao years, finally returning to household-scale farming in the late 1970s. Now things are changing as China again tries to modernise its agriculture, this time through agribusiness.

Family plots are consolidated into commercial farms and villages are becoming company towns. The author’s in-laws are once again losing their way of life. The driving force in Wasteland today is Eastern Fortune Rice, a firm set up in 2000 by the local Party secretary, which is taking over the village. It wants to move people into flats, demolish their houses and lease the land, consolidating the former household plots into a modernised agribusiness.

Meanwhile, many of the villagers have left for the city, where as migrant workers they do not enjoy the rights of city-dwellers. Their children and grandchildren will not return to the land: family farming in China is back-breaking and financially unrewarding. In yet another twist to this urbanisation story, Wasteland has plans to entice the workers to return as city-dwellers. Don’t go to the city: we’ll build a city here, say local officials, planning that Wasteland’s population will expand from 2,000 to 30,000 in the next decade and a half.

The existing villagers, however, will be obliged to exchange their homes and small gardens, their chickens, pigs and neighbourly street life, for lonely apartment-block living. They are holding out for the best price. There is resistance: after Eastern Fortune Rice dug them up, a redoubtable aunt doggedly replants the poppies with which she had beautified a short stretch of road. It is a small, stubborn, human gesture in a chaotic mass of concrete.

Isabel Hilton is the founder and editor of chinadialogue.net

This article first appeared in the 01 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Scots are coming!

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At best, The Confession Tapes makes you feel unease. At worst, despair

Netflix billed the show as a true-crime binge-watch – but its narrative arc is the opposite of cathartic.

Would you confess to a crime you hadn’t committed? For some days now, I’ve been asking myself this question. Furious and punchy, my gut tells me immediately that I wouldn’t, not in a million years. But then comes a quieter, less certain voice. Isn’t guilt, for some of us, a near-permanent state? Apt to apologise even when I’m not in the wrong, I cannot believe I’m the only woman alive who tortures herself in the small hours by thinking she has unknowingly done something very bad indeed.

All this was provoked by The Confession Tapes, billed on social media as “our” next Netflix true-crime binge-watch. In this instance, however, the breathless excitement is misplaced: binge-watching would seem to me to amount to a form of self-harm. Yes, it’s compulsive. Stoked by bloody police photographs, the atmosphere can be suspenseful to a queasy-making degree. But like Making a Murderer and The Keepers before it, its prime concern is not with crimes committed so much as with the American justice system, for which reason its narrative arc is the opposite of cathartic.

At best, it will leave you feeling uneasy. At worst, you may find yourself sinking down into something akin to despair.

Director Kelly Loudenberg tells six stories over the course of seven episodes. Each involves a brutal murder (or murders) for which a perpetrator (or perpetrators) has (have) since been safely (unsafely) convicted. All are linked by one factor: the conviction was secured primarily thanks to a confession extracted by the police under extreme circumstances. Lawyers were not present; mind games were played; interviewees were exhausted, unstable, traumatised. In one instance, the authorities took what’s known as the “Mr Big” approach: undercover officers, playing their roles with all the gusto of a local am-dram society, pretended to be gangsters whose criminal networks could save the accused from death row if only they (the accused) would provide them with all the facts.

Why did juries believe these confessions, unaccompanied as they were by forensic evidence? Here, we go back to where we began. “No,” they told themselves. “I would not admit to a crime I had not committed.” Either such citizens have no softer inner voice – or, more likely, the idea of listening to it is simply too terrifying.

Predictably, the majority of the accused are poor and ill-educated, and perhaps this is one reason why the case of Sebastian Burns and Atif Rafay, two articulate middle-class boys from Canada, stood out for me (the pair were found guilty of the 1994 murder in Bellevue, Washington, of Atif’s parents and sister; at the time, they were 19). Or perhaps it is just that I still can’t understand why an American court considered “Mr Big” evidence admissible when the technique is illegal in the US? (The “gangsters” who encouraged Burns and Rafay to indulge in the most pathetic teenage braggadocio I’ve ever witnessed belonged to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.)

The saddest part of this tale: hearing Burns’ father, David, describe his prison visits. (Burns, serving a life sentence without possibility of parole, has exhausted all his appeals.) The strangest part: the way James Jude Konat, like all the prosecutors in this series, was so happy to perform for the camera, more game-show host than lawyer.

It feels obscene to move on, but move on I must. W1A (18 September, 10pm) is enjoying a bewilderingly long life (this is series three). Is the joke still funny? I think it’s wearing thin, though this may be born of my own recent encounter with the BBC’s bizarre machinery (humiliating, in a word).

Siobhan Sharpe (Jessica Hynes) and her team of media morons have been bought by a Dutch company, Fun, where good ideas are celebrated with silent discos. One idea is a YouTube-style platform, BBC Me. Meanwhile, Ian Fletcher (Hugh Bonneville) is helming – nice BBC word – a group that will deliver the corporation’s “More of Less Initiative”, and a cross-dressing footballer has successfully plonked his bum on the Match of the Day sofa. Business as usual, in other words. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left