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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Politicians and fashion? Why their approach can be telling

My week, from spying on the spies to Theresa May’s fashion charm offensive – and how Sadiq stole hearts.

About nine months ago I was asked if I wanted to spend a morning with Zac Goldsmith, as he appeared to be wakening from the slumber that had obviously taken hold of him when he decided to run for mayor of London. However, after about three minutes in his company (maybe less, actually) I realised that not even his campaign team – let alone voters in the Borough of Southwark – thought he had a hope in hell of winning.

There was only ever going to be one winner, and the enthusiasm with which Sadiq Khan has been greeted by London has been heartwarming. He won the politician award at GQ’s Men of the Year Awards a few weeks ago, and I’d never heard such a roar as he leapt up on stage to collect it. Well, I’ve heard such roars for the likes of Michael Caine, Elton John and Amy Schumer, but rarely for a politician. In fact, the last time there was such fulsome applause for a politician at the GQ awards was when we gave one to a pre-Sextator David Blunkett. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised: the last time Noel Gallagher graced us with his presence, he asked: “Is this what a Conservative party conference looks like?”

 

On the dole

The recent past is being hauled over so repeatedly that soon there are going to be ­retrospectives of events that happened only last week. Or next week. On paper, the new exhibition at the V&A in London, entitled “You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966-1970”, seemed slightly behind the curve, but the reality is very different – as it’s probably the best exhibition you’ll see in London this year.

This is all down to the curation, which was handled by Geoffrey Marsh and Victoria Broackes, the wizards behind “David Bowie Is”, the most successful show in the V&A’s history. It’s a terrific exhibition, although being reminded of the cultural and political insurrection of the Sixties also reminds you of the period’s seemingly innate optimism as a new London was mushrooming into life. Winston Churchill was dead, abortion was about to be made legal and the rise in happiness seemed exponential. Britain was experiencing almost full employment (though the government wobbled slightly in the spring of 1966 when it was announced that the jobless total had gone up to half a million). It never occurred to anyone that there might not be a job
waiting for them when they left school or their red-brick university.

 

Priced out

There certainly won’t be a house waiting for them, not if they intend to live in London. The marketing bods behind the new development at Battersea Power Station came in to make a presentation at Vogue House a few weeks ago, showing us lots of slides and videos about their fabulous ­development. There’s a Frank Gehry this and a Frank Gehry that, a swimming pool, a private members’ club and lots of artisanal independent retailers selling organic rhubarb and fancy beer, blah blah blah.

Their roll-call of “good things” included the ominous words “affordable housing”, but this appears to be anything but. After the presentation, I promptly stuck my hand up and asked them what they actually meant by affordable housing. The answer I got wasn’t satisfactory, so I asked again: “What does your entry-level accommodation cost?” And the very charming man with the lapel-mike coughed apologetically and almost whispered, “£350,000.” At which point I made my excuses and left.

The idea that my daughters can one day get on the property ladder in London is pure fantasy, and they certainly won’t be living in Battersea, or indeed anywhere near it.

 

Back in fashion

Last Thursday, Theresa May hosted her first reception at Downing Street for the British fashion industry, an event that usually takes place twice a year, and which is attended by fashion designers, industry figures, newspaper and magazine editors and the like. ­Samantha Cameron was always a significant supporter of the sector (which contributes more to the country’s GDP than the car industry), as was Sarah Brown before her, and it is instructive that May has decided to follow in their footsteps.

It’s also telling that Mrs Cameron was not only invited to the event at No 10 but turned up, which says a lot about both women. Theresa May is a fundamentally shy person, yet she not only made a pitch-perfect speech in front of a Brexit-sensitive (and quite possibly suspicious) crowd, but chose to embrace the opportunity to espouse the growing importance of an industry that was so closely associated with the wife of her predecessor. There is such a lot of noise at the moment surrounding the PM’s apparent lack of interest in remaining on good terms with David Cameron, so one wonders what, if anything, is going on here. Taken at face value, May’s move at the reception was extremely classy.

 

The spying game

The following day I found myself in Cheltenham for a five-hour briefing on counterterrorism, cyber-defence, drug smuggling and child kidnapping at GCHQ.

I had expected the place to be like the Foreign Office, but it’s actually more like Google, Apple or Nike, and feels as though it could easily be a campus on America’s “Left Coast”.

There is an incredible sense of purpose at GCHQ, a feeling that they are all working for the common good, and frankly I found it infectious. While the denizens of Silicon Valley might be very adept at pushing the frontiers of consumerism, designing training shoes, telephones and algorithms, it felt far more appropriate to be spending time with men and women obsessed with making the world safer.

Dylan Jones is the editor-in-chief of GQ and a trustee of the Hay Festival

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times