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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Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era