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!

FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty Images
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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism