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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In Snowden, Joseph Gordon-Levitt seems to absorb the spirit of the whistleblower

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard. It is reassuring that a film in which people are spied can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable.

Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning 2014 documentary Citizenfour captured the precise moment at which Edward Snowden turned whistleblower after quitting his job at the NSA. Is there room for another film on the same subject? Oliver Stone’s fictionalised account, Snowden, would suggest not. In effect, it admits defeat from the get-go by using the making of Citizenfour as a framing device, incorporating flashbacks to show what led Snowden to commit the security breach that exposed the extent of US government surveillance. Cooped up in a Hong Kong hotel room with him as he spills the beans are Poitras (Melissa Leo) and the Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), who put on their best ­listening faces and try to forget that all of the most interesting scenes are happening in other parts of the film.

What Snowden has in its favour is an economical performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt which is mysterious without being aloof, cool but never cold. The actor gets the voice right (it’s a benign rumble) and though he is physically dissimilar to the real Snowden, that need be no barrier to success: look at Anthony Hopkins in Stone’s Nixon. Gordon-Levitt is absorbed by the role like water vanishing into a sponge. When the real Snowden pops up to stare wistfully off into the distance (there’s a lot of that here), it can’t help but be a let-down. People are so bad at playing themselves, don’t you find?

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard, and it is reassuring that a film in which people are spied on through the webcams of dormant laptops can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable. The script, written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald, pulls in the opposite direction, allowing every character to deliver a remark of nudging innuendo. When Snowden is discharged from the army after injuring himself, a doctor tells him: “There are plenty of other ways to serve your country.” When he is approved for a job at the CIA, Snowden tells his employer: “You won’t regret this.” What we have here, give or take the strip club scene in which a pole dancer is filmed from an ungallantly low angle, is a more sober Stone than the one who made JFK and Natural Born Killers but he still can’t resist giving us a few deafening blasts of the old irony klaxon.

Though we know by now not to expect subtlety, Stone’s storytelling techniques are still surprisingly crude. When Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), complains that he has become distant, that he doesn’t touch her any more, the viewer is likely to wonder why that point had to be expressed in soap-opera dialogue rather than, say, action or camera angles. After all, the film was more than happy to throw in a superfluous sex scene when their love life was hunky-dory.

But when Stone does make his points visually, the cringe factor is even higher. He used carnivorous imagery in Nixon – a bloody steak stood in for murder – and the new film doesn’t take the vegetarian option either. Snowden is already starting to be alarmed by surveillance tactics when he goes hunting with his boss, Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans). The pheasants they kill are barbecued in sizzling close-up, providing a buffet of symbolism. Snowden is going to be grilled. His goose is cooked. He’s dead meat.

An early scene showing him establishing contact with Poitras and Greenwald by an exchange of coded phrases (“What time does the restaurant open?” “Noon. But the food is a little spicy”) suggests that Stone intends to have fun with the story’s espionage trappings. The movie falls between two stools, however, lacking either the irreverence of satire or the tautness of a well-tooled thriller. At its most effective moments, it floats free of irony and captures a quaint, tactile innocence. We see Snowden communicating in sign language with an NSA colleague to avoid being eavesdropped on, or sitting in bed with a blanket over him as he taps away at his laptop. He is only hiding his passwords but he looks for all the world like a kid reading comics by torchlight after his mother has said: “Lights out.”

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 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump