Within living memory, the People’s Republic of China was a struggling, underdeveloped nation ruled by strange ideologues who impeded their own nation’s progress. But since 2000, China has overtaken France, Germany, and Japan to become Earth’s second largest economy; it stands poised to challenge America’s longstanding primacy. Michigan State’s Xuefei Ren says we cannot understand that mighty surge apart from China’s rapid urbanization.
Westerners feel a reasonable temptation to compare Chinese cities with our Euro-American conurbations. But Professor Ren asserts that Chinese cities have their own distinct character, molded as they are by different historical forces. Chinese leadership once took an explicitly hostile attitude to cities. Confucian philosophy discouraged urbanization by its disdain for commerce. Chairman Mao kept cities small, even forbidding farmers to follow work into town.
But after 1978, Deng Xiaoping’s market reforms created a climate where tightly packed industry, which flourishes in cities, became the norm. Instead of ideological goals like the Soviets, the Chinese Communist Party began tying career advancement to GDP growth, which discouraged eager Party loyalists from investing in slow-moving enterprises like agriculture. From the early 1990s, the state spent its development funds in cities, letting the countryside fend for itself.
Chinese cities are thus substantially different from Western cities. Despite Party leadership’s fondness for soaring Internationalist-style skyscrapers and vast concrete flatlands, these cities were essentially willed into existence. Where Euro-American cities arose almost unexpectedly, molded by Fordism and entrepreneurial vigor, urban China represents the triumph of centralized state ownership and authoritarian ideology.
Yet Professor Ren also exposes remarkable features of China that defy Cold War ordering. Because China’s government system is compartmentalized and appallingly improvisational, city-level administrators have impressive authority to challenge Beijing’s leadership, ramrodding land-use decisions that serve local interest, even over state objections. This creates a competitive environment that, to outsiders, seems almost… well… capitalist.
Don’t mistake that, though, to mean Chinese people have gained sudden freedoms in urban life. Science fiction skylines like Shanghai and Guangzhou have permitted China to create an unprecedented number of billionaires, but entrepreneurial autonomy remains a rural phenomenon. Those glass skyscrapers house transnational corporations and state-owned enterprises, but city workers have virtually no chance of upward mobility.
At least theoretically, China remains a command economy, in which the state owns all land, and every transaction requires state permission. Yet Beijing’s benign neglect of nominally agricultural areas has permitted “farmers” remarkable local autonomy. Many have responded by turning their patches into low-rent housing, essentially creating modern suburbs. If the Party notices such use, though, “farmers” risk land expropriation: don’t get too successful, or you’ll lose everything.
Urban China, in Ren’s telling, defies easy definition. The hasty, almost whimsical way cities arise, coupled with the lack of central standards, puts cities in bare-knuckle competition. Because citizens cannot follow work, and migrants retain second-tier status, one city never seems “normal,” like Detroit in the 1960s, or Seattle in the 1990s. With regular double-digit GDP growth and over 125 cities over one million population, China resembles an agglomeration of warring city-states.
Despite Professor Ren’s narrow stated focus, she cannot separate Chinese urbanization from other factors, particularly the (almost) one-party state. Communist parties nominally exist to serve the proletariat, yet repeatedly create a permanent underclass. Like the Soviet Union, China has created a patronage system that subdivides permanent peons from those who enjoy Party connections. Winners get rich and powerful; losers breathe bad air while they work.
This results in a Fritz Lang-ish cityscape where Party loyalists and international Daddy Warbucks types occupy society’s upper tier—literally, as the Party has flattened old farmsteads and historic low-rise buildings to erect its world-class skyscrapers. Rich foreigners and well-connected nationals move to cities to get rich(er). Regular Chinese move to cities because they’ve exhausted every other option.
Professor Ren spends some time on long-term history, but her primary interest lies in the present. We cannot fathom China’s present through misty Sumi-e paintings and “inscrutable Orient” mythology. Instead, Ren unpacks the “governance, landscape, migration, inequality, and cultural economy” or urban China right now, seldom venturing further back than about 1993. The society she exposes bears little resemblance to the sound bites beloved on cable news.
Whether China ever surpasses America in economic dominance, it’s already a top world player. And it has achieved that status in tandem with its rapid urbanization, creating unprecedented paper billionaires and massive poverty. If other nations hope to compete, we need to understand modern China on its own terms. Professor Ren provides a good start for further study.
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