The Newsletter 83 Summer 2019

Building global cities in Asia. Shared experiences and challenges

Wei Tang

In order to explain the global influence of cities like New York, London and Tokyo, the theory of global city is proposed, which in turn becomes the developmental vision and reference point for leading cities in major developing countries. The rapid moving up of the Chinese cities in the global city rankings has aroused great interest among researchers. It becomes a focus of attention at my home institute, the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, to study the internal logic and developmental path of the global cities in China, especially in comparison with the archetypical ones and the other emerging ones.

Recently, I have begun to examine the strategic planning and related policy instruments of the leading cities in the BRICS countries, namely Shanghai, Johannesburg, Mumbai, Sao Paulo and Moscow. I started my field study in Mumbai and New Dehli, because I think China and India share the most common experiences and challenges among all BRICS countries. When comparing the emerging global cities of China and India, I couldn't help noticing their similar trajectory of development: to reform the domestic system in accordance with the requirements of the international economic system, to upgrade the industrial structure with much emphasis on producer services and to renew the urban space through gentrification. Obviously, all of these institutional adjustments and policy instruments are responding to the fast globalization, which is particularly promoted by neo-liberalism and informatization. Though the degrees of achievements vary in these leading cities, the global city policy indeed brings significant economic growth and higher ranks in the world city system. Thus, these leading cities have been turned into emerging global cities.

However, the institutional setting, resource abundance, infrastructure and cultural atmosphere of the emerging global cities in China and India are quite different from those of New York, London and Tokyo, which are considered the archetypical global cities. The former all have long histories, profound humanistic traditions and huge populations. Different races, castes, tribes, strata and communities coexist, presenting unimaginable complexity. The impact of the ‘global city policy’ on these cities with such complexity deserves examination.

The global city policy has brought huge changes, particularly in the social structure, which is far different from the current archetypical global cities. There are not only high-end professionals in high-end producer services, but also the employees who provide everyday services to the professional class; there are not only a large number of formal manufacturing workers in large-scale manufacturing industry, but also a large influx of immigrants to the fairly large-scale informal economy. As a result, unlike the polarization of income distribution caused by occupational structures in New York and other global cities, the number and proportion of high-end professionals in those of China and India are relatively limited, while manufacturing, low-end service sector and informal economy are so large that a very small number of professionals are at the top of income distribution while a large number of them are at the bottom. In between, there is a certain percentage of the middle class. The layers are typically pyramidal.

The key to the difference between the archetypical and emerging global cities lies in the urbanization stage of developing countries. The surges in population have made the cities unable to meet the basic needs such as housing and transportation, resulting in outbreaks of urban diseases, traffic congestion, pollution and social disorder. The industrial upgrading policy further made it impossible for cities to generate enough job vacancies, resulting in the fast expansion of informal economy and the spread of slums. This is particularly evident in the case of India. The mushrooming of new townships on the outskirts of the cities leads to a substantial reduction in farming land and let the cities sprawl beyond any limitation. This is observed in both cases of China and India.

Hence, when orchestrating global city policies, the emerging global cities have to maintain a balance: to safeguard the social welfare for all stakeholders, especially the poor and the vulnerable groups; to coordinate the industrial upgrading and the domestic labor market; to enact urban preservation and renewal; as well as to better integrate the global development system into the existing urban system.

Unfortunately, with the outbreak of the financial crisis and the reversal of the world economic cycle, the emerging global cities, as they are so dependent on the world market, become more vulnerable. Thus, when seeking world-class influence, emerging world cities need to not only rethink the profound implications of globalization for their own development, but also to examine their own development strategies from the perspective of internal integration and complexity.

Compared with other emerging global cities in the BRICS, especially India, Shanghai has achieved considerable success in becoming a global city under the national reform and opening-up strategy. It is the rising node in the global city system. It also serves as the engine of China’s modernization and the bridgehead for China’s going out strategy. In the global city theory, Asia’s global cities like Tokyo and Seoul are considered as nation-led while western cities like New York and London are market-led. It is well understood that Shanghai falls into the nation-led type, and even more so than Tokyo and Seoul. Efficient public services supplied by the state, such as labor, healthcare and education, matter much in the process. Besides that, the informal governance based on a household registration system and local social network, which are indeed of Chinese characteristics, has effectively decreased the negative impact of global city practices. Thus, for any emerging global city in the BRICS to succeed in its global city policy, it must appropriately deal with the inherent complexity of its own development stage.

Wei Tang, Associate Professor, Institute of International Relations, Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences