The Chinese Urban Juggernaut

Aviram Sharma

The most populous country of the world, China, is currently going through a phase of major socio-economic transformation and simultaneously witnessing a rapid phase of urbanisation. The 21st-century China presents a unique pattern of urbanisation; unparalleled in recent history. Wade Shepard brings this enticing story of China’s urbanisation. Shepard who wears different hats, including of a journalist has a long experience of reporting and working from China. His deep interest as a traveller in exploring uncharted spaces and audacious journalistic traits facilitated him to come up with a fascinating book on the ‘ghost cities’ of China.

During the last decade several journalists and academicians from China and elsewhere have reported about this unique and puzzling phenomenon of ghost cities. A great number of new cities are coming up in different parts of China; driven by the urban development initiatives of the government. The urban infrastructure is robustly developed in these new cities but they are scantly populated. It is intriguing to ‘outsiders’ that how and why the most populous country in the world is coming with so many new cities with full of skyscrapers, high-rises, hotels, homes, shopping malls, museums and parks and yet very few people are inhabiting those spaces? These sparsely populated new cities have been termed as ghost cities by several journalists and critics.

Shepard systematically deals with this unique phenomenon in this book, which is divided among nine chapters. Initially, he draws the broad contours of Chinese urbanisation. He describes the economic and political factors which are pushing the new wave of urbanisation and propelling the mass migration from rural to urban areas. The new urbanisation drive is the outcome of the centralised economic and political might of the Chinese government. In the next chapter, he deals with the land question. How the land for the new cities are being acquired. Who owns the land? How the land acquisition is taking place? While dealing with these issues, he narrates how the local governments are promoting such activities to generate revenues. The economic growth in complexly intertwined with political goals of local leaders. The political leaders present these urban transformations as a mark of their leadership skills, which vouch them superior political positions. The author argues that the land transformation is often happening at the environmental costs, such as, by slaying mountains or reclaiming land from sea.

In Chapter Three, Shepard deals with the anatomy of Chinese cities, the new cities and the ghost cities. Here, he minutely engages with the nature of new Chinese urbanisation. He also presents the Chinese views on these emerging cities. Chapter Four is a succession of the earlier chapter, where he describes how the current Chinese mode of urbanisation is unique and unparalleled in recent past. In the new Chinese mode of urbanisation, the government or the private developer initially develops the basic infrastructure. Then the government plans to mobilise people to inhibit these new spaces. When people start living there, then they further develop the basic housing facilities on their own depending on their interest. The strong government intervention, which is driving this phenomenon, is evidently visible at all levels. Yet, market forces and speculative urbanisation is also working simultaneously in most of the cases.

Chapter Five describes the emergence of urban clusters across the country. These urban conglomerations are planned in a systematic way, where each megacity would be surrounded by a number of smaller cities. Shepard report, many of these small urban centres are constructed as replica of Western cities. They are part of bigger urban agglomeration or the mega regions and are developed as “megacity clusters inside megacity clusters, spiderwebs inside spiderwebs of urbanisation” in Shepard words. Chapter Six, deals with the nature and characteristics of new urban centres in terms of planning. Shepard addresses the conundrum of sustainable environmental planning, socially just, and economically viable urban centres in this chapter. He also deals with the obsession or fetishism of Chinese developers and urban dwellers for Western style towns and urban architecture and their quest for new identity.

In Chapter Seven, Shepard deals with the energy question. How the energy demand is met or is being fulfilled in the new urban centres. Shepard reports, how Chinese cities are overtly dependent on coal and hydropower and its environmental and economic implications on economy and resources. Chapter Eight describes the thrust for rapid urbanisation in recent decades. Rapid urbanisation is viewed as one of the way to continue the high GDP growth rate and to support the surge of Chinese economy in coming years. He also describes the reformed Chinese economy, especially in urban context, which is a mixture of state led and government controlled initiatives and free-market spaces. According to the author, the speculative urbanisation and free market forces are making the housing properties extremely expensive and out of reach of middle and lower middle-class Chinese. Interestingly, the central and local government in China has firm control on the housing market, and they often manipulate their respective markets. The strong role of the communist state in guiding this phenomenon is one of the uniqueness of Chinese urbanisation. Shepard also highlights the unique fiscal models, which are supporting this urban growth.

Finally, in chapter Nine, Shepard renders his overall analysis of this phenomenon. He argues that the push for rapid urban development is a systematic and planned strategy of the Chinese state to insulate the local economy from the “ebbs and flows of the global market’’. He further add that the framings of ghost cities are immature and misrepresentation of the overall phenomenon. It is only one of the phases of urbanisation and in the long run will be forgotten as a footnote in the history of China.

It is a well written book from a journalistic perspective. The analysis might have benefited from bringing more vibrant stories of hopes, expectations and agonies of Chinese people during this dynamic phase of urbanisation? How the rural and urban people, civil society groups, non-governmental organisations, environmental groups view this phenomenon? How do they experience it?  Overemphasis on secondary sources and less engagement with public voices often led to a weak narrative, which could have been avoided. Yet, it is a good read to understand the broad contours of Chinese urbanisation.

Is the Chinese mode of urbanisation going to be sustainable? What kind of economic, social and environmental upheavals will it bring in the future? Only more research in the future will unveil the answers. I appreciate the author for taking this challenging task to study the unique Chinese wave of urbanisation. This is a fascinating addition to the existing literature on Asian Urbanism. I recommend this book for everyone, who is interested in understanding the Chinese mode of urbanisation.