China was historically an agrarian society with the majority of its population engaged in farming and living in rural areas, and this configuration continued until the last quarter of the twentieth century. But the country has aggressively urbanized since, adding more than 400 new cities and hundreds of millions of urban residents over the last three decades.
The shifting demographic trends are certainly striking, but the urgency to study Chinese urbanization comes from a different source, that is, the deeper transformation of Chinese society, as manifested in the changing governing institutions, the redistribution of wealth, and the remaking of citizen rights. Urban China sets out to understand how China has urbanized over a short period of time and what an urbanized China means for its citizens and for the rest of the world.
A critical analysis of China’s urban transition can also bring insights to a number of broader issues, such as the Chinese economy, globalization, and urban theory. First of all, studying China’s cities can help us better understand the origin of the Chinese economic miracle. China’s economic ascent and its urbanization are closely intertwined, and to understand the economic miracle, one needs to recognize the critical role played by its cities in these processes.
China’s urban transition also offers a vantage point for understanding the interconnectivity of the global economy. China’s urbanization did not happen in a vacuum, but was accompanied by close interaction with the larger world economy. From the sleek skyscrapers in Shanghai to the state-of-the-art Olympics facilities in Beijing and iPhone factories in Shenzhen and Zhengzhou, Chinese cities are remade by transnational flows of capital, information, and expertise. The transformation of the urban economy, communities, and landscape tells a larger story of globalization.
The unprecedented urban growth in China also presents an intriguing case with which to reflect on urban theory developed in the context of Western urbanization. Different from London, New York, Chicago, and Detroit, Chinese cities, and also many other cities in the global South, did not experience high Fordism and the post-Fordist transition, which constitute the basis for major theorizations on urban governance in the West.
Although contemporary Chinese cities exhibit similar tendencies of entrepreneurialism and neoliberalization, the causes often have to be sought in developments other than deindustrialization and urban decay, which are not happening or at least have not happened yet in China. A thorough understanding of China’s urban transition can open exciting paths for developing new urban theory and vocabularies.
Drawing upon both the secondary literature and some of my own work, this book examines the past trajectories, present conditions, and future prospects of Chinese cities by investigating five interrelated topics – governance, landscape, migration, inequality, and the cultural economy.
Part of the book was written when I was a fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington, DC in 2011-2012, while simultaneously working on another book project comparing urban governance and citizen rights in China and India. Reading about Indian cities has certainly given me many new perspectives on the Chinese urban condition.
One major observation I want to share with the readers of this book is that India, and probably other developing countries as well, have learned many wrong lessons from China, such as setting up Special Economic Zones, advocating massive investments in infrastructure, hosting mega-events, and pushing urban renewal by displacing the poor. Indian cities face many problems and challenges, to be sure, such as housing shortages, poor infrastructure, and high levels of poverty. But following the Chinese model cannot solve these problems.
As the Chinese experience shows, massive investment in infrastructure has put local governments in deep debt, and the shining new infrastructure projects often become profit-making machines for private–public partnerships. Hosting mega-events such as the Beijing Olympics has not brought many benefits to the people living in post-event cities, and the Shanghai style of urban renewal has displaced millions of the poor and turned inner-city neighborhoods into exclusive colonies for transnational elites.
One of my goals in writing this book is to demonstrate the consequences of Chinese-style urban development and provide a cautionary tale for other cities aspiring to remake themselves into Shanghai. Contrary to the notion of “fast policy transfers,” the urban development strategies used in China, as this book shows, have to be unlearned.
Xuefei Ren is Assistant Professor of Sociology and Global Urban Studies at Michigan State University. She is author of Building Globalization: Transnational Architecture Production in Urban China (2011, University of Chicago Press).