Beijing readies for new urbanization
By Gabriele Battaglia
China became an urban society in 2011, when for the first time the number of city dwellers exceeded the rural population. Many analysts described the three-decade long urbanization process leading up to that moment as "unprecedented", a word commonly used for every kind of Chinese outcome taking place in the same period. This includes the emancipation of 600 million people from poverty, double-digit growth, the accumulation of wealth and its investment globally, and even military spending or the "cementification" of rural land.
Today, 51% of the Chinese population live in cities, compared to 19% in 1979 when Deng Xiaoping's reforms started. Since for social and ecological reasons the rural exodus isn't sustainable
anymore, the new Xi Jinping-Li Keqiang administration's brainchild is a new brand of urbanization, chengzhenhua, to replace the Dushihua model of general urbanization).
Chengzhenhua as a model is urbanization with an emphasis on "zhen" (towns). The plan is to move some 250 million rural residents into new towns without stirring up an expansion of existing urban cores at the same time.
"The official discourse describes this goal as 'breaking the urban-rural duality structure' and, whatever it is meant to be, it has been made very clear that one of its major policy goals is stimulating domestic consumption through the transformation of the remaining peasant population into middle-class," explains Mi Shih, a researcher in urban development and public planning in the China Research Centre at the University of Technology, Sydney. Indeed, the aim of sustainability doesn't seem as important as a new push toward growth through consumption in the leadership's view.
So what could be this urbanization based on zhen be? It's a difficult question to answer, especially given the huge diversity of China's more than 20,000 towns. While the average population of the largest 1,000 of these is over 70,000, the most developed have populations exceeding 500,000, as Shih points out.
Making the task harder is that chengzhenhua is a top-down policy that must be implemented in a country where each province is running its own show. In addition, the previous model of overbuilding at all costs has filled the coffers of local governments and the pockets of too many officials and real estate developers.
The mainstream of Beijing's discourse becomes a delta of swamps and rivulets once it reaches the local level, trickling down through 31 provinces, 333 prefectures, 2,858 counties, 40,858 townships and an unknown number of villages.
The lack of clarity about chengzhenhua explains why - since the very beginning and without any visible outcome - the new urbanization policy has raised plenty of criticism in China itself. It is possible to distinguish two main groups of critics.
First: the neoliberist side. According to some scholars and economists, a government-operated process of urbanization will be ineffective and wasteful. In history, cities and towns have always been created by the invisible hand of the market - they say - not because of a government's will.
Zhu Haijiu, an economy professor at the Zhejiang University of Industry and Commerce, says in the article "The enemy of chengzhenhua is chengzhenhua":
"The promoters of urbanization are the individuals, thousands and thousands of individuals of unknown origins. They provide what you need for the development of the cities with their wisdom, their capital, skills and physical strength. The people who come to the city are seeking to improve their situation. And it's actually this idea of personal gain and not the awareness of a higher 'public good' idea to build a city and push growth".
According to some neoliberists, when too many immigrants from the countryside move to the city, well, we have a slum. In their opinion a slum is not that bad since it is based on private property and "freedom of migration", as the new-leftist scholar Wang Hui ironically pointed out.
Top-down city building
Precisely because of China's specific history, that kind of market-based criticism has little meaning. Let's take the capital city of Beijing as an example.
"Even the capital city, at its core, corresponds to a model born in the Confucius time, the fifth century BC - says the Beijing based architect Qi Xin. By this model the city's size is designed in advance, as well as how many roads it must have, what is the scale of the imperial palace and so on," Zhu writes in the article, going on to say:
"This is a model focused on the administration. It's not like European cities, which were not 'created' but 'appeared': more and more people live in one place and this becomes a city. Thus, the inhabitants activity become the core of city life. But for an administrative center as Beijing, the citizens activities make no sense, sometimes they are even forbidden, because this place is designed for a single citizen: the emperor."
This took place a long time ago, but what about the forced move of hundreds of thousands of people during the Three Gorges Dam's affair? Yes, in China it is possible to build a city top-down.
However, these arguments point in one direction: although a top-down urbanization is possible, nothing tells us that its results will be good.
An urbanization "by the government" may lack the flexibility needed to create sustainable cities - ie, what China really needs as compared to the energy-intensive, increasingly unsustainable and all equal cities created by the Dushihua model.
On the other side, there are some free-thinkers, left-wing intellectuals and scholars who value the new urbanization as a follow-up of the previous one, marked by eviction and exploitation of the rural population let alone environmental collapse.
Here is Ou Ning, who calls himself a "cultural worker" and is more precisely a curator, a publisher, a published poet, a director, a designer and a writer. Previously based in Beijing, he recently moved to the village of Bishan, Anhui province, to kick off his new project called "The Bishan Commune", a social experiment linked to the "rural reconstruction" movement, with roots dating back to the last century in China. This is what he says:
"The aims of the chengzhenhua are good, however there are two problems. First. Given that the peasants are a weak class, they should be helped by public resources. A report of the Ministry of Finance says that in order to transform the peasants into citizens you need to find resources up to 1.8 trillion yuan (US$294 billion) that's an astronomical figure. Where did this money come from?
On the other hand, local governments drive urbanization in their own way. It is called "land policy" and it means nothing else than an administrative way to grab the land. The contradiction between the Beijing government and the local ones has always been an issue, since the Emperor's time.
Each local government calculates its benefits and then says to Beijing: "Ehi, if I collect a lot of money, how much of it can I keep for me? From this point of view, the local government is out of control, and then the central government has no hope of implementing its policies at a local level. It is a problem of the system, you can not solve it so far."
So what's the solution? According to Ou Ning:
"Well, I say there is no need of new urbanization: the farmers are farmers, the agriculture is agriculture, we must keep them alive. If you want more equality, you must instead bring some resources to the villages and create job opportunities right there.
Through the urbanization farmers become like us and you provide only one economical solution and one lifestyle, that's bad. No farmers means no food and then you need to import everything. Instead if you develop the villages and agriculture, you can live independently in an organic way and this means that China will not suffer the worst aspects of globalization."
That's "biodiversity according to Bishan's characteristics".The project, which is different from the old people's communes, is aimed at putting together local villagers and urbanized intellectuals to develop a new kind of "circular economy" as alternative to the monoculture of tourism which goes hand in hand with real estate speculation.
In Ou Ning's view, four local traditional activities - the production of rice, silkworm, rapeseed and fine tea - are actually no longer enough to meet the modern farmer's needs, but it is possible to engage a sort of smart tourism, based on the renovation of houses and temples of the ancient Hui merchants who used to live in Bishan.
It is something very close to Western agritourism and t hslow food culture but definitely new in contemporary China.
A sustainable urbanization
Although all these people hold a very negative view in the new urbanization, chengzhenhua is not only a possibility or a hypothesis. Being a project of the Chinese government, it is already a kind of material condition we are involved in.
The challenge and the opportunity for the new Chinese leadership is take criticism into account and make chengzhenhua both effective and sustainable. The question is, how?
China's political system has a character often overlooked which gives some hope: while implementing a mainstream model, the government often leaves some room for alternatives - sometimes diametrically opposed - provided that they pose no danger to its own existence. In this sense, it works exactly like a biological system.
In addition to Bishan's commune, there is also the case of Dashilan, a district located a few hundred meters south of Tian'anmen square, in Beijing, where the local administration has chosen to renovate the local hutongs (alleyways) in a very different way from the mainstream model, which would have meant moving the local people towards the far away ringroads and razing to the ground the old alleys to build brand new houses and shops in a fake ancient style.
The point here is the desire to preserve the old neighborhood and its human vitality, while driving it into modernity.
So the architect Liang Jinyu, who until recently co-ordinated the project, chose to attract new activities from outside the district, trying to mix them with the existing ones: design studios, art galleries, useful shops for the people (ie not just souvenir shops looking all the same), restaurants and inns for different consumer targets.
This complexity should ensure a higher quality of life to those who already live in the neighborhood and a model to revive the whole area. It is the alternative to monoculture - the touristic neighborhood - but it is a delicate ecosystem, at the risk of being damaged unless someone oversees its maintenance.
Here is the new role of the architect, who becomes a sort of "urban curator" as Liang likes to say: the person who first listens to the needs of local people and then tries to give a urban configuration to the whole thing. In this model, the role of local government is both important and understated: it is to assign batches, create public space to foster discussion among residents, build the basic infrastructure. It is a sort of Taoist wu wei, of acting without acting.
This means that today's China's does not need "a" single model, but a flexible range of ideas for integrating architecture with the physical and human landscape.
It's difficult to say if this kind of attitude is part of the chengzhenhua agenda, but the point is that China is in a bottleneck and every project aimed at developing a sustainable model while promoting growth should be welcomed. And the Chinese government should be pragmatic enough to consider any kind of grassroots experience.
Gabriele Battaglia is an observer of Chinese affairs based in Beijing, the place to be and a good starting point for a look on globalization and its alternatives. He is a member of China-Files agency, and has previously been a writer for PeaceReporter and E-il mensile magazines.
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