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Beijing makeover revives debate about megacities
By Antoaneta Bezlova

BEIJING - Beijing's ambition to re-invent itself as an ultra-modern capital of the future - in preparation for the 2008 Olympics - has sparked a frenzy of copycat metropolises all over the country, infuriating preservationists and state planners, and re-igniting an old debate about the emergence of megacities in China.

The Chinese capital has just announced an impressive plan to transform itself into a "modern cosmopolitan city with unique characteristics" - bureaucratic jargon implying that Beijing will eventual join the ranks of global cities like New York, Tokyo and London.

The target is 2020, when, according to Beijing Mayor Wang Qishan, the city would be totally modernized and have the infrastructure of a world metropolis. Once this is achieved, the mayor told the annual session of Beijing parliament last week, the capital would be ready to start balancing economic growth with human development.

In preparation for the 2008 Olympics, Beijing is already being subjected to one of the most extensive urban re-engineering projects ever undertaken by an existing city. Independent experts place the tag of re-development at upwards of $100 billion.

At the moment, a monumental city is rising at breathtaking speed, with wide avenues, massive ring roads, grandiose ministries and banks, giant stadiums, towers and shopping emporiums. In the meantime, the remains of old Beijing are being dwarfed and gradually demolished.

Even some of the city's top architects concede that the record is mixed.

"The planning is a big mess, really," says Cui Kai, a well-known architect and deputy president of the city's planning department. "There has been a spirit of 'we want to cut off history'. And there has been a lot of greed behind what is being done."

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which has declared the inner ancient city of the capital a world heritage site, has objected to the callous disregard for preservation on the part of greedy developers working in tacit agreement with local authorities.

Out of the original 6,000 "hutongs", Beijing's narrow alleys that criss-cross the inner city, a mere 25 are being preserved. Out of 1,000 temples, a few dozen will be left - isolated islands within in a grid of eight-lane expressways and overshadowed by giant steel and glass towers.

Preservationists have long charged that by destroying all traces of old China, Beijing would find it hard to measure up to cities like Paris and London, which have incorporated historical landmarks into their urban layout.

Yet looking backwards is the last thing China's leaders want to do. Many of them are technocrats, sworn to developing modern science and high technology, and they want to show the world that the future belongs to China.

Beijing's example has been so tantalizing that scores of other Chinese cities have declared they want to become megalopolises too. There are many beyond Shanghai and Guangzhou - Beijing's obvious rivals in the booming east and south coasts of the country.

Some 182, or about a third of all Chinese cities, are contenders for the title of international metropolis, says Yao Bing, an official of the communist party's Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, according to the English-language China Daily.

They include Haikou, the capital of China's island province of Hainan, which aims to be "an open international city with tropical characteristics", and Shenyang in the north, a city that is eager to shake off its grim image as a communist industrial base and wants to be a financial center for northeast Asia.

A new book, titled 2012, draws a bold picture of a futuristic Global City in the southern province of Hainan island, where China's urban ambitions are being helped by a flow of international capital and immigrants from 200 countries.

"After 20 years of economic reforms, China has a lot of experience in international trade and has a lot of potential to create the Global City of the future," argues author He Han. "Hainan, for its part, is the perfect site for it because of its economic edge, rich resources, favorable location and attractive tropical climate''.

In the early years of China's economic reforms, started by the late leader Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s, the government promoted smaller cities, believing that large and medium-size metropolises would be destabilized by vast numbers of rural migrants.

In the early 1990s, the government created buffer cities - settlements with populations of less than 500,000 - that were meant to prevent the big cities from swelling to unmanageable proportions. More than 200 buffer cities were established between 1990 and 1997.

Then, alarmed by satellite photos that showed that China was losing more than 500,000 hectares of arable land a year to housing, roads and factories, the government stopped encouraging the expansion of towns.

In recent years, the urbanization trend has picked up, fueled by projections that increasing the population of China's largest cities would boost consumer spending while efficiently preserving land and other resources.

"We anticipate that by 2020 some 300 million to 400 million rural dwellers would have moved to China's towns and cities," Chen Xiwen, one of China's top rural-sector officials, told the foreign media recently.

Government officials have also been under increasing pressure to meet world urbanization rates. Despite being home to 20 percent of humanity, China has only two megacities with populations of more than 10 million: Shanghai and Beijing.

Chongqing, which has a registered population of over 30 million, is an artificial megacity created by the union of Chongqing proper and the Three Gorges Basin area. The urbanized population of Chongqing is less than 5 million people.

While the official urbanization rate of China is 36 percent, many of the country's supposed city-dwellers are like those in Chongqing - farmers and peasants living in the rural outskirts.

"We have to admit that urbanization is justified," Zhang Naijian, a researcher with the Chinese Academy of Managerial Sciences, told the China Daily. "But if every city wants to be in the swim of building great cities, it will bring disaster to the country and the people."

(Inter Press Service)
Feb 28, 2004


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