The Chinese government is pushing forward with a plan that will move 250 million Chinese people from rural communities into newly constructed towns and cities over the next 12 years. The government has been bulldozing ancient villages, temples and open-air theaters as well as paving over farmland to make way for mega-cities that will raise the number of city-dwellers in China to nearly the total urban population of the US.
To find out how and why this is happening, keep reading.
For decades, the Chinese Communist Party insisted that peasants, even those working in cities, be tied to plots of land in order to ensure political and economic stability. Today, however, with the threat of a slowing economy, the party has reversed its stance, hoping to find new sources of national growth. China is looking for a way to restructure its economy, to become more independent, and rely less of exportation.
Their solution: domestic consumerism.
Those who live in rural communities in China are largely self-sufficient, living off of the land and requiring very little in terms of infrastructure and transportation. By pushing for rapid urbanization and a radical shift from production to consumption, the government believes that there will be countless new opportunities for construction companies, transportation, utilities and appliance makers. “If half of China’s population starts consuming, growth is inevitable,” said Li Xiangyang, vice director of the Institute of World Economics and Politics, part of a government research institute. “Right now they are living in rural areas where they do not consume.”
But this extreme approach to urbanization and modernization can be a dangerous one. In countries such as Brazil and Mexico, where urbanization was also seen as the vehicle for economic growth, slums expanded and unemployment clung to the newly relocated underclass. If China wants to succeed in its endeavor, it will need funds sufficient for the construction of new roads, hospitals, schools and community centers – which alone could cost more than $600 billion a year – as well as provide for education, health care and the pensions of ex-farmers. They will have to coordinate intensely among various ministries and somehow balance the rights of those dislocated by their policies.
At his inaugural news conference, the country’s new prime minister, Li Keqiang, cautioned that it would require quite a few legal changes “to overcome various problems in the course of urbanization.” These could include chronic urban unemployment if jobs are unavailable, more protests from uncooperative farmers, a permanent underclass in big Chinese cities and the destruction of rural culture and religion – not to mention the obliteration (already taking place) of the traditional, organic Chinese city.
The day after Chinese architect Wang Shu received the Pritzker Prize in May of 2012, he returned to the old Beijing neighborhood where he had grown up only to find it in the process of being demolished. This neighborhood – called a “hutong” – was a maze of narrow streets and traditional courtyard houses that once characterized the urban fabric of a Chinese city; now, however, they are rapidly transforming into sprawling, gridded mega-cities of identical skyscrapers – copy-cats of many modern cities in the West.
“Cities today have become far too large,” Wang said in an interview in April. “I’m really worried, because it’s happening too fast and we have already lost so much.”
While China’s intense urbanization has caused irreversible destruction to much of the country’s rich architectural and urban past, it has also created and continues to create countless opportunities for innovative design. With so many plans and projects waiting to be developed, it’s only natural that China is becoming more and more fascinating to the architecture world. But what price must be paid, what sacrifices made by 250 million lives for the China of the future?
Tell us your thoughts below, and for the original story, check out this excellent New York Times article.