The problem with articles like “China’s Great Uprooting: Moving 250 Million Into Cities”, recently featured in The New York Times, is that they contribute to a misleading and simplistic narrative about China’s economic development, casting it as a story of “good” versus “evil”.
This was recently highlighted by a critique authored by the NYU Stern Urbanization Project in which The New York Times article in question was called out for being overly sensational and reductive in how it covered China’s policies concerning internal migration from the countryside to urban areas.
For more than twenty years now urbanization in China has been dramatized and predetermined in the western media as the obvious and logical expression of Chinese totalitarianism, a top-down model of state control that strips away any notion of Chinese people as subjects with any agency. The population of China as a whole is cast as the collective victim of the greedy machinations of a cruel and patriarchal government. Moreover, “the government” of China becomes a monolith forever repeating past “movements” and “campaigns” in its constant state of revolution, as if still fighting the war they won in 1949 and still guided by the ghost of Mao.
What sensationalist articles about China’s urban trajectory and “crazy” architecture do not factor in is China’s modern history. There is the urge to “Orientalize” China, to situate it within its natural habitat of the “ancient” and the “exotic”. Moreover, this Orientalizing gaze is an intrinsic element of the history of the West’s interaction with China. The construction of a fantastic and fabulous China as part of the western historical canon began long before the cranes went up in Shenzhen, Shanghai, or Beijing.
The NYU Stern Urbanization Project critique argues that language has consequences. The way writers and journalists define the terms for the change China is undergoing has implications for subsequent interpretations in other fields, architecture for example.
The narratives that emerge from critical and professional architecture often too easily take off from the inherited Orientalist discourse without critiquing it at the source. But for those sources you have to go back a ways to some of the earliest western chroniclers of China.
In the book China and Orientalism: Western Knowledge Production and the P.R.C., scholar Daniel F. Vukovich argues that since the end of the Mao era, China has occupied the space of the “becoming sameness” as a new form of Other. China is always in the realm of the “not yet” and that much of this new form of othering owes a debt to Cold War narratives that have not been overturned and persist in the popular imagination of China.
The western architectural imaginary has now become one of the chief carriers of this othering virus as it re-animates old ideas that have little to do with what is actually happening on the ground in China. Collections of anecdotes do not render clear the complicated truths of a fast-moving society dealing with multiple and interweaving forces of change, compressed into a short span of time.
Western architects working in China are fully implicated in the changing spaces of China’s cities and how they relate to economic growth. The on-going architecture boom that really started to take off in the early-nineties, in all its different manifestations, is representative of China’s desire to diversify its economy away from reliance on exports. It also reflects the largest internal migration in history with people flooding into the cities from the countryside. They come not because they are forced to, but in search of opportunity and new lives, not too dissimilar from how cities in the west exploded in an earlier era. Though this time it’s on a much greater scale and nobody knows for sure where it will all lead. This is China in 4D (X, Y, Z, and time) rather than the flattened 2D version that often gets communicated.